Believe it or not, we're a little more than three weeks away from the Dallas Cowboys opening training camp. The rest of the NFC teams will open camp soon after. With vacation looming for at least one blogger, let's take a close look at the most compelling storylines for all four teams:
Dallas Cowboys: The defending NFC East champs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, although they've asked me not to write those words. There are a number of intriguing story lines, including the development of wide receiver Dez Bryant. How long will it take the former Oklahoma State star to overtake Roy Williams in the starting lineup? I'd give it at least six games.
But there's also this little thing about getting Bryant under contract. You might recall that he's represented by the same folks who advised San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree to skip camp last year. The good thing for the Cowboys is that Jerry and Stephen Jones have a good working relationship with Bryant's agent, Eugene Parker. But it's something that bears watching. It would not surprise me one bit if Bryant missed the first week of camp while waiting for some other players to sign.
But the most compelling story line to me is whether Doug Free can adequately replace Flozell Adams at left tackle. I think Free has all the tools, but there will be bumps along the way. The Giants, Eagles and Redskins will structure their game plans around putting pressure on Free. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett needs to be ready to counter. I keep reading that the left tackle spot is not as important as it used to be. I think that's a dangerous line of thought.
I've seen one position hold whole teams hostage, and that's why I'll have a close eye on how Free does in training camp. Can Alex Barron challenge Free for the starting spot in camp? I know that the other NFC East teams believe that to be the case.
New York Giants: I think the Giants are the X factor in the NFC East. There's a chance they show that the past season was an aberration caused by a rash of injuries. But I could also see them struggling again. The Giants will either have Jonathan Goff or rookie Phillip Dillard starting at middle linebacker. I suppose Chase Blackburn's in the mix, but we pretty much know what he is at this point. The Giants should be infinitely better in the secondary. Last season was a nightmare for the unit.
Safety Antrel Rolle will immediately solidify this situation and Kenny Phillips' return would be an enormous boost. But the Giants have protected themselves against Phillips not being ready to go. Deon Grant's a decent option who is very durable. And Aaron Ross is capable of playing either cornerback or safety.
But the No. 1 story line for this team revolves around new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's ability to rev up the once-great pass rush. Truth be known, we haven't seen the Giants' vaunted pass rush since Nov. 2008. There was a significant falloff late in that season and the defensive line has never regained its swagger.
Fewell has to put the best pass-rushers on the field while being able to manage Osi Umenyiora's enormous ego. That's no easy task. Just ask former defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan about that situation. But if Fewell can get Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka going again, the Giants could be in the mix for a playoff spot. Seriously, who has the best chance of winning the division outside of the Cowboys? I can't remember it being this much of a crapshoot. And that's why the Giants have a major opportunity next season.
They're stacked at wide receiver -- especially with Hakeem Nicks' development. If Brandon Jacobs can rediscover the player that he was in 2007 and 2008, this can once again be a dangerous offense. But again, the most important piece to this puzzle is the pass rush. Can Linval Joseph and Jason Pierre-Paul help that situation immediately? Your guess is as good as mine.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles attempted to retool their defense via free agency and the draft. I'm still concerned about the depth at the back end of the defense, but the linebackers are in a lot better shape. The Eagles need defensive end Brandon Graham out of Michigan to make an immediate impact. I took a long look at him during an organized team activities session and was impressed with his motor. But he's raw in terms of pass-rushing moves at this point. He's going through a crash course right now of watching smaller pass-rushers such as Elvis Dumervil on tape. And he's doing a nice job of bringing it to the field.
But this season will be all about whether Kevin Kolb's up to the task of replacing Donovan McNabb. I think he is and that's why I believe the Eagles are the second best team in the division right now. The former Houston Cougar will be smart enough to let all his weapons makes plays for him. Jeremy Maclin has made a huge leap this offseason, according to the folks I've talked to in the organization. The most important thing for Kolb is to protect the football.
He'll go through some growing pains, but I think the Eagles have enough talent to help Kolb survive the process. To me, this will be just as fascinating a story line as how McNabb performs for the Redskins. But that's just me.
Washington Redskins: Since I don't think Albert Haynesworth will be playing for the Redskins this season, I'm going to stay away from him in this column. The most compelling aspect of this season for Washington is obviously the performance of Donovan McNabb.
And that first matchup with the Eagles is going to be one of the most intriguing moment of the season. He's trying to play it down, but I think McNabb realizes that he has an opportunity to change his legacy if he can get the Redskins to the playoffs.
But is one man worth six additional wins? I have my doubts. Even with the addition of Jammal Brown, you still have questions along the offensive line. And Santana Moss has more on his mind than just football. Can Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas emerge as a consistent threat? That remains to be seen.
McNabb makes this a better team, but he's not a miracle worker. He had Brian Westbrook in his prime when he was going to all those NFC title games. How will he do with three aging running backs? We're about to find out.