CHICAGO BEARS UPDATE 

lFANTASY NOTEBOOK: CUTLER READY? WAYNE, S-JAX ARE & MORE

Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... Well now, I'm sitting here enjoying a quiet weekend and playing a bit of catchup after putting the finishing touches on the 2009 Fantasy Football Pro Forecast magazine.

As always, a lot of effort went into the publication. But this one does feel a little special: It's our 20th anniversary edition. Wow. ... That being the case, I'd like to offer a quick nod of recognition and thanks to publisher Emil Kadlec and his partner Bill Robertson. Without their foresight, creativity and diligence, I wouldn't have what has to be one of the world's coolest jobs.

Needless to say, I strongly suggest you thank them, too. A simple visit to our secure on-line order page would probably do nicely. ...

Before we get to the real news and notes of interest, I suppose a quick look at the ongoing bit of manufactured news is in order. I refer of course to Favre Watch 2009: America Held Hostage.

Brad Childress told Minneapolis radio station KFAN this week that he never set a deadline of this week for Brett Favre to decide whether he will play for the Vikings in 2009.

"Absolutely not," there was no deadline, Childress said. "Not even close. Don't know where that would have dropped out of the sky from."

The coach's comments came in response to a pair of reports by ESPN.

The World-Wide Leader's Ed Werder first reported on Monday that a deadline had been set for Favre (which others disputed). On Tuesday evening, Werder reported the Vikings temporarily suspended their pursuit of Favre after he failed to report to this week's organized team activities as mandated by Childress.

"I don't know how you guys in that industry go about your sourcing, 'a source says that a source says,' I don't know, it's questionable, very questionable," Childress said.

I suspect the fact that Werder and ESPN often serve as Favre's personal public relations firm has a little something to do with their sourcing. And as Werder's ESPN colleague Chris Mortensen suggested in the wake of Childress' comments, "Coaches tell truth all the time about injuries, too, don't they?"

A third report by ESPN, this one on Friday advising us that members of the Vikings training and coaching staff are heading to Mississippi to gauge Favre's recovery from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in coming days, offers further proof that Childress plays fast and loose with the facts and that ESPN has an in with Favre.

Whatever. ...

The bottom line here is nothing really changes. We're talking about Brett "Effin'" Favre people. He will return when he decides the time is right. And when he does the Vikings will accept him. Period. ...

With that out of the way, I'll get the ball rolling this week in Chicago where Jay Cutler is already feeling the heat that goes hand-in-hand with high-profile (not to mention controversial) personnel moves.

The good news is the former Bronco understands that.

"Anytime a team wants to make a trade like that and give up what they gave up, it's going to be a lot of pressure, a lot of high expectations," Cutler said last week. "I welcome it. It's going to be fun.

"It's going to be a good challenge."

That's kind of like Noah predicting a pleasant rain shower.

Chicago Sun-Times staffer Brad Biggs might have painted a more accurate picture when he recently suggested: "The Bears don't need Cutler to replace John Elway. They need him to be Elway."

High expectations indeed.

And with high expectations come doubters. Cutler has his share.

Among those questioning whether the former Vanderbilt star is up to the task is KC Joyner, who publishes The Football Scientist. A regular contributor at ESPN.com and to the New York Times, Joyner is well known in NFL circles for his intense film study.

His initial assessment of Chicago's acquisition is worth noting.

"Regarding Cutler, I've said many times and I'll say it again, he'll make Bears fans remember Rex Grossman quite fondly," Joyner said in an online chat on ESPN.com early this month.

That opinion is based on what Joyner calls the "bad decision rate" Cutler has in comparison to other quarterbacks. Using that standard, Joyner finds that Cutler is even more of a risk taker than Grossman was.

Or as Biggs framed it, "One gunslinger has been replaced by another, a guy who just happens to be carrying a bigger gun."

"His bad decision rate is 5 percent," Joyner told Biggs. "That means one out of every 20 passes he throws is either an interception or a near interception because of a mistake he made. A high [yards per attempt] can offset a high bad decision rate but the upper limit for offsetting tends to be around somewhere between 3 and 4 percent. Cutler has got to stop making so many mistakes, period."

Biggs went on to remind readers that Cutler threw 18 interceptions last season in Denver. Only Favre, after a disastrous stretch at season's end, had more with 22. Cutler's yards per attempt average was 7.3, which ranked 10th.

The thinking is that now without Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to throw to, Cutler could wind up pressing. That's not so suggest, however, that Joyner believes Cutler will be a liability from a Fantasy perspective.

"I have no doubt that Cutler will make the Bears wideouts better Fantasy picks," Joyner said. But Joyner also likes Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers better.

"Based on last year's numbers, I would take Rodgers hands down [over Cutler]," Joyner said. "His YPA, success percentage, vertical numbers and bad decision percentages all fare well or were better than Cutler's."

I'm with Joyner.

While both QBs are found in the top-10 on my just assembled Pro Forecast rankings, Rodgers sits at No. 5. Cutler comes in at No. 12. ...

By the way, Joyner is just one of many analysts questioning Cutler. None of the critics has a higher profile than Tony Dungy.

The former Colts coach, now a studio football analyst for NBC, last week questioned whether Cutler had the leadership and maturity to take the Bears to the next level. Dungy went on to suggest the Bears gambled when they dealt Kyle Orton to the Broncos for Cutler.

"[The Bears] took a risk [trading for Cutler]." Dungy said. "I really think Chicago gave up a lot to get a quarterback who they believe is going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But I am not sure he has won enough to merit that yet."

Dungy wonders if Cutler has the maturity to go along with the big arm.

"That remains to be seen. He is a very talented guy who can throw the ball very well. But quarterbacking is so much about leadership and so much about doing things under pressure. There is going to be a lot of pressure on him," Dungy said, according to the Tribune.

"We'll see about his maturity level. That's what I would question. And some of the things that happened leading to him leaving Denver. ... That would concern me as a head coach," Dungy added. "He can make all of the throws, but quarterbacking is much more than just making throws."

Given all this, are the Bears worried?

Apparently not.

Even though head coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Ron Turner never have worked with a talent like Cutler, Chicago Tribune columnist Dan Pompei is convinced they know how to use him.

According to Pompei, Turner and the Bears offensive coaches are not rewriting the playbook for Cutler. But they will be dusting off chapters of it that they rarely, if ever, have used. Without question, the Bears will be different offensively.

Turner has studied how the Broncos used Cutler, and he plans on picking the brain of former Denver coach Mike Shanahan.

Yes, the Bears will still field a run-first attack. But the staff understands what they have in Cutler. According to Pompei, three pro scouts said Cutler's arm is the second-strongest in the NFL after Oakland's JaMarcus Russell.

The Bears figure to try to take full advantage of Cutler's long throws, assuming someone can catch them.

"It's hard in this league to have 60-, 70-, 80-yard drives without getting some big plays," said Turner, who knows all too well. "We've always believed in taking shots [downfield so] I'm excited about what he's going to allow us to do."

As Pompei explained, the beauty of having Cutler is it opens up options for Turner as a game-planner and play-caller. With Cutler, there are no handcuffs or shackles on Turner in terms of his calls. It has become about what the offense can do instead of what it can't do.

Meanwhile, of all the expectations placed on Cutler, Biggs believes the biggest will be finding a Marshall and Royal in a group that, for now, features Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis and rookie Juaquin Iglesias.

Of course, that crew could be augmented with a veteran free agent at some point.

Still, I'm looking for Matt Forte, Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen to continue playing a major role as receivers. Indeed, there are those in Chicago (including Biggs) who believe Olsen will emerge as Cutler's go-to-guy in Chicago.

As Arlington Heights Daily Herald staffer Bob LeGere recently noted, Olsen has proven his ability to make plays since he was drafted in the first round in 2007 and he picked up the pace last season.

He was second on the Bears in catches and receiving yards; his five TD catches were a team high -- all significant improvements over his rookie campaign. Olsen's versatility was also on display as he occasionally split out as a wide receiver and sometimes lined up as an H-back.

Working under the assumption we'll see more of the same this fall, I have Olsen ranked at No. 9 on my current cheat sheet and he has the ability to move into the elite ranks. ...

In Indianapolis. ... With Marvin Harrison gone, you'd expect Reggie Wayne to be front and center in the plans of the Indianapolis Colts' brain trust.

According to Indianapolis Star beat man Mike Chappell, that's true, figuratively and literally.

New head coach Jim Caldwell has rearranged the seating chart in the team meeting room, and now Wayne is right in the middle of the front row, not out at the end of one of the middle rows.

"I've been sitting in the same seat for about 71/2 years," the three-time Pro Bowl receiver said. "Now I'm sitting up there in the front row," Wayne said.

As in front and center, where I suspect we'll find him on a regular basis come Sunday's this fall.

Over the past five seasons, the 2001 first-round draft pick has established himself as one of the league's elite receivers. His 6,230 yards rank first among receivers while his 432 receptions rank fourth. He and Green Bay's Donald Driver are the only players heading into 2009 with five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

And that was with Harrison serving -- for the most part -- as Indy's No. 1 wideout.

But as Chappell suggested this week, Wayne already had escaped Harrison's immense shadow and emerged as quarterback Peyton Manning's most reliable and productive receiver.

"If you asked any cornerback," Manning said, "Reggie had truly established himself as a No. 1 receiver. As a quarterback, boy, what a great luxury to have two No. 1 receivers."

With Harrison's exodus, Wayne becomes the only No. 1.

Or, in Wayne's words, "I am the Marv."

Maybe even the Super Marv. After all, the younger Wayne has been much more durable than his former teammate has been in recent seasons. Including the playoffs, Wayne has started 110 consecutive games.

"You can count on him to be there on Sunday in the fourth quarter on the critical third-and-5 that you have to convert," Manning said. "It's just nice having a guy that can be accountable like that."

Fantasy owners have clearly benefited from that consistent presence. There's little doubt in my mind they'll continue to do so this year. ...

Meanwhile, the biggest question in Indy -- at least from a Fantasy perspective -- is moves into the rotation with Harrison gone.

Although the Colts selected Anthony Gonzalez in the first round of the 2007 draft to man the slot, Pro Football Weekly reports it's looking more and more as if he will planted on the outside opposite Wayne, at least for the foreseeable future.

In terms of a third wideout, Chappell reports that Pierre Garcon is in the midst of a solid summer and probably is the front-runner to fill the No. 3 spot behind Wayne and Gonzalez.

Chappell notes that Garcon has good speed and size (6-0, 210 pounds) and caught most of what was thrown to him during the OTAs.

But PFW believes the third "receiver" the Colts have the most confidence in is tight end Dallas Clark; and they love what they see from the big speedster in the slot. ...

Also in Indianapolis. ... It would appear getting the running game on track will be a priority this fall. How can we tell?

Well, when the owner is the guy squeaking the loudest about it, some grease is going to be applied.

And according to the man who signs the checks, Jim Irsay, the team's success hinges on the running game regaining its bounce and providing the Manning-led offense with balance.

That's directly linked to the offensive line, unstable a year ago because of injuries, rebounding from a poor season.

"Our ability to rush the football was completely unacceptable last year," Irsay said. "It was more of a miracle that we were able to disguise the problem so much and go so far and do so much with it being such a problem."

As Chappell noted, the running game was a lightning rod for criticism in 2008. It ranked No. 31 in yards per game and No. 32 in yards per attempt. The 3.4 yards-per-attempt average is the fifth lowest in club history.

But to only cast an accusatory finger at running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes for the unsatisfactory output would be misguided.

Indeed, injuries to linemen that forced the Colts to use six starting combinations, including a group that played for the first time in their playoff loss at San Diego.

"It was a lot of things," Addai said of the issues.

According to Chappell the list of reasons also included Addai dealing with hamstring, shoulder and knee issues. A 2007 Pro Bowler, he's coming off his least productive season -- 544 yards, 3.5 yards per attempt -- and off-season surgery on his right knee.

But he's eager to quiet his critics and reestablish himself and the ground game. And Irsay is right; a solid rushing attack is a key to the team's success.

Over the past seven regular seasons, the Colts are 52-6 (.897) when they've run for at least 100 yards. They're 33-21 (.600) when they're below 100.

Aside from a healthier offensive line, however, what might lead us to believe Addai is ready to regain past form? Well, as SI.com's Jim Trotter suggested, few things are more motivational than your team using a first-round draft choice on someone at your position.

That's the situation with Indianapolis' Addai, whose rushing totals and games played have declined each of the past two years.

The Colts selected UConn's Donald Brown 27th overall this year, and the tentative plan is to take advantage of each player's abilities, similar to what Indy did with Addai and Rhodes three years ago en route to a Super Bowl title.

But Trotter was quick to add the selection of Brown is also a message to Addai that it's time for him to step up.

Worth noting: Addai was held out of last week's mandatory mini-camp as he completed his rehabilitation from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. That meant more work for first-round draft pick Brown.

And according to Chappell, Brown was difficult to ignore.

Per Chappell, "[Brown] showed he's still a work in progress as a receiver, but he displayed shiftiness and possesses great acceleration through the line of scrimmage. ..."

One last note here -- following up on a previous story. ... Irsay put an end to speculation last weekend when he confirmed Tom Moore and Howard Mudd, longtime assistant coaches who retired last month, would be rehired as consultants in time for training camp.

He took it a step further, explaining each would have "significant roles" on Caldwell's staff. ...

In St. Louis. ... Steven Jackson is focused on becoming a better route runner and receiver this fall. Good thing. For the West Coast-style offense that coordinator Pat Shurmur has installed to perk smoothly, Jackson will have to carry a big load, both as a runner and receiver.

"I'm working on being a complete running back," he said. "I've said that in the past, but this year I'm really getting detailed coaching."

After working with new strength coach Rock Gullickson, Jackson claims he's "definitely stronger now." Because of new running backs coach Sylvester Croom, Jackson says he's "actually understanding the details on (running a pass) route."

Shurmur was with the Eagles when running back Brian Westbrook averaged 84.7 receptions per 16 regular-season games over a five-year period ending last season.

It's no stretch to suggest Jackson is more of a prototypical workhorse running back than Westbrook.

As ESPN.com's Mike Sando blogged last week, "Jackson is a legitimate 6-2 and he appears more formidable than his 235-pound listed weight might suggest. The Rams do not have established alternatives behind Jackson. The running game is going to be the focus, but I also see reasons for Jackson's receiving numbers to increase."

Sando went on to remind readers that Jackson has averaged 21.4 carries per game over the last three seasons. His receptions per game fell from 5.6 during his 90-catch season in 2006 to about 3.3 per game over the last two seasons.

Sando believes somewhere in the middle seems realistic for Jackson. The Rams lack established wide receivers. Jackson could be their best option -- rushing and receiving -- more of the time.

I'm on board with that. How on board?

Well. ... I snagged Jackson with the fourth pick overall in a MockDraftCentral.com expert draft this past week. My biggest concern? It's not Jackson's ability to produce as desired. It's the fact he's played 16 games in a season just once during his five-year career. ...

In Baltimore. ... As the Ravens work through offseason mini-camps, they have two priorities for the offense heading into training camp, which opens in late July.

According to Baltimore Sun staffer Mike Preston, coaches want to improve their scoring inside their opponents' 20-yard line and their third-down efficiency.

Last season, the Ravens were ranked No. 25 in the NFL in scoring inside the red zone. Of the team's 51 possessions inside the 20, the Ravens recorded only 24 touchdowns and 20 field goals. The top-ranked team was the Indianapolis Colts, who had 50 possessions inside the 20 and produced 34 touchdowns and 11 field goals. The Panthers were No. 2 with 32 touchdowns and 14 field goals in 49 possessions.

The Ravens were 15th in the league in converting third-down opportunities.

"We want to continue improving in every area," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said, "and we can do that with technique and tightening up on our fundamentals. But we've got to get better on third downs and inside the scoring zone because they are two major areas. We've got to get more explosive because the main objective is to always score as many points as possible."

Preston believes the Ravens can improve with the play of quarterback Joe Flacco alone.

Coaches were cautious with Flacco in his rookie season, especially in the red zone early in the year. The offense should be more open in 2009. ...

Meanwhile, following up on an item in last week's Notebook, Willis McGahee has been running behind Ray Rice in recent workouts.

This week we learned that McGahee seems to have accepted the reserve role.

"I don't mind," McGahee said Tuesday during the Ravens' passing camp. "Ray has been here the whole offseason. It wouldn't be right, just coming in and taking over. I respect game.

"Ray has been here the whole offseason and going with the ones when I wasn't here. Work is work. You're going to get work whether it's with the first, second or third."

For McGahee, starting is something he had grown accustomed to as a former Pro Bowl runner who gained 1,207 yards and scored seven touchdowns during his first season in Baltimore two years ago following a trade from the Buffalo Bills.

"I know what I can do," said McGahee, who's playing under a seven-year, $40.12 million contract. "I know I can turn the light switch on when I need to. I'm ready to turn it on."

However, McGahee was hampered by injuries to his knee, ribs and eyes last season as he rushed for a career-low 671 yards.

Now, Carroll County Times staffer Aaron Wilson reports that McGahee's health is improving and he expects to be fully recovered by training camp.

"I don't feel anything in my knee," McGahee said. "I'm just getting it stronger and ready to break long runs and make great blocks. ... Everything is coming along. I'm right where I want to be.

"As long as I'm ready for the season opener, that's all I'm worried about. I'll be cleared for training camp, no doubt. ..."

His role, however, is likely to remain a question mark throughout the summer and perhaps into the regular season. ....

Also according to Wilson, Derrick Mason is still unsure if he'll be ready for training camp as he recovers from shoulder surgery to repair a damaged labrum and scapula.

Mason is participating in drills, but isn't cleared for contact yet.

"You never know with Superman," Mason said. "I can come out with the cape and it could be the first day or the second week. You never know, but I'm optimistic that when it's time to play, I'll be able to play whenever it is. I'll be able to play when we play Kansas City."

The Ravens open the season Sept. 13 at home against the Chiefs. ...

In Seattle. ... A Wednesday workout limited to position drills was Deion Branch's first practice of any kind since the days leading into last season's finale Dec. 28 against Arizona.

He then elected to have a second, clean-out surgery on his reconstructed left knee.

What he called a "minor, routine" operation in early March was his second on the knee in 13 months since he shredded it making a cut at Green Bay in the playoffs in January 2008.

But as Associated Press sports writer Gregg Bell explained, just because Branch is back on the field doesn't mean he's back to normal. As in, how he felt in 2006 when Seattle traded a first-round draft choice to New England to get the former Super Bowl MVP, and then signed him to a $39 million contract with $13 million guaranteed.

That was before he destroyed his knee.

"You will never be back to normal once you have this type of procedure done. I actually feel stronger, but it's not normal," said Branch, who turns 30 next month. "Something has been done that removed (parts) of my knee. My biggest thing is to continue to strengthen it."

Still, Branch said he will attempt to play the same way and make the same moves that made him a star earlier this decade with the Patriots.

"I'll be OK. I'll never think about my knee once I take the field," he said.

Maybe so. ... But T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson continue to fly higher on the Fantasy radar than Branch and Nate Burleson, who could turn out to be one of this year's top value picks.

Ironically, just as Branch returned, Burleson sat out Wednesday's workout.

Burleson, who has been working hard to return from his own left knee surgery last season, said he tweaked a hamstring on the opposite leg in workouts last week and was just being cautious.

Burleson said he's full speed ahead for July's camp.

"It's been going better than expected, to be honest with you. Just getting my rhythm back was kind of tough at first, but there are times when I can go out there and run and not feel it at all. Sometimes I watch myself on film and I'd be running faster than I felt and that's always a good thing. Because with that knee brace, you don't feel as fast as you want.

"It's been a really long road, but I'm finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The last few weeks I've gone through all the practices without sitting out any drills or being pulled out of anything. So right now we're just being cautious and making sure we don't tweak this hammy any more.

"I know for sure, once training camp comes around, I'm all the way in."

While Burleson might be a great value pick, those interested in securing Carlson's services can expect him to be among the first 10 tight ends taken. Especially if he continues to impress to the degree he has in recent workouts.

Sando offered the following assessment after attending practice this past week: "Carlson stands out right away. Defensive backs are bouncing off him after he catches the ball and turns upfield. Carlson makes overhead catches appear routine even with a defender trailing him closely.

"Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said the staff is using Carlson extensively across multiple packages, including on third down. ..."

While more than a few observers believe Houshmandzadeh's ability to work the middle of the field could cut into Carlson's opportunities, it will be a major surprise if the second-year tight end doesn't progress this fall. ...

In New England. ... Fred Taylor is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, managing only 556 yards in 13 games. But Trotter recently advised readers not to look for a second straight sub-par season now that he has signed with the Patriots.

Trotter went on to state his case by noting the Patriots arguably have the deadliest passing game in the league with Tom Brady back from reconstructive knee surgery. He threw for a league-record 50 touchdowns two years ago and should be even more lethal with the arrival of veteran newcomers Joey Galloway and Chris Baker.

Defenses are going to have to play a lot of nickel and dime packages, which should create running lanes for Taylor, who still has breakaway speed despite being 33.

He also won't have to shoulder the load alone with Laurence Maroney returning from a season-ending shoulder injury.

As Trotter suggested, it's hard not to look at Taylor and think Corey Dillon, the veteran back who appeared to be on the decline after eight seasons with Cincinnati but ran for 1,635 yards and a Super Bowl victory in his first season with the Patriots. ...

Trotter isn't alone in his contention. In a recent expert mock draft conducted for this year's Fantasy Football Cheatsheets magazine, Taylor was the first New England running back selected. He went in the ninth round -- a full two rounds before the next Patriot ball carrier, Maroney. ...

And finally this week, from our "Apparently There Is Crying In Football File. ..." In a report that has to be one Michael Crabtree could have done without, San Francisco Chronicle staffer Kevin Lynch reported on Friday that head coach Mike Singletary claims he almost made the first-round draft pick cry.

Seriously. ...

Singletary found Crabtree running routes during the first mini-camp and admonished him for running before he was cleared by the medical staff. Crabtree is recovering from off-season foot surgery.

Singletary recounted the conversation he had with his prized rookie.

"'I've got nothing against you. I'm not angry or anything. I just want you to know, you have to do everything the doctors want you to do so that you can get better.' I said, 'I'm not worried about what you can do.' I said, 'I know. We drafted you at No. 10. We know what you can do. We just want to make sure that when you come out here, you're ready to go.'

"So, he's done the things that he needs to do, spending a lot of time with (receivers coach Jerry] Sullivan. I know Jerry is excited about what he's seeing as well."

As Wilson suggested in a Profootballtalk.com entry, it doesn't sound like enough to make someone so upset that they're nearly bursting into tears, but, then again, it doesn't specify how loud, colorful and wide-eyed that Singletary might have been during the exchange.

For what it's worth, Crabtree has started sprinting and should be ready for the start of training camp. There is no word on whether he's stocked up on tissues. ...

That's it for this week's Notebook. I'll check in again next Sunday. ... In the meantime, keep an eye on the News & Views section of this site for late-breaking news and other tidbits of interest. Watch the Headline News section for more in-depth reviews of current events -- including the Fantasy Notebook.


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