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Key Games -- Week 6 vs. Redskins, Week 10 at Saints, Week 12 at Giants, Week 15 vs. Packers, & Week 16 at Redskins
Breakout Player -- Sometimes the right player finds the right scheme. That’s exactly the case in Dallas with linebacker Bruce Carter and new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s defense. Carter is among the fastest -- if not the fastest -- linebacker in football. He’ll play the same position Derrick Brooks did during Kiffin’s tenure in Tampa Bay. Carter isn’t yet the next Brooks, but he offers freakish athleticism, the ability to get off blocks, and quality tackling.
Rookie Impact -- Drafting Travis Frederick was a bit controversial, as the Wisconsin center wasn’t on many first-round radars. He’ll be a week one starter, however, as he’s played well throughout camp. Injuries may cause him to slide over to guard, but his long-term outlook is at center, where he’s drawn the praise of coaches and quarterback Tony Romo.
Fantasy Stud -- The Cowboys don’t have a shortage of potential fantasy studs, but wide receiver Dez Bryant enters ‘13 with the most hype. He’s coming off a breakout 2012 season, where he caught 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s a career year for many receivers, but you can argue Bryant hasn’t even hit his prime yet. Baring an injury, he should maintain his status as an unquestioned top 10 receiver.
Prediction -- The Cowboys are all sizzle and no steak on offense. Romo, Bryant, and Jason Witten will continue to pile up numbers, but Romo is no Aaron Rodgers. He can’t elevate Dallas without a running game and pass protection. Defensively, the Cowboys do possess talent on the edges, especially with Carter and cornerback Morris Claiborne. However, despite Sean Lee’s presence, the middle of their defense will be a liability with poor safety play and an underwhelming interior front. A defensive transition and questionable offensive line play will prevent Dallas from competing for a division championship in late December. Instead, Jerry Jones will begin phasing out head coach Jason Garrett in favor of a more high profile coach capable of working with him. Jon Gruden will top his list.
Key Games -- Week 2 vs. Broncos, Week 11 vs. Packers, Week 12 vs. Cowboys, Week 13 at Redskins, & Week 15 vs. Seahawks
Breakout Player -- A lackluster rookie season didn’t force the Giants to lose any confidence in former first-round running back David Wilson. He entered training camp as the favorite to emerge as a starter, and he’s done just that. At their heart, the Giants still want to run the ball, so Wilson should see plenty of touches. He has a history of fumbling the ball, though, which could land him in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse. Still, it’s clear the Giants remain invested in Wilson. Anything less than 1,000 yards would be a major disappointment.
Rookie Impact -- With David Diehl out following thumb surgery, Justin Pugh has taken full control of the right tackle job. It’s hard to imagine him not hanging onto the job over the course of the season, though poor performance could have him pulled. The Giants are not a team that relies on rookies, but injuries have forced their hand. Pugh’s going to influence their season one way or another.
Fantasy Stud -- He may not play in week one, but Victor Cruz has established himself as Eli Manning’s No. 1 receiver over the last two seasons. Through that span, he has 168 receptions for 2,698 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He received a raise in the off-season, ending any threat of him missing time because of a contract dispute. He’s one of fantasy’s top 10 receivers.
Prediction -- The Giants are a streaky team. They can put forth an undefeated month only to drop three of their next four. They enter ‘13 somewhat under the radar in terms of NFC contention. Dallas and Washington overshadow them within the division. Most also consider Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle as better teams, yet the Giants possess a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and one of the league’s most tenacious pass rushes. They also feature one the best receiving tandems in the NFL with Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. They aren’t without holes (the secondary and offensive line are shaky), but with a favorable schedule and seasoned talent, the Giants are the class of the NFC East.
Key Games -- Week 5 at Giants, Week 7 vs. Cowboys, Week 8 vs. Giants, Week 10 at Packers, & Week 11 vs. Redskins
Breakout Player -- An outstanding athlete, Mychal Kendricks’ ability to get after the quarterback has Philadelphia excited. The Eagles want to channel the days of the late Jim Johnson and blitz their opponents into submission. Kendricks could be a real tool from the inside. Expectations could be greater for the second-year linebacker.
Rookie Impact -- Many draft observers doubted whether Lane Johnson could immediately contribute. He’s played offensive tackle for just two seasons after converting from tight end, yet he’ll lineup in week one as Philadelphia’s starting right tackle. With Michael Vick starting at quarterback (for now), Johnson’s task with protecting his quarterback’s blindside.
Fantasy Stud -- If there’s one thing we know about Chip Kelly’s intentions, it’s that he wants to run the ball. After an injury-plagued 2012, running back LeSean McCoy is healthy and playing in a run-heavy system. He’s always been a reliable RB1, but he’s never entered a season with more upside.
Prediction -- Because of Kelly’s up-tempo offense, the Eagles enter ‘13 as one of the league’s most intriguing teams. They didn’t draft a quarterback until the fourth-round (Matt Barkley), so Vick will start week one. He’s been receiving universal praise from his teammates, but if he’s going to run Kelly’s offense, he’ll need to make quicker decisions with the football. Expect him to miss at least a couple of games because of injury, so the Eagles could be flipping quarterbacks quite a bit this season. The Eagles will show improvement on defense, but they’re still a work in progress, and not yet ready for primetime. Despite all the intrigue, this is not a team reloading for another run anytime soon. This is year one of a rebuilding phase.
Key Games -- Week 6 at Cowboys, Week 12 vs. 49ers, Week 13 vs. Giants, Week 15 at Falcons, & Week 17 at Giants
Breakout Player -- After getting off to a fast start, tight end Fred Davis tore his ACL in the team’s seventh game. He’s healthy now and looking like a major contributor on offense. Mike Shanahan has gotten great production from tight ends in his past. When he was offensive coordinator for San Francisco, Brent Jones had some of his most productive seasons, and we all know how well Shannon Sharpe fared with Shanahan in Denver. Davis isn’t on the level of Jones or Sharpe, but his emergence in the passing game would help take the offense to another level.
Rookie Impact -- For all the love Washington received a year ago, they weren’t a team without serious flaws. Specifically, the secondary needed addressing and the Redskins turned to the draft to upgrade their 30th ranked pass defense. A second-round pick out of N.C. State, David Amerson will play a major role in Washington’s defense along with sixth-round safety Bacarri Rambo. The latter could be a liability because of tackling, but Amerson’s ball-hawking skills may make him the best cornerback on the roster.
Fantasy Stud --A slow start is definitely plausible for Robert Griffin III, but you don’t draft him with September and October in mind. You draft him thinking about November and December. All the RG3 talk, however, has fantasy players overlooking running back Alfred Morris. He finished No. 2 in rushing yards and touchdown in ‘12, but he doesn’t have a ton of momentum entering the season. Most attribute his success to RG3’s presence, but Shanahan always leans on his running game, especially when he has a well-defined starter. Morris is still a top 10 fantasy back.
Prediction -- You see it all the time. A young team comes of age and makes the postseason with an unexpected run. They enter the following year with momentum only to take a step backward. I have no doubts about RG3’s ability to return from tearing his ACL, but the first month of the season is going to be a feeling out process for him and the coaching staff. Even if he were healthy, the likely hood of him being as dynamic as last season is not high. The Redskins want him to operate from the pocket, in addition to throwing on the move. However, don‘t expect as many designed running plays as a year ago. The future is bright in Washington, but a tougher schedule will prevent them from reaching the postseason for the second consecutive year. I hope that owner Daniel Snyder continues to show patience with Shanahan, as this team just needs one more year of seasoning before their ready for a deep postseason run.