With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Michael Baca has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the NFC East.
Most important position battle: Cornerback. There's a case to be made for other positions here, as new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn inherits a unit with competitions at all three levels. Considering the inexperience at cornerback, though, establishing a pecking order during training camp will be high on the to-do list. Trevon Diggs emerged last year as the Cowboys' most reliable CB, but with Chidobe Awuzie off to Cincinnati via free agency, a starting role on the outside is up for grabs along with the nickel back spot. Anthony Brown -- the longest-tenured CB on the roster -- might be the favorite to lock down the starting spot opposite Diggs, but the Cowboys used second- and third-round picks this year on Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright with hopes they can compete right away. Reggie Robinson is switching back from safety to corner in Year 2, while Jourdan Lewis and special teams ace C.J. Goodwin both return after being re-signed this offseason. An opportunity is there for one of these young DBs to separate themselves this summer, and the ability to create turnovers will be welcomed for a squad that had just 10 total interceptions last year (tied for 23rd in the league).
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Dak Prescott, quarterback. A harrowing end to his 2020 season sets the table for an inspiring comeback for Prescott, who is returning from the gruesome leg injury that stopped everyone's heart in Dallas last October. Prescott's recovery appears to have been smooth thus far, and the Cowboys showed their confidence in the QB this offseason, signing him to a four-year, $160 million contract in March. Prescott rejoins an offense with plenty of weapons at his disposal. Amari Cooper (1,114), CeeDee Lamb (935) and Michael Gallup (843) nearly became the sixth team in NFL history to produce three 1,000-yard receivers in a season. And that was with Andy Dalton at the helm for most of the season. With some other key offensive players also returning from injury (more on that in a moment), the Cowboys are well-equipped to be one of the NFL's high-powered offenses. Perhaps no one will be more excited to see Dak back on the field than Mike McCarthy after enduring an unlucky first season as Cowboys coach.
Other subplots to track:
- While Prescott's return is paramount to Dallas' success in 2021, the Cowboys QB will tell you that getting offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins back from injury is even more important. It's a wise point. The trio missed a combined 36 games last season and the Cowboys felt the brunt by trotting out 13 different O-line combinations. This storyline flies a bit under the radar when it comes to the team's hope for a revival.
- First-round pick Micah Parsons is destined to shake up a linebacking corps that seemed to have a couple of long-term answers not that long ago in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. A combination of injuries and declining performance forced Dallas to seek change at the position this offseason, starting with the signing of safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal, who played for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Fourth-round rookie Jabril Cox also enters the fray as a pass-coverage specialist. Quinn will have tough decisions to make at the position as the season approaches, but that could be a good problem to have in this case.
- Blake Jarwin's Week 1 ACL tear got lost in the shuffle of a lost season, but the Cowboys tight end must now earn back his starting role during camp after Dalton Schultz made a big leap (63/615/4) in his absence. This is really the only battle for a starting spot on the Cowboys' offense, which offers a strong 12 personnel option for OC Kellen Moore.
- Keep in mind that there will be even more cameras around than usual at Cowboys camp this year. With Dallas starring in the annual HBO Sports and NFL Films docuseries Hard Knocks (returns Aug. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO), we should get an up-close look at most, if not all, of the aforementioned storylines for the franchise heading into the 2021 season.
Location: Quest Diagnostics Training Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Most important position battle: Right tackle. With Daniel Jones entering a crucial third season, protecting the quarterback will be essential in trying to truly gauge what the Giants have in the 2019 first-rounder. With last year's starter at the position, Cameron Fleming, departing via free agency, the right tackle job could come down to a competition between Matt Peart and Nate Solder. Solder opted out of the 2020 season and his old left tackle spot is now occupied by 2020 first-round pick Andrew Thomas. The 33-year-old hasn't played right tackle (or been a backup) since his rookie year. Peart, 24, gained some valuable experience as a rookie last year with 104 of his 152 total snaps coming at right tackle. The 2020 third-rounder flashed potential, but the job won't be handed to him with a well-rested veteran making his return. For a unit that gave up 50 sacks last season (tied for second-most in the NFL), securing the edge must be a priority in 2021.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Saquon Barkley, running back. It's been quite some time since we've seen one of the league's premier ball-carriers thrash defenses. Barkley's impending return from a torn ACL will be the most anticipated sight for Giants fans in 2021, but expect a cautious approach in camp given his injury history. Lest we forget, Barkley eyed a full return to health this time last year after playing through an ankle sprain that hindered a resilient effort for much of 2019. The return lasted two games in 2020, as he missed the remainder of the season with the knee injury. The 24-year-old said earlier this month that he's taking rehab day by day but offered no clear timetable for when he'll be ready to play. Entering Year 4, Barkley still aims to build on his extraordinary debut season, when he became just the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 2,000 scrimmage yards. If that version of Barkley shows up and stays healthy in 2021, it could change everything for the Giants.
Other subplots to track:
- Of course, Giants fans will be eager to see the early returns on the team's big free-agent investment. Kenny Golladay, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal in March, is a true No. 1 WR with a knack for making big plays over the top. Paired with Darius Slayton, the Giants feature a strong pair of outside receivers, but GM Dave Gettleman didn't stop there when it came to adding to the receiving corps this offseason.
- There could be a very interesting battle at wide receiver with veteran Sterling Shepard, free-agent addition John Ross III and first-round rookie Kadarius Toney also in the mix for snaps. Ross needed a change of scenery after four years in Cincinnati, while Toney comes in as an unpolished playmaker. No matter how the competition shakes out, Daniel Jones has more talent to work with in 2021.
- Joe Judge's first season as head coach brought stability to the Giants' defense, and signing cornerback Adoree' Jackson was a smart move to patch up the secondary. Yet, after a season in which the team's most effective pass rushers came from the interior D-line, there are questions about who can provide consistency off the edge. Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines return after injury-shortened seasons and the Giants brought in veteran Ifeadi Odenigbo, but the team is really hoping for an immediate impact from second-round pick Azeez Ojulari.
- It will be interesting to see how Xavier McKinney is utilized at safety with Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers in line to start at the position. McKinney's rookie year was hindered by a foot injury that pushed his debut into late November, but the second-rounder finished on a good note with a game-sealing interception in Week 17, which eliminated the Cowboys from playoff contention.
Most important position battle: Left tackle. Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata will go toe to toe for the right to be the team's starting blindside blocker. Dillard, a first-round draft pick in 2019, was poised to be the heir apparent to longtime Eagles LT Jason Peters entering 2020 but he missed the entire season with a biceps tear. The injury, along with Brandon Brooks' torn Achilles last June, foreshadowed the brutal year ahead for a unit that saw 14 different starting O-line combinations and ended up leading the league in sacks allowed (65) by a wide margin. However, one of the bright spots for the Eagles was the play of Mailata, who started 10 games and earned the opportunity to compete for the starting job in 2021. With Brooks and Lane Johnson (ankle) also returning from injury, the Eagles possess a great foundation for a big turnaround in the trenches.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: DeVonta Smith, wide receiver. All eyes will be on Smith this summer as the franchise hopes the rookie can reverse its fortunes at the position. The Eagles traded up a couple spots to select Smith, making him their second first-round wideout in as many years. He joins 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor on a WR depth chart that will need to be sorted out in camp. There's a great chance Smith starts as a rookie, but it will be interesting to see how he's being utilized -- on the outside, in the slot or both -- once camp gets underway. The Alabama product is coming off a remarkable Heisman Trophy-winning season in which he posted 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns (in 13 games!). What the 6-foot, 170-pound wideout lacks in size, Smith makes up for with speed, excellent route running and great hands. Smith's in good hands with first-year head coach Nick Sirianni, who cut his teeth in the NFL coaching wide receivers. Sirianni could very well be the key to untapping the potential of the entire WR unit, but there's no question who the headliner is.
Other subplots to track:
- Sirianni's experience doesn't end at the WR position, though. His experience as the Chargers' quarterbacks coach (2014-2015) and Colts' OC (2018-2020) will also aid Jalen Hurts as the QB enters Year 2 and presumably starts after the offseason trade of Carson Wentz. A fresh start was necessary for this Eagles offense and it could begin to move in the right direction with an established OL that returns healthy.
- The Eagles granted tight end Zach Ertz permission to seek a trade back in March, but he remains on the roster with the start of camp just around the corner. Dallas Goedert has been waiting in the wings behind Ertz for the last few years and he's a breakout candidate as he approaches the final year of his rookie contract, whether Ertz remains an Eagle or not.
- With an undefined depth chart behind running back Miles Sanders, the Eagles will have a healthy competition during camp. Veterans Kerryon Johnson and Jordan Howard were brought in to compete with Boston Scott, but fifth-round rookie Kenneth Gainwell has the potential to force a surprising cut.
- On defense, a starting job at outside cornerback is up for grabs. Avonte Maddox struggled while fighting through injuries last year and his competition remains a group of inexperienced CBs. The team will get a better look at fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson in camp, but perhaps a veteran free agent will ultimately be brought in to start opposite Darius Slay.
Most important position battle: Quarterback. There will be an open competition at the position, with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen vying for the starting job. Coach Ron Rivera has said he made a mistake last year in his approach to the team's QB competition, eventually handing Dwayne Haskins the job only to bench and then release the QB before the end of the season. That said, it's no secret that Fitzpatrick is the favorite to win the battle after signing a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason. The 38-year-old's fearlessness in throwing the ball downfield is an element Washington sorely lacked in 2020. Heinicke, 28, wasn't part of the team's QB carousel until late last season, but he impressed after being called upon to start in the Football Team's playoff loss to the Bucs, earning him a two-year deal this offseason. Allen was named the starter after the initial benching of Haskins last year, but his run concluded at four games after a season-ending ankle injury. The writing may be on the wall with this QB competition, but, when reviewing Fitzpatrick's 16-year career, the only guarantee is there will be a wild ride ahead. That's just part of practicing Fitzmagic.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Curtis Samuel, wide receiver. Samuel provides a much-needed No. 2 option opposite Terry McLaurin and reunites with Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who coached him in Carolina. Samuel earned a three-year, $34.5 million contract off the heels of his most productive season, gaining 1,051 yards from scrimmage off 77 receptions and 41 carries (five total touchdowns). Turner believes the 24-year-old is just "scratching the surface" of his abilities. Look for him to be a pre-snap chess piece and a top target in critical situations. Washington could also line him up in the backfield with RB Antonio Gibson, presenting matchup issues and quick-pass options off play-action (Washington RBs had 120 receptions last season).
Other subplots to track:
- The McLaurin-Samuel duo will give opposing cornerbacks headaches, but there's room for a big-bodied receiver to rise up this year. Logan Thomas made a breakthrough last season with 72 receptions (third-most among tight ends). Wideouts Cam Sims, Kelvin Harmon and Antonio Gandy-Golden will compete for snaps and a chance to become a red-zone threat.
- How will Rivera utilize Kamren Curl and Landon Collins? Collins suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 7 and Curl, a seventh-round pick in 2020, emerged in his absence with three interceptions (one returned for a TD), two sacks and 88 tackles in 11 starts. Now the former All-Pro juggles a return from a significant injury while Curl breathes down his neck at safety. Perhaps the coaching staff will find a creative solution to feature both players, but with Collins entering the third year of a six-year, $84 million contract, things could get awkward.
- Two minutes with NFL Network's Brian Baldinger are all you need to get excited about rookie linebacker Jamin Davis. The first-rounder's speed and coverage skills provide much-needed elements to a LB unit that plays behind Washington's excellent defensive line. After ranking in the top four in both points and yards allowed last season, the prospect of the Football Team's defense getting even better is a scary thought.