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NFL Preview: Cowboys are NFC East pick

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The Sports Xchange

How ’bout them Cowboys?

After a tidy .500 record since this century began, the Dallas Cowboys are the pick to win the NFC East title, according to a poll of The Sports Xchange football staff.

With 60 percent of voters tabbing the Cowboys, they are projected to edge the Philadelphia Eagles, while the New York Giants are expected to be third and the Washington Redskins were selected last — unanimously.

Here is a closer look at the NFC East, with teams listed in order of predicted finish:

DALLAS COWBOYS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 1st

2014 RECORD: 13-5

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 4-2

COACH: Jason Garrett

5th season as NFL head coach, all with Cowboys.

42-32 overall; 1-1 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .467; Division .417; Non-Division .497.

–TEAM STRENGTH: The offensive line is the best in the NFL and remains the heart and soul of the Cowboys, and the foundation for their success. They have three Pro Bowlers — tackle Tyrone Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin. It’s the reason the Cowboys let running back DeMarco Murray walk in free agency and why they believed aging quarterback Tony Romo can play three more years.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Running back remains a concern for the Cowboys, who are trying to replace DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL leading rusher, with a committee of Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. McFadden was an oft-injured disappointment in Oakland who is looking for a new lease on life in the NFL. He still has some juice but the question is can he stay healthy for 16 games. Randle is unproven, but succeeded last year as a change of pace back in small doses. Dunbar will be the team’s third-down back.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Tony Romo. Backup – Brandon Weeden.

Romo is coming off a strong and healthy training camp after what was his first full and healthy offseason in three years. He dealt with back surgeries the previous two seasons. A year after throwing 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions — and leading the league in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and game-winning drives (5) — Romo remains protected by the league’s best offensive line and projects for an even better showing in 2015 as he will be in his second year with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Weeden remains the backup, despite attempts to replace him in the spring. Weeden is a concern if Romo has to miss a number of games.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Darren McFadden, FB Tyler Clutts. Backups – Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Christine Michael.

The Cowboys will go with a running back committee to replace NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray, who bolted to the Eagles in free agency. Dunbar will handle third downs while McFadden, Dunbar and Michael will fight for carries as the lead back. Randle showed promise as the primary backup last year but has never carried the full load and makes questionable decisions off the field. McFadden is looking for a fresh start after flaming out as the former No. 4 overall pick in 2008 by the Oakland Raiders. But the Cowboys can’t trust that he can stay healthy or hold up. Michael brings a physical style that the other two don’t have and could be the short-yardage back.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Jason Witten. Backups – James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim.

That the Cowboys kept four tight ends on the roster tells how much they value the position. Witten remains the lead dog and Romo’s most trusted pass-catcher. Escobar has been a bust as a former second-round pick, but he is a big red-zone target. Hanna is a core special teams player who will be used as an H-back. The rookie Swaim is being groomed as an inline blocker and traditional tight end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams. Backups – Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead.

Bryant is healthy and ready to go after missing the offseason in a contract dispute and the majority of training camp with a strained hamstring. He finally got paid and he hopes to continue to cement his status as the league’s premier receiver. He had 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdowns and is looking for more in 2015. No. 2 receiver Terrance Williams took advantage of Bryant’s absence in the offseason to gain more confidence from Romo. Williams had 37 catches for 621 yards and eight touchdowns but he needs to be more consistent. But it could be Beasley who emerges with a bigger role in 2015. He had 37 catches for 420 yards and four touchdowns last year, displaying a knack for getting open in the slot. He was one of the team’s top performers in training camp and the Cowboys have expanded his package. Street heads into the season as the No. 4 receiver but could get passed by the rookie Whitehead, who was a training camp surprise.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Tyron Smith, LG Ronald Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free. Backups – G La’el Collins, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, T Jordan Mills, T Darrion Weems. Others: T Chaz Green (backup, PUP).

The offensive line is the foundation for the Cowboys’ success on offense, thanks to three Pro Bowlers in Martin, Frederick and Smith. Leary is coming off the best training camp of his career. He held off Collins, the highly touted rookie, for a starting job. Collins, a first-round talent who dropped off the board because of off-field questions, gives them great depth inside. His presence has improved what was already the best offensive line in football. Free is healthy and ready to go after offseason surgery. Mills was added on waivers from the Bears to compete with Weems as the third tackle behind Free and Smith. Weems is still a developmental prospect.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DLE DeMarcus Lawrence, DLT Tyrone Crawford, NT Nick Hayden, DRE Jeremy Mincey. Backups – DE Randy Gregory, DE Jack Crawford, DE Ryan Russell, DT Terrell McClain, DT Ken Bishop, DT Davin Coleman. Others: DE Greg Hardy (starter, suspended 4 games).

The Cowboys made upgrading the defensive line a priority in the offseason and they are heading into the season with a more talented group than a year ago. The sky is the limit when Hardy returns from suspension in Week 5. But the good news is that no one had a better camp and preseason than the rookie Gregory and he should be able to hold things down along with Lawrence, who should be much improved in his second year as well as Crawford, who has Pro-Bowl talent at tackle. Mincey led the team in sacks last year and returns as a steady veteran force who can play end and tackle. Hayden is solid at the nose. The Cowboys will rotate McClain, Crawford, Coleman in the lineup.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Sean Lee, MLB Anthony Hitchens, SLB Andre Gachkar. Backups – SLB Kyle Wilber, LB Keith Smith, LB Damien Wilson. Others: MLB Rolando McClain (starter, suspended 4 games), LB Mark Nzeocha (backup, NFI).

The potential of this group won’t be fully realized until McClain returns from a four-game suspension in Wweek 5. The combination of McClain and Lee, who is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury, gives them as talented a combo as there is in the league if they both can stay healthy and on the field. The versatile Hitchens will replace McClain in the middle for the first four games and then move to strong-side linebacker. Gachkar will open the season as the starter in the middle. Wilson had a strong training camp and flashed some playmaking ability that the Cowboys are hoping to count on.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Brandon Carr, RCB Morris Claiborne, SS Barry Church, FS J.J. Wilcox. Backups – CB Tyler Patmon, CB Byron Jones, CB Morris Claiborne, CB Corey White, S Jeff Heath, S Danny McCray.

The secondary will miss Orlando Scandrick, the best cornerback and one of the best slot players in the league. He is out for the season with a knee injury. Claiborne will replace him at right cornerback with Patmon filling in for him in the slot. Claiborne is in the final year of his contract and hoping to finally shed the label of a first-round bust from the 2012 draft. He enters the season healthy and ready to go for the first time. Carr will open the season limited because of a fractured bone in his hand suffered during training camp. He will wear a protective glove. The steady Church and Wilcox remain the starters at safety, though the Cowboys are hoping that Jones, the rookie top pick, can push him for the starting job. White gives the Cowboys depth at both safety and cornerback.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, LS L.P. Ladouceur, KOR Lance Dunbar, PR Cole Beasley.

The Cowboys have no questions about Bailey and Ladouceur, who are arguably the best at what they do on the team regardless of position. Bailey is the most accurate kicker in NFL history and Ladouceur never misses any snaps on punts or kicks. Jones has proven to be solid as a punter, averaging 39.8 yards per attempt last year. The team will break in new returners in Dunbar and Beasley to replace the departed Dwayne Harris. Neither are game-breakers but they are reliable and won’t turn the ball over.

PRACTICE SQUAD: LB Dakorey Johnson, RB Gus Johnson, WR Vince Mayle, QB Kellen Moore, S Tim Scott, QB Jameill Showers, WR Rodney Smith, LB Joe Thomas, T John Wetzel.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 2nd

2014 RECORD: 10-6

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 4-2

COACH: Chip Kelly

3rd season as Eagles

3rd season as NFL head coach

20-13 overall; 0-1 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .475; Division .458; Non-Division .484.

–TEAM STRENGTH: The run defense. The Eagles finished fifth in yards allowed per carry last season (3.7) and third over the final eight games (3.5). They have one of the best 3-4 fronts in the league and acquired playmaking inside linebacker Kiko Alonso in an offseason trade with Buffalo.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: The secondary. The Eagles blew up a unit that gave up 30 touchdown passes and a league-high 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more. They’ve replaced three of the four starters on the back end and signed the top cornerback in free agency, Byron Maxwell, to a six-year, $63-million deal. But they face a Murderer’s Row list of dangerous wideouts, starting with Atlanta’s Julio Jones in Week 1.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Sam Bradford. Backups – Mark Sanchez, Stephen Morris.

Bradford is coming off back-to-back ACL injuries that have limited him to seven starts the last two seasons. But head coach Chip Kelly feels that if he can stay healthy, he can be a franchise quarterback, something he didn’t feel Nick Foles could be. Bradford is an accurate passer who ran a tempo offense in college and can process information quickly. Sanchez has 70 career starts, but also 103 career turnovers, including 80 interceptions. He doesn’t have Bradford’s strong arm or accuracy. Morris was claimed off waivers from Jacksonville after the final cutdown.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – DeMarco Murray. Backups – Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner.

Murray led the league in rushing last year with Dallas. He had nearly 500 touches in the regular season and playoffs last year, which is a big reason why the Eagles also signed Mathews. Both are strong one-cut runners who are nice fits for the Eagles’ zone running scheme. While Murray will get the bulk of the workload, Mathews figures to get 125-plus attempts. Sproles is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. Kelly wants to line him up in the slot more than he did last year and utilize him more in the passing game. His 40 receptions last year were his fewest since 2008. Barner is a smaller back like Sproles, who can be used many of the same ways as Sproles, including as a punt returner.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Nelson Agholor, Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews. Backups – Miles Austin, Josh Huff, Seyi Ajirotutu.

After losing their top receiver, Jeremy Maclin, in free agency, the Eagles took Agholor in the first round of the draft. He was considered the most ready-to-play wideout in the draft after Amari Cooper and can play inside or outside. He has outstanding quickness and vision and is adept at avoiding the first tackler. He will be used a lot on bubble screens. Cooper is one of the league’s best blocking wideouts, which is important in the Eagles’ offense. He had a career-high 55 catches last season, but his yards-per-catch average dropped from 17.8 to 10.5 and he had just three touchdown catches. Matthews played exclusively in the slot last year as a rookie, taking advantage of his size against smaller nickel corners. He had 67 catches and was the team’s top red-zone and third-down receiver. Austin, another long receiver, appears to be completely recovered from the kidney laceration that ended his season last year with the Browns.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Brent Celek. Backups — Zach Ertz, Trey Burton.

Ertz is the team’s top pass-catching tight end. He had 58 receptions last season, but continues to be a work in progress as a blocker, which has kept his snaps down. He missed all of the preseason with a core muscle injury. Celek is one of the league’s top blocking tight ends, but has seen his pass-catching role diminish the last two seasons. But with the Eagles re-emphasizing the run this season, he will be a key component. Burton is a versatile player who was one of the team’s top special teams aces as a rookie. He can line up at tight end, wide receiver, running back and even quarterback.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Jason Peters, LG Allen Barbre, C Jason Kelce, RG Andrew Gardner, RT Lane Johnson. Backups – G/T Matt Tobin, C/G Josh Andrews, G/T Dennis Kelly, C David Molk.

Depth is a concern on a line that lost both of its starting guards (Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans were released). Barbre and Gardner have a combined 16 career starts, but had a solid training camp and preseason. Peters is a future Hall of Famer, but is 33 and did not play particularly well the last half of the season. He has dropped 20 pounds, though, and looked much quicker this summer. Kelce and Johnson are two of the league’s most athletic offensive linemen. Kelce is a former linebacker, Johnson a former quarterback and tight end. Tobin will be the sixth man off the bench. He can play all four tackle and guard spots.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE Cedric Thornton, NT Bennie Logan, RE Fletcher Cox. Backups – DT Vinny Curry, DE Brandon Bair, NT Beau Allen, DE Taylor Hart.

Thornton, Logan and Cox all are former 4-3 players who have made successful adjustments to the Eagles’ two-gap 3-4 scheme. None of the three have missed a game in two seasons. Cox does a lot more than occupy blockers. He is a disrupter and a penetrator who had four sacks and was an integral part of the Eagles’ success against the run last season. Thornton is just a solid 3-4 end. Logan appears poised for a breakout season. At 309 pounds, he’s the league’s second lightest nose tackle, but is quick and strong and can line up all along the defensive front. Curry, a former 4-3 end who was thought to be too small to play in a 3-4, has found a home as an interior nickel pass rusher. He had nine sacks last season despite limited snaps.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Connor Barwin, ILB DeMeco Ryans, ILB Mychal Kendricks, OLB Brandon Graham. Backups – ILB Kiko Alonso, OLB Marcus Smith, OLB Bryan Braman, Brad Jones, ILB Jordan Hicks.

Barwin is one of the league’s better all-around outside linebackers. He had a team-high 14.5 sacks last season and is excellent at setting the edge against the run and can also cover. He had a team-high 17.5 tackles for loss last season. Graham will be getting his first starting opportunity after backing up Barwin and Trent Cole last year. He had 5.5 sacks in limited snaps last year. He’s a solid pass rusher, but still needs work in coverage and as a run defender. Depth is a major issue at outside ‘backer. The Eagles had high hopes for Travis Long, but he tore his ACL for the third time early in training camp. Smith, the team’s 2014 first-round pick, played just 79 snaps as a rookie and missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury, so the Eagles aren’t expecting much from him. Right now, Braman and Jones, who both are better special teams players than they are defensive players, are the top backups behind Barwin and Graham. The acquisition of Alonso gives the Eagles three starting-caliber inside ‘backers. But he is coming off an ACL injury and was bothered by tendinitis in his surgically-repaired knee in the preseason. It’s possible defensive coordinator Bill Davis might move Alonso or Kendricks outside occasionally.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Byron Maxwell, RCB Nolan Carroll, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Walter Thurmond. Backups – CB Eric Rowe, CB E.J. Biggers, S Chris Maragos, S Jerome Couplin, CB Denzel Rice.

The Eagles gutted their secondary in the offseason, opting not to re-sign safety Nate Allen and cornerback Bradley Fletcher and releasing their other starting corner, Cary Williams. Maxwell was the top corner on the free-agenct market, but has just 17 career starts. He has the length and physicality that the Eagles like in their corners. Carroll was used primarily as the team’s dime linebacker last season, but will be the season-opening starter opposite Maxwell. Nickel remains a question mark going into the season. The Eagles traded away Brandon Boykin, who was considered one of the league’s better nickel corners. Rookie JaCorey Shepherd, who was the early favorite to replace him, tore his ACL early in training camp. The Eagles are high on second-rounder Rowe, but he struggled both inside and outside in the preseason. Biggers, a six-year veteran with Tampa Bay and Washington, is the most likely nickel possibility heading into the season, though Davis also could drop Thurmond into the slot from safety. Thurmond is a former corner with a lot of experience in the slot.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Cody Parkey, P Donnie Jones, LS Jon Dorenbos, PR Darren Sproles, KOR Josh Huff.

Parkey won the kicking job late in the preseason last summer and went on to have an excellent rookie year, converting 32 of 36 field-goal attempts, including 8 of 10 from 40-plus yards. He was bothered by a groin injury late in the preseason, but is expected to be ready for Week 1. Jones had just 29 of 76 punts returned last season and put a league-high 34 attempts inside the 20. Sproles was the league’s top punt returner, averaging 13.0 yards per return. Dorenbos has been the team’s long snapper since 2006. Huff, who had a 107-yard kickoff return last season, likely will be the team’s No. 1 kickoff returner, although Miles Austin also is a possibility.

PRACTICE SQUAD: OL Brett Boyko, OL Malcolm Bunche, CB Randall Evans, TE Andrew Gleichert, WR Freddie Martino, DE Brian Mihalik, RB Raheem Mostert, WR Quron Pratt, S Ed Reynolds, LB Deontae Skinner.

NEW YORK GIANTS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 3rd

2014 RECORD: 6-10

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 2-4

COACH: Tom Coughlin

12th season with Giants

104-83 overall; 8-3 postseason

20th season as NFL head coach

176-147 overall; 12-7 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: The Giants’ defensive line might be without last year’s top sack leader, Jason Pierre-Paul, but considering it is a unit that is otherwise healthy and brimming with talent, this is a unit that right now is a team strength.

On the edge, youngsters Owa Odighizuwa and Damontre Moore are promising pass rushers who have shown the ability to disrupt things in the backfield.

Meanwhile, Kerry Wynn continues to make significant improvement; last year, Wynn was already showing the maturity and discipline to hold his own against the run, something he has continued this year.

Inside at tackle, Johnathan Hankins and Jay Bromley are very promising players with surprising athleticism who have also shown an ability to scramble things up in the middle against the opposing running game.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: The Giants chose to move on from the durable, yet aging Antrel Rolle at safety. Thus far the decision has proven to be an ill-advised one. While Rolle continues to take snaps for the Bears, the Giants have struggled to keep healthy bodies on the field at a safety spot that due to the youth movement the team gambled on, came in lacking experience.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Eli Manning. Backup — Ryan Nassib.

The duo of Manning and Nassib returns for another year, with the iron-man Manning, who has not missed a regular-season start due to injury, set to begin his 12th NFL season.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Rashad Jennings. Backups — Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, FB Nikita Whitlock.

Darkwa was too impressive in the preseason, both on offense and special teams, to leave off the roster. His preseason rushing totals, 131 yards on 30 carries and one touchdown, trumped the combined production of Jennings, Williams and Vereen, who totaled 116 yards on 37 carries and zero touchdowns. The Giants also made a switch at fullback, replacing Henry Hynoski, who had been their lead blocker since 2011, with Whitlock, a tough-nosed and versatile fullback who also saw snaps at defensive tackle and special teams, making the most of his opportunities.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Larry Donnell. Backups – Daniel Fells, Jerome Cunningham.

Donnell will return as the starter after showing some signs of improvement in his blocking. Cunningham edged out Adrien Robinson, the disappointing fourth-round draft pick from 2012 who had been unjustly given the moniker, “The JPP of tight ends.” Fells, the veteran of the group, remains the closest thing the Giants have to a complete tight end, one that can block and catch with any kind of consistency.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz. Backups — Rueben Randle, Preston Parker, Dwayne Harris, Geremy Davis.

On paper, the Giants’ top three receivers of Beckham, Cruz and Randle should be enough to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. However, Cruz has been sidelined with a calf injury that he has continued to insist has nothing to do with his surgically repaired knee. Harris, who was signed as a return specialist, will get some limited looks on offense, but perhaps not at the expense of Davis, the team’s sixth-round pick this year who was consistently impressive on both offense and special teams.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Ereck Flowers, LG Justin Pugh, C Weston Richburg, RG Geoff Schwartz, RT Marshall Newhouse. Backups — G/C Dallas Reynolds, G/T John Jerry, G/T Bobby Hart, G/C Dallas Reynolds. Others: T Will Beatty (starter, PUP).

The left side of the offensive line, consisting of Flowers, the rookie, and Pugh, the three-year veteran, was a surprising and pleasant development in the preseason. That combination proved to be as solid as they come, so solid in fact that the Giants ended up sending a fair majority of their running plays behind that duo, achieving success at that. Richburg, who is back at his natural position of center, has had an up and down preseason, but that could be due to on-and-off knee tendinitis that cost him some practice time and preseason action. The right side of the starting offensive line remains the biggest question mark.

The coaching staff continued to experiment with different combinations as late as the first half of the final preseason game, but it looks like they’ll stick with Schwartz at guard and Newhouse at tackle for the time being. Jerry, who alternated at right guard and right tackle, would be the next man up if either Schwartz or Newhouse struggles. The team remains optimistic of getting Beatty, previously the starting left tackle, back sooner than later, perhaps as soon as the end of October when his six-week stay on PUP will have concluded. Beatty’s encouraging rehab could very well be a reason why the team might try to ride out the first six weeks of the season with what they have.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Cullen Jenkins, DT Johnathan Hankins, NT Markus Kuhn, DRE George Selvie. Backups — DE Robert Ayers, DE Kerry Wynn, DE Owa Odighizuwa, DE Damontre Moore, DT Jay Bromley. Others: DE Jason Pierre-Paul (starter, unsigned franchise player).

A mysterious ankle/Achilles injury suffered by Ayers might force the Giants to keep Jenkins at defensive end, despite the fact that he is better off inside at tackle. If that holds true, look for Kuhn to remain as a starter at defensive tackle alongside of Hankins. Speaking of Hankins, he had a quiet summer, mainly because without Pierre-Paul on the field, Hankins drew the bulk of the opposing team’s attention.

Speaking of Pierre-Paul, he was set to report to the Giants’ facility for the first time since his July 4 fireworks accident that cost him his right index finger; however, he would appear to have a long way to go before he is ready to take the field, even if he passed the initial physical. In addition to needing to resolve his contract situation, Pierre-Paul hasn’t practiced at all this year and has missed out on the classroom sessions involving the latter stages of the new defense’s installation. Look for Moore and Odighizuwa to be a part of the third-down pass-rushing package; both had solid showings as pass rushers in the preseason.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB J.T. Thomas, MLB Jon Beason, SLB Devon Kennard. Backups – SLB Mark Herzlich, MLB Jasper Brinkley, WLB Jonathan Casillas, MLB Uani’ Unga.

The team’s decision to terminate the contract of veteran linebacker Jameel McClain came as a stunner, but it likely means that Beason’s rehab from a preseason knee injury is further along than initially believed. If Beason has a setback, Thomas was expected to be the next man up in the middle, with Casillas replacing him on the weak side. But then, Jasper Brinkley was added to aid the depth. Unga, the 27-year-old first-year player out of BYU, had a solid preseason as the middle linebacker, but had some issues holding up at the point of attack. Kennard and his breathtaking blitzing ability could be instrumental in helping the Giants’ pass rush get things off on the right foot.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RCB Prince Amukamara, FS Cooper Taylor, SS Landon Collins. Backups — S Brandon Meriweather, S Craig Dahl, CB Trumaine McBride, CB Trevin Wade, CB Jayron Hosley.

The Giants will roll the dice with Collins and Taylor as their starting safeties for the start of the season. That duo has a combined zero NFL starts between them, which certainly can’t be assuring to a team that desperately needs a solid showing from their defensive backfield. Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara are a solid cornerback duo, but both have had some injury issues of late. McBride will open as the nickel back while Hosley will probably play in the dime package.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Josh Brown, P Brad Wing, LS Zak DeOssie, KOR/PR Dwayne Harris.

The Giants replaced the popular Steve Weatherford, whose performance had struggled ever since he suffered a severe ankle injury in the 2014 regular-season opener, with Wing, who was acquired via trade from the Steelers. Head coach Tom Coughlin said he likes Wing for his strong leg and ability to execute directional kicking. Brown, who missed the preseason finale in order to nurse a leg bruise, is expected to be fine moving forward. Harris’ vision and acceleration should help the Giants win more field-position battles than they did last year.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DE Brad Bars, DB C.J. Conway, OL Adam Gettis, OL Emmett Cleary, LB Cole Farrand, DL Montori Hughes, WR Julian Talley, TE Will Tye.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 4th

2014 RECORD: 4-12

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 2-4

COACH: Jay Gruden

2nd season as Redskins

2nd season as NFL head coach

4-12 overall

Strength of schedule:

Overall .479; Division .583; Non-Division .416.

–TEAM STRENGTH: The running game. Alfred Morris ran for more yards the last three seasons than any NFL back except Marshawn Lynch of Seattle. Combine Morris’ talents with some power football runs that offensive line coach Bill Callahan brought with him from Dallas and a new right side of the line in rookie guard Brandon Scherff and tackle Morgan Moses, who played sparingly as a rookie in 2014, and the Redskins have had one of the NFL’s top running games this summer. Rookie Matt Jones and Chris Thompson, a 2013 draft pick, offer contrasting strengths of power and speed as Morris’ primary backups. Fullback Darrel Young remains solid.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Quarterback. It’s heartwarming that Kirk Cousins wrested the job from Robert Griffin III with a strong summer, but Cousins has a 2-7 career record with 18 touchdowns and 19 interceptions and a 77.5 passer rating. Griffin has struggled badly since tearing his right ACL and MCL in a January 2013 playoff loss to Seattle, going 5-15. Colt McCoy has a career 7-18 mark. The Redskins don’t have a quarterback who has proven that he can win in the NFL.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Kirk Cousins. Backups — Colt McCoy, Robert Griffin III.

The surprise of Washington’s summer was that Cousins unseated Griffin, the face of the franchise and the starter for most of the last three seasons. However, Cousins certainly outplayed his fellow member of the draft class of 2012 and preseason, and got a boost when Griffin was scratched from the final two games because of a concussion. McCoy actually had a higher passing rating in preseason than Cousins, but the latter got to run the first-team offense in the pivotal third game against Baltimore and that made all the difference. Of course, after last year’s Redskins quarterback carousel, don’t expect Cousins to start all 16 games. Griffin dislocated an ankle in Week 2 and missed six games. Cousins took over but was benched for McCoy at halftime of Week 7 after committing 11 turnovers. Although McCoy led Washington to a stunning victory at Dallas in Week 8, Griffin returned in Week 9. However, head coach Jay Gruden pulled him for McCoy after three straight defeats, only giving Griffin the job back when McCoy sustained a season-ending neck injury late in Week 13. Cousins, 1-7 as a starter the last two years despite plenty of big plays, has to prove that he can win games and not make so many big mistakes or Gruden is apt to turn to the more conservative McCoy or perhaps even Griffin, the former Offensive Rookie of the Year who hasn’t been close to the same since having major knee surgery in January 2013.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Alfred Morris, FB Darrel Young. Backups — Matt Jones, Chris Thompson.

The summer news here was that third-round pick Jones and oft-injured holdover Thompson combined to provide a good contrast of power and quickness as the backups to the reliable Morris. After rushing for a franchise-record 1,613 yards with a 4.8-yard average as a rookie in 2012, Morris slipped to 1,275 yards and a 4.6-yard average in 2013. He dropped further last year with 1,074 yards and a 4.1-yard average. Morris’ production has always been linked to Griffin’s presence on the field so he needs to prove that he can thrive with Cousins under center. When Griffin was out for six games last season, Morris ran for only 419 yards on 117 carries, a 3.6-yard average. When Griffin returned for Weeks 10-12, Morris rebounded to gain 313 yards on 61 carries, a 5.1-yard average. Gruden then benched Griffin and Morris fell to 67 yards on 17 carries at Indianapolis, a 3.9-yard average, before his career-worst eight yards on six carries against St. Louis. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Jones is burly, but was banged-up some this summer, which is worrisome. Thompson, who is only 5-8, ran hard this preseason and has been unable to stay healthy since being drafted in 2013. Young has played more games for Washington, 74, than any other member of the offense and he scored a career-high five touchdowns last year on just 20 touches.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jordan Reed. Backups — Derek Carrier, Anthony McCoy.

Niles Paul, who filled in so well when Reed went down because of a hamstring in last year’s opener and missed the next four games, had just been named the starter when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Blocking tight end Logan Paulsen was lost for the year with a toe injury the same week. Suddenly, the oft-injured Reed was Washington’s only proven tight end. So the Redskins traded a fifth-round choice to San Francisco for Carrier, who had nine catches in 11 games last season. Reed, who was also sidelined for six games with a concussion during his rookie year and with a balky knee this spring, has 95 catches and 964 yards in just 20 career games. If he can stay healthy, he’ll give the Redskins a major weapon. Backup tackle Tom Compton will be used as an extra tight end in short-yardage situations. On Monday, Washington signed McCoy, who had 31 catches for 437 yards and three touchdowns for Seattle in 2011 and 2012 before missing the past two seasons with Achilles injuries.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson. Backups — Andre Roberts, Ryan Grant, Jamison Crowder, Rashad Ross.

There wasn’t much drama with this unit this summer other than Ross soaring from long shot to a roster spot, beating out sixth-rounder Evan Spencer, after leading the NFL with 25 catches, 266 yards and four touchdowns in preseason. Jackson led the NFL with 20.9 yards per catch last season. Garcon topped the league with a franchise-record 113 catches in 2013. However, the duo only produced big-time in the same game in Week 3 at Philadelphia, catching 16 balls for 255 yards and a touchdown. So deep threat Jackson, who missed preseason with a sprained shoulder suffered during training camp, and over the middle specialist Garcon still have yet to really prove that they can co-exist without one or both being unhappy. Roberts, signed from Arizona in March 2014 to start opposite Garcon before Jackson was cut by Philadelphia the next month, followed a lackluster season with a strong preseason, although he might still be pressed for the No. 3 job by 2014 fifth-rounder Grant, who runs smooth routes and seems to be a Gruden favorite. Crowder is only 5-8, but he flashed good hands during camp before pulling a hamstring that greatly limited him during preseason. None of the receivers top six feet.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Trent Williams, LG Shawn Lauvao, C Kory Lichtensteiger, RG Brandon Scherff, RT Morgan Moses. Backups — T Tom Compton, G-C Spencer Long, G Arie Kouandjio, C-G Josh LeRibeus, T Ty Nsekhe.

When camp began, fifth overall selection Scherff was at right tackle and 2014 third-rounder Spencer Long was at right guard for new line coach Bill Callahan. A week later, Scherff had moved into Long’s spot and another 2014 third-rounder Morgan Moses, who had been unimpressive as a rookie before suffering a season-ending foot injury, was at right tackle. Despite some ups and downs since, that’s how the Redskins will line up on the right side for the opener against Miami’s formidable duo of tackle Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. The rest of the line, Pro Bowl left tackle Williams, left guard Lauvao and center Lichtensteiger return, with Williams having recently signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension. Lauvao looked better this summer than during his 2014 Washington debut. Former left guard Lichtensteiger has adapted well to center. Compton didn’t fare well as the right tackle during the final nine games of 2014 but is versatile. Long was awful in the preseason finale but Callahan wants to keep working with him and 2015 fourth-rounder Kouandjio. LeRibeus might have saved his job by learning to play center. Nsekhe is the surprise member of the group but he impressed Gruden with his strength, talent and 6-8, 325-pound body.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Stephen Paea, NT Terrance Knighton, DRE Jason Hatcher. Backups — DE Ricky Jean Francois, NT Chris Baker, DE Kedric Golston, DE Frank Kearse.

There were no upsets here this summer. Hatcher and Baker started last year. Former starter Golston and 2014 newcomer Kearse also return. Paea and Knighton were signed to be starters while Jean Francois was drafted by general manager Scot McCloughan for the 49ers in 2009. The Redskins haven’t had a Pro-Bowl lineman since end Marco Coleman in 2000. That probably won’t change in 2015, but new defensive coordinator Joe Barry expects an increase in production from last season, when the linemen combined for only 10.5 sacks, all but five from Hatcher, who is 33 and missed the final three games of his Redskins debut campaign with a sprained knee that limited him this spring. Knighton has been a starter for all but one of his six seasons and the Redskins hope that his one-year contract will produce the massive 29-year-old’s best effort. Like Hatcher (11 sacks) in 2013 with Dallas, Paea had a career year (six sacks) in 2014 for Chicago as he approached free agency. Jean Francois was a regular for the Colts’ AFC South champions the last two years and will be Washington’s third end. Baker, who has started at nose and end, will back up best buddy Knighton. Golston is back for a team-best 10th season in Washington thanks to his smarts and hustle. Kearse had three sacks in the first seven games last year.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — LOLB Ryan Kerrigan, LILB Keenan Robinson, RILB Perry Riley, ROLB Trent Murphy. Backups — OLB Preston Smith, ILB Will Compton, OLB Jackson Jeffcoat, ILB Martell Spaight.

Kerrigan had a knee scoped in late May and the Redskins held him out of preseason after giving him a five-year, $57.5 million contract extension. After finishing second in the NFC with 13.5 sacks and tying for the NFL lead with five forced fumbles in 2014 despite little help from his teammates as pass rushers, Kerrigan was supposed to form a top tandem with former New Orleans outside backer Junior Galette this year. However, Galette sustained a season-ending torn Achilles during camp. Murphy, who replaced the injured Brian Orakpo (now with Tennessee) in Week 7 and started the rest of 2014, will open opposite Kerrigan but will be pushed by Smith, the second-round selection who had the more productive preseason. After missing the final five games of 2012 and all of 2013 because of torn pectoral muscles, Robinson took over for the retired London Fletcher in 2014 and led the Redskins in tackles. Riley, the top tackler in 2013, took a step back last year. Jeffcoat, the son of former Dallas end Jim Jeffcoat, had four sacks in preseason, to keep the job he gained last December. One-time rookie free agent Compton is the overachieving type that coaches love. Fifth-round choice Spaight will have to make his mark on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB Chris Culliver, FS Dashon Goldson, SS Duke Ihenacho. Backups — CB David Amerson, CB Justin Rogers, S Jeron Johnson, S Trent Robinson, S Kyshoen Jarrett. Others: CB Bashaud Breeland (backup, suspended 1 game).

No Redskins unit has been more overhauled, and rightly so after Washington was torched for a league-high 35 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions (five by the secondary). Culliver was signed from San Francisco. Goldson, a 30-year-old two-time Pro Bowl pick for the 49ers, was acquired from Tampa Bay for a sixth-rounder. Ihenacho, who was cut by Denver last summer after starting for the 2013 AFC champions, got into only three games for Washington before sustaining a season-ending foot injury. He beat out Johnson, signed as a free agent from Seattle. Three-time Pro Bowl selection Hall, 31, returns to the lineup after missing the final 13 games of 2014 with a torn Achilles. Breeland, the secondary’s top performer as a rookie last season after Hall went down, is suspended for the opener. Rogers performed well as the nickel corner during preseason. Former starter Amerson played better this summer than he did last year, when he was beaten frequently. Robinson is strong on special teams. Sixth-rounder Jarrett, the lowest draft pick to make the team, had a strong preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Kai Forbath, P Tress Way, LS Nick Sundberg, KOR Chris Thompson, PR Jamison Crowder.

Forbath doesn’t have a very strong leg on kickoffs, but he keeps his job because he’s so accurate on field goals. He made 24-of-27 field-goal attempts last season, including 23-of-24 from inside 47 yards. Way, signed off waivers from Chicago in late August 2014, finished second in the league with a 47.5-yard average in his debut season. Sundberg stayed healthy for the first time in three years in 2014 and was flawless. Since Roberts averaged only 7.4 yards on punt returns and 23.7 on kickoff returns last year, he figures to be supplanted in the former role by Crowder and in the latter by Thompson.

PRACTICE SQUAD: FB Ray Agnew, LB Houston Bates, T Takoby Cofield, DE Corey Crawford, DE Ryan Delaire, CB Quinton Dunbar, LB Terrance Plummer, TE Je’Ron Hamm, RB Trey Williams.

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report.


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