- Can Eli Manning succeed without Tom Coughlin as head coach?
Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin have been joined at the hip in New York for 12 seasons, all of Manning’s career. Offensive coordinator of the past two seasons, Ben McAdoo will take over for Coughlin and Eli will be entering a new chapter in his career. Coughlin will no longer bear the brunt of Monday morning columns by the NY media instead that scrutiny will shift solely to Eli Manning. The Giants are not expected to be Super Bowl contenders this season, but Manning is the franchise quarterback and the team hasn’t made the playoffs since winning it all in 2011. Manning threw 5 more touchdowns in his 2nd season with McAdoo as offensive coordinator yet the team only won 6 games. Can Eli raise his level of play under a rookie head coach and take his team back to January football?
- Is Sterling Shepard a legitimate compliment to Odell Beckham Jr.?
Beckham racked up 96 catches and 13 touchdowns in 2015 while the other wideouts had 112 receptions and 13 touchdowns combined. Rueben Randle was the starter opposite Beckham and he’s now an Eagle as we all know. Victor Cruz will finally be returning from his torn patellar tendon he suffered in the 2014 season at Lincoln Financial Field. The Giants cannot rely on Cruz to regain his old form and must find a reliable threat opposite ODB. Enter rookie Sterling Shepard selected from Oklahoma at number 40 overall. Shepard caught 86 balls for nearly 1,300 yards and 11 scores during his senior year with the Sooners. Scouts praised him for his route running, particularily from the slot position, and his sure handedness which can go a long way gaining trust especially as a rookie wide receiver. Shepard is not an imposing outside receiver standing slightly under 6 foot and weighing roughly 200 pounds. Ben McAdoo’s offense typically operates in 3 wide receiver sets which would allow Shepard to work out of the slot where he excelled at the collegiate level. McAdoo has stressed the importance of getting the ball out quicker during his two seasons with Eli Manning, and Shepard has the ability to get open faster than previous Giants receivers. A possible comparison to envision is Randall Cobb early in his career when he worked out of the slot while Ben McAdoo coached in Green Bay.
- Will the Giants free agency spending improve the defense?
General Manager Jerry Reese spent over $100 million in guaranteed money this offseason to hopefully bolster the porous Giants defense from a season ago. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon, and defensive tackle Damon Harrison were all inked to free agent contracts. The Giants allowed the most yards in the league last season and gave up an average of nearly 28 points per game. The defense led by Steve Spagnuolo only registered 23 sacks as a team which ranked 30th in the league. New York hopes Jenkins can bring a playmaking presence to the cornerback position which has lacked in recent years. Eli Apple was also drafted in the first round from Ohio State to address this need. Vernon was signed from the Dolphins to rush the passer and potentially make up for the lack of production from Jason Pierre-Paul who was also resigned. Damon Harrison will still call Met Life Stadium home this season except this year he’ll be wearing a Giants uniform instead of the Jets. Harrison is a big body who was brought in to stop the run and any sacks he records will be icing on the cake. Improvements were made to the Giants defense, but the money which was spent can be called into question based on the zero Pro Bowls between these three players. Spags will have more assets to work with than in 2015 it’s just a matter of if these new assets fit his scheme.
- Can Kirk Cousins replicate his 2015 performance?
The 2015 campaign was the first full season as a starter for Cousins and he rewarded the Redskins with 29 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Washington slapped the franchise tag on Cousins in the offseason and was unable to reach a long-term deal with the signal caller before the July deadline. Opposing defenses now have a full year of tape on Cousins being a starter in Jay Gruden’s system. The next question is will he continue to improve or regress to a mediocre starting quarterback in this league. Cousins is certainly not lacking the weapons around him with Desean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, and rookie wide receiver Josh Doctson. The tools are there for Cousins to have a successful 2016 season it depends on the adjustments he makes to what defenses will throw at him.
- Who will emerge as the lead running back for the Redskins?
Matt Jones is the odds on favorite to be the starting tailback for Washington in 2016. Jones will be entering his sophomore season in the NFL after rushing for 490 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. However, Jones missed 3 games during his rookie season and had a tendency to put the ball on the turf. He fumbled 5 times and lost 4 of those fumbles. Behind Jones is third year back Chris Thompson who is more of a scat back, third down option. Thompson caught 35 balls in 2015 and had 2 receiving touchdowns while he only managed 35 rushing attempts. He serves a role in Gruden’s offense, but will not be called upon for 10 to 15 carries per game. Rookie Keith Marshall from Georgia is a wild card after being selected in the 7th round of this year’s draft. Marshall showed flashes of brilliance during his time in Athens, but was plagued by injuries during his four years. He only registered over 100 carries in a season once which was in 2012 during his freshmen year. Ronnie Hillman from the Broncos is a potential name to watch as an addition to the Skins backfield. Hillman is fighting an uphill battle to make the Broncos roster and brings experience which could help the younger guys on Washington.
- What player will generate a pass rush besides Ryan Kerrigan?
Kerrigan led the Skins with 9.5 sacks last season and will be the primary pass rusher once again in 2016. Besides Kerrigan lies uncertainty as to how the defense will generate a consistent pass rush. The loss of outside linebacker, Junior Galette, removes a viable option opposite Kerrigan to pressure the quarterback. Galette’s loss opens the way for second year man Preston Smith to stake his claim. Smith impressed as a rookie totaling 8 sacks and forcing 4 fumbles in all 16 games he played in. He’ll be granted the opportunity to be a full-time starter and Washington needs him to produce. The 3-4 scheme coordinated by Joe Barry requires outside linebackers to effectively rush the passer. The depth is scarce behind Kerrigan and Smith since Trent Murphy is now playing defensive end. An intriguing name to watch is rookie Su’a Cravens from USC. Cravens will be used as a hybrid player on defense switching between linebacker and safety at times. He’s a playmaker that could help put pressure on the quarterback through blitzing schemes.
- Can another Cowboys receiver divert the attention away from Dez Bryant?
The Dallas offense ranked 31st in the league in 2015 averaging just over 17 points per game only ahead of the 49ers. Tony Romo missed much of the season due to a collarbone injury and the two quarterbacks behind him did not fare too well. Bryant himself suited up for only 9 games missing parts of the season due to a foot injury. The Cowboys offense will need to return to their 2014 form featuring a run-heavy approach relying on the offensive line and lightening the load for Romo. When Dallas does decide to air it out who will be able to make plays besides Dez Bryant? Terrence Williams is the starter opposite Bryant and had a career high 52 receptions in 2015. However, Williams has struggled throughout his three year career to prove himself as a capble starting receiver in this league. Opposing defenses will single cover Williams and his ability to stretch the defense could do wonders for the Dallas passing game. Behind Bryant and Williams lies a cast of characters who won’t strike fear into any defensive coordinator. Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead and Brice Butler are the other options figuring to make the roster. Those four players have a combined 200 receptions. Future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten is still the security blanket for Romo, but his prime seasons are likely behind him. Witten is still a pro’s pro and caught 77 balls last season, but Dallas cannot rely on him as they once did.
- How will the Cowboys generate a pass rush?
The Dallas defense recorded 31 total sacks last season which was tied for 25th in the NFL. Greg Hardy will not be in a Cowboys uniform in 2016 and he accounted for 6 of those sacks. Starting defensive end Demarcus Lawrence led the unit with 8 sacks and he’s slated to miss the first four games because of a substance abuse violation. Trouble second year pro Randy Gregory will not be playing football in the near future following his off the field and addiction concerns. That leaves defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with David Irving and rookie Charles Tapper as the next two viable options on the roster. Irving played 12 games in his rookie year and did not total a whole sack. He does have the measurables standing at 6’7, 285 pounds to present trouble for some offensive tackles. Tapper was selected in the 4th round by Dallas out of Oklahoma in this year’s draft. Leading up to the draft, scouts were not convinced Tapper had the skills to be an effective pass rusher as a pro hence him being selected in round 4. Marinelli is praised around the league for his ability to get the most out of unknown defensive linemen. I think even he may struggle to develop an effective pass rusher from this current crop of defensive linemen. Dallas will need Demarcus Lawrence to return from his suspension and play like a former second round pick should.
- Can Dallas find a replacement for Rolando McClain in the middle?
Another Cowboy with off the field troubles is Rolando McClain who is not likely to see the field at all in 2016. That leaves Dallas without their starting middle linebacker from the past two seasons. Third year man from Iowa, Anthony Hitchens, is the likely candidate to slide into the MIKE role in place of McClain. Hitches has played in all 32 games during his career and started 20 of those games at various linebacker spots. He lacks the size and physical presence that McClain possesses, but is a sure tackler for the position. As mentioned, Hitchens has never been a starting middle linebacker especially in the NFL and the possibility exists of him wearing down with increased snaps. Dallas would likely fill his outside spot with either Andrew Gachkar or Kyle Wilber. Both players have been rotational pieces during their respective careers.
- Which NFC East rookie will contribute the most in their rookie season?
Ezekiel Elliot, Josh Doctson, and Sterling Shepard are three potential playmakers who were drafted into the NFC East. You can also throw Carson Wentz into that mix, hopefully, but he isnt likely to see much action in 2016. Zeke Elliot is the clear cut favorite for Rookie of the Year based on his talent and the offensive line he’ll be running behind in Dallas. Doctson was the third receiver drafted in the first round after Corey Coleman and Will Fuller. He has the potential to be a standout in the Nation’s Capital with his size and hands. The TCU product started training camp on the PUP list for the Skins as he’s dealing with an Achilles injury. I already discussed Shepard and the possible impact he’ll have on the Giants offense this season. Shepard has the capability to be one of the best slot receivers in the game during his rookie year. Two names to watch on the defensive side of the ball are Giants safety Darian Thompson and Redskins linebacker Su’a Cravens. I talked about Cravens earlier and the versatility he’ll bring to the Washington defense. Thompson was taken number 71 overall by the Giants out of Boise State. He racked up 19 interceptions during his time in Boise and also brings a physical presence to the safety position as well. He’s a nice pairing next to Landon Collins. I think this question will boil down to Elliot and Shepard. Elliot injured his hamstring yesterday in practice and is expected to miss some time. My pick is Sterling Shepard to contribue the most. He’s got one of the best receivers in the league drawing coverage away from him and a two-time Super Bowl MVP throwing the ball to him.