It’s that time of year again, so let’s take a spin around the league to look at the questions and controversies before the preseason starts. Next up, the NFC East and West.
So here’s the thing about the Cowboys. No matter how hard they try to be likable, the other shoe always drops. They’ve slapped the franchise tag on their defensive MVP DeMarcus Lawrence, then released top receiver Dez Bryant, who, strangely, has yet to be signed. They watched the retirement of stalwart and fan-favorite TE Jason Witten, and they’re somehow joined at the hip to DE Randy Gregory, who missed ALL of last season for a variety of substance abuse policy violations. Ezekiel Elliot returns, as does QB Dak Prescott, but the tandem suffered a sophomore slump in 2017 with neither player performing at the level that was expected following their breakout rookie campaign. Prescott was a decidedly middle-of-the-road quarterback, and Elliot ranked only tenth in rushing yards. They’ll need more than that this season, or it’s likely to be another mediocre year for “America’s Team”.
New York Giants
I know. I know. You’re panicking, Giants fans. They didn’t take a QB with that number two pick. But it was the right move. As I’ve said a few times, Eli Manning didn’t regress last year, despite losing his entire battalion of receivers. He should have. But he put up a perfectly normal Eli Manning season. Which, I should remind you, has won them two Super Bowls. The Giants did the smartest thing they could. When Cleveland passed on Saquon Barkley to take Baker Mayfield first overall, the Giants couldn’t look past the Penn State running back. Barkley is a vicious and versatile runner who will definitely make any offense better. Working in some meaningful play action will also make Odell Beckham Jr. more effective on longer routes and prolong Manning’s career. I love this draft by the G Men, and look forward to seeing what they can do on offense.
The defending champs have largely stood pat this offseason, and with good reason. They won the highest scoring Super Bowl in history against the greatest quarterback of all time…with their backup QB. The QB situation in Philly couldn’t be any better if they tried. Backup Nick Foles won them a title and now he’s actually ready to sit back and wear a ball cap and prowl the sidelines as Carson Wentz comes back. I know Foles is a legendary nice guy, but can that even be real? Reports out of camp are that it’s not bluster, and Foles is standing down, not demanding a trade. Impressive. Let this be a lesson to the rest of the league. Winning cures everything.
With the long-awaited departure of Kirk Cousins to Minnesota, Washington is ready to begin the Alex Smith era in earnest. I find it hard to believe that fans in the nation’s capital are super excited for the arrival of the steady, if unexciting, signal caller. Smith is a master at protecting the football and executes check downs with aplomb, but he was supplanted late last season in Kansas City by rookie Patrick Mahomes Jr. The move does reunite Smith with veteran tight end Vernon Davis, so look to see if that old chemistry from their 49er days is still alive and well. Veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall is also leaning towards retirement, which will more than likely soften the Redskins secondary. His leadership will be missed if he decides to hang up his cleats.
Arizona has one of the best cornerbacks in the game. A living legend at wide receiver. And no idea who will play quarterback to start the season. The Cardinals selected Josh Rosen with the tenth overall pick. Many had Rosen as the top prospect on the board, so snatching him at ten seems like a bit of a coup. They also brought in former Vikings, Eagles, and Rams signal caller Sam Bradford, who missed most of last season with knee issues. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson sees Bradford as the early starter, and there’s wisdom there. Rosen will undoubtedly benefit from some time on the sidelines before taking the reins of the franchise. As they prepare for the season, the Cardinals will also be without the services of GM Steve Keim, who was arrested for extreme DUI, with a BAC over twice the legal limit. The Cardinals have levied a five-week suspension and $200,000 fine, which will support the local branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Keim will also serve house arrest for seven days and have an ignition interlock device installed on his vehicle for no less than a year. In good news, fifteen-year veteran WR Larry Fitzgerald has indicated that he has no intentions of retiring, or leaving Arizona, and a young quarterback like Josh Rosen can certainly learn from a receiver like Fitzgerald.
Los Angeles Rams
After last season’s playoff run and a productive offseason, the Rams should be a prohibitive favorite in the NFC West. They added the fearsome (read effective, but dirty) Ndamukong Suh to pair with the league’s best defender, Aaron Donald. It should be enough to keep quarterbacks all over the league extremely nervous, but don’t expect to see Donald too soon, though. He sat out the whole preseason last year, and looks primed to do the same if the Rams don’t offer him a considerably more lucrative extension. His current rookie deal will net him under seven million this year, which would probably represent the biggest deal in NFL history for a player of Donald’s skill. The Rams have also upgraded at wide receiver, bringing in former Patriots and Saints WR Brandin Cooks to replace Sammy Watkins. Cooks will stretch defenses and provide a reliable target in the red zone. Paired with running back Todd Gurley, the duo should make the Ram’s offense one of the most exciting in the league.
San Francisco 49ers
The buzz in the Bay is that Jimmy G is the next great 49er quarterback. We’ll find out soon enough. He’s undefeated as a starter in the NFL and folks in New England aren’t happy with the trade that sent him west. As he starts his first full season as the starter, Garoppolo will be under more pressure than before. Defenses will also be ready. New teammate Richard Sherman pointed to a tendency in his new quarterback’s delivery that defenses will be sure to look for. The Niners are a dark horse contender this season, but if Garoppolo is as good as advertised, they’ll make some noise. They might need to do it without the services of linebacker Ruben Foster, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor weapons charge. The league hasn’t weighed in on the legal issues yet, but considering that domestic violence and drug possession were also part of the original arrest, it wouldn’t be surprising if the league took the charges more seriously than the Santa Clara County DA.
With the departure of Richard Sherman, it’s safe to assume that the Legion of Boom has officially been disbanded in Seattle. Kam Chancellor is likely retiring, after being limited to a half season in 2017. Michael Bennett was released inexplicably, and Earl Thomas is locked in a high stakes game of chicken with the Seahawks brass over his contract situation. None of it looks good for what was once the most feared defensive unit in the entire league. Sure, they still have Russell Wilson, but can he survive another season of being a one man show? I strongly doubt it, especially with what looks to be a far less cohesive unit on defense. One asset that bears watching this preseason will be OLB Shaquem Griffin, who showed signs of brilliance in the combine (4.38 40, 20 reps on Bench Press), but plays with one hand due to a rare pre-natal condition that required amputation at a young age. He was a standout defender at UCF prior to the draft, earning AAC Defensive Player of the year honors. It might sound like a publicity play by the Seahawks, but the guy can play ball at the professional level. Here’s hoping we get to see what we can do.
Image source: ESPN