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As the NFL turns its attention to the draft and free agency, Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, Washington Redskins reporter John Keim, Philadelphia Eagles reporter Tim McManus and New York Giants reporter Jordan Raanan look to the 2018 season with a series of questions this week.

Monday’s question: Can the Eagles command the East the way they did under Andy Reid?

Tuesday’s question: How will Alex Smith’s addition to the Redskins affect the division?

Wednesday’s question: Should we expect a different Eli Manning with Pat Shurmur as the coach and Dave Gettleman as the GM in New York?

Thursday’s question: What’s the view on the Cowboys a year after Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led them to a 13-3 record?

Archer: The value of Elliott rose in 2017 because of how far the Cowboys and Prescott fell during the six-game suspension that shelved the running back for all but two of the final eight games. Dallas stumbled to 9-7 after its NFC East-winning 13-3 mark in 2016. I would have voted Elliott as the Rookie of the Year in 2016 over Prescott. That’s not to slight the quarterback, but Elliott was the engine of that team. In the second half of the 2017 season, Prescott threw for more than 212 yards in a game just once. He had nine of his 13 interceptions in that second half. But I don’t believe Prescott had a “sophomore slump.” It was more what happened around him than what he did or did not do. To me, there is no reason to think the Cowboys won’t compete for a playoff spot in 2018. Although Dallas has been to the playoffs just twice in Jason Garrett’s tenure, the Cowboys have been in contention for the NFC East title or a playoff spot every season but 2015. For the Cowboys to succeed again offensively, they need a full season of Elliott and Prescott benefiting from the looks Elliott gets from the defense. The formula Dallas followed in 2016 is a formula that can work again in 2018.

Keim: A lot of skepticism. The troubling part last season was Prescott’s performance during Elliott’s six-game suspension. I liked Prescott a lot as a rookie — he had terrific poise — but he stumbled in 2017. However, the Cowboys’ struggles were about more than just Elliott’s absence; they showed how reliant not just Prescott but also the entire offense was on Elliott. They need more from the receiver position to make this attack more multi-dimensional. Prescott and Dallas’ offense just weren’t good minus Elliott. In six games without him, Prescott threw five touchdowns and seven interceptions (as Dallas averaged 18.3 points), compared to 17 touchdowns and six picks when Elliott played (and 24.4 PPG). It’s really hard to know the direction Dallas is headed. The Cowboys’ defense, if it keeps DeMarcus Lawrence, continues to improve and could be the strength of the team next season. But what will Prescott do? Can Elliott not just bounce back but also have the same impact he did as a rookie? If they enter next season with Dez Bryant as their top receiver, 2018 will look a lot like 2017.

McManus: The formula for success seems to be pretty straightforward. When the Cowboys are able to lean on Elliott and that offensive line, everything else falls into place. Prescott gets put in better situations, the defense is less stressed, and victories are much easier to come by. When Zeke is not the centerpiece, the operation tends to get a little out of whack, as evidenced by Dallas’ 9-7 finish in 2017. With Elliott back, I’m sure the Cowboys will return to the blueprint that led them to a 13-3 record in 2016. It seems important, though, for the Cowboys to find a way to be less dependent on a single player, particularly in the wake of Elliott’s suspension last season. One way to cure that issue is for Prescott to take a step forward in his development. His numbers went down across the board in 2017 after a stellar rookie season. That’s somewhat understandable, given the turmoil surrounding the team, but now’s the time to get the arrow pointing back up. An infusion of young talent at the receiver and tight-end positions might help in that cause. As we’ve seen in the NFC East over the past decade-plus, a lot can change in a year. Although the Eagles appear to be well-positioned for a run of success, it’s quite possible that Dallas gets off the mat and makes a playoff charge this season. But that will happen only if Elliott shows maturity and Prescott delivers.

Raanan: The Cowboys are dangerous. They are poised for a bounce-back season with Elliott not suspended and Prescott having seen the adjustments that were made against him following a standout rookie season. The 2017 season was undoubtedly a shot of reality for Prescott. He’s maybe not quite as good as 2016 suggested, but he’s probably somewhere in between his rookie performance (23 TDs, four INTs) and sophomore campaign (22 TDs, 13 INTs). Dallas’ defense is gradually improving its talent base, and if the Cowboys can add another serious weapon for Prescott in the passing game, they should be a really good offense with Elliott running behind that still-imposing line. The Cowboys went 9-7 during a 2017 season in which they had a tough schedule and didn’t meet expectations. They appear primed to improve this season if they can avoid any internal implosions, which always seems to be in play in Dallas, particularly with Jerry Jones as the owner and a Dez Bryant decision looming.

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Can Colts stem the tide if Carson Wentz, Quenton Nelson miss games? – Indianapolis Colts Blog

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WESTFIELD, Ind. – One of the Indianapolis Colts’ strongest attributes on either side of the ball is their offensive line, which is supposed to be a factor in helping quarterback Carson Wentz rebound from a disappointing 2020 season and help Indianapolis get back to the playoffs for the second straight season.

That’ll be tough to do when three of the five starting offensive linemen are out dealing with injuries, as is Wentz.

Wentz and guard Quenton Nelson joined center Ryan Kelly (elbow) and left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles) out of action. Wentz and Nelson have basically the same foot injury that will keep them sidelined anywhere between five to 12 weeks.

There’s never a good time for injuries. And it’s really not a good time when four of the first five games are against teams that made the playoffs last season and with all five of those teams expected to push for a playoff spot this season.

Winning games over the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens would be tough with a healthy roster. It could end up being a brutal stretch for the Colts if those players aren’t back yet. And the reality is, there’s a chance they won’t be.

Kelly is out for a couple of weeks with his elbow injury, and there’s a chance Fisher will miss the start of the regular season while he continues to rehab from the torn Achilles he suffered last winter. The Colts, based off talks with medical officials, cast a broad net on the return timetable of Wentz and Nelson because all players recover differently.

“We were talking about it as a staff, we were talking about it individually — this is a great opportunity for our guys, for us to build depth on our team,” coach Frank Reich said. “We talk about it all the time, it’s the course of a season, so we have a good chance to evaluate all of those guys who can step in, and there is a handful of them. That’s what we’re in the process of doing, and we’ll be hopeful that [Nelson] will be back for Week 1. We don’t know, but that’s what our hope is.”

Per Caesars Sportsbook, the odds for the Colts to win the Super Bowl (25-1, 35-1), AFC (13-1, 16-1) and AFC South (-110, +170) all fell following the announcement of Wentz’s prognosis by Reich on Monday afternoon.

A lot can change over the next five weeks before the Colts host Seattle in Week 1. The Colts haven’t opened the season with a victory since 2013. But playing worst-case scenario, if Wentz, Nelson and Fisher are still out at the start of the season, the Colts potentially could struggle running the ball without their starting left guard and left tackle, and their quarterback to keep the defense honest with his arm.

The Colts’ defensive line has been having its way against the beat-up offensive line in recent days in training camp. Imagine what Seattle and Tennessee coaches Pete Carroll and Mike Vrabel can scheme to do against the Colts. Or the havoc Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald is going to cause up the middle. And to make matters worse, three of the first five games are on the road for the Colts.

The Colts may need to lean more heavily on Matt Eberflus’ defense — which ranked eighth in yards allowed last season and second against the run — to keep them in games until those key players return.

Reich keeps a narrow thought process on what lies ahead. That’s why he had a long post-practice talk with his team, where he spoke with a lot of passion. The Colts started the 2018 season 1-5 and finished with a 10-6 record and a spot in the playoffs.

“I’ve been a part of some really great teams who lost great players, and it takes all of us and you to overcome it as a team, and I believe whatever card we’re dealt; however it plays out, we’ll be just fine,” Reich said.

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Philip Rivers says he’s ‘staying ready,’ won’t close door on possible NFL return

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Months after he announced his retirement from the NFL, former quarterback Philip Rivers says he isn’t ruling out a return.

Rivers, who retired in January after one season with the Indianapolis Colts following 16 with the San Diego and Los Angeles Chargers, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that he is staying in shape in case a situation presents itself for a late-season stint in the NFL.

“I’m not quite there,” Rivers, 39, told the LA Times. “I’m getting back there. I wouldn’t have made weight if I had to report last week, that’s for sure. But I am getting back into the lifting and running, and shoot, I occasionally throw a ball around out here in this heat. It’s not too hard to get a good lather going.

“I’m just going to stay ready. I want to make sure I’m very clear: I’m not predicting I will play in December or January, for that matter. One, you’ve got to have somebody who wants you, and two, it’s got to be right.

“But I have not completely ruled that out.”

Rivers, a five-time Pro Bowler who ranks fifth in NFL history with 63,440 passing yards, led the Colts to the playoffs last season, throwing for 4,169 yards and 24 touchdowns. Indianapolis lost to Buffalo in an AFC wild-card game.

The Colts announced Monday that quarterback Carson Wentz will have surgery on his injured left foot and be out five to 12 weeks.

Rivers currently is in his first year as head football coach of St. Michael Catholic High School in Alabama. According to maxpreps.com, the team’s final regular-season game is scheduled for Oct. 29, two days before the Colts’ Week 8 home game against the Tennessee Titans.

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Minnesota Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf is concerned over players’ vaccine hesitancy; three QBs on the COVID-19 reserve list

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EAGAN, Minn. — While the Minnesota Vikings continue navigating a recent COVID-19 interruption within the quarterback room, team co-owner Mark Wilf expressed concern over vaccine hesitancy among players.

“We’re very concerned,” Wilf said. “I think it’s safe to say that our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our players, our coaches, our staff and, ultimately, the entire community. From that standpoint, we really are encouraging people to take the vaccines, to get vaccinated.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’ve partnered with the State of Minnesota to have our facility here used as a vaccination center in the offseason. We just want everybody to follow the protocols. We’re trying to educate everyone in the organization, the team, to make sure and get the vaccinations. Of course with the delta variant and other new permutations going on, we just want to make sure to preserve the health and safety. That’s the standpoint that we come from as ownership and as an organization.”

The Vikings are without quarterbacks Kellen Mond, who tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley — the latter two were deemed high-risk close contacts and required to self-isolate for a minimum of five days. All three QBs and wide receiver Myron Mitchell were placed on the COVID-19/reserve list.

According to the NFL/NFLPA protocols, a player with the “high-risk close contact” classification designates that they are not vaccinated. Coach Mike Zimmer has been outspoken about his frustration with players who are refusing to get vaccinated and foreshadowed the stark reality the Vikings are “going to have guys miss some games, and we have to be prepared for it.”

“I talked to the team and, like I said before, there are quite a few guys that are just against it,” Zimmer said on Monday. “I’m not going to be able to change their mind, so, it’s like half the country, I guess.”

The Vikings’ vaccine hesitancy is reflected in vaccination efforts leaguewide. According to a report from The Washington Post, the Vikings have the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL, with 64.5% of players fully vaccinated and 70% in process (with at least one shot). The Washington Football Team has dealt with similar interruptions during training camp, with six players currently on the COVID-19/reserve list, but saw its vaccination rate escalate 24% in one week from 60% to 84% of its players being at least partially vaccinated, according to the report.

The NFL announced Tuesday that 90% of players across the league are either fully vaccinated or have had at least one shot. Nine teams are above 95%, and 27 teams have reached the 85% threshold.

The competitive advantage that teams with higher vaccination rates could have this season is not lost on Vikings players, coaches and ownership. On his All Things Covered podcast, cornerback Patrick Peterson noted the importance of getting vaccinated so he doesn’t put himself at risk of missing games thanks to COVID-19 protocols.

“I feel like I’m too important to this team not to get vaccinated, not miss an important game and now we possibly lose that game, and that could be the game that we needed to get into the playoffs,” Peterson said.

Wilf noted the potential for low vaccination rates to lead to a competitive disadvantage and praised Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman for the way they’ve approached the situation in Minnesota.

“The competitive side is of course concerning but, again, our focus is on health and safety,” Wilf said. “We care about the players and the team and, from that standpoint, they happen to be aligned. But the fact is, we’re encouraging vaccinations. We’re talking about a serious health pandemic, and it’s something we want to make sure that our players, our staff, our coaches, that they’re fully informed of what’s involved here. From that standpoint, I think the way Coach Zimmer and Rick Spielman and the entire football team has handled this is the right way — in terms of making sure we provide the resources, as ownership, that everyone is educated and has the opportunity to understand all the facts.”

The Vikings signed quarterbacks Case Cookus and Danny Etling on Monday after Jake Browning was Minnesota’s only quarterback available following the COVID-19 interruption. Browning is vaccinated.

Zimmer said Monday that he did not know when Mond, Cousins or Stanley would be available to return. Because Mond tested positive, his return is subject to different protocols.

According to NFL/NFLPA guidelines, a player on the COVID-19/reserve list who tests positive and is asymptomatic can return to practice 10 days after showing symptoms, or five days after initially testing positive, with two consecutive negative tests separated by 24 hours within a five-day period. Symptomatic players can return 10 days after first testing positive and at least 72 hours after their last symptoms occurred.

“It is a tough circumstance for [Mond],” offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said. “We’ll make the best of it, keep challenging him in our virtual meetings. He’s done a great job with that, staying prepared. Mainly, I just want to make sure he’s OK. He’s got COVID — he’s sick. We’ve got to get him healthy first. But when he gets back, we’ll get him back physically. In the meantime, we can stress him mentally and make it hard for him so that it’s just all physical when he gets back.”

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