With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Herbie Teope tackles the NFC East below.
Most significant changes from 2017
DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense, which finished the 2017 season ranked eighth in yards allowed (318.1 per game), eighth against the run (104 yards per game) and 11th against the pass (214.1 yards per game), will have some new blood, including first-round linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The offense, however, is going through more of a transition, with the departures of wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten. The Cowboys bolstered the receiver corps during the draft with the selection of Michael Gallup in the third round and pulled off a draft-weekend trade with the Los Angeles Rams for Tavon Austin, whom Dak Prescott views as "not just a gadget player." However, Cole Beasley could be Prescott's top target in 2018. The Cowboys' offensive line is not at 100 percent, as center Travis Frederick is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barr�� syndrome, and guard Zack Martin is dealing with a knee injury.
NEW YORK GIANTS: After a disastrous 3-13 campaign, Big Blue made sweeping changes to the front office and coaching staff. The Giants dismissed general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Ben McAdoo on Dec. 4, 2017, and then hired Dave Gettleman to replace Reese in the final week of the regular season. Pat Shurmur joined the Giants as the new head coach a month later. The two men took over a roster with talent, as quarterback Eli Manning, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and cornerback Janoris Jenkins are among the veterans returning to the roster. The Giants used the offseason to solidify the offensive line with the addition of left tackle Nate Solder during free agency, and Gettleman used the draft to select running back Saquon Barkley and guard Will Hernandez with the team's top two picks. The biggest question mark for the Giants, though, is Manning, who produced a disappointing 2017 campaign with the third-fewest touchdown passes (19) and second-lowest yards per attempt (6.1) of his career. That said, don't be surprised to see a better Manning in 2018, given the upgrades that were made to his supporting cast.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: In Philadelphia, the most obvious difference from last season centers on the Eagles' transformation from an underdog team to the defending champion. Philly parted with some key pieces from the Super Bowl-winning team, including cornerback Patrick Robinson, tight end Trey Burton, wide receiver Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount. But the Eagles bolstered their depth on both sides of the ball with the additions of defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Mike Wallace, among others. Nevertheless, all eyes are on quarterback Carson Wentz, who will not start in Week 1 as he continues to work his way back from ACL and LCL injuries he suffered in December.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Coming off a second straight season of missing the playoffs, the Redskins made a change at quarterback, trading for Alex Smith and allowing Kirk Cousins to leave via free agency. While Smith doesn't come with production as gaudy as that of some other QBs of his era, he is a proven winner with an 88-62-1 record since entering the league in 2005. He also comes off a five-year run in Kansas City where he posted a very low 1.4 percent interception rate. Smith has pass-catching weapons around him -- notably wide receivers Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson, as well as tight end Jordan Reed -- but the running game suffered a major blow when rookie Derrius Guice tore his ACL in the preseason opener. The Redskins signed veteran Adrian Peterson, and he looked good in the third preseason game, with 56 yards on 11 carries. While there are questions about whether the 33-year-old running back is the answer, Peterson hopes to prove there's plenty left in his gas tank after spending time with the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals in 2017.
One player to watch on each team
DALLAS COWBOYS: Ezekiel Elliott, running back. With Dallas' passing game adjusting to life without Witten and Bryant, it will be a surprise if the Cowboysdon't lean on Elliott, who amassed 983 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in 2017 despite serving a six-game suspension. Elliott, who wants to adopt a vocal leadership role on the team, has the physical tools to make a run at the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year award.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Saquon Barkley, running back. The second overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft has everything a team wants out of a running back. The powerfully built Barkley can do it all out of the backfield as a runner, blocker and receiver. After two straight seasons of ranking near the bottom of the league in rushing, the Giants' ground game is primed to thrive with Barkley in a featured role.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Carson Wentz, quarterback. Yes, the Eagles have Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles as a backup, but Wentz was well on his way to an MVP season before an injury cut it short, and he's the face of the franchise. The Eagles need a healthy Wentz to play to their full potential, explaining their reluctance to start No. 11 before he's ready.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Adrian Peterson, running back. In a division loaded at the running back position, Peterson offers the most intrigue, given what he's accomplished in his career. While the Redskins aren't likely to rely on "All Day" as an every-down bell cow with Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley also in the mix, Peterson could certainly help the offense if he can recapture some of his pre-2016 form. From 2007 through 2015, Peterson averaged 4.9 yards per carry, but his average dipped to 3.1 yards per carry in 2016-17.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
The Eagles are the team to beat in the NFC East, but in a league where rebound seasons happen every year, why not the Giants? The addition of Barkley provides much-needed balance to the offense -- having the rookie in the backfield will make life easier for Manning. Defenses already had to account for Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram in the passing game, but Barkley's presence should lead to a resurgence for the G-Men.