by Russ Bliss (1/20/11)

Well what do you know? We haven't even gotten to the Conference Championship games and already all the head coaching vacancies in the NFL have been filled. That's a rarity as usually we see at least one team, and usually more than one, waiting until after the Super Bowl to make final decisions about who will be the new head coach for their team. But we had 7 vacancies and all have been filled now. New head coaches and coaching staffs can have an impact on the fantasy football projections of players on those teams.

Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera replaces John Fox. This is Rivera's first time as a head coach in the NFL and his pedigree is as a defensive coach having been a defensive coordinator most recently with the San Diego Chargers. He pilfered the Chargers TE coach, Rob Chudzinski to take over as the offensive coordinator for Carolina in 2011. Chudzinski has his work cut out for him in Carolina as there is a lack of talent at QB, WR, and TE. At least he'll have a good RB situation with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. He may even have impending free agent DeAngelo Williams as well, but his status for the 2011 season is up in the air until the new collective bargaining agreement gets worked out between NFL owners and the players union. His first order of business is to determine if Jimmy Clausen can be molded into an effective NFL QB after a disastrous rookie season or does he need to get a veteran in to handle the offense? WR Steve Smith is still a playmaker, but desperately needs another weapon opposite him to take some of the pressure off of him. Is either Brandon LaFell or David Gettis that guy? Chudzinski will also have to determine if impending free agent TE Dante Rosario can become a top flight pass catching TE, which he's shown glimpses of, or whether they need to get another, more athletic option.

Cleveland Browns: Pat Shurmur replaces Eric Mangini. Shurmur brings extensive knowledge of the west coast system of offense and will implement it immediately. His system should mesh well with QB Colt McCoy, who has established himself as the favorite to start in 2011 after a surprisingly solid rookie campaign. The WR corps will have to adjust to the shorter passing routes preferred by Shurmur and it will be interesting to see if WR's Mohamad Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie can adjust as both are more vertical types of WR's better suited for running intermediate to deeper routes. He'll also have to sort out how to best rotate his RB's as he'll have 2010 fantasy football surprise stud Peyton Hillis along with Montario Hardesty (who should be fully recovered from a torn ACL injury suffered before the regular season started). Hardesty was drafted to be the Brown's feature RB but he was an injury concern coming out of college and a rotation between him and Hillis is most likely as Hillis wore down as the season got into the final weeks.

Dallas Cowboys: Jason Garrett replaces Wade Phillips. Garrett took over for Phillips when he was fired midway thru the 2010 season and the interim tag was removed and Garrett named the new head coach soon after the season ended as the Cowboys played much better with Garrett at the helm than they did before Phillips was let go. Garrett being named the head coach means stability for the Cowboys offense and no changes to the offensive system. That bodes well for QB Tony Romo, who has excelled in this offense, and with Miles Austin and Dez Bryant locked in as the starting WR's, big things can be expected by this group. TE Jason Witten will continue being one of the elite fantasy TE's in the game and place highly in 2011 fantasy football rankings for the position again. The biggest question is at RB where Felix Jones doesn't seem able to take over as a feature RB and while Tashard Choice seems to be capable of being an effective partner in a running back by committee, there's also plodding Marion Barber in the mix as well, and Barber appears to be a favorite of Garrett so Choice could be on the way out.  

Denver Broncos: John Fox replaces Josh McDaniels and was picked over Denver's interim coach after they fired McDaniels, Eric Studesville. Studesville remains on the staff as the RB's coach under Fox, and Mike McCoy was retained as well to remain the offensive coordinator. Fox will focus on the defensive side of the ball and leave the offensive system intact. That's not a bad thing as the Broncos offense has been good; it's the defense that has seriously let down this team. The consistency on offense bodes well for the development of QB Tim Tebow, but Tebow may not be ready to take over as the starting QB. It's a foregone conclusion that Kyle Orton, who excelled in Denver the last 2 seasons, is likely on his way out and a veteran QB may be brought in to give Tebow another year to learn the nuances of being a NFL QB. The change in blocking schemes to a zone blocking scheme could pay dividends for RB Knowshon Moreno. Moreno has top flight talent, but injuries have littered his first two seasons. Moreno was too highly regarded heading into fantasy drafts in 2010, but if his draft stock slips this season, he could be a prime fantasy football sleeper in 2011.

Minnesota Vikings: Leslie Frazier replaces Brad Childress. Frazier took as the interim head coach for Minnesota when they fired Childress during the season and was considered to be a top prospect for a head coaching job if the Vikings didn't retain him. Frazier was the team's defensive coordinator and has hired former Falcons QB's coach Bill Musgrave to take over as the offensive coordinator. Musgrave's biggest challenge will be to develop a young QB like he did with Matt Ryan the last few years in Atlanta. The acquisition of a veteran QB is likely to be a priority and I wouldn't rule out the Vikings using a high draft pick on a QB for the future as Joe Webb didn't show enough and has "backup QB" written all over him. The Vikings may try to see if Tarvaris Jackson can take a step up, but it appears unlikely he is their answer. The rest of the pieces are in place as the Vikings have an elite RB in Adrian Peterson, and they're likely to rely plenty on him in 2011. The WR's are there with Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and TE Visanthe Shiancoe is steady, so QB is the biggest need to address.

Oakland Raiders: Hue Jackson replaces Tom Cable. Jackson was the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2010 and is a staunch supporter of Jason Campbell so Campbell should head into 2011 as the unquestioned starter. Campbell will also benefit from the offensive system not changing (as it has all too often in Campbell's pro career) and all he really needs is for his young WR corps to step up and stop dropping passes. The RB's are there with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, with McFadden likely to be the primary after a stellar showing (when healthy) in 2010. But between first round flop Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and Chaz Schilens, the Raiders have question marks at the WR position. Ford is a potential 2011 fantasy football sleeper despite his lack of ideal size, but will he be given a chance with the others there? At least TE Zach Miller (coming off a solid 2010 season) should continue to develop into one of the top fantasy TE's.

San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh replaces Mike Singletary. Harbaugh makes the jump from the college ranks to take over a 49ers offense that has talent, but couldn't put it together into tangible form. Much of that blame lies at the QB position where it's very likely former first round pick Alex Smith is on his way out and there is no immediate successor on the current roster. Depending on what happens with CBA, the 49ers may be stuck with Smith for the 2011 season and it would be a big surprise if they didn't draft a QB early in the 2011 NFL Draft. Harbaugh brought in his college offensive coordinator at Stanford, Greg Roman, to assume control of the offense for the 49ers and while they got a lot of notoriety for Andrew Luck, it was the rushing game that really flourished for them at Stanford. If Frank Gore can shake the injuries that seem to plague him each season, Gore should be in line to continue being a great #1 RB in fantasy football. The WR's are there with Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan, and even Ted Ginn Jr. has talent. TE Vernon Davis is athletically the best TE in the game, but he and the WR's need a reliable QB. And addressing that will be the top priority for them this off-season.