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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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FR: NFL 2010 Head Coaching Vacancies

Jason Garrett

Image via Wikipedia

The coaching carousel started spinning early this year, but now that the season’s over we want to compare all of the NFL head-coaching vacancies. We’ll do this using our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 marking the most attractive vacancy and 1 the least attractive. We’ll add in vacancies as they become available.

10 – Dallas Cowboys – Dealing with Jerry Jones, the league’s most involved (or is it meddlesome?) owner, is no picnic, but the Cowboys have a lot going right for coaching candidates. Tony Romo is an above-average or even borderline Pro Bowl quarterback, and the team is in good shape at the skill positions on offense and the front seven on defense. OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and NT Jay Ratliff are premium players on D, and on offense TE Jason Witten and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin provide the kind of star power that most teams don’t have. The new coach (which is apparently going to be Jason Garrett, held over after going 5-3 as an interim coach) will have to rebuild the offensive line and the defensive secondary, but having a specific hit list indicates that the roster on the whole is in decent shape. Plus, Jones has deep pockets and isn’t afraid to spend to acquire talent. Maybe Jones as GM would scare off some candidates, but Dallas is definitely a plum job for Garrett.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers fell apart in their final season under John Fox, and quarterback issues were to blame. Carolina believed that Matt Moore’s two successful late-season fill-in stints predicted success, but Moore failed, as did rookie Jimmy Clausen. As a result, the Panthers’ youth-is-served season flopped. But Carolina has the No. 1 overall pick, which could allow a new coach to build with a franchise quarterback, a la Steve Spagnuolo and Sam Bradford in St. Louis. A rookie QB would have a solid offensive line anchored by C Ryan Kalil and Pro Bowl OLT Jordan Gross, a stud receiver in Steve Smith, and a first-rate running game. While the passing game needs a lot more depth behind Smith, the situation is at least as good as what Bradford stepped into. On defense, the Panthers have a terrific player in MLB Jon Beason and other young and emerging guys such as DE Charles Johnson. All that is to say that the cupboard isn’t bare. The organization is respected around the league, and owner Jerry Richardson has traditionally provided everything a coach wanted – as long as a lockout wasn’t looming. Carolina likely will look for a younger coach, and whoever gets the gig will have a pretty good first shot at head-coaching success.

6 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are a team at a crossroads. Just two years ago, the Vikings had a raft of Pro Bowlers, but the team appears to be passing its peak as a whole. Guys like OG Steve Hutchinson and OLT Bryant McKinnie are declining, and DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams and CB Antoine Winfield may be cresting the hill as well. With RB Adrian Peterson and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings do have young, dangerous skill-position threats, but quarterback is a major question mark, even with rookie Joe Webb’s performance lately. The Vikings may have a year or two more of contention before a complete rebuild is necessary on the field, but that’s coming. Plus, the team’s stadium situation is bad, and a move could be in the offing. So while there’s talent in Minnesota, there are a ton of questions as well. They have kept Leslie Frazier, who went 3-3 as an interim coach. The interim-coach tag hasn’t been a harbinger of future success, but Frazier has been a top candidate for years, and he should be a good hire for the Vikings.

5 – Cleveland Browns – The Browns flushed Eric Mangini following his second straight 5-11 season with the team. Mangini’s team played hard, but it didn’t have enough playmakers, especially on offense. RB Peyton Hillis is a force, and he runs behind a solid offensive line led by OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. And Mangini transitioned the Browns to a 3-4 defense that had some punch, thanks to underrated finds like LBs Marcus Benard and Matt Roth. Rookie CB Joe Haden and S T.J. Ward had good seasons as well. So the Browns are better off now than they were two years ago. The new coach must upgrade the offensive punch, though, so that Cleveland goes from feisty to dangerous. The big question the new coach must answer is whether Colt McCoy is the future of the franchise at quarterback. If he is, an offense built around accuracy with upgraded targets outside is the answer. But if McCoy isn’t the answer, the rebuilding project looks much tougher. Team president Mike Holmgren also looms, and rumors persist that he wants to coach again. That shadow may be too large for some coaches. Cleveland isn’t a perfect job, but it isn’t a talent wasteland either.

4 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers suffered under Mike Singletary, who was a better motivator than plan-maker. That was especially true at quarterback, as the Niners vacillitated between Alex and Troy Smith. Neither is a long-term answer, and that’s the biggest problem in San Francisco. The offensive line is well stocked, as rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis started the whole year, but the skill positions are not. TE Vernon Davis is a legitimate weapon, and RB Frank Gore is proven but has a lot of miles on his tires. WR Michael Crabtree is a talent whose full potential is yet to be unlocked. But while questions persist on offense, on defense the Niners have a strong identity thanks to a 3-4 defense led by Patrick Willis. The cornerback position isn’t up to par, but a lot of pieces are in place.  The fact that the organization is unsettled with a new GM likely headed in is a mixed blessing; if the coach and GM work together like Atlanta’s group, for example, then starting completely over is the way to go. But coach and front office pulling in different directions would be a recipe for disaster. San Francisco has some appealing pieces, but they haven’t yet fit together, and without a long-term answer at quarterback it’s hard to see things melding quickly. That will be the pressing challenge for the new coach.

3 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels didn’t just fail as a coach in Denver; he failed as an organizational leader with a plan. As a result, the Broncos’ wagon is hitched to Tim Tebow, and the team is missing draft picks because of trades for failed players like Laurence Maroney and Brady Quinn. Denver is a mess, and the new head coach will need significant front-office help to turn things around. Holdover QB Kyle Orton can play at an above-average level, and Tebow has unique skills that a coach could potentially develop. And the receiving corps has Brandon Lloyd, who broke out this year, and promising rookie Demaryius Thomas. Knowshon Moreno is also an asset if he can stay healthy, and the offensive line is in decent shape. But the defense is a complete mess, never making the transition to a 3-4. The secondary is full of older players like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins who won’t be able to perform at their traditional level for many more years. Denver ownership traditionally gives head coaches carte blance, but that came back to bite the Broncos with McDaniels, leaving a mess for the next coach. A defensive guru is probably the best fit, given the team’s massive needs on that side of the ball.

2 – Oakland Raiders – Tom Cable’s contract expires, and signs right now are that Al Davis will not exercise the option to keep him. That’s surprising, because Cable was able to lead the Raiders to finally snap a long string of double-digit-loss seasons this year. Cable went 8-8, running the table in the AFC West in the process. Oakland finally established an identity here as a rushing team behind Darren McFadden, who finally realized his potential, and Michael Bush. And the Raiders have a solid group of young receivers, led by Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and Zach Miller, despite the fact that ’09 first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey has been a disappointment. Jason Campbell is an average quarterback who can succeed with a strong running game. And on defense, the additions of Kamerion Wimbley and Richard Seymour in recent years has added punch to the pass rush that was much needed. Rookies Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston were big hits in their first years. And Nnamdi Asomugha is still one of the league’s best corners. So the Raiders finally have the arrow pointed upward, despite an inconsistent organization that vacilitates based on Davis’ whims. Cable is succeeding in it, as did Jon Gruden a decade ago, but the situation is not for everyone. That’s what gives Cable a chance of sticking around even after hanging in the wind.

1 – Cincinnati Bengals – Marvin Lewis’ contract expired in Cincinnati, and while it appears that he will stay in town, we included the Bengals. Lewis is apparently willing to walk away over some of the cost-saving ways in the dysfunctional land of the Bengals, most notably an indoor practice facility and the razor-slim scouting staff. It’s unclear whether those issues will be addressed to Lewis’ satisfaction. Cincinnati has talent on the roster, but that’s largely because they take character risks more often than just about any other team in the draft, not because of good scouting. As a result, when things are good on the field, the Bengals can keep the ball rolling, but when things go south, things fall apart quickly. It’s hard to imagine a coach changing that culture immediately, especially since owner/GM Mike Brown is set in his ways. Plus, Brown tends to be cheap off the field, which makes the working environment less appealing than in other places. Still, the roster offers hope. QB Carson Palmer hasn’t had his best year, but he’s still got a strong arm, and he can be a solution instead of a problem in the right system. And while the Bengals don’t have a ton of stars (aside from diva receivas Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who’s a free agent), they have a plethora of above-average players all around the field. A coach won’t get the control he craves in Cincinnati, but it’s possible to win there. The real challenge is to build consistency from year to year with a fragile locker room.

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Mile High mistake: What went wrong for the Broncos and Josh McDaniels

Josh McDaniels at the 2009 Denver Broncos Fan Fair

Image via Wikipedia

Football Relativity is almost two years old, and if you had to identify the single person in the NFL who we have criticized more strongly than any other, it’s been Josh McDaniels. Before he helmed his first NFL game, we criticized the know-it-all approach McDaniels took in the Jay Cutler trade, and McDaniels’ actions led us to forecast failure because he was following the faulty footsteps of other Bill Belichick disciples.

Monday, McDaniels’ mistakes cost him his job. And we’re not surprised.

As we were putting together links to our past comments about McDaniels, we found this from the 2009 season preview. We’re not right about everything, but we feel like this described what eventually happened to McDaniels to a T. Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. … McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

The details —  Spygate 2 or the Mike Nolan departure or the Peyton Hillis and Alphonso Smith trade fiascos, to name just a few — aren’t in that post, but the reasons behind all of it is. Josh McDaniels thought he was smarter than everyone. When it came to Xs and Os, he’s right. He’s among the league’s best at schemes. But like other Belichick disciples and other guys (Mike Martz comes to mind), McDaniels was so sold on his way of doing things that he completely abused his coworkers and employees to get his way. And if you do that, you’d better win. Instead, McDaniels lost 17 of 22 games after starting his career 6-0.

This isn’t the end for McDaniels. He’ll be a coup for an NFL team as an offensive coordinator next year, and if he learns from his mistakes (as Eric Mangini seems to be doing), he could be successful in his second head coaching stop. At age 34, he has plenty of time to get a second chance and make the most of it. But he must learn to relate to people – and to reality – far better than he did in his year and three quarters in Denver.

The Broncos, meanwhile, are left with a mess of a roster, thanks to poor drafting and even worse trading. Some of McDaniels’ additions – Knowshon Moreno, Brandon Lloyd, Kyle Orton – have turned into winning players, but the defense is just as bad as it was under Mike Shanahan, and the offense will fall off without McDaniels’ play-calling skills. And the fact that the Broncos have to pay off big contracts for both Shanahan (through 2011) and McDaniels (through 2012) has to be galling to owner Pat Bowlen, who has to cut the checks.

But this move had to be made, given the miles of mistakes McDaniels made.

Other McDaniels takes over the last two years:

*Laurence Maroney trade
*2010 season preview and the Broncos’ clear-cut roster (go to 4 level)
*The Tim Tebow pick (go to 6 level)
*The Brandon Marshall trade
*What if the Broncos had lost in 2009 Week 1?
*2009 season preview and why we thought McDaniels would fail (go to 2 level)
*McDaniels as a prima donna
*2009 draft-day arrogance
*The McDaniels/Cutler fiasco
*McDaniels’ hiring

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 10

Each week, we pore through the box scores to analyze fantasy football performances and tell you whether to applaud them or whether to consider them a fraud. With each verdict, we’ll make sure you know exactly what it means.

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – As the Chiefs fell behind 42-10, Cassel was freed to throw like crazy, and the results were 469 passing yards and four touchdowns. That’s certainly not representative of Cassel’s normal opportunities, and it’s foolish to expect big numbers from Cassel going forward. Verdict: A fraud 

Matt Ryan of the Falcons, via espn.com

David Garrard, Jaguars – It’s been kind of quiet, but for the second straight game Garrard went crazy. He’s now thrown for 602 yards and six TDs over the past two games, so if you’re looking for a quarterback, it may be time to ride the hot hand with Garrard. Verdict: Applaud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – After two horrendous games as a starter, Kitna went crazy against the Giants, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns despite completing only 13 passes. Maybe the Jason Garrett era will be kinder to Kitna, but we wouldn’t count on it. For now, keep Kitna out of your starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Ryan continued his stellar play at home, throwing for 316 yards and three TDs against the Ravens. At this point, if he’s at the Georgia Dome, he should be in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Mike Goodson, Panthers – With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both out, Goodson broke out for a 100-yard game against the Buccaneers. His role going forward this season is uncertain, but if you’re desperate for RB help Goodson is worth a claim just in case the Panthers give him a longer look. Verdict: Applaud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson had a monster game against the Lions, scoring two touchdowns and piling up 170 yards from scrimmage. He’s undoubtedly the best running back Buffalo has, and while he won’t always have matchups as attractive as Detroit, he’s still good enough to be a top-25 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – While we don’t believe Kitna’s a good bet, it seems plausible that Jason Garrett’s goal as a head coach will be to feature Jones more in the offense. Jones had 136 yards from scrimmage against the Giants, including a 71-yard touchdown catch. At this point, we’d recommend starting Jones next week to see if this is the start of a trend. Verdict: Applaud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno ran for 106 yards and had 50 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Broncos’ blowout of the Chiefs. While Moreno doesn’t normally get that many rushing yards, he usually has enough receiving catches to make him a borderline top 20 running back. As long as he stays healthy, he should be starting for you. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Tough day at the office for Tennessee's Randy Moss

 

Mario Manningham, Giants – Manningham moved into the starting lineup with Steve Smith out, and he delivered 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. As long as Smith is out, Manningham is a worthy flex play in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had just a single catch for 26 yards against the Dolphins, and he was only targeted four times (vs. 9 each for Bo Scaife, Nate Washington, and Justin Gage). Moss is bench-worthy until he proves to have a better role in the Tennessee offense. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas has been a consistent factor for the Jaguars, averaging four catches a game, and he finally broke through with eight catches for 149 yards and a score against the Texans. That included the game-winning 50-yard catch at the gun on an incredible Hail Mary. While this was Thomas’ first 100-yard game in his career, he’s been more consistent as a fantasy producer than better known teammate Mike Sims-Walker. Thomas is a guy worth a look as a third receiver in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter had six catches for 90 yards and a score against the Jaguars, but that doesn’t mean he’s back to his 2009 form. He still has just 28 catches on the season, which means his fantasy production is highly dependent on finding the end zone. We can’t recommend him as anything more than an emergency starter. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Anthony Fasano, Dolphins – Fasano had five catches for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Titans, putting up big numbers despite the fact that the Dolphins had to turn to their third QB by the end of the game. While these numbers are impressive, there are other tight ends (including the next guy in this post) that we’d turn to before we stuck Fasano in the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – Gresham had nine catches for 85 yards and a score against the Colts, keeping his solid rookie season on pace. Gresham now has three scores on the year, and he has 40 catches on the season. Given the massive TE injuries, Gresham has moved into the top-15 at the position for fantasy purposes. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Jaguars – The other Zach Miller (not the Raiders’ TE) had four catches for 79 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown. But he’s behind Marcedes Lewis on the Jags’ depth chart, and he’s not a fantasy factor. Don’t get confused by the names or this week’s numbers. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 7

Week 7 featured many breakout fantasy performances. So which ones are signs of things to come, and which are merely one-week flukes? That’s the question we’re trying to figure out in Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud. As always, with each verdict we’ll provide context so that you know what it means.

Darren McFadden scores (again) against the Broncos. Photo via espn.com

Quarterbacks

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Since taking over as the Bills’ starter, Fitzpatrick has thrown for two touchdowns or more in all four starts. He had a huge game against the Ravens with four TD passes and 374 yards. He’s a little bit of a risk as a starter because he has two two-interception games and has thrown for less than 250 yards in his other three starts, but if you’re looking for a backup or for a fill-in starter, Fitzpatrick is a solid guy to take a risk on. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Moore, Panthers – Moore, who retook the Panthers’ starting QB job over the bye week, delivered 308 passing yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers’ first win of the year. But we need to see Moore deliver more often before we buy into him as a quality fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers – Blount was the Buccaneers’ leading rusher against the Rams with 72 yards, and he had 11 carries to four for Cadillac Williams. This may be the sign that the undrafted rookie out of Oregon has surpassed Williams on the depth chart. Regardless, this is the week to claim Blount, because he won’t be available for long. Verdict: Applaud

Darren McFadden, Raiders – McFadden was questionable entering the game after missing the last two games, but he returned with a vengeance, scoring four touchdowns in the Raiders’ rout of the Broncos in Denver. McFadden ran for 165 yards and had 31 receiving yards, and he immediately took over for Michael Bush as the Raiders’ feature back. He looks like a top-15 fantasy back if he can stay healthy the rest of the year. Verdict: Applaud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – In the midst of the Broncos’ debacle against the Raiders, Moreno scored two touchdowns as a receiver and had 90 yards from scrimmage. The Broncos aren’t using Moreno enough to make him a top-20 fantasy back, but he should get enough chances to be a solid flex play most weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt scores (again) against the Eagles. Photo via espn.com

Davone Bess, Dolphins – Bess had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. He’s now scored in three straight games, and he’s had at least five catches in five of six games this year. He’s a dependable fantasy starter in leagues where you start three wideouts or in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Two weeks ago, we rated Bowe a fraud after a drop-filled game against the Colts. But Bowe has stepped up since then, and this week he had six catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Suddenly, he’s playing like a No. 1 receiver for the Chiefs, and that performance has made him a solid fantasy starter. Bowe is still a little bit of a risk because his inconsistency, but he’s also a high-reward play. That makes him worth starting. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt sat out the first quarter against the Eagles after a Friday morning bar fight, but he made up for lost time with seven catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He’s scored in five straight games, and despite some immaturity he’s emerging as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Titans. He needs to be in your starting lineup every week. Verdict: Applaud

Lee Evans, Bills – Evans didn’t have as many yards as teammate Steve Johnson (see below), but he did have 105 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens. The seventh-year veteran, who has spent his entire career out of the spotlight in Buffalo, has scored the last two weeks, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s presence has given all of Buffalo’s targets a little more potential. But we prefer Johnson to Evans at this point, making Evans a decent flex play during bye weeks but not much more. Verdict: A fraud

David Gettis, Panthers – Gettis had just 10 catches entering Sunday’s game, but he went nuts against the 49ers with eight catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Gettis is a big, rangy receiver, and he seems to have surpassed fellow rookie Brandon LaFell (six catches, 91 yards) as the Panthers’ No. 2 receiver. And with Matt Moore returning as starting quarterback, the Panthers had passing-game success for the first time all year. But there hasn’t been much value in the Panthers’ offense aside from Steve Smith this season, so going crazy over Gettis isn’t wise. He’s only a pick-up in leagues with 14 teams or more. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Johnson, Bills – Johnson had eight catches for 158 yards and a score against the Ravens, and since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over as the Bills’ starter, Johnson has scored in every game. Not only is he a pick up – right now he should be a starter for your team. Verdict: Applaud

Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – In our Bengals/Falcons game thoughts, we talked about how both Owens and Ochocinco are decent second receivers in 12-team or larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – We discussed in our Bengals/Falcons game thoughts why Gonzalez is no longer a fantasy starter at tight end. Verdict: A fraud

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Colts/Broncos thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we turn our attention to the Mile High city, where the Colts put together a solid 27-13 victory over the Broncos.

Peyton Manning plays against the Broncos. Getty Images via espn.com.

On-field perspective

*The Broncos moved the ball up and down the field, at least through the air, but failed to get in the end zone in five red-zone trips. No matter how good Kyle Orton’s numbers look, he won’t be a quality quarterback until he finds consistency and success in that area.
*Orton did make some big plays down field, notably to Brandon Lloyd, who had a monster 169-yard game. In Lloyd, Gaffney, and rookie Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos have an unsung group of receivers that’s playing well. The group’s chance to become special lies in Thomas, who is fast as lightning and tough. He made great hustle plays both as a blocker for Lloyd and as a tackler on a Jacob Lacey interception return.
*Lacey and Kelvin Hayden (forced fumble) caused turnovers in the Colts secondary, but that group also allowed some big plays through blown contracts and missed tackles. That group could be a liability if the Colts struggle to generate pressure as they did in this game.
*In case you haven’t noticed, Peyton Manning is good. He wasn’t his sharpest in this one yet still threw for 300-plus yards and three TDs.
*Austin Collie really stepped up for the Colts when they needed him. Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez were out, and Champ Bailey did a good job on Reggie Wayne, but the Broncos (and especially Perrish Cox, who was filling in for Andre Goodman) had no answer for Collie, who went off for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Cox also fumbled a punt return that the Colts recovered and turned into a field goal, so it was not a good night for him.
*Manning is good, but neither running game in this contest was. For the Colts, Joseph Addai and Donald Brown showed little burst or escapability. For Denver, Laurence Maroney was pedestrian in his Broncos debut (12 carries, 24 yards), while Correll Buckhalter is dependable but nothing more. Denver really missed the injured Knowshon Moreno.

Fantasy football perspective
*Before the season, we believed that Austin Collie would be more valuable than Pierre Garcon to fantasy owners. Garcon didn’t play in this game, but Collie scored for the third straight week and finished with career highs in catches (12) and yards (171). Collie doesn’t get a ton of respect from fantasy owners, but even when Garcon plays Collie is a top-30 wideout who can be a No. 3 receiver in 10-team leagues.
*Of all the backs on the rosters of these two teams, Moreno is the only one I could imagine starting with most confidence, and he’s injured. Maroney’s change of scenery doesn’t change his shortcomings, and Addai’s attractiveness for fantasy owners is based completely on situation, not ability.
*Both Lloyd (169 yards) and Gaffney (12 catches, 140 yards) went over the century mark for the Broncos, but Lloyd’s inconsistency makes us leery of putting him in a lineup. With byes coming up Gaffney becomes a depth play, but Thomas is still the Bronco with the most fantasy upside.
*Orton, meanwhile, is on a hot streak numbers-wise right now, to the point that he’s fighting to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. You can start him with confidence.

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Maroney goes Mile High

The Patriots made the first trade of the NFL regular season, shipping former first-round pick Laurence Maroney to the Denver Broncos. In the trade, New England swaps a sixth-round pick for a fourth-rounder in the 2011 draft. Below are some thoughts on the deal, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective.

Maroney, a former first-round pick, never lived up to the hype in New England. He had three 700-yard seasons out of four, but never had more than 835 yards. He also failed to grasp the passing game well, which kept him from getting playing time. And this season, Maroney fell behind a healthy Fred Taylor, as well as role players Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, which led to him being inactive in Week One. So he goes to Denver to be reunited with Josh McDaniels, who likes to collect running backs. Maroney won’t replace starter Knowshon Moreno, but he could usurp Correll Buckhalter as the backup. The Broncos don’t lose a draft pick but instead trade back from the fourth round to the sixth, giving up the equivalent of a late fourth-rounder. That’s a significant but not prohibitive price to pay for a guy who might just be a first-round bust.

For fantasy owners, Maroney’s departure raises Fred Taylor’s value to the point where he’s worth owning in any league of 10 teams or more. Taylor (who ran for 71 yards in the opener) could develop into a flex option going forward. In Denver, Moreno’s value holds steady, but Maroney’s arrival kills any value that Buckhalter had. Wait and see how the Maroney/Buckhalter situation plays out before dedicating a roster spot to either.

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