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Summer camp begins for the NFC East

With great expectations comes great disappointment

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Which means the NFC East is, begrudgingly, also back. Training camp is the most optimistic, hopeful, and naive time of the year for NFL teams and fans. And the NFC East is the most optimistic, hopeful, and naive division. This year three NFC East teams think they’re playoff teams, and the Giants will also participate. Training camp is also a time when storylines are as abundant as optimism. And boy do we have plenty of all of it in the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

Team expectation: Win the division again.

No NFC East team has won the division in back to back seasons since the Eagles in 2004. It seems every year we wonder if that will change, and every year the answer is no, it will not. It is hard to see how this year will be any different.

The Cowboys lost far more talent than they gained in the offseason on both sides of the ball, where they had the top scoring offense and an unsustainable turnover advantage in 2021, neither of which will happen in 2022. The highpoint of the McCarthy era is in the past.

Shiny new toy to obsess over: Tyler Smith

The Cowboys weren’t able to add anyone of note in free agency because they didn’t have any cap space, so the newcomer to obsess over has to be a rookie. A rookie that they probably reached for in the first round.

If the Cowboys are to be successful this year, they need Smith, who even in the most optimistic view is raw, to hit the ground running. Dallas has lost two starters on the offensive line, and Tyron Smith hasn’t played a full season since 2015. This team needs a good, young player to build around. Recent picks Tyler Biadasz, Connor McGovern, and Connor Williams have been either forgettable or aren’t on the team anymore.

New thing to worry about: Because of their salary cap issues, the Cowboys don’t have anything new to worry about, and that’s the problem. The team lost 8 players who played 40%+ of snaps and replaced them with nobody of note. They only acquired four players who were on another team last year. Any improvement to the roster has to come from within.

Returning thing to worry about: Ezekiel Elliott is coming off the worst season of his career, a statement that was also true a year ago. He has the second highest cap hit on the Cowboys for 2022. It’s a matter of when, not if, Tony Pollard overtakes him on the depth chart. Will August accelerate or slow that timeline?

Position group to watch: Wide Receiver.

Four WRs had at least 200 receiving yards for the Cowboys last year. Two are gone: Amari Cooper was traded for next to nothing to the Browns, and Cedrick Wilson Jr., signed with the Dolphins. A third, Michael Gallup, is recovering from a torn ACL. The Cowboys depth chart at the moment is CeeDee Lamb and then take your pick of James Washington (24 catches last year), Noah Brown (16 catches last year), rookie 3rd round pick Jalen Tolbert, and a bunch of other guys who have never caught a pass in the NFL.

Like the offensive line, this was a position of strength. Now it’s a position group with a ton of question marks. There spots up for grabs, and that will probably be true all season long.

Philadelphia Eagles

Team expectation: Return to the playoffs.

Year One of the rebuild went ahead of schedule, with the Eagles suddenly finding themselves in a playoff game they weren’t ready for. With big moves in the offseason, Year Two also has to feature the playoffs. A growing young core of players, win now moves in the offseason, and a division up for grabs demands it.

Shiny new toy to obsess over: AJ Brown

Two years ago the Eagles had a pathetic group of WRs. Now they have a better starting group than supposed Super Bowl contenders such as the Packers, Cowboys, and Chiefs. Add in Dallas Goedert at tight end and this is one of the best sets of pass catchers in the league.

And Brown may have another level to reach. Just 25, Brown has played over 70% of snaps just once in his three seasons, and that season, 2020, he played only 81%. Howie Roseman didn’t get AJ Brown to give him that kind of playing time.

New thing to worry about: Nakobe Dean

If the Eagles are correct that Nakobe Dean’s health concerns that saw him fall to the 3rd round are not an issue going forward, then they potentially have the steal of the draft. Everyone always thinks some mid-round pick is potentially the steal of the draft, not every mid-round pick dropped from a possible 1st round selection to 83rd overall for availability and not ability. Nobody questions Dean’s ability.

But if Dean’s availability concerns are real, then it’ll be yet another long season at the LB position.

Returning thing to worry about: Jalen Hurts, but the 2022 season will be the Season of Jalen Hurts Discourse, so…

Returning thing to worry about that isn’t Jalen Hurts: Miles Sanders

Sanders was 39th in touches in 2021, and on a per game pace to finish 16th if he hadn’t missed five games. His 5.6 yards per touch was 5th best among those with more touches than him. Those are big time figures.

He also scored zero (0) touchdowns. 70 other players had at least 100 touches and all of them scored at least 2 TDs. His 6 TDs on 192 touches in 2020 was respectable but not impressive, he only scored in 4 of the 12 games he played. He hasn’t caught a touchdown since Week 15 in 2019, Kenneth Gainwell caught 2 last year. He’s missed four games in each of the past two seasons. And he’s entering the final year of his contract. This is a make or break season for him.

Position group to watch: The Eagles are, once again, looking for someone, anyone to establish themselves as a legitimate every down linebacker. It’s why Dean is the X factor for the defense. If he, or perhaps Kyzir White, can provide some form of stability, the defense just might be able to carry its own weight.

Washington Football Team Commanders

Team expectation: Make the playoffs.

Ron Rivera is about to enter year three of a five year contract, and all he has to show for it is two seven win seasons and the participation trophy of a scrappy playoff loss. To try to get back to the postseason, Washington traded for a QB who couldn’t get his team to the playoffs last year and is on his third team in as many years. Get excited!

Shiny new toy to obsess over: Carson Wentz

New thing to worry about: Carson Wentz

Who else could it be? Carson Wentz is either going to lead the Washington Football Team Commanders to the playoffs or he’ll just waste everyone’s time and WASTEAM will be right back where they started at the end of the season: aimless and in need of a QB. We won’t have to wait long to find out.

Returning thing to worry about: The coaching staff’s credibility.

The Washington Football Team Commanders are perfectly set up to completely implode this season. We’re not just talking about your standard issue 4 win or less fire everybody season. That’s definitely a strong possibility for this season. No, we’re talking about a radioactive season that will be remembered by other teams’ fans for how embarrassing it is both on and off the field.

On the field their starting QB was just traded away because his previous team’s owner thinks he’s a giant loser. They have a set of skill position players that is a Terry McLaurin injury away from being the worst in the league; an offensive line that is already among the worst in the league; and key players on defense that stunk last year are recovering from injury. And that’s just the on field issues.

Off the field, Washington is a disaster even by Washington disaster standards. Dan Snyder has found a new way to be a league wide embarrassment by battling Congress over him having to testify. Future Senate candidate Jack Del Rio was fined by the team for saying the January 6th attack on the Capitol in which 5 people died was a “dust up.” Last year Ron Rivera had to publicly plead with his players to get vaccinated, they did such a great job listening to him that they predictably had a game postponed because of a COVID outbreak they had.

When this season falls apart, and it is going to fall apart on the field at the very least, it is not going to take much for the coaching staff to completely lose the locker room and for things to get ugly fast. Once WASTEAM hits 6 losses it will be a race to see which ends first: the actual season in Week 18, or the effective end of the season when the players have tuned the coaches out and are just going through the motions.

Position group to watch: Anyone to step up and be the #2 target after McLaurin. The team’s second most productive WR in 2021 was Adam Humphries, who caught 41 passes for 9.3 yards per catch and 0 TDs, which doesn’t matter because he’s not on the team, or any team for that matter. Their most productive TE was Ricky Seals-Jones, who caught 30 passes, which also doesn’t matter because he signed with the Giants. The second most productive pass catcher was RB JD McKissick, which almost doesn’t matter as he nearly signed with the Bills. This team needs someone, anyone, to step up and be a serviceable #2 in the passing game.

New York Giants

Team expectation: Be in position to draft a QB in April.

The Giants unveiled throwback uniforms to much excitement among their fans. That’s probably the high point of their season. This team is going to be bad, and that’s part of the plan. The easiest way for the Giants to turn things around is to be in position to draft a QB high in April. All they need to do to guarantee that is take a 4 win team and turn it into a 2 win team!

Shiny new toy to obsess over: Kayvon Thibodeaux

Rightly or wrongly, Thibodeaux went from “this guy might be the #1 pick in the draft” to “this guy might not go in the top 10” all in the space of the offseason. His perceived draft stock slipped without him even having any games to play. In February Todd McShay said that based on what he was hearing from personnel people, he wouldn’t be surprised if Thibodeaux didn’t go in the top five. What he heard wasn’t off base, as Thibodeaux was drafted 5th overall, but was the third pass rusher taken. Not the worst fall by any means, but enough to make one wonder if there is any fire to that smoke.

Thibodeaux can start to put those concerns to bed with a strong preseason. Given the lack of talent on the Giants offensive line, he should have a strong training camp.

New thing to worry about: 7 of the Giants 12 free agent signings are 30 or older. Signing a bunch of 30 year olds is fine if you are the Bills and are going all out to win the Super Bowl. It’s not the kind of free agent class you have if you are rebuilding a team that hasn’t won more than 6 games since 2016. Retirement homes aren’t where one goes for a culture change. Maybe their goal isn’t to finish with a high draft pick?

Returning thing to worry about: Saquon Barkley

46% of Barkley’s career yardage, and 56% of his career touchdowns, were gained during his rookie year. Barkley was completely ineffective last year after returning from a torn ACL, but he also played behind probably the worst offensive line and for one of the worst coaching staffs. Now he has a new staff and new offensive line. Both might be just as bad this year, and it may not matter for Barkley. He looked as bad as his numbers were last year. The first play on this “highlight” reel for 2021 is his longest run of the season. Rookie of the Year Barkley would have scored. On the brightside, Barkley being toast will help the Giants tank.

Position group to watch: Offensive line

Offensive line was a problem in every season of the Dave Gettleman era, and it will be a problem in at least year one and most likely year two of the Joe Schoen era. Schoen drafted Evan Neal in the 1st round and a pair of guards in the 3rd and 5th rounds, giving the unit a much needed injection of young talent. But he also signed four 30 year old linemen, three of whom are backups and on one year deals. It’s fair to wonder if the talent level has even improved.

That might be the theme of this season for the Giants: new and unimproved!