Category Archives: Sports

The Thunder, Pau Gasol and the salary cap

The Thunder are still relatively new to the Oklahoma City area, which means there are a lot of fans who still are not very familiar with the NBA salary cap and how it works. To really appreciate what moves are possible in free agency, you first need to have a basic understanding of how the system works.

I struggled with ways to explain this to the layman without over-complicating the matter. There are full NBA collective bargaining agreement FAQs available, but these often contain overly complex descriptions without examples that casual fans can relate to.

But then the universe provided me with an easy out: The Thunder reportedly are going after current Lakers big man Pau Gasol. Explaining how and why OKC is able to pursue Gasol will also give me the chance to explain some of the details of how the salary cap works. There are three possible avenues OKC can take to sign Gasol, but first let’s start with the basic question:

What is the salary cap?

A lot of casual fans think “salary cap” roughly translates to “teams have this much money, and once they spend it all, they’re out. They have no more.” That is what’s known as a hard cap, and that’s true in the NFL, but that’s not how it works in the NBA.

In the NBA, “salary cap” roughly translates to “this is the amount of money all teams can spend on contracts however they want.” If a team is under the salary cap, they can offer money to any free agent until they reach the cap. They don’t have to worry about exceptions, trades, salary dumping or non-guaranteed contracts; they can just spend on whomever they want until they reach the cap.

Teams that are consistently competitive and have given out big contracts are almost guaranteed to be over the cap. For context, last season’s salary cap was $58.679 million. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will make approximately $47.96 million combined next season, and that’s only on three players.

Just about any team worth its salt will naturally be over the cap. They are still able to spend money, but going over the cap restricts the ways in which they’re able to do so. This is also why the amnesty provision doesn’t do what many fans think it does.

For example, let’s say the Thunder are over the cap by $7 million and Kendrick Perkins makes $9 million. Many fans think the Thunder can just amnesty Perkins and then will have $9 million to use on free agents. That’s not how it works.

Because OKC is over the cap by $7 million, losing Perkins’ contract (they’d still have to pay him; his salary just wouldn’t count against the cap) would put them $2 million under the cap. That means they only have $2 million to freely sign new free agents. Losing big salaries can prevent teams from going into the salary tax (more on that in a bit), but it doesn’t create space that can be used freely unless that team is already under the cap. The only other way to acquire players is to use salary exceptions, which would still be true with Perkins on the team. And that’s where the Thunder’s pursuit of Pau Gasol comes in. Here are the three ways in which OKC can acquire him:

1) Use the mid-level exception

Any team that is over the cap must make use of a series of different exceptions in order to spend their money. The most commonly used in free agency is the mid-level exception, and there are actually two different versions: one for taxpayers and one for non-taxpayers.

To be labeled a taxpayer, a team must be so far over the salary cap that it dips into the league’s luxury tax. Last season, the tax limit was set at $71.748 million, or approximately $13 million more than the salary cap. If a team goes over the tax limit, it must start paying additional money on top of every dollar it spends.

The Thunder are under that tax limit, which means they have access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. That exception is a set number every season, and this offseason it’s $5.3 million. Basically, that means OKC has $5.3 million to spend on any free agents.

That $5.3 million can be divided up for multiple free agents or spent completely on one. So the Thunder could extend this offer to Pau Gasol, hoping he is willing to take a significant pay cut – he made more than $19 million last season – to pursue a championship.

This would provide the Thunder with the most contract flexibility. Gasol would be signed to a straightforward free-agent contract, meaning OKC could sign him to a one- or two-year deal if it wished. That would keep Gasol from still being on the books when the Thunder need to negotiate the next contracts for Durant and Westbrook.

It’s difficult to gauge how likely this outcome is, since it requires Gasol to take such a significant pay cut. Reports have indicated he is at least willing to listen to mid-level exception offers from championship contenders, so it may not be too farfetched. A more likely scenario, however:

2) Use their traded player exception

Do you remember good old Kevin Martin? Well he’s still a major factor in the Thunder’s decision-making process. When OKC lost him to Minnesota last season, they executed a sign-and-trade for him. The way that works: A potential free agent negotiates a new contract with a new team, but instead of signing directly with that team, they sign with their current team and allow themselves to be traded.

So last offseason, the Thunder signed Martin to a $6.5 million contract (which he negotiated with Minnesota) and then instantly traded him to the Timberwolves. OKC did not get back any salary in return, which creates a traded player exception. Basically, anytime you send away salary without getting back an equal amount, a traded player exception makes up the difference.

So since the Thunder traded away $6.5 million and received zero dollars in return, a $6.5 million trade exception was created. The NBA collective bargaining agreement says a $100,000 buffer is added to such exceptions, so the actual operating amount of the exception is $6.6 million.

These sorts of deals are often known as “non-simultaneous trades.” Essentially, the Thunder traded away Kevin Martin and had a year to figure out who they were actually trading him for. For two teams that are over the cap to trade players, they normally have to match salaries. But this trade exception allows OKC to acquire a player who makes $6.6 million or less without sending anything in return, regardless of their cap situation.

So now the Thunder can do the opposite of what they did last season with Minnesota. Gasol can sign a $6.6 million deal with the Lakers and be instantly traded to the Thunder for nothing in return. Just like OKC last year, the Lakers would then receive a traded player exception of their own, which they would have a year to complete.

Now you may be asking “Why would the Lakers do that? Why wouldn’t they just sign him to $6.6 million and keep him?” The CBA has a specific rule on sign-and-trades, and these deals are specifically negotiated and teams are not allowed to go back on their word. The signing carries an automatic trade with it; it’s part of the negotiation process. And Gasol wouldn’t take such a pay cut to stay in LA, where he can’t win a championship.

So Gasol would negotiate his new contract with the Thunder and tell the Lakers he plans to leave. The Lakers would then execute the trade for the purpose of getting something – the trade exception – back in return instead of just losing Gasol outright.

So, essentially, the Thunder would have traded Kevin Martin for Pau Gasol, they just would have waited a year to do it. The traded player exception must be used within a year of acquiring it, and the Thunder traded away Martin on July 11, 2013. That means they now have a week to use the exception before it disappears and becomes useless.

Using this traded player exception would allow Gasol to make more money and it would allow the Thunder to save its mid-level exception to use on other free agents. OKC has been pursuing guard Anthony Morrow as well, and he isn’t as valuable as Gasol. So it would make sense for the Thunder to use their trade exception on Gasol, then the mid-level exception on Morrow, allowing them to address their two biggest needs — an offensive post presence and strong outside shooter.

So while this may be the most likely scenario, there’s still one more possibility:

3) Use a sign-and-trade with matching salaries

As I mentioned in the above scenario, trades normally require both teams to match salaries in any deal. The concept for this scenario would be similar to the one above: Execute a sign-and-trade so the Lakers get something in return and don’t let Gasol walk for nothing. But in this case, the Thunder would send players instead of their trade exception.

Because Gasol would likely be worth at least $10 million per season on the open market, the most obvious candidate for the Thunder to trade away in this deal is Kendrick Perkins. He’s scheduled to make more than $9 million, he’ll be on the last year of his deal and he’s obviously a disposable piece on the Thunder.

However, because the Lakers wouldn’t receive a traded player exception in this scenario, they would need the pot to be sweetened. It would be naïve to think they would just take Perkins for Gasol straight up. OKC would need to toss in a young asset – most likely Perry Jones, though Andre Roberson or the rights to foreign player Tibor Pleiss are other possibilities – and a future first-round draft pick.

Then, depending on how much salary the Thunder send away in the deal, they could indirectly sign Gasol for the same amount. So let’s say OKC sends away Kendrick Perkins and Perry Jones, who are scheduled to make $10.2 million combined next season. The Lakers could sign Gasol for that amount, then instantly trade him to the Thunder for Perkins and Jones. Because the salary would be acquired by trade instead of through free agency, that would be doable.

The downside to this: Per the CBA, players acquired by sign-and-trade must be signed for at least three seasons. That could put a potentially big financial burden on the Thunder in the third year of Gasol’s deal, which is when Kevin Durant will need a new contract. If Gasol is still making $10 million, the Thunder will be more limited in what they can offer KD.

This basically would require OKC to negotiate a frontloaded contract with Gasol. Give him big money in his first year in Oklahoma City, then let that number diminish in the following two seasons, giving the Thunder more financial flexibility.

This is the win-win-win scenario. Gasol would still make good money, the Thunder would dump the Perkins contract and get a big man with offensive skill, and the Lakers would get a young asset and draft pick in return for a player who was leaving anyway. Perkins’ contract would also be an expiring deal next season, which could be attractive for any mid-season trades to make salaries work.

In case some of this has been a little too confusing, lets break down the three Gasol scenarios in note form:

1) Use the mid-level exception
– Because OKC isn’t in the luxury tax, it has $5.3 million to spend
– That number can be spread across multiple free agents or spent on one
– This would require Gasol to accept a $5.3 million deal, a significant pay cut

2) Use the traded player exception
– Because OKC traded Kevin Martin, it has a $6.6 million trade exception
– This allows OKC to trade for anyone who makes up to that much money
– The Lakers could sign and trade Gasol to get their own exception
– This would allow OKC to save the MLE for other free agents

3) Use a sign-and-trade with matching salaries
– Would need to be centered on sending Kendrick Perkins to the Lakers
– Would allow OKC to sign Gasol for approximately $10 million
– For the Lakers to take it, OKC would have to include a young asset and pick
– Would be the most beneficial for all parties (except for Perkins)


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The Thunder’s Real Reward from the James Harden Trade

Oklahoma City Thunder logo
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s trade of James Harden just days before the season started may be the most shocking trade of the last 20 years. I’ll admit that I wasn’t as big of an NBA fan early in my life as I am now, but I can’t ever remember a title contender dumping one of its key pieces so close to the beginning of the season.

Most Thunder fans were so fixated on the idea of losing Harden – who was much beloved and one of the faces of the franchise – that they paid almost no attention to what Oklahoma City got in return. By now, it’s obvious what the Thunder have in Kevin Martin. He’s a solid outside shooter and has filled in nicely for Harden’s scoring off the bench.

Rookie Jeremy Lamb also has gotten a chance to show flashes of talent, but has spent just as much time in the D-League as on the court for the Thunder. That may actually be better for him in the long run, since he’s getting the chance to actually play and hone his skills.

But the most interesting piece the Thunder received in their trade with Houston is neither of those players. It’s not a player at all; it’s the first-round draft pick of the Toronto Raptors.

The Rockets originally acquired that pick when they dealt Kyle Lowry in July, and then they turned it around to the Thunder a few months later. The pick is double protected, and since I didn’t fully understand what that meant when the trade happened, I’m going to assume most fans don’t know what it means either.

A “double protected” pick means both the team that traded away the pick and the team that traded for the pick get some form of protection. That level of protection does not change with the Rockets forwarding it to another team; the same protection simply travels with the pick.

This particular pick gives the Thunder a lottery-protected selection. That means OKC has to get a lottery selection (which means one of the top 14 picks) out of it. Since it’s the Raptors’ former pick, it depends on how they finish the season. So if the Raptors miraculously made the playoffs and didn’t qualify for a lottery pick, the pick the Thunder received would be deferred to a later year.

That likely won’t come into play, though, because the Raptors are objectively terrible. They currently have the worst record in basketball at 4-18, have lost five games in a row, and their last three losses came by an average of 23 points.

So this is great news for the Thunder, right? Toronto is going to completely tank, give OKC the No. 1 pick in the draft and make the Thunder even better, right? Well not so fast, because that’s where the other half of the pick protection comes in.

The Raptors have the protection of never having to give away the top pick in the draft, but their protection weakens from year to year. In the 2013 Draft, they won’t have to give the pick away if they finish with one of the top three picks. It would then get deferred to 2014, when they won’t have to give it away if they have one of the top two picks. It would get deferred again, and in 2015 they won’t have to give it away if it’s the top overall pick.

So it’s quite possible the Thunder won’t receive this Toronto pick for two or three years. Here’s how the double protection criteria break down:

– For the Thunder to get the pick in 2013, it has to fall between picks 4-14.

– To get it in 2014, the pick has to fall between 3-14.

– To get it in 2015, it has to be between 2-14.

– Once the pick qualifies for one of those ranges, the Thunder are forced to take it. Meaning if the Raptors suddenly have a stronger season and finish with pick 13, Oklahoma City can’t choose to defer the pick and hope for a better one the next year. Once a pick meets both requirements of the double protection, it has to be used.

At this point in the season, it seems unlikely the Raptors will finish better than one of the five worst teams in the league. The lottery is always impossible to predict, but it’s a very strong possibility the Raptors will finish with a pick in the top three, which would be protected and would mean the Thunder get nothing this season.

Then in the offseason, who knows what could happen? The Raptors could land a big free agent, or their top-three pick could turn into a franchise savior. Then what if they improve next season and finished with a pick outside the top 10?

That would likely give the Thunder a mediocre talent that needs to be groomed or a foreign player who won’t even see an NBA court for several years. That’s not what the Thunder need; they need help right now. Their title window is firmly open, but they need people who can contribute immediately.

That’s why the Thunder need to trade the pick for a proven veteran. In the long run, whatever player this Toronto pick turns out to be may be better than anything the Thunder get in return. But there’s no way of knowing that. It’s better to get a known quantity now than wait for an unknown amount of time for an unknown pick that can become an unknown player.

The most common name linked to a possible trade with the Thunder is Cleveland big man Anderson Varejão. Varejão is currently leading the NBA in rebounding with 14.9 per game – a full two boards better than anyone else in the NBA – while also averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game.

Varejão has been the only consistent contributor on the post-LeBron Cavaliers, and his numbers may be slightly inflated because he plays on such a bad team. He’s averaging six offensive rebounds per game, and he gets more opportunities because his teammates miss so many shots.

With that in mind, it would be difficult to imagine Varejão putting up those kinds of numbers for the Thunder. But the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Varejão is a great rebounding center, which is exactly what the Thunder need.

Center is by far OKC’s worst position, with Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet the only true centers on the roster. The Thunder are 14th in the league in rebounding as a team. Perkins is averaging just 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 points per game, and any contribution out of Thabeet should be viewed as a gift from God.

Perkins hasn’t played as many minutes this season as Varejão, but that’s partially because Perkins has trouble keeping up with the Thunder’s team speed. Varejão isn’t going to win any sprints, but he’s definitely quicker and more athletic than Perkins, and he’s known for his hustle.

Perkins is also making $7.8 million this year, while Varejão is making a very affordable $8.3 million. So the upgrade in production would not come with a huge price tag either.

Varejão is aging – he turned 30 in September – and has had some injury issues in the past. His defensive presence also isn’t quite as commanding as Perkins’, but his addition would go a long way toward solving the Thunder’s largest remaining problem.

Now, it obviously takes two to tango. The Cavs may not be willing to deal Varejão, but Oklahoma City can offer a package that no other team in the NBA can. They’re a high-quality, championship-caliber team that can offer several attractive draft picks and a few young project players.

I doubt the Thunder would be willing to part with rookies Lamb or Perry Jones, but I could see them adding Reggie Jackson or DeAndre Liggins to any potential deal. An offer of Jackson, both picks acquired from the Rockets in the Harden trade and a possible added future pick in exchange for Varejão is a solid deal for both sides.

The Thunder get the great rebounder they’ve been after, the rebuilding Cavs get some young talent and high draft picks to build around and Varejão gets to play on a true contender for the first time since LeBron left Cleveland.

This really is Oklahoma City’s best option. Waiting around for the possibility of a high draft pick doesn’t make sense for the win-now Thunder. It does for the Cavs, who aren’t going to win any time soon and can afford to take chances. They have nothing to lose.

There are several avenues for the Thunder to take with this acquired trade, which gives general manager Sam Presti some options in how to proceed. But the Thunder have a potential second date with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in the future, and they need to be fully equipped when they get there.

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The Downfall of Penn State

And so it comes to this. After the worst scandal in college football history, one of the most respected programs in the nation is in shambles.

Penn State’s legendary coach has been disgraced, its leadership structure gutted, its scholarship numbers essentially reduced to I-AA levels, and its monetary losses may eventually be enough to buy a small country.

The sanctions handed down by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference are unprecedented in their scope and severity, but most surprising is how quickly the usually snail-like NCAA acted.

The NCAA normally launches its own separate investigation and makes its own findings, which can take months or years. But there was nothing normal about the Penn State case.

Everything surrounding the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the extent of Penn State’s institutional corruption and the downfall of Joe Paterno’s legacy have been so public and so ugly that drawing out the process only would have made matters worse.

And so, less than two weeks since the release of the Freeh Report, the NCAA dropped the hammer. To the tune of a $60 million fine, loss of 10 scholarships per season, four-year postseason ban, five-year probation and 112 vacated wins.

Each of those punishments individually would be plenty damaging, but all of them together are crippling. The Nittany Lions may have avoided the dreaded death penalty, but just barely.

The loss of scholarships will ensure that Penn State can’t maintain a competitive level with the rest of the Big Ten for at least the next five years. Its scholarship numbers will nearly be cut in half, from 25 per season to 15. That will cause a vicious cycle.

The reduction in scholarships will naturally decrease the number of quality athletes Penn State can recruit. That unavoidable drop will cause high profile recruits to look elsewhere, causing another dip.

And once the scholarship reduction is lifted in five years, the turnaround will not be immediate. Five-star recruits will not suddenly flock to Penn State in droves.

The football program should realistically expect a period of at least 15 years of anywhere from bad to mediocre play. It also is possible the program never returns to its previous level of success.

Which leads to the next question: Is this level of punishment reasonable and fair? As with most cases involving the NCAA, that issue isn’t so black and white.

The Penn State administration engaged in the most despicable acts I can imagine. People whose jobs were to educate and protect young people willingly looked the other way while a sex offender preyed on the innocence of children. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe how reprehensible that is.

The only reason this behavior continued as long as it did was because the football program at Penn State ran the administration, not the other way around. There is no greater example of a lack of institutional control; the football program became an unstoppable monster feeding on everything around it.

So from that standpoint, the NCAA’s crackdown makes sense. Penn State is not the only school whose football program has grown out of control, so the NCAA wanted to send a message that such situations are unacceptable.

But isn’t the NCAA responsible for that lack of control? It encourages the worship of college football because it generates ungodly amounts of money. So the Penn State administration enabled Jerry Sandusky, but the NCAA enabled the out-of-control culture that made Sandusky’s behavior possible.

Making matters worse, the only people truly being punished as part of these sanctions are Penn State’s current players and coaches. They had nothing to do with any of the actions that brought the sanctions in the first place. So, as is painfully common in NCAA cases, people are being punished for the sins of their predecessors.

Maybe all of this is a long way of saying there really was no right answer. Harsh punishment was called for because something had to be done about this controversy, but any punishment seems inherently unfair because the wrongdoers are no longer affiliated with the school. So maybe this entire situation is the greatest referendum on the college football system to date.

It has long been quite clear how corrupt the system is. Institutions and companies make big bucks while the young men they exploit get no financial support in return, and the NCAA stands in hypocritical judgment of the very system it created and enabled.

I have no idea how to solve any of this, or even if any of it can be solved. That is for smarter men than I to figure out. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how any of this got as out of hand as it did. This entire situation is just sad and depressing, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed that something good can come out of this.

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Fantasy Football Shopping List: Wide Receivers

It’s easy to spot the best receivers in the league every year, either because of their own ability or that of their quarterbacks. There’s virtually no debate about which receivers should come off the board in the first four rounds.

But past that, things get much more interesting. With so many players to choose from, wide receiver becomes by far the best position to get good value late in a draft.

At any other position, in late rounds you can’t hope to get anything other than a season-long benchwarmer who can sub in during a bye week. But with receivers, you can easily find guys far into the draft capable of becoming consistent producers if you know where to look.

Bargain Bin

1) Steve Breaston (Round 12)

Breaston has showed flashes of brilliance in his four-year career, even amassing a 1,000-yard season in 2008. He has never really gotten a chance to show his full ability, but that may change now that he has joined the Kansas City Chiefs.

Breaston managed to gain 718 yards and have an average of 15.3 yards per catch last year with the Cardinals, despite being saddled with a revolving door of terrible quarterbacks. He now joins a Chiefs offense that has weapons everywhere and will be coached by Todd Haley, the offensive coordinator and receivers coach in Arizona during Breaston’s best years.

Breaston should step into the starting lineup immediately, and with Dwayne Bowe on the other side of the field he will never receive much attention. Instead he’ll likely end up locked in one-on-one coverage with the weakest part of his opponents’ secondary with safeties unable to provide deep help because they’re too worried about Jamaal Charles.

That could be a recipe for a breakout year for Breaston, and eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark again is not out of the question. That kind of potential in the 12th round is a steal. Breaston also could see work as a punt and kick returner, so keep that in mind if you play in a league that rewards points for such yardage.

2) Mike Sims-Walker (Round 10)

This is the latest you may ever be able to draft a No. 1 receiver in a capable passing offense. Owners are avoiding him because of his frustrating production the last two years, and with good reason. With the Jaguars, he was occasionally dominant but would disappear for weeks on end.

It is certainly possible that the trend could repeat itself in St. Louis. But he is now paired with rising star Sam Bradford at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who led some of the most prolific passing offenses in recent memory.

McDaniels may have flamed out as a head coach, but his results as a coordinator cannot be ignored. If he is able to bring half of that success in the passing game to St. Louis, Sims-Walker could have a huge year.

It’s also important to note that the season-ending knee injury to fellow receiver Mark Clayton apparently has not fully healed after almost a full calendar year, which means Sims-Walker should have very little competition for catches in the Rams’ weak receiver corps.

3) Chad Ochocinco (Round 8 )

The only reason Ochocinco is third on this list is because I anticipate his draft position to rise in the coming weeks. Most fantasy football providers have been slow to update their rankings with the slew of recent signings, which means Ochocinco is ranked as if he were still with the Bengals.

That causes owners to forget about him and has resulted in him falling into the middle rounds. If you have a draft soon, it’s likely he’ll still be sitting there in the seventh round. That would make him the biggest steal on this list.

But if your draft is closer to the start of the season, Ochocinco likely will have risen into the fourth or fifth round. That’s still pretty solid value, considering that Ochocinco clearly has re-invented himself in New England.

He has vowed not to have as much interaction with the media and to avoid Twitter once the season starts, and has called New England “Heaven.” In short, he has a renewed passion for the game, which should lead to improvement in his play. He could easily be an every-week starter, and getting that outside of the first few rounds is fantastic.

Buyer Beware

1) Brandon Lloyd (Round 4)

There is drama happening in Denver, and training camp just started. Lloyd himself has commented on the “Tebow Thing,” the desire of some members of the Broncos’ management to start Tim Tebow just because he’s Tim Tebow.

I don’t think this quarterback controversy will go away, especially if Kyle Orton starts the season and loses a few games. I think that will cause the Denver offense to be disjointed and unreliable, especially the passing game.

Lloyd did have a great year last season, amassing almost 1,500 yards and catching 11 touchdowns. But those numbers nearly matched the ones he put up in his seven previous seasons combined. He’s now 30 years old, is playing for another new coach (one who likes to focus on the run) and with a questionable quarterback situation.

Each of those individually would be cause for concern. All of them together mean you should avoid Brandon Lloyd completely.

2) Greg Jennings (Round 4)

We will always be in Jennings’ debt for being indirectly responsible for one of the greatest sports-related YouTube videos of all time, but on the field he has been infuriating for fantasy owners. He has never been able to consistently produce, but people only seem to pay attention to the few huge games he has every year.

Last season he had a four-game stretch in which he averaged 25 yards per game. In 2009, he was held to 56 yards or less in six different games. He was held to 40 yards or less in four games in 2008. He has never been able to consistently produce from the beginning of a season to the end, yet people still overdraft him.

That is because of his potential to go off for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He is certainly capable of doing that on any given week, but he does it so rarely that he is not worthy of a No. 2 receiver spot on your roster.

You’ll spend every week waffling on whether to start him or not, and then decide to do it because he may put up 30 points. But instead he’ll score two points, you’ll lose that week and want to pull your hair out.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Packers’ receiving corps is slowly starting to look like the Saints’. They have four legitimate receiving threats, including Jordy Nelson and James Jones, both of whom are on the rise.

Ask anyone who has owned Marques Colston over the last few years; a group of several talented receivers means none of them put up dominant fantasy numbers. Expect the same to happen to Jennings. There will be a few weeks out of the season that you’ll really wish you had him, but for the other 14 you’ll be glad you don’t.

3) Brandon Marshall (Round 4)

Apparently the fourth round is just cursed when it comes to receivers, because all three of these guys tend to be drafted right around each other. Marshall could end up stuck in the worst position of the three if Chad Henne remains the Dolphins’ starting quarterback.

Henne is the kind of guy who could make a career out of being a serviceable backup, but he cannot be relied upon to lead a high-powered passing attack. It doesn’t help that Henne has shown frustration at fans asking for his benching. It’s a bit concerning that a quarterback would allow heckling to get to him so quickly.

Regardless, the Dolphins will remain a run-first offense. That will hurt Marshall’s opportunities, which will take another hit from receiving all of the defense’s attention in passing situations. He did manage to barely breaking 1,000 yards last year, but he had to gain 300 of those yards in the last three weeks to do it.

He also only caught three touchdowns all last year, which is unforgivable for a potential No. 2 receiver. He needs to either put up consistent yardage numbers or touchdowns, and Marshall did neither last season. With only minimal improvements to the offense in the offseason, I see no reason to think Marshall’s prospects will improve.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that he was stabbed in the hands by his wife in April.  While it shouldn’t have any long-term effects on his playing ability, I can’t imagine his thoughts have been focused on football much in the past few months.

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Fantasy Football Shopping List: Running Backs

Running back is arguably the most important position in a fantasy football draft. They tend to fly off the board in the first few rounds, often in a long line of consecutive picks. But if your picks come at the tail end of that string of running back picks, it may be wiser to go a different direction.

Generally, once that stretch of consecutive picks ends, there are a few solid choices that end up falling because all of the other teams start going in other directions. If you choose based on value rather than position, there are still options available later in the draft.

It’s also important to note that you need depth at the running back position. Your starters will likely be hurt at some point, so having a reliable producer to plug into the starting lineup is a necessity. So without further ado, here’s this year’s list of best and worst “bang for your buck” running backs, with their draft position noted in parentheses.

Bargain Bin

1) Shonn Greene (Round 3)

This is a classic case of buyer’s remorse causing a player to become a steal. Greene was a hot pick last season and often was drafted at the end of the first round. He responded by not living up to expectations.

Greene finished the year with just 766 yards and two touchdowns, and broke the 100-yard mark only once all season. That has caused fantasy owners to overreact and avoid him like the plague.

But Greene should have a much more productive season this year. The aging LaDainian Tomlinson is expected to see a much lighter workload this season, and the Jets remain a run-dominant team. Greene should not be your No. 1 running back, but he is more than serviceable as a No. 2 starter.

And with an ability to select him late in the third round, that is a steal. You can focus on taking a top-tier quarterback or receiver with your second pick instead of reaching for whatever is left after the slew of running back picks.

2) Daniel Thomas (Round 7)

The Dolphins’ running back is the most intriguing rookie in this year’s fantasy draft. With Ronnie Brown already gone and Ricky Williams on his way out of Miami, Thomas will immediately step into a run-heavy team as the go-to guy.

Reggie Bush also will be part of the Miami backfield, but he likely will be used more as an all-purpose back than a pure runner. He should not take much of the load away from Thomas, and could help if the Dolphins continue to use their Wildcat formation.

The 6-foot, 230-pound Thomas is capable of becoming the workhorse of an NFL backfield. He rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns on 298 carries last season with Kansas State. Running backs historically also have the easiest transition from college to the NFL, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about Thomas being a rookie.

Still available in the seventh round, when your entire starting lineup should already be solidified, Thomas has the potential to be one of the biggest steals of the draft at any position. He offers no risk, since he won’t need to carry your team, but he could easily becoming a reliable starter if he performs well.

3) BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Round 8 )

In addition to having one of its strangest names, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is coming off one of the most surprising years in the NFL. He had a 1,000-yard season and scored 13 touchdowns while only starting 11 games.

He enters 2011 firmly implanted as the starting running back of the Patriots, whose offense as a whole should only get better with the addition of Chad Ochocinco. New England will remain a predominantly passing offense, which is likely the only reason Green-Ellis isn’t drafted higher.

But playing for that same offense last season, Green-Ellis had a total of 241 touches, which is on par with the rest of the league. Keep in mind that the Patriots should be in position to win most of their games, which will mean they will need to run the clock out late in games.

That means they will need to run the ball, which should result in Green-Ellis getting plenty of easy points in garbage time. They won’t be pretty, but that doesn’t matter in fantasy football.

Yes, Danny Woodhead is in the same backfield, but like the situation in Miami he should be used more as a flex than a pure runner. His presence should not adversely affect Green-Ellis, who you can count on to be a solid No. 3.

Buyer Beware

1) Arian Foster (No. 1 overall)

This pick may be a tad controversial, but again it’s all about value. Foster has had only one good year. While it was admittedly a monster season, it’s still just one sample.

The fantasy football landscape is littered with guys who catapulted to the top of the draft because of one good year and then never repeated their success (Matt Forte anyone?). It’s a much safer investment to go with Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson, guys who have proved productive for years on end.

This is only a question of selecting Foster first overall. That pick has to be a 100 percent guarantee, and I just don’t think Foster can be that after only one successful season. The Texans focused much more on the run last year after the loss of Andre Johnson, and will not have the same game plan with Johnson back in the lineup.

The Texans likely will have a much more balanced attack, which could be beneficial for Foster’s productivity. It could open up defenses and give him bigger holes. Or it could take away from his touches and yards, and Johnson’s dominance in the red zone could cut into Foster’s touchdowns.

There’s just no way of knowing, which you should never be able to say about a No. 1 overall pick. If you get the No. 4 pick and Foster is still sitting there, grab him. But if you get the top pick, I recommend the proven dominance of Peterson or Johnson.

2) DeAngelo Williams (Round 4)

Why DeAngelo Williams remains a relatively high pick, I have no idea. Yes, he’s only two years removed from a 1,000-yard season and is only 28 years old, but he’s coming off a year cut short by injury and is playing for a dismal offense.

Nobody on the Panthers’ offense can be trusted this year, since it’s impossible to know how much improvement it will see. Jimmy Clausen looked plain awful last year, and if he remains the starter teams will stack the box and focus on Williams and teammate Jonathan Stewart.

If Carolina chooses to go with rookie Cam Newton under center, that could present even more challenges. Breaking in a rookie quarterback in a bad offense was exactly what the Panthers did last season, and things did not look good.

Williams also will have to deal with the previously-mentioned Stewart getting short-yardage and goal line carries as well as the emergence of the young Mike Goodson. Goodson flashed brilliance replacing Williams last year, rushing for back-to-back 100-yard games while also catching 40 passes.

A crowded backfield, a young quarterback and a struggling offense in general do not make a recipe for a successful running back. He certainly is not worth picking in the fourth round, with guys like Dez Bryant, Wes Welker and Ryan Mathews still on the board.

3) Peyton Hillis (Round 3)

Hillis’ value skyrocketed last year when he came out of nowhere and took the league by storm for the Browns. Everybody remembers that part, but seems to forget that he visibly faded down the stretch. He averaged just 55 yards in the last five games of the year and did not score any touchdowns in that span.

Hillis’ obvious wear as the season progressed caused the Browns to sign a new backfield mate in Brandon Jackson. Jackson joins Hillis and Montario Hardesty in a pretty talented backfield, which should prevent Hillis from getting the number of carries he did last year.

Hillis still will be used in goal line work, so he should still rack up a sizable number of touchdowns. But he won’t put up comparable yardage numbers, which means he’ll be very inconsistent.

His overall production will depend on touchdowns too much, so when Cleveland plays a solid defense Hillis cannot be relied upon for strong numbers. And Cleveland will face the Ravens and Steelers a total of four times in the final five weeks of the season, which is when you’ll need production the most. Plus, he’s on the Madden cover this year. Just saying.

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Fantasy Football Shopping List: Quarterbacks

With the NFL lockout mercifully over, it’s time to turn our attention to fantasy football. With a shortened offseason and a still-continuing whirlwind of roster activity, this promises to be one of the most interesting fantasy football seasons in recent memory.

While many outlets choose to focus on analyzing the first few rounds of the fantasy football draft, I like to go with more of a “bang for your buck” approach. It’s important to realize where certain players will still be available so you can plan ahead.

So beginning today I will be breaking down a fantasy football grocery list of sorts for each position. Included will be players you can find in the bargain bin, and others you should be wary of. This is not a statement on the overall quality of the player himself, but rather his production relative to where you can draft him.

I have taken part in two drafts already this year, and I will include in parentheses the round (or pick if it’s in the first round) in which each player was selected in a 10-team league. Today we start with quarterbacks.

Bargain Bin

1) Matt Ryan (Round 6)

Ryan has been solid in each of his three NFL seasons, and is coming off his best performance thus far. He is not a particularly sexy pick, since he very rarely will put up monster numbers like Drew Brees or Preyton Manning. But Ryan is the model of consistency.

Last year, he had touchdown passes in 15 consecutive games and threw multiple interceptions only twice. He plays behind a stellar offensive line, which only allowed 23 sacks all season, third fewest in the NFL.

All of the pieces around Ryan also remain intact, including favorite targets Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons do tend to focus on the run, which is the main reason why Ryan tends to fall in the draft. But he still finished last season with 261 total points, an average of 16 per game.

2) Josh Freeman (Round 6)

Freeman is a popular pick to make a major leap this season, and with good reason. The Buccaneers are stacked with young talent throughout the offense, and Freeman has progressed significantly faster than most people anticipated.

He has a cannon arm and at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds is a chore to bring down. He showed remarkable improvement in pocket awareness and quick decision making last season, finishing with only six interceptions on the year.

His final season stats were somewhat inflated by a five-touchdown performance against the Seahawks in Week 16, but like Matt Ryan he was consistent. He did not have any games with more than 300 passing yards last season, but expect that trend to end at some point this year. This could be the last time Josh Freeman is available outside of the first few rounds.

3) Kevin Kolb (Round 12)

Kolb has the potential to be one of the biggest steals of the fantasy football draft. He is a guaranteed starter on a team with Larry Fitzgerald and Todd Heap, already giving him two solid receiving options right off the bat.

Kolb had up-and-down production during his tenure in Philadelphia, looking brilliant one week and mediocre the next. He has a tendency to get rattled and rush throws under pressure, which could be a significant problem behind a bad offensive line in Arizona.

But if his line gives him time to throw, Kolb has shown an ability to pick defenses apart. The Cardinals undoubtedly gave up too much to get him, but that doesn’t matter in the fantasy world.

As late as you can draft him, Kolb gives you zero risk. If he doesn’t pan out, you can just drop him for somebody else. But if he is able to produce, he can be a solid backup or good trade bait to a team whose top QB gets hurt.

Buyer Beware

Michael Vick (No. 7 overall)

The Eagles have been the biggest movers of the shortened NFL free agency period, and an already dangerous team has gotten even better. Vick still will have weapons DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin at his disposal, as well as a two-heading running attack of LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown.

So Philadelphia’s offense still will be outstanding. Placing Vick in this category is not an indictment of his play or an indication that he will have a bad season. It’s just a question of value.

Vick is off the board in the first round of nearly every league, taking a spot that could have been used on an elite running back or receiver. Meanwhile, guys like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers will still be available in the third round.

It is a much better strategy to use your first pick on a running back or receiver, because there is a massive drop in production at those two positions. But at quarterback, the loss you’ll take falling from Vick to Brees will be minuscule. Think of it this way: Would you rather drop from Vick to Brees, or Ray Rice to Matt Forte?

Plus, keep in mind that Vick’s ridiculous numbers came during a year in which teams were unsure of what he still was capable of doing. He took the league by surprise, but now teams have a full year of tape to study.

He likely will put up big numbers because of the talent surrounding him, but he won’t be as godly as he was last season. His style of play also makes him very vulnerable to injury, and the Eagles’ offseason moves have them public enemy No. 1. Vick will get everyone’s best shot, and he has only shown one year of solid production. That is far too much of a risk to use on your No. 1 pick.

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Bruce Feldman and the Evil Empire

ESPN has been the king of the sports media industry for years now. Other networks have their own sports programs that have at least attempted to challenge ESPN’s throne, but for the most part they have failed.

There’s a reason why ESPN has been so dominant. It provides the most comprehensive coverage of the nationwide sports world, allowing viewers and readers to go to one place and find everything they want to know.

But as the ESPN brand has gained more power, it also has shown heavy-handedness and an unwillingness to open itself to criticism. It has been quick to suspend its on-air talent for tarnishing the “ESPN image.”

Some of those suspensions have seemed silly or unjustified in the past, and some of them created minor stirs among fans. But nothing compares to the firestorm surrounding the “suspension that wasn’t a suspension” of Bruce Feldman.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here it is briefly. As reported by SportsbyBrooks, ESPN suspended Feldman for his part in Mike Leach’s book Swing Your Sword.

Leach was fired from Texas Tech after a conflict with Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James. Leach filed a defamation lawsuit against James and the network, and in his book did not have kind things to say about any of the people involved.

Feldman received permission from his employer to take part in the book, but that was before Leach’s firing and the upheaval that followed. And when the book came out and the ESPN brass saw the words in print, they decided to put Feldman’s work on hold.

Feldman is arguably ESPN’s best college football writer and is one of the most respected men in the business. So much so that when the story first surfaced, writers for rival organizations jumped to Feldman’s defense.

Writers from Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, Yahoo Sports and other outlets took to Twitter and began a #FreeBruce campaign in support of Feldman. The movement erupted, resulting in both the #FreeBruce hashtag and Bruce Feldman’s name becoming trending topics within an hour.

The story made ESPN look terrible for supposedly suspending a talented writer for doing a job that he already had asked permission to do. One popular tweet went so far as to call it “ESPN’s Waterloo,” and an unnamed ESPN employee said he would rather be fired so Bruce could get his job back.

The network refused comment on the situation for a full 18 hours before releasing a statement that essentially said Feldman had never been suspended and the whole thing was just one big Internet rumor. The statement claimed the network just needed to evaluate Feldman’s participation in the book before approving him for additional work.

The problem here is that ESPN tried to turn the whole issue into an argument of semantics. They pretty clearly asked Feldman to stop what he was doing and to discontinue using his official ESPN twitter account.

But the statement and ESPN’s subsequent coverage of the issue didn’t fully address the Feldman situation in and of itself. Instead it attacked the original report by SportsbyBrooks, calling it a “sports gossip blog” and saying it was reporting rumor as fact.

Instead of owning up to a mistake and setting it right, ESPN tried to pretend a mistake was never made and turned the entire thing into a “he said, she said.” That’s exactly what happened, as the argument of semantics made it impossible for anyone to confirm wrongdoing.

And now, more than a week after this whole thing started, nothing has been resolved. ESPN claimed it never suspended Feldman, and yet in the same statement said they were allowing him to “resume” his duties. Why would he be resuming anything if he was never asked to stop?

They tried to compare the Feldman situation to timeouts in a football game, saying that when a timeout is called the game is not suspended, it just stops briefly. But that’s exactly what suspension means: “An interruption or temporary revocation.” It doesn’t matter how long that interruption lasts, it still is a suspension.

And if there never was a suspension, why has Feldman still not tweeted since everything went down? He now has gone eight days without a single tweet, when he generally wrote multiple posts every day before that. He had not gone more than one day without writing something all year.

And yet ESPN just gave one vague statement on the issue and then acted like it never happened. The implied statement in all of this is that ESPN has grown so large that it can do as it likes with its employees.

It is the new evil empire, dispensing the people that make it run without remorse. The network wants to maintain this infallible image that is impossible to achieve, and swiftly punishes anyone who speaks ill of it. And in this case, it swiftly punished a guy just because he could be connected to someone who spoke ill of the network.

But worst of all is the fact that none of it really matters. ESPN is this self-fulfilling monster feeding on its employees because it knows hundreds of people will gladly try to jump into the same spot. And at this point, the monster is unstoppable.

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