Few NFL divisions are as unpredictable as the NFC East, which hasn’t had a repeat champion in nearly two decades. The 2022 season figures to be just as open-ended inside the East, where all four teams face major questions. The first-place Cowboys shuffled pieces on their talented offense, the Eagles reloaded on both sides of the ball, the Commanders took a big gamble at quarterback, and the Giants cleaned house up top to kick off a rebuild.
As training camps begin, here are three questions each team must answer before the start of the season:
- What is Carson Wentz here to do? We don’t mean that sarcastically. One of the biggest (and rightful) criticisms of Wentz as a starter has been his tendency to play hero ball, or his inability to toe the line between extending and forcing plays. But what if Washington wants him to be that kind of QB? Signing Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2021 signaled a desire for more gutsy passing as opposed to Alex Smith’s conservative approach that came before, and maybe Ron Rivera is still seeking that boom-or-bust mentality he once had in Cam Newton. That’s not necessarily the winning formula here, but it would help assess Wentz’s output if this is truly his last opportunity to be an unchallenged No. 1.
- Is there enough (or a plan) at receiver? Terry McLaurin is golden as the top target, and first-rounder Jahan Dotson has drawn promising reviews before camp. But Curtis Samuel is a big X-factor coming off a lost season. It’s imperative, by the looks of the rest of the depth chart here, that Scott Turner find a way to deploy the ex-Panthers utility man properly. It would be a big help if youngsters like Dyami Brown and Kelvin Harmon emerged over the summer.
- Is the secondary up to the task? Washington is paying big bucks for Kendall Fuller and William Jackson III at cornerback, but the pass defense was porous early in 2021, and the safety position remains underfilled with Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl slotted as starters. After spending just two Day 3 picks to address both areas, the Commanders need to be honest with themselves about their top group, and perhaps consider exploring a move for a presence-setter like Jessie Bates III.
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- Is the offensive line healthy? Better yet, can it stay healthy? For as dominant as Tyron Smith remains at left tackle, the Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full season in seven years, missing 20 games over the last two. At some point, the lack of availability there is going to take another toll on QB Dak Prescott. That’s doubly the case now that La’el Collins is gone, with Terence Steele taking over at right tackle and rookie Tyler Smith slotting into the lineup on the interior. Fellow starters Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin have also missed extended time due to injuries over the last two seasons.
- Will Tony Pollard’s role actually expand? The Cowboys have talked publicly about increasing Pollard’s responsibilities for years, but then Ezekiel Elliott gets the lion’s share of backfield work anyway. Not that Zeke deserves to be phased out entirely, but Pollard clearly offers more instant explosion at this point in his career. Actually implementing the running back as a more frequent slot target or gadget weapon might do well as Dak adjusts to a shuffled receiving corps.
- Is CeeDee Lamb ready to be “the guy”? The natural follow-up pertains to the readiness of his new backups, namely James Washington and rookie Jalen Tolbert. While Amari Cooper may not be an elite game-changer in the mold of, say, Davante Adams, his absence will surely be missed. And he wasn’t the only notable target to depart, with Cedrick Wilson Jr. also leaving this offseason. As Michael Gallup recovers from his 2021 injury, all eyes will be on Lamb to deliver All-Pro stuff.
- Is Jalen Hurts ready to throw the ball more? This is something the Eagles will more likely have to assess as 2022 unfolds, but it’s pretty important nonetheless, considering all that could be affected by the young QB’s growth (or lack thereof) as a passer. A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert make a potentially elite pass-catching trio, but Hurts still has to prove he can win regularly with more than his legs. The answer could determine Philly’s approach at QB in 2023 and beyond.
- Does Jonathan Gannon have a plan for his new pieces? The Eagles’ defense was mostly passive and underwhelming in Gannon’s debut as defensive coordinator. Now, after an offseason in which he got head-coaching buzz for his energetic leadership, Gannon needs to go into 2022 knowing exactly how to deploy proven veterans like Haason Reddick, Kyzir White and James Bradberry, who have the talent to elevate each level of the “D.”
- Who is starting at safety? Technically, Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps are the starters going into the summer, with ex-49ers veteran Jaquiski Tartt also competing. The Eagles can probably win with two of those three on the field, mostly because the rest of the unit is improved. But their efforts earlier this offseason to add a more premium talent, like new Ravens starter Marcus Williams, signal they could still use a playmaker on the back end.
- What does Daniel Jones have to do to stick around beyond 2022? Obviously the answer to this could — and should — be adjusted throughout the year, but still, it’d be wise for the new regime to go into the season with a benchmark expectation for the former first-rounder, keeping in mind the circumstances. Basically, what does new leadership need to see from Jones, either in the eye test or in the numbers, in order to warrant re-signing him for 2023, even if it’s just to compete for a job?
- What is expected of Brian Daboll this season? The way new general manager Joe Schoen has operated (partially out of obligation to the previous regime’s financial woes), the Giants aren’t necessarily expecting to compete for this division until 2023 at the very earliest. And Daboll, coming from Buffalo like Schoen, is tied to this front office. But what, if any, bar does he have to clear to reaffirm the organization’s trust? Is it a win total? Or just a good vibe, a la Dan Campbell in Detroit?
- Who is expected to defend the pass? This is just one of several areas of concern for a stripped-down roster, but after outright releasing former Pro Bowl corner James Bradberry, the Giants truly are thin in the secondary, where the pricey Adoree’ Jackson headlines a group of cover men featuring Aaron Robinson, Michael Jacquet and Rodarius Williams.