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Dave’s Take: Conference Championships – Fantasy Football Tips, News & Notes

By: — January 19, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

1. With offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur leaving to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, St. Louis faced the difficult decision of finding an offensive coordinator to further the development of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the likely winner of the Rookie of the Year award. To avoid having Bradford learn two different systems in his first two years in the league, the Rams were expected to hire a disciple of the West Coast offense that Shurmur ran. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith’s disastrous first few years in the league were the result of having to learn multiple systems, and his case was the most often cited rationale for the team wanting to use the West Coast system in 2011. However, after a difficult negotiation, the team instead chose to hire controversial former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels coordinated the record-setting Patriots offense in 2007 and coaxed productive seasons out of Matt Cassel in 2008 and Kyle Orton during his stay in Denver. The decision to hire McDaniels will be much discussed, given his volatile tenure with the Broncos. But the issues that plagued him in Denver will not be present in St. Louis. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo’s assistants rarely speak to the media, and McDaniels won’t have much say in personnel matters, which he proved in Denver is his worst attribute. The decision to hire McDaniels will likely be viewed in league circles as a boom-or-bust move, but, given his offensive pedigree, McDaniels represented more upside than any of the other candidates. And the downside risk is minimized by the fact that McDaniels will be looking to bolster his resume in order to secure his next head coaching position. In fact, the most likely downside for the Rams would be that McDaniels may help Bradford have a solid season and then land himself a head coaching gig in 2012.

Sam Bradford's stock is on the rise.

2. The fantasy impact of McDaniels joining the Rams can be summed up simply as “more pass and less run.” McDaniels prefers to throw the ball, and with running back Steven Jackson coming off his worst season since becoming a starter, look for McDaniels to lean heavily on Bradford’s throwing abilities. It’s also worth noting that McDaniels coaxed a Pro Bowl caliber year out of retread Brandon Lloyd, as well as productive seasons from Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal. His ability to get the most out of his wide receivers reduces the likelihood that the Rams will use a first- or second-round selection on a wide receiver and increases the chance of rookie Danario Alexander having a productive sophomore campaign.

3. Over in Cleveland, Browns management chose the up-and-coming Shurmur over several other big-name head coaches. Shurmur’s ties to the Eagles organization when current Browns general manager Tom Heckert was in Philadelphia helped his cause, as well as did his West Coast system, which meshes well with the philosophy of head honcho Mike Holmgren. The knock on Shurmur was that he had only been an offensive coordinator for two years in St. Louis and that he failed to take enough shots downfield. On the plus side, it’s hard to argue with the solid development Bradford showed in his first year, and there were plenty of whispers in St. Louis that Spagnuolo had handcuffed Shurmur in his offensive play calling. With Shurmur having shown an ability to develop young quarterbacks and Holmgren there to mentor both Shurmur and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, the odds of McCoy blossoming into a solid starter are more likely than they were with the departed Eric Mangini leading the team.

4. Leave it to Raiders owner Al Davis to inexplicably fire head coach Tom Cable after he lead the team to their first season with fewer than eleven losses since 2002. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Davis, the team’s legendary owner who has been in full-scale decline as an owner for close to a decade. During the press conference announcing offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as the team’s 17th head coach (sixth since 2002), Davis blasted Cable, calling him a liar, implying that he embarrassed the organization, and stating that he had done a bad job as head coach. Davis also informed the team’s fans that he had withheld $120,000 from Cable’s paycheck as insurance against the Raiders losing a lawsuit to a former assistant who accused Cable of injuring him in a physical altercation. Just when the Raiders looked ready to turn the corner, Davis puts on another theater of the absurd, increasing the questions about which direction the team is headed in and whether they can produce a winning record in spite of their delusional owner. Here’s a note for you, Al: If you plan on firing any employee who embarrasses the organization, how about starting at the top with yourself?

5. The Falcons’ loss to the Packers this week was hardly a surprise given Green Bay’s strong play of late. Atlanta had the look of a solid regular season team, able to pile up wins based on their ability to run the ball, avoid turnovers on offense and mistakes on special teams, and play stout, if unspectacular, defense. However, Fox announcer Jimmy Johnson gets kudos here for hitting the nail on the head. He proclaimed that running the ball and playing solid defense provides wins in the regular season, but in games between similarly matched teams in the playoffs, the one more capable of making big plays will generally come out on top. Sure enough, the Packers came up with several big plays in their win over Atlanta, particularly exposing the Falcons’ lack of a big-play threat outside of wide receiver Roddy White. While running back Michael Turner puts up impressive yardage totals, his ability to make big plays diminished in 2010. And tight end Tony Gonzalez no longer has the ability to stretch a defense up the middle. As for wide receiver Michael Jenkins, it will be a shock if the Falcons don’t use a high draft pick to provide competition for the disappointing former first-round pick.

6. My condolences to Broncos fans who this weekend will see former Denver quarterback Jay Cutler lead the Bears in the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Former head coach Josh McDaniels shipped away Cutler and a fifth-round pick in return for Kyle Orton, a pair of first-round picks, and a third-round selection. Meanwhile, in Denver, the team has hired John Fox to replace the departed McDaniels; Orton is apparently on the trading block; and the Broncos’ return on the draft picks they received from the Bears has been minimal.

7. Last offseason, the Saints shipped offensive tackle Jamaal Brown to the Redskins for a mid-round draft pick, choosing to rely on Jermon Bushrod at the all-important left tackle position that protects the blindside of quarterback Drew Brees. Bushrod had a solid season in 2009 when Brown was placed on injured reserve early in the year, and he was a key contributor in the Saints’ Super Bowl win. But Bushrod’s play slipped a little in 2010, and the Saints are now in a quandary at left tackle, with Bushrod likely to be an unrestricted free agent in the new CBA. His play in 2010 didn’t warrant the megabucks deal that most young, emerging left tackles receive, but the Saints only have untested rookie second-round pick Charles Brown in reserve. This shapes up as a very interesting dilemma for a team that clearly needs stronger protection on the blindside of their franchise quarterback.

Dave’s Take: Wildcard Weekend – Fantasy Football Tips, News & Notes

By: — January 11, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

1. Colts head coach Jim Caldwell has had a solid start to his career, winning two AFC South division championships and taking Indianapolis to the Super Bowl last season and the first round of the playoffs this season. However, he made his biggest coaching blunder in the opening week of the playoffs. With the Colts leading the Jets 16-14 with 29 seconds remaining, New York faced a second-and-eight at the Colts 32-yard line after a 2-yard run by LaDainian Tomlinson. The Jets appeared to be playing conservatively, content to let the clock run down and trot out kicker Nick Folk for a long field goal attempt. That was until Caldwell inexplicably called a timeout. After the timeout, Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called a deep sideline pass to 6’5” wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who was being covered by 5’10” cornerback Jacob Lacey. Net result: 18-yard gain to the Indianapolis 14-yard line. Rather than Folk having to kick a 40-plus yard field goal, he nailed the game-winning 31-yarder. Caldwell should have let the clock wind down and let the Jets run the ball one more time before attempting a long field. It makes you wonder whether Caldwell knew that Folk had struggled from long distances (3-for-6 from between 40 and 49 yards and 2-for-5 from 50 yards or more).

A prime trade candidate in 2011.

2. With the Eagles’ playoff loss to the Packers, the focus in Philadelphia will now turn to the team’s quarterback situation. Just as they did last year, the Eagles enter the offseason with question marks at the position. When Donovan McNabb was traded to the Redskins last year, the starting reins were handed to Kevin Kolb, who was injured in Week 1 and quickly lost the job to Michael Vick. Vick’s outstanding, MVP-caliber season and upcoming free-agent status—along with Kolb’s contract status and apparent unhappiness with being a backup—clouds the Eagles’ plans at the position. While Vick will command a hefty salary in 2011, either on a long-term contract or with the franchise tag (provided there is one in the new CBA), Kolb is due just $1.4 million in 2011 in the final year of his contract. Given Kolb’s low salary and Vick’s often reckless running style that makes him susceptible to injuries, the Eagles could decide to retain both quarterbacks. The flip side is that if Kolb isn’t traded this offseason, the Eagles risk losing him to free agency after next season and would receive nothing more for him than a compensatory draft pick (again, provided that stipulation remains in the new CBA). With the best predictor of future behavior being past behavior, the trade of McNabb as he entered the final year of his contract provides sufficient clues to what will happen. With several teams in need of a quality starting quarterback, Kolb will have a good number of suitors. Look for Andy Reid to move him prior to the start of the 2011 season.

3. Sticking with Kolb, let’s run down the franchises that will try to upgrade or bolster their quarterback depth via trade, free agency, or the draft. Carolina, Buffalo, Miami, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee, Oakland, Washington, and Minnesota figure to address their quarterback situations in the offseason. Of those teams, only Washington, Buffalo, and Oakland would not have interest in Kolb.

4. The free-agent class of 2011 looks to be extremely weak at quarterback. Including players likely to be released by their current teams, the most attractive free agent options will be McNabb, Alex Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, and Marc Bulger. Other than Kolb, Kyle Orton is the only starting-caliber quarterback likely to be available in a trade.

5. Brett Favre is also not under contract for 2011, although it looks like he’s finally ready to ride off into the sunset—but you never know…

6. With the offseason approaching, it’s worth noting that until a new CBA is signed, the only offseason trades allowed are those that involve draft picks going in both directions.

7. Similar to the Eagles, the Bengals were expected to evaluate the quarterback position in the offseason. Unlike Philadelphia, Cincinnati’s issue wasn’t an embarrassment of riches at the position. Rather, the Bengals were expected to ponder whether it was time to move on from Carson Palmer and use a high draft pick to head in another direction. However, shortly after signing a two-year extension to remain the team’s coach, Marvin Lewis addressed Palmer’s situation and stated that he would remain the starter for 2011. Palmer had a poor season this year when offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski went with a pass-heavy offense after the team acquired Terrell Owens as a free agent, eschewing the smashmouth, run-based offense that led to a division title in 2009. Running back Cedric Benson is a free agent, and he has let it be known that he is unlikely to return if Bratkowski stays. Look for the Bengals to jettison Bratkowski, whose offensive philosophy didn’t seem to mesh with Lewis’ expectations this season, and look for Benson to return to Cincinnati in 2011.

8. Once again, the Rams face a difficult offseason decision concerning the contract of starting free safety O.J. Atogwe. Last year, the Rams placed the lowest possible restricted free agent tender on Atogwe because a higher tender had to include a 10 percent raise over his 2008 salary of $6.3 million (when he was the team’s franchise player). Atogwe refused to sign the tender and, under an anomaly in the CBA, became a free agent on June 1st when the Rams failed to increase his tender by 10 percent of his 2009 salary. With most teams having spent to their budgets, Atogwe received little interest on the free-agent market and re-upped with the Rams on an inflated 5-year, $31.6 million contract. The contract included $4.1 million in guaranteed money for the 2010 season, a 2011 roster bonus of $8 million, and a $3.5 million salary for next season. In essence, it was a one-year deal for $4.1 million, since the Rams are unlikely to pay the roster bonus, which would trigger the remaining four years and $27.5 million. Atogwe has been a solid playmaker during his six years in St. Louis, with 22 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, and four sacks. However, he will turn 30 prior to the 2011 season, and Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive philosophy is based on a dominant front four to pressure the quarterback and big cornerbacks with solid tackling ability. Barring a renegotiation to a lower salary, look for Atogwe to be in a new uniform in 2011.

9. We speculated last week that Owen Daniels might not be back in Houston next season. But with Gary Kubiak unexpectedly retaining his role as head coach, he quickly put cold water on those rumors. Kubiak endorsed Daniels’ return in 2011, stating that he displayed Pro Bowl form over the last four weeks of the season and that the Texans needed him on the roster.

10. In a response to a fan’s Twitter posting this week, Terrell Owens remarked that he would love to be catching passes from Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in 2011. After not making a big play for Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, in part because of his two DUI arrests, St. Louis would seem to have little interest in signing Owens as a free agent. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo has made character a key priority in determining which free agents to pursue and which rookies to draft, so that match doesn’t seem likely to come to fruition.

11. Saints running back Pierre Thomas was expected to have a breakout season in 2010—with Mike Bell having signed with the Eagles and his replacement, Lynell Hamilton, lost for the season in training camp. That was derailed when Thomas suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 that lingered for almost the entire season, causing him to miss all but six games. He is a free agent after the 2010 season, and there is a strong possibility that he won’t be re-signed by the Saints. Head coach Sean Payton apparently wasn’t pleased with Thomas’ inability to recover from the ankle injury, and the emergence of Chris Ivory may make Thomas expendable in New Orleans, particularly if the team decides to pay Reggie Bush the close to $12 million he is due in 2011.

12. Another running back likely to be looking for a new team in 2011 is the Chargers’ Darren Sproles. Sproles has been an important cog in the San Diego offense and special teams for several seasons, but he was not as productive in either of those areas in 2010. San Diego has paid Sproles close to $14 million over the past two seasons, but they are unlikely to reward him with a lucrative long-term contract extension or to place the franchise tag on him after a season in which he carried only 50 times for 267 yards and caught 59 passes for 520 yards with a pair of touchdowns. In addition, he struggled as a returner, although that can be partially attributed to the team’s overall poor performance on special teams.

Dave’s Take: Wildcard Weekend – Fantasy Football Tips, News & Notes

By: — January 4, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

1. Minnesota’s Brad Childress was the first head coach to be let go this season, followed by Wade Phillips in Dallas, Josh McDaniels in Denver, and Mike Singletary in San Francisco. Cleveland was then first off the block once the regular season ended, with Browns top executive Mike Holmgren giving Eric Mangini the pink slip. The pairing of the defense-first, ultra-conservative Mangini with the offensive-minded Holmgren was an odd one, a shotgun marriage that seemed bound to fail when Holmgren was hired last offseason, inheriting Mangini as his head coach. It was a surprise to most when Holmgren announced that Mangini would be retained, but his firing was expected after Cleveland had a string of disappointing games to end the season. The Browns appeared to turn the corner with a win over powerful New England, but then the wheels then came off. After that impressive win, they went 2-6, including losses in their final four games. The final straw was the team’s dismal performance in a Week 17, 41-9 home loss to division rival Pittsburgh. That spelled the end for Mangini, as Holmgren apparently couldn’t stomach losses to bottom-feeders Buffalo and Cincinnati (a loss that snapped a Bengals 10-game losing streak) as well as the Steelers and the Ravens. Look for Cleveland to turn to an offensive-minded head coach that utilizes the West Coast offense, as Holmgren attempts to find a balance between his offensive vision and that of his hand-picked coach.

Sweeping the division may not be enough to save Tom Cable.

2. Sticking with the head coaching carousel, the contracts of Carolina’s John Fox and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis have expired and neither coach is expected to be re-signed. Other coaches whose situations are tenuous are Gary Kubiak of the Texans, the Titans’ Jeff Fisher, Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, Tony Sparano of the Dolphins, and the Raiders’ Tom Cable. Add it all up and there could be a whopping 12 coaches with a new team in 2011, provided of course that the league and the players’ association can hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

3. Here’s my take on which of the above coaches keep their jobs: Kubiak and Del Rio. That’s it.

4. With their win over the Bengals in Week 17—coupled with a Colts win and a Chiefs loss—the Ravens will travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the AFC wild-card round. That should bring a sigh of relief to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh since Baltimore hasn’t beaten Indianapolis since 2001 and the Colts have knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs twice in the last four years.

5. With the Seahawks’ unexpected win over the Rams in Week 17, Seattle captured the NFC West crown with a 7-9 record, becoming the first team with a losing record to qualify for the playoffs. Next up is a home date with the Saints, and you can expect that game’s spread to approach 20 by kickoff.

6. This season the Lions set the league record for most consecutive road losses before finally stopping that streak at 26 with a win in Tampa Bay in Week 15. That win also ended their streak of not having won consecutive games since 2007, as they had defeated Green Bay in Week 14. The Lions then proceeded to down the Dolphins and the Vikings to end the season. That four-game win streak bodes well for a Lions team that came together despite not having franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford for most of the season.

7. With their Week 17 win over the Chiefs, Oakland became the first team in NFL history to not qualify for the playoffs after going undefeated in their division.

8. Sticking with the Raiders, their 8-8 finish marks the first time since the 2002 season that Oakland finished with fewer than 11 losses.

9. Prior to the 2009 season, the Patriots traded defensive end Richard Seymour to the Raiders for Oakland’s 2011 first-round draft pick. With the Raiders now eliminated from the playoffs, that pick becomes the 17th overall selection. In two years with Oakland, Seymour has played in 29 games and has accumulated 67 tackles, 9.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Solid numbers to be sure, but hardly worthy of the first-round pick required to obtain his services.

10. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is the hands-down favorite to win the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but there is a solid chance that two players from another team will finish second and third in the voting. Wide receiver Mike Williams and running LeGarrette Blount of Tampa Bay could finish right behind Bradford, and along with quarterback Josh Freeman they represent perhaps the league’s finest young trio of players from a single team. Look for Tampa Bay’s offense to take another step forward in 2011, making Freeman, Blount, and Williams (as well as tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Arrelious Benn, provided he progresses well in his recovery from a torn ACL) solid fantasy options.

11. Rams running back Steven Jackson topped 1,000 rushing yards for the sixth consecutive season, but he showed signs of wearing down near the end of the year. Despite having the second-most rushing attempts in the league, Jackson finished only eighth in rushing yards, averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. He is generally the main focus of opposing defenses, but with Bradford leading an improved passing attack, Jackson faced fewer formations stacked to stop him than in 2009, when he finished with 1,416 rushing yards and a healthy 4.4 yards per carry. Look for the Rams to finally make a concerted effort to get Jackson a quality backup in order to reduce his wear and tear over the final years of his career.

12. The fantasy world will likely be down on Chargers running back Ryan Mathews entering the 2011 season, courtesy of his disappointing, injury-plagued rookie year. However, he played well in the Chargers final four games, posting 349 total yards and five touchdowns despite splitting time with Mike Tolbert in two of those games and giving way to Darren Sproles in passing situations.

13. Having thrown a touchdown pass in every game in 2010, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became just the sixth player to accomplish this feat over a 16-game season.

14. Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson was the top fantasy wide receiver in Week 16 and finished with the second-most fantasy points among wide receivers in Week 17. Simpson had been regarded as a forgettable bust since being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, but his solid performance to finish the season makes him the projected starter opposite Chad Ochocinco in 2011. With third-round pick Jordan Shipley having a solid rookie season and Andre Caldwell as a solid backup, the Bengals may forgo acquiring another wide receiver this offseason. Over the first 46 games of his career, Simpson had caught just three passes for 32 yards. Over his last two games, he had 18 receptions for 257 yards and three touchdowns.

15. The Jets have taken a fair amount of criticism for releasing Danny Woodhead in favor of rookie fourth-round pick Joe McKnight. Woodhead has been very productive in New England, giving the Patriots a solid receiving option out of the backfield and a change of pace to starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But with the Jets playing a meaningless game against the Bills in Week 17, McKnight got the start and showed the Jets faithful why he was kept around, putting up 158 yards on 32 carries.

16. The Seattle Seahawks took a fair amount of criticism for releasing T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the preseason, partly because he was their most productive wide receiver in 2009 and there seemed to be little depth behind him. They followed that up by trading Deion Branch to the Patriots five games into the season. However, head coach Pete Carroll felt that former bust Mike Williams was ready to launch his career in Seattle, and Williams came through with a solid season. He finished 2010 with 65 receptions for 751 yards and a pair of touchdowns despite playing hurt for much of the year, including missing two games with an ankle injury and leaving another in the first quarter. At just 25 years old, Williams clearly impressed Carroll with his production, and he was consequently signed to a three-year contract extension this week. With the team wanting to develop youngsters Deon Butler and Golden Tate and with Williams locked up long-term, it appears that Seattle is unlikely to use a high draft pick or to acquire a big-name free agent at wide receiver. Look for Seattle to also re-sign Ben Obomanu, who was productive this year when given an opportunity. That could round out the team’s receiving depth chart for the 2011 season.

17. The assumption in Denver has been that Kyle Orton will either enter 2011 as the team’s starting quarterback or battle 2010 first-round pick Tim Tebow for that spot. The more likely scenario is that the Broncos will move Orton in a trade at or prior to the draft in order to stockpile draft picks as the team enters what should be a rebuilding phase. The Broncos’ starting defenders are an aging group, and there is little young talent behind the starters. With Orton coming off a career year, his value is not likely to increase with more playing time. Look for Denver to move Orton while he’s hot and enter next season with Brady Quinn or another veteran signal caller behind Tebow.

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