- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With the start of 2005 training camps around the corner, let's take a look at a big question mark facing each of the NFC teams:
Dallas Cowboys | Camp preview Will switching to the 3-4 defense get the Cowboys back to the playoffs? Jerry Jones finally gave Bill Parcells the type of personnel he wants. The Cowboys revamped their front seven by signing a big nose tackle, Jason Ferguson, and drafting linemen Marcus Spears and Chris Canty and linebackers Demarcus Ware and Kevin Burnett. Veteran defensive linemen Greg Ellis and La'Roi Glover fit better in a 4-3 scheme, so the Cowboys may need to rely on their younger players to make this transition successful.
New York Giants | Camp preview What will year two be like in Eli Manning's development as a franchise quarterback? Manning didn't start showing his potential until late in the regular season. In December, he showed better command in the huddle and started to play with some confidence. The Giants brought in Plaxico Burress to give him a big target. Jeremy Shockey had his best offseason of conditioning and could have one of his best seasons. As Manning evolves as a quarterback, so does the future of the Giants.
Philadelphia Eagles | Camp preview Has Terrell Owens become such a distraction for the Eagles that it will cost them games? Owens wants a new contract and may hold out to get one. The Eagles have said all along they won't redo Owens' deal and they don't look like they'll budge. The Eagles figure Owens may hold out of training camp, but he won't miss regular season games, and the paychecks that go with them. He'd better not for Philly's sake. The Eagles' receiving crew isn't of playoff caliber without Owens, and Donovan McNabb needs him to make another Super Bowl run.
Washington Redskins | Camp preview Will Joe Gibbs' second year be significantly better than his disappointing return from retirement in 2004? Everyone expected magic from Gibbs. He's a Hall of Fame coach. But he didn't have Hall of Fame talent. Gibbs' biggest impact surprisingly was on defense. The hiring of Gregg Williams brought the Redskins a defense that drew raves around the league. The Redskins defense jumped from No. 23 in the NFL to No. 3 last season. Now, Gibbs must try to do the same on offense. Patrick Ramsey is his quarterback, but you have to wonder how long Gibbs will stick with him. The Redskins invested a first-round choice on Jason Campbell, who is being groomed as the quarterback of the future.
Chicago Bears | Camp preview What can the Bears expect from Rex Grossman at quarterback? This is year three in the Rex Grossman era but the Bears don't know much more than they did when they made him the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2003 draft. They know he has a strong arm. They know he shows good command behind center. But a knee injury shortened his first season opening as the starter to three games, not enough to make a judgment on where he can lead this team. He's 3-3 as a starter in two seasons but he's completed only 54.5 percent of his passes and has a mere 1,044 yards passing. The hope is the additions of wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and halfback Cedric Benson will give him weapons and help him develop.
Detroit Lions | Camp preview How long will Joey Harrington remain the starting quarterback? With Jeff Garcia behind him on the depth chart, Harrington enters the season with a bull's-eye on his back. General manager Matt Millen surrounded Harrington with star talent. For receivers, he has Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and tight end Marcus Pollard. He has Kevin Jones as his running back. In other words, Harrington has no excuses. He must win or else.
Green Bay Packers | Camp preview Is Mike Sherman on the hot seat as the Packers' head coach? Sherman thought Packers ownership was doing him a favor in taking away the general manager duties. They told him it would help his health. He gracefully accepted the move to hire Ted Thompson as general manager. But the problem remains that Sherman is entering the last year of his contract. If they don't extend his contract before the start of the regular season, he automatically goes on the list of coaches on the hot seat. That's a shame. He brought the Packers back to the playoffs following the Mike Holmgren days and he's won three consecutive division titles. But that might not keep him from feeling the heat.
Minnesota Vikings | Camp preview Is this finally the year the Vikings win the NFC North over the Packers? After knocking on the door of the division lead for the past three years, the Vikings are ready to charge through the door. Some think they've improved their defense enough to make a Super Bowl run. Mike Tice could have as many as six new defensive starters, including cornerback Fred Smoot, safety Darren Sharper and defensive tackle Pat Williams. Their defense is filled by 10 former first- or second-round choices.
Atlanta Falcons | Camp preview Will younger, taller receivers speed up the development of Michael Vick as a quarterback? Vick has accomplished a lot in four seasons. He's won 65.3 percent of his starts. He's rushed for 2,223 yards. He's been to two Pro Bowls and taken two Falcons teams deep into the playoffs. Drafting Michael Jenkins and Roddy White as tall receivers in the first rounds of the past two drafts give him bigger targets to find as he runs around frustrating defenses. His completion percentage improved from 50 percent to 56.4 last seasons but needs to get into the 60s.
Carolina Panthers | Camp preview Who will emerge as the Panthers' starting halfback? Like the Broncos, the Panthers can find hot running backs. After injuries to Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and others last season, Nick Goings emerged as the hot runner during the Panthers' late surge, finishing with 821 yards on 217 carries. Davis and Foster are back from their injuries. In addition, second-round draft pick Eric Shelton gives them a big, young option in the power offense. Someone has to emerge.
New Orleans Saints | Camp preview Can the emphasis to go back to a simpler, more run-oriented offense get the Saints back into the playoffs? The Saints are getting away from the strict structure of the West Coast offense and going to a simpler scheme. The key is running the ball. Deuce McAllister is gearing up for his biggest season. He's hoping to get a huge contract extension before the end of the month. His running success will take some of the pressure off quarterback Aaron Brooks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Camp preview Do the Bucs have enough offense to bounce back into the NFC South playoff race? The Bucs clearly were better on offense with Brian Griese at quarterback. He completed 69.3 percent of his passes and had a 97.5 quarterback rating. Still, the Bucs finished 5-11 as a team although Griese can't be linked to the bad start in which he was merely a backup. The addition of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams will help the running offense. Michael Clayton established himself as perhaps the best young receiver in the division with his strong rookie year. The question remains whether the Bucs have enough talent on offense to win.
Arizona Cardinals | Camp preview Can quarterback Kurt Warner and J.J. Arrington turn around the Cardinals' offense? After finishing a disappointing 27th in offense in his first season in Arizona, Dennis Green turned to the experienced hand of Warner and the exciting legs of Arrington to revitalize the offense. Warner completed 62.8 percent of his passes and had an 86.5 quarterback rating with inferior offensive talent with the Giants last season. Can Warner be the difference?
St. Louis Rams | Camp preview Will the additions of Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne at linebacker make a big difference in the Rams' defense? Face it, the NFC West isn't the hardest challenge in football. To win the division, a team need only improve a little. After making the playoffs at 8-8 and beating the division champion Seahawks on the road during the first round of the playoffs, the Rams are the team to beat. While the only change on offense is starting Steven Jackson ahead of Marshall Faulk, the Rams are hoping to be just a little better on defense to have the edge in the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers | Camp preview Is Alex Smith going to be the next Steve Young in the 49ers' offense? The expectations of the 49ers aren't high. Coach Mike Nolan inherits a team at the bottom of the league's talent scales. He's switching to a 3-4 scheme, a tough transition for a team that had been drafting for a 4-3 strategy. The franchise that once boasted Jerry Rice and John Taylor has the least known receiving corps in football. The hope of the franchise is first overall choice Smith. Figuring this will be another double-digit season for losses, the 49ers have the luxury of having Smith go out as a rookie and take his lumps. He's mobile. He's fiery. He's talented. He's also going to get hit a lot this year.
Seattle Seahawks | Camp preview Does Mike Holmgren have to win a playoff game to get to the final year of his contract? It's hard to believe this is year seven of the eight-year Holmgren move. He's taken the franchise to the playoff three times, but has yet win in the postseason. With Tim Ruskell's taking over as general manager, ownership is sending a message changes might be coming if Holmgren doesn't win a playoff game. Though three trips to the playoffs for a playoff-starved city should eliminate job insecurity, the pressure is still on Holmgren to advance.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With the start of training camp nearing, John Clayton explores the big question that faces each NFC team.