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Looking ahead to the 2011 fantasy season

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 23: Jonathan Stewart  of the Carolina Panthers runs with the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

I know, I know, with championship games still hanging in the balance, it may be a little early to start looking forward to next season, but there were a few late-season performances that got me thinking about 2011. After all, it’s never too early to find a few sleepers.

Jonathan Stewart
All right, he doesn’t qualify as a sleeper, but with DeAngelo Williams’ future in Carolina in doubt — he’s a free agent and the Panthers may not want to pony up to keep him — Jonathan Stewart could emerge as a first- or second-round fantasy RB next season. “The Daily Show” was handed the keys in Week 8 and really disappointed fantasy owners with just 30 yards on 14 carries against the Rams. He looked pretty good on just five carries (for 30 yards) against the Saints before being knocked out for two games with a concussion. But after returning in Week 12 against the Browns, he rattled off five quality rushing performances, averaging 106 rushing yards and an eye-popping 5.5 yards per carry over the last five games. Granted, the Seahawks, Browns and Cardinals were all in the bottom third against the run, but the Falcons were 13th and the Steelers were 1st, and Stewart averaged 7.4 and 3.9 ypc, respectively. (The Steelers only gave up 3.0 ypc on the season, so 3.9 is actually impressive.) The fact that Stewart was able to run like this despite zero threat of a passing attack is also encouraging. If the Panthers can find a QB (or the light goes on for Jimmy Clausen), and Williams is elsewhere next season, Stewart could be in for a big 2011.

Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham
There’s a lot of talk about the Bengals cleaning house this summer, and that includes Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Both guys can still play, but the spend-a-lot-of-money-on-receivers strategy hasn’t worked in recent years and the franchise might do well to start fresh with Simpson, Caldwell and Shipley, who have all performed well in stints during their short careers. Simpson and Caldwell are both third-year players, while Shipley is a rookie. After getting the start against a good Chargers pass defense, Simpson caught six passes for 124 yards and two TDs. He has great size and could be a solid starter if given the opportunity. Caldwell had a good sophomore season (51-432-3) as the de facto WR2 in 2009, when Laveranues Coles’ production was less than expected. His targets fell off a cliff when Owens came to town. Shipley seems destined for a long career in the slot a la Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. As for Gresham, the rookie has quietly put together a really solid first season. His 52 receptions mark just the seventh time in league history that a rookie TE has caught 50+ passes. The Bengals can save $2.5 million if they cut ties with Ochocinco and T.O. is a free agent, so the Cincinnati receiving corps could look very different next season. Of course, these wideouts aren’t going to have much success if there isn’t a good QB throwing the ball The franchise has to decide what it wants to do with Carson Palmer, who has had his ups and downs this season (but looked awfully good throwing to this crew against the Chargers on Sunday).

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2010 Year-End Sports Review: What We Learned

Years from now, when people look back on 2010, what will they remember as the defining sports moment? Uh, they can only pick one? We discovered that Tiger Woods likes to play the field and that Brett Favre doesn’t mind sending pictures of his anatomy to hot sideline reporters via text message. We found out that LeBron listens to his friends a little too much and that Ben Roethlisberger needed a serious lesson in humility. But we also learned that athletes such as Michael Vick and Josh Hamilton haven’t blown second chance opportunities (or third and fourth chances in the case of Hamilton). It was also nice to see a certain pitcher turn down bigger money so that he can play in a city that he loves.

We’ve done our best to recap the year’s biggest sports stories, staying true to tradition by breaking our Year End Sports Review into three sections: What We Learned, What We Already Knew, and What We Think Might Happen. Up first are the things we learned in 2010, a list that’s littered with scandal, beasts, a Decision and yes, even a little Jenn Sterger.

Contributors: Anthony Stalter, John Paulsen, Paul Costanzo, Drew Ellis and Mike Farley

Tiger Woods gets around.

We hesitate to put this under “golf” because the only clubs involved were his wife’s nine-iron hitting the window of his SUV and the various establishments where Tiger wined and dined all of his mistresses…over a dozen in all. This was the biggest story of the early part of the year, but it got to the point that whenever a new alleged mistress came forward, the general public was like, “Yeah, we get it. Tiger screwed around on his wife. A lot.” He has spent the rest of the year attempting to rebuild his once-squeaky clean image, but it’s safe to say, we’ll never look at Tiger the same way.

Golfer Tiger Woods apologizes for irresponsible and selfish behavior during his first public statement to a small gathering of reporters and friends at the headquarters of the U.S. PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida,on February 19, 2010.   UPI/Sam Greenwood/Pool Photo via Newscom

LeBron wilts when his team needs him most.

Say the words “LeBron” and “Game 5” in the same sentence and NBA fans everywhere know exactly what you’re talking about. In the biggest game of the season, LeBron looked disinterested, going 3-of-14 from the field en route to a 120-88 blowout at home at the hands of the Celtics. There were rumors swirling about a possible relationship between LeBron’s mom and his teammate, Delonte West, and there’s speculation that LeBron got that news before tipoff and that’s why he played so poorly. Regardless of the cause, LeBron played awful in that game, and it turned out to be his swan song in Cleveland as a member of the Cavaliers. Talk about leaving a bitter taste.

You can auction off your talented son’s athletic abilities and get away with it.

The NCAA set a strange precedent this season while dealing with the Newton family. The always inconsistent and completely morally uncorrupt NCAA decided in its infinite wisdom that despite discovering that Cecil Newton shopped his son Cam to Mississippi State for $180,000, and that is a violation of NCAA rules, that Cam would still be eligible because it couldn’t be proven that he knew about it. Conference commissioners and athletic directors around the country spoke out about the decision, while agent-wannabes and greedy fathers everywhere had a light bulb go off in their own heads: As long as we say the player doesn’t know about it, it could go off without a hitch. What was Cecil’s punishment in this whole thing? Limited access to Auburn for the last two games of the season. Easy with that hammer there, NCAA. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Cutler out for Sunday – will Mike Martz be forced to rely on the run?

Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz stands on the field during warmups before a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Soldier Field in Chicago on August 21, 2010.   UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

Mike Martz has long established that he would rather sit next to a crying baby on an airplane than run the football any more than he has to on Sundays. In fact, if it were truly up to him, he may scratch the run entirely and throw the ball on every down.

But he has a problem this week. The Bears are in Carolina to take on a winless Panthers team and Jay Cutler is still feeling the affects of the concussion he suffered last Sunday night in New York. That means Todd Collins will have to start, which doesn’t bode well for Martz’s pass-happy offense.

Collins was beyond putrid last weekend and it would behoove the Bears to keep the ball on the ground and allow their defense to win the game. Chicago has two capable running backs in Matt Forte and Chester Taylor, but thanks to Martz’s pass first and ask questions later approach, Da Bears are gaining only 68.8 yards per game on the ground this year.

If Martz can’t adjust, the Bears are in trouble. The Panthers may not be in the win column yet and they certainly don’t have the pass rush that the Giants (Chicago’s opponent last weekend) have, but they hung with the Saints last Sunday and have two running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart that can wear down a tired defense late in games. If Chicago’s defense is on the field for long periods of time thanks to the ineptitude of Collins, then Carolina can take the game out of rookie quarterback Jimmy Claussen’s hand and lean on their ground attack.

I don’t know what’s least likely to happen, Collins actually throwing the ball for more than 2.5 yards per pass or Martz changing his offense to a run first approach.

Or Carolina winning a game.

2010 NFL Preview: NFC South Predictions

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints addresses his teammates prior to playing against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

One of the best battles in the NFL this year will reside in the NFC South, where the defending Super Bowl champion Saints will be tested by an improved Falcons team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

As for the rest of the South, the Panthers are in transition now that Matt Moore is under center, but they’re still going to be competitive on weekly basis and the Bucs should be improved as well. (Although I don’t see them getting out of the division cellar anytime soon.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC South in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Saints

What to Like: It’s hard to start a sentence about what’s to like about the Saints without first mentioning their offense. The dynamics between Sean Payton and Drew Brees are exceptional. Payton knows exactly how to attack an opponents’ weakness and Brees knows how to execute what Payton is trying to do. While the defense was certainly a surprise last year, the relationship between Payton and Brees was the main reason the Saints lifted the Lombardi Trophy last year. Of course, it never hurts to have playmakers like Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Robert Meachem in the offense, either. Nor does having outstanding guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and tackle Jon Stinchcomb along the O-line either. Defensively, Gregg Williams was a miracle worker in his first season as defensive coordinator and was fortunate to have guys like Darren Sharper, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Tracy Porter play opportunistic football. The addition of Alex Brown will also fix a major hole at the end spot opposite Smith in terms of pass rushing.
What Not to Like: This team is weak up the middle on defense. After coming off a promising rookie campaign, Sedrick Ellis struggled last year due to injuries and Remi Ayodele (who was brought in to be a run-stuffer) was highly ineffective and doesn’t offer anything in the pass-rush department. Vilma, who is an outstanding cover middle linebacker, struggled at times against the run last year and the same could be said for Scott Shanle. Former first round pick Malcolm Jenkins (who is a converted corner) takes over for Sharper at free safety and while he has the tools to be good, he’s never played the position before. Offensively, there are very few weaknesses but if I had to pick one it would be left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who struggled badly last season. Cowboys’ OLB DeMarcus Ware (who makes most tackles look bad) exposed him on national television last season and there are some concerns that he can protect Brees’ blindside.
Keep Your Eye On: Pierre Thomas
I didn’t even mention the running game in the “What to Like” section, so here it goes. One of the main reasons Payton’s offense and the Saints’ passing game is so efficient is because of the team’s ability to run the football. Now that Mike Bell is gone, Thomas should have even more opportunities than he received last season to be the rock in New Orleans’ backfield. Reggie Bush will still get his touches, but I don’t think a 1,000-plus yard season out of Thomas is out of the question – especially now that he’s fully healthy heading into Week 1 (he wasn’t at the start of 2009).
The Final Word: The Saints certainly don’t come without their weaknesses, but this is still the team to beat in the NFC South. Their offense will once again rank near the top of the league by year’s end (barring injuries, of course) and Williams proved to be an outstanding game-planner last season. The run defense is a concern, as is Bushrod at left tackle. But Brees and company are going to light up the scoreboard again this year and even if the defense takes a step back, I don’t see the Saints relinquishing the division crown quite yet.

New Orleans Saints 2009 Question Mark: Interior Defense

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Has Fox saved his job or is Cowher destined for Carolina?

The Carolina Panthers have been the model for inconsistency under head coach John Fox for the better part of a decade. One year they’re up, the next they’re down.

But much like previous down years, the Panthers are finishing strong in 2009. They’ve won three of their last four games and have the opportunity to finish .500, which is quite an accomplishment for a team that had Jake Delhomme under center for most of their year.

Their strong finish begs the question: Has Fox saved his job?

Rumors are circulating that Bill Cowher wants to return to the sidelines in 2010 and Carolina might be a fit because his daughter attends N.C. State. If Cowher is interested, will the Panthers jump at the opportunity to bring him on board or will they stay loyal to Fox, a man that led the team to their only Super Bowl appearance?

Much like in previous down years, the Panthers struggled with injuries and inconsistency this season. Delhomme was a train wreck and should no longer be viewed as a starter, especially given that Matt Moore is gaining confidence with each passing week. The defense has gelled nicely under new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and the running game is sound with the two-headed monster of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The team could use a No. 2 receiver opposite Steve Smith but other than that, they don’t have a ton of holes.

With that in mind, is Fox the right person to get the Panthers back to the playoffs or should the front office go in another direction? Personally, if Cowher is interested I don’t know how the Panthers don’t entertain the thought of hiring him. But if he turns them down or isn’t interested, then Fox should be retained.


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