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NFC East training camp preview: Key players to watch

Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the NFC East camp primer:

Dallas Cowboys

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 25).

Location: Marriott Residence Inn in Oxnard, California.

Most important position battle: Wide receiver.Dez Bryant is unemployed and Jason Witten is in the "Monday Night Football" booth. With their departures from Dallas go 219 targets and 132 receptions from last season, most of which will have to be replaced by the Cowboys' mostly unproven receiving corps in 2018. Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams remain from last year, though the latter might be on thin ice. In former Jags wideout Allen Hurns, Dallas believes it has its No. 1 receiver for next season; in Tavon Austin, a spark plug who, according to Stephen Jones, can earn a dozen touches per game; and in Michael Gallup, a reliable rookie. It's a wide-open race for seeding on Dallas' depth chart, one that will likely persist past training camp and throughout the season.

Newcomer to watch: Rico Gathers. That's right -- a college basketball player who's never played a regular-season down in the NFL is worthy of your interest. The discourse surrounding Gathers' potential is nearing Bigfoot levels of legend, overstated thanks to his unavailability to disprove his worth. The power forward-turned-tight end is entering his third year in the pros having played in only two preseason games, but has the potential -- supposedly -- to be Dallas' starter by Week 1, thanks to Witten's retirement and a hodgepodge position group. With Witten out to pasture, the tight ends on Dallas' roster account for just nine career receptions, all of which are the property of Geoff Swaim, while second-year UDFA Blake Jarwin and 2018 fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz are also present. Gathers, with his Gatesian basketball pedigree, has the most exciting highlight reel on the roster, but if he can't demonstrate recovery from last year's head injuries, the tight end is a potential cut candidate. Boom or bust for the Baylor big man.

Looming camp question: What does a more Dak-friendly offense look like? After last year's letdown -- more "Nothing" than "All" if you ask me -- Dallas focused on supporting and surrounding 2016 Rookie of the Year quarterback Dak Prescott with a cast that tailors to his needs and strengths. What that resembles and whether the Cowboys have succeeded in that approach will be the talking point in the weeks leading up to September. Prescott defined in February a "Dak-friendly" offense as an attack with improved accuracy and more run-pass options, or RPOs (they're back!), so that Dallas can scare defenses into playing by the Cowboys' rules. Let's see if that definition wavers as the summer deepens.

New York Giants

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).

Location: Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Most important position battle: The entire right side of the offensive line. In acquiring left tackle Nate Solder, second-round steal Will Hernandez and No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley, the Giants made a concerted effort this offseason to defibrillate their bottom-rung running game and improve a scattered offensive line. But the job isn't finished. Eli Manning's blind side might be protected now thanks to Dave Gettleman's springtime spending, but the right half of the offensive line remains in flux, if not inadequate. Long maligned left tackle Ereck Flowers is moving to the right side, where he impressed during OTAs but isn't guaranteed a starting gig. Last year's left guard John Jerry is projected to lose out at right guard to Patrick Omameh. Even Brett Jones, who started 13 games for New York last year, is being pushed by Jon Halapio.

Newcomer to watch: Saquon Barkley. Aside from the offensive line transactions, Alec Ogletree is arguably the most important acquisition of New York's offseason, as he'll be tasked to shore up one of the Giants' weakest position groups. BUT the new talent worth gawking over during training camp is Barkley, who's already embraced the New York spotlight, doubling as a leading jersey seller and a nude model. The No. 2 pick will be expected to put up 2016 Ezekiel Elliott numbers, but first, he'll have to get acclimated to running against NFL defenses and behind New York's aforementioned offensive line. His preseason snaps will likely be the most anticipated of any non-quarterback rookie.

Looming camp question: How do the Giants handle Odell Beckham amid contract questions? Cameras and critics were drawn to Beckham (as always) this off-season as the eccentric wideout engaged in very public contract, er, discussions. But with no holdout looming -- or at least, expected -- the attention surrounding Beckham will shift to his health as he returns from last season's devastating ankle injury. OBJ never truly took off last season, even before his Week 5 setback, due to a preseason injury scare in Cleveland, one that forced him out of New York's season opener. Mostly healthy, Big Blue's offensive lynchpin was limited to individual drills during June's minicamp, but should be back in the swing of things when training camp opens later this month. With the wideout's exhibition-injury history in mind, how the Giants monitor and play Beckham over the next two months will explain how cautious of an approach the new regime is willing to take with its star attraction as his rookie deal nears its end.

Philadelphia Eagles

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 25).

Location: NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Most important position battle: Sidney Jones vs. Jalen Mills. On a near-pristine -- and improved -- Eagles roster, cornerback is one of the few positions where there are more questions than answers. While Ronald Darby is expected to start on one side of the field, Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones will jockey for the other slot. Jones, who might have started last season if he didn't miss all but one game with an Achilles injury suffered before the draft, "turned heads" during OTAs. Patrick Robinson's departure down to New Orleans paves the way for either Jones or Mills to move inside to the nickel corner position.

Newcomers to watch: Dallas Goedert (and Richard Rodgers). After Philadelphia released Brent Celek and Super Bowl LII third-leading passer Trey Burton left to join Chicago, the Eagles moved quickly to fill the No. 2 tight end role behind Zach Ertz, signing Rodgers from Green Bay and drafting Goedert. The latter showed out as a red-zone threat during OTAs and our own Bucky Brooks projects he will end up as the top tight end from the 2018 class. The Eagles are flush with field-stretching talent -- Philly swapped Torrey Smith for Mike Wallace and is getting Darren Sproles back from injury -- so the TE duo's imprint might not be as large out of the gate. But Rodgers and Goedert will be asked to fill the blocking and pass-catching duties vacated by Celek and Burton, respectively, and how quickly they assume those roles will be something to track.

Looming camp question: Will Carson Wentz be healthy by Week 1? It's presumed that Wentz, who in the midst of an MVP-caliber campaign was forced to miss Philadelphia's Super Bowl run after suffering ACL and LCL injuries in Week 14, will be fully recovered by the time Week 1 rolls around, and Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles will happily cede the starting role. That's because all reports out of minicamp and OTAs are overwhelmingly positive. Wentz was cleared to participate in team drills, started throwing "with the same zip" and is running at about "90 percent" speed. That and because Foles said he has no issue handing the reins back to Philly's true franchise quarterback. But just because evaluations are sunny in June doesn't mean they'll stay that way in August. Wentz's repaired knee and how it affects how he plays the game will and should be the focus of much discussion this preseason. Does the once-nimble QB scale back his adlibbed runs? Will the Eagles start him more than a series per game during their preseason contests, if at all? If Wentz's progress is slower than expected, will calls grow for Foles, a Philly hero, to start in Week 1?

Washington Redskins

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 25).

Location: Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, Virginia.

Most important position battle: Running back. Forever a position group stuck in the Landover mud, the Redskins' running back room is now overflowing with talent and possibility. Second-round rookie Derrius Guice joins a group already populated by pass-catching threat Chris Thompson, decisive runner Rob Kelley and second-year veteran Samaje Perine. At the moment, Guice is projected to be Washington's Week 1 starter with Thompson as the third-down and slot threat, but all that can change come training camp. Kelley's second season was cut short by injury, and Perine underwhelmed after being heralded in the '17 preseason as an OROY candidate. Developing his RB room will be important for Jay Gruden, who has overseen as many playoff appearances (one, 2015) as 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his time in D.C. (Alfred Morris, 2014).

Player returning from injury to watch: Jordan Reed. Of the dozenish Redskins who missed significant time during their lost season in 2017 (including Thompson, Kelley, Mason Foster, Jonathan Allen), no player will have more question marks surrounding his return than Reed. A Pro Bowler in 2016, Reed looked to be the league's next great, super-athlete tight end. But a litany of injuries -- concussions, hamstring issues and most recently a toe fracture -- have forced Reed to miss 14 games over the last two seasons; the tight end hasn't completed a full 16-game slate in his five-year career. Though Reed signed a six-year deal in 2016, Washington's patience with the tight end might run thin if he can't stay healthy this season, especially considering the 'Skins can save more than $20 million over three years by releasing Reed before next season. In short, it's do-or-die for Reed in 2018 in his ongoing battle against the laws of physics.

Looming camp question: Did Washington lose Kirk Cousins ... and improve? Rare is it that a franchise lets a perennial 4,000-yard passer walk in free agency and get better in the process, but that might be what happened this off-season when the 'Skins traded in an hyper-valued Kirk Cousins ($84M over three years in MIN) for Alex Smith on a relative discount ($94M over four years in WAS). We likely won't learn how 'Skins offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh intends to tailor the offense around Smith until game plans are implemented in the regular season. But first impressions matter, especially when you're a 34-year-old quarterback who was just handed $70 million guaranteed. Smith admitted he doesn't expect a lengthy honeymoon period this season, so don't be surprised if the evaluation process of D.C.'s quarterback decision begins in earnest this month. See NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal's Making the Leap banger for a more detailed analysis of where Washington is headed with Smith at the helm.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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