- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

9-6-1 last season

Anchored by a defense that ranked fourth in the league in average points allowed (18.1), the Eagles made a deep playoff run after finishing second in the division. Philadelphia’s campaign ended with an upset loss to Arizona in the NFC title game.

Key returning players

Donovan McNabb, quarterback - Last season the five-time Pro Bowl selection had 345 completions for 3,916 yards, both career highs. The team restructured the final two years of McNabb’s contract in the offseason.

Asante Samuel, cornerback - In his first season with the Eagles, the former New England standout made an immediate impact, collecting a team-leading four interceptions. After making the Pro Bowl last season, Samuel takes on more of a leadership role this year.

The linebackers - The Eagles have a solid group of young players here. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley had a team-high 108 tackles last season. Strongside linebacker Chris Gocong and weakside linebackers Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither also return.

The defensive ends - Darren Howard led the team with 10 sacks, and Trent Cole had nine last season. Overall, the Eagles defense ranked third in average yards allowed.

Key losses

Brian Dawkins, strong safety -The seven-time Pro Bowl selection signed with Denver in the offseason. He was the undisputed leader of the defense during his 14 seasons with the Eagles. The Eagles acquired Sean Jones from Cleveland to compete with Quintin Demps for the starting job at strong safety.

Jim Johnson, defensive coordinator - Just last week, the 23-year NFL coaching veteran died after a bout with cancer. Johnson was regarded as an excellent defensive coordinator, best known for his complex blitz packages. Sean McDermott, who spent eight years as Johnson’s assistant, will replace him.

Fresh faces

Ellis Hobbs, cornerback - The Eagles acquired Hobbs from New England for two draft picks. He should also provide a boost on special teams as a return man.

Jeremy Maclin, wide receiver - The first-round pick from Missouri has yet to sign, but he was just the third player in NCAA history to average 200-plus all-purpose yards and could be a genuine receiving threat.

Jason Peters, left tackle - The two-time Pro Bowl selection from Buffalo joins an offensive line that surrendered just 23 sacks last season, an impressive total for a team that passes the ball more than 60 percent of the time.

Burning questions

What are the implications of running back Brian Westbrook’s injury?

Westbrook is the key to Philadelphia’s West Coast offense. On June 5, Westbrook underwent surgery to repair bone spurs in his right ankle and is expected to miss most of the preseason. The team selected LeSean McCoy, a running back from Pittsburgh, in the second round of April’s draft. McCoy will get a lot of reps this preseason while Westbrook heals. Though McCoy could prove to be a promising addition, the Eagles need Westbrook.

Who will step up as the leader on defense?

With Dawkins gone, the Eagles will look to some of their veterans to guide McDermott’s unit. Candidates to fill Dawkins’ shoes are Samuel, who won two Super Bowls with New England, and eight-year veteran Sheldon Brown. Brown is the only remaining defensive starter from the squad that went to Super Bowl XXXIX. Though he expressed dissatisfaction with his contract during the offseason, Brown reported to the first day of camp.

NEW YORK GIANTS

12-4 last season

Propelled by an offense that ranked third in points a game (26.7) last season, the Giants cruised to a 12-4 regular-season record and an NFC East division title. But their season took an unexpected end when they lost to the Eagles in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Key returning players

Eli Manning, quarterback - Manning led the Giants to a Super Bowl victory two seasons ago, and he was a Pro Bowl selection last year. Last season he threw just 10 interceptions, half as many as he threw in 2007.

Brandon Jacobs, running back -The Giants were tops in rushing last season with 2,518 yards. Jacobs was the team’s engine, rushing for 1,089 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Osi Umenyiora, defensive end - After missing all of 2008 because of a knee injury, Umenyiora is back this year. He had 13 sacks in 2007, and his return could make a huge impact this season.

Key losses

Derrick Ward, running back - Ward, who left the Giants in March for the Buccaneers, was an big piece of the rushing game last season, contributing 1,025 yards. With Ward gone, Jacobs and running back Ahmad Bradshaw will share the workload.

Plaxico Burress, wide receiver -In November 2008, Burress shot himself in the leg with an unlicensed handgun and is currently testifying before a grand jury. Burress, who was released in April, had 33 touchdowns with the Giants, including the winning score in Super Bowl XLII.

Fresh faces

Chris Canty, defensive lineman -After four years with Dallas, Canty moved within the division and could be a great addition to an already solid defensive front.

Michael Boley, linebacker -The Giants were expecting Boley to start at weakside linebacker, but the former Atlanta standout had hip surgery in June and will miss most of the preseason. In May, Boley violated the NFL’s personal conduct code and was suspended for one game.

Burning questions

With Burress and Amani Toomer gone, who will be Manning’s prime target?

Domenik Hixon led all players with 596 receiving yards last season. Aside from Hixon, Manning also has third-year receiver Steve Smith and first-round pick Hakeem Nicks at his disposal. His biggest target could be tight end Kevin Boss, who had a team-high six receiving touchdowns last season. Jacobs is expected to score points on the ground, but the team can’t just rely on its running game.

How good is the offensive line?

Coach Tom Coughlin should expect to have a solid offensive line: The team returns all five starters for the third consecutive year, including Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee. The Giants averaged 138 rushing yards a game last season, which ranked second in the NFL. If the offensive line lives up to its potential, the Giants should continue to have a potent attack on the ground.

DALLAS COWBOYS

9-7 last season

By losing their last two games of the season, the Cowboys finished third in the division and failed to make the playoffs. Owner Jerry Jones is opening a $1.15 billion stadium in Arlington, Texas, and is hoping for a team to match the quality of the facility. Last season, the offense averaged just 22.6 points, which ranked 18th in the league.

Key returning players

Tony Romo, quarterback -During his seven seasons with Dallas, Romo has put up impressive numbers. However, the quarterback hasn’t proved himself in big games or won in the playoffs.

Roy Williams, wide receiver - With Terrell Owens gone, Williams might prove to be Romo’s go-to target this season. But the former Lions standout needs to be on the same page as his quarterback. Rumors have swirled that the two don’t get along.

The running backs -Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice all return. Last season, Barber led all Dallas backs with seven rushing touchdowns. Though Jones missed 10 games with a left hamstring injury, he averaged an impressive 8.9 yards a carry.

DeMarcus Ware, linebacker - Ware is one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL. Last season, he recorded a league-leading 20 sacks and was selected to a third consecutive Pro Bowl.

Key losses

Terrell Owens, wide receiver -Though Owens provided his trademark locker-room distraction last season, he still led the team in receiving yards (1,052) and touchdowns (10). Owens was released March 4 and then signed with Buffalo.

Anthony Henry, cornerback -After racking up 12 interceptions in four seasons in the Cowboys’ secondary, Henry was traded to the Lions in a package that brought backup quarterback Jon Kitna to Dallas.

Fresh faces

Jon Kitna, quarterback -In the offseason, the Cowboys acquired the 12-year veteran from the Lions. If Romo gets injured, the Cowboys have an experienced backup on the sideline.

Keith Brooking, inside linebacker - After being unable to reach an agreement with the Falcons, the five-time Pro Bowl selection inked a three-year contract with Dallas to replace Zach Thomas in the middle.

Burning questions

Can Romo lead the Cowboys to the playoffs?

The offense must improve, and all eyes are on Romo and his receivers. Tight end Jason Witten (81 catches in 2008) returns as his top target. Williams, a 2006 Pro Bowl selection, hopes to pick up the slack with Owens gone. Romo and Williams must build a rapport in the preseason. Perhaps most importantly, the Cowboys need to put Romo in situations to succeed by establishing their rushing attack and scoring early. If the Cowboys find themselves depending on Romo’s arm alone, the playoffs are a pipe dream.

If Romo and Williams don’t connect, do the Cowboys have other options in the passing game?

In his six years with the Cowboys, Witten has amassed 4,935 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns. Miles Austin, a fourth-year wideout, has the speed to get downfield and could be a deep threat. The team also has sixth-year man Patrick Crayton on the roster. Of course, Romo will need adequate protection from his offensive line to get the ball downfield.

- Rachel Orland

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