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Fantasy Notebook: Big Ben, Eli Must Improve In '07 & More
While most of the attention in recent days has rightfully been focused on roster moves and the free-agent signing period, there are other (mostly) non-free agent-related stories of interest. And those stories will be front and center in this week's Fantasy Notebook.

Starting in Pittsburgh, where former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt offered up some interesting views of Ben Roethlisberger's less-than-impressive 2006 season -- and others questioned the quarterback's work ethic.

As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Ed Bouchette recounted it, long after his broken jaw, orbital bone and nose healed from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Roethlisberger felt the effects of the trauma on the football field.

Whisenhunt, now the head coach of the Cardinals, believes -- in hindsight -- that Roethlisberger's June 12 accident coupled with his Sept. 3 appendectomy caused the quarterback to become gun-shy for most of last season.

"I just saw physically in the pocket there were some things you could just sense he wasn't as confident [about] as he was the year before," said Whisenhunt, speaking at the NFL's annual Scouting Combine. "A lot of that I think was because of recovering from the injuries and having some doubts of whether he was 100 percent healthy or not."

According to Bouchette, it was the first time someone from the Steelers' staff last season acknowledged that Roethlisberger was affected on the field from his injuries off of it. Whisenhunt, however, noted they did not feel that way last September.

Bouchette went on to remind readers that Roethlisberger played in all four preseason games after overcoming the accident in which his motorcycle collided with a car. He was set to play in the Sept. 7 opener against Miami, but the appendectomy sidelined him for that game.

He returned to start Sept. 18 at Jacksonville and did not miss another game, even after his concussion Oct. 22 at Atlanta.

It was by far his worst season of three in the NFL.

Roethlisberger threw for 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions -- three more than in his first two seasons combined. His passer rating of 75.4 was 23 points below his combined rating of his first two seasons.

Roethlisberger reported to training camp on time and immediately threw himself into all of the team's practices and drills and said he felt fine. Doctors passed him medically to play, and he started the first preseason game in Arizona Aug. 12.

"When we started the season, even in training camp, it didn't seem like it would have an effect," Whisenhunt said. "But, at the end, and when you look at it again, I am convinced it did. Not because of his health, he is a tough kid and he did a good job coming back and being prepared. But from the standpoint of being in the pocket and facing the rush, certainly there was some trauma with him that maybe we all underestimated, and I think it took him longer to get over that than we all thought."

Roethlisberger played in every pre-season game, but not much. He threw 22 passes, completed 15 for 111 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Yet, there were no obvious signs that the motorcycle accident affected his play.

"Because of the way we interacted with him in training camp, on the practice field, we had the tendency to think he was fine and ready to go," Whisenhunt said. "Early in the season, you could tell he wasn't as comfortable as he was in the past, and I am convinced that was the result of things that happened in the offseason."

That would include his Sept. 3 appendectomy.

"Yeah, I'm sure it did," Whisenhunt said. "Look at the history -- every time he was starting to recover from something, he had a setback, whether it was the appendectomy or the concussion. And it wasn't until it was the end of the year and he was healthy that he had a stretch of games that you started to see his play pick back up."

Whisenhunt acknowledged that, in hindsight, Charlie Batch should have started at quarterback at least the second game of the season and maybe others to give Roethlisberger more time to recover. But Whisenhunt also quickly noted that, given what the coaches knew in September, they made what they felt was the best decision at the time, and he was not critical of that.

Roethlisberger played poorly in his first three starts when he threw seven interceptions and no touchdown passes against Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego and the reigning Super Bowl champs lost all three for a 1-3 start to an 8-8 season.

Whisenhunt, though, believes Roethlisberger will bounce back.

"I see him as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He's an outstanding young player. I think as he gets more experience he'll see things better and have opportunities to make more plays in the pocket, but he'll still have the element of being able to move outside the pocket."

Roethlisberger has a new head coach in Mike Tomlin, a new coordinator in Bruce Arians and a new quarterbacks coach in Ken Anderson.

"Well, he's always been very resilient in anything," Whisenhunt said of the effect it might have on the quarterback. "I think he's a competitor first and foremost. When he gets on the field, he's going to compete; he's going to have success."

Tomlin agrees. The new coach told Pro Football Weekly that Roethlisberger can be special.

"No question he can be an elite quarterback," Tomlin said. "Like everyone, we have to be blue-collar in our approach. He has to be blue-collar in his approach. We've got to roll our sleeves up and come to work every day, be willing to do the drudgery it takes to be great

It should be noted, however, that not everybody is convinced Roethlisberger is a blue-collar guy, with Post-Gazette columnist Peter Diana at the front of that line.

According to Diana, "Big Ben's poor work habits had just as much to do with his rotten play."

Diana conceded that no one can say for sure what effects Roethlisberger's trauma had on him. Even now, he probably can't determine that. It's too ambiguous to actually measure.

But Diana went to suggest what do know is Roethlisberger almost certainly would have played better if he had cared more about his job.

Apparently it was no secret at Steelers' headquarters that Big Ben wasn't the team's hardest worker. According to Diana, a lot of people -- team executives, coaches and even players -- joked how he frequently was the last on and the first off the practice field, although they didn't see much humor in it.

Seldom did he stay after practice to throw to his receivers and work on his timing with them even though Hines Ward missed training camp with a hamstring injury, Nate Washington was getting his first real playing time and Santonio Holmes was a rookie. Maybe it would have been different if he had been putting in extra time in the film room. But he wasn't.

As Diana put it: "He's no Peyton Manning that way."

It would be nice to think Roethlisberger learned from everything that happened to him last year. As Diana pointed out, one day soon, when he meets with the local media for the first time since the end of last season, he'll be asked about Whisenhunt's comments.

Diana added: "Here's hoping he responds by saying: 'You know what? I didn't play well last season. The reasons don't matter. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen again.'"

Actually, Roethlisberger said something along those lines after he threw two interceptions in a home loss to the Ravens in December, a defeat that eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.

"I told some of the receivers and some of the other guys that we need to get better. I'm going to stay around here a lot. We'll work out together this offseason and get better together."

As Diana summed up: "It's time for Roethlisberger to start living up to his word and honoring his commitment."

And it's up to Tomlin to make sure he does. ...

In New York. ... Jerry Reese, the Giants' new general manager, said last Saturday that he would like to see tight end Jeremy Shockey and receiver Plaxico Burress forge a deeper connection with quarterback Eli Manning.

According to New York Times staff reporter Karen Crouse, Reese said he planned to talk to Burress and Shockey about spending at least some of the spring working out with Manning instead of training in Miami, as they did last year.

"Do we want those guys to be there to participate with Eli in off-season programs?" he said at the combine in remarks overshadowed by his comments on Buffalo running back Willis McGahee. "Absolutely we do. But you can't make these people come."

In fact, helping Manning fulfill his potential was a central theme of Reese's 15-minute question-and-answer session with reporters.

Reese said he expected Manning, 26, to be a more polished quarterback next season. As he did in 2005, he struggled in the second half of the season, finishing with a passer rating of 77.0 in 2006.

"Obviously, he's not where he wants to be right now," Reese said. "But the guy's been a full-time starter for two years. I really expect him to make a big step."

He added, "I think in his third year, things will slow down even more for him, and he'll start to do the things we expect him to do."

And if he doesn't? Reese refused to entertain the thought.

"Eli's our quarterback," he said. "We're not looking anywhere else."

Reese also said Manning's favorite target, Amani Toomer, was ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from a knee injury. "We expect him to make a full recovery and be back for us," Reese said.

The loss of Toomer, who had 60 receptions and 7 touchdowns in 2005, was a severe blow to the offense.

"We missed him a lot," Reese said, adding "He's a sure-handed guy that knows how to get open. ..."

Other Fantasy-specific news and notes from around the NFL. ...

In Atlanta. ... New head coach Bobby Petrino expects better passing and more consistency from Michael Vick next season -- not another 1,000-yard rushing season.

Speaking to reporters at the combine last Saturday, the coach said he has analyzed Vick's throws from 2006 and reached one conclusion.

"I think, certainly, we'll see him have a better year throwing the ball this year," Petrino said. "We feel he can make all the throws he needs to make."

Vick became the first NFL quarterback to top 1,000 yards rushing in a season last year, but the Falcons finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

Although Petrino enjoyed watching Vick running and throwing, the coach said his new offensive system could limit Vick's carries in 2007.

"We'd certainly like to see him throw for more yards," Petrino said. "The difference between the run game and the pass game, we need to balance that out and certainly be more effective throwing the football and that will probably reduce his amount of runs."

Petrino was known in college for designing Louisville's wide-open offense, and has said Vick will have a more active role in the offense.

Since being hired Jan. 7 to replace Jim Mora, Petrino has viewed videotape of his quarterback's three-step and five-step drops. He is convinced Vick can succeed in Atlanta's new style if he gets better protection and more space to throw.

"He's energized and motivated to be coming in and running our offense," Petrino said. "We have a lot to do, but we're really looking forward to it. ..."

In Seattle. ... The clock is running toward Shaun Alexander's 30th birthday. That is significant because franchise running backs traditionally start running into injury-related problems when they hit 30, as Alexander will on August 30.

According to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Clare Farnsworth, this development can be viewed in at least two different ways.

Per Farnsworth, the glass-is-half-empty take with Alexander is that he missed six games last season -- the first of his remarkably productive and durable seven-year career -- with a cracked bone in his left foot.

The glass-is-half-full take, however, is that Alexander is doing the right thing this offseason -- reenergizing. Alexander admits that he spent too much time last offseason dealing with everything that went into being the league MVP, setting the single-season record for touchdowns scored and leading the NFL in rushing during the Seahawks run to the Super Bowl.

Unable to say no to this, that and the other, Alexander was rundown before injuring his foot in the regular-season opener.

Farnsworth went on to suggest that another plus in sidestepping the diminished results of 30-plus backs is Alexander's oft-misinterpreted -- and at times criticized -- running style.

It's true. His gliding gait allows him to show a would-be tackler a leg, only to pull it away before the stop can be made. It's the source of opponents lamenting all the "missed tackles" after playing against Alexander, and the reason Alexander rarely takes the big hit.

And he knows it. In an interview conducted last May, Alexander told me that style is definitely a factor in his success.

"I'm like a boxer," he explained. "Whenever I see a weakness, I'll throw the best punch I have."

Let's hope he still has a few good punches left. ...

In Carolina. ... According to PFW, along with fixing the offensive-line play, new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, a former O-line coach, has been charged with improving a stagnant running game.

The Panthers signed former backup DeShaun Foster to a four-year contract last year and handed him the starting reins, but he didn't appear elusive and he wasn't powerful enough to run up the middle. They drafted DeAngelo Williams in the first round, but he showed a knack for darting to the outside.

Davidson told a group of reporters at the combine that he is just beginning to evaluate the backfield personnel.

"I'm comfortable, but until I see them in live action. ... I'm going to walk the fence on that one," Davidson said. Neither runner fulfills head coach John Fox's desire for a power-running offense.

But at least one local reporter -- Charlotte Observer staffer Pat Yasinskas -- has a more definitive view.

There has not been much speculation about Foster as a potential cap casualty. But according to Yasinskas, "Maybe there should be, because it's pretty obvious Williams is the future at running back."

The Panthers could clear $3.3 million in cap space by simply releasing Foster. At the very least, they'll try to restructure his deal.

Meanwhile, PFW advised readers to keep an eye on Corey Dillon, who was released by the Patriots on Friday.

Dillon is just the type of between-the-tackles bruiser the Panthers are looking for. Dillon also has a Panthers connection: He worked with Davidson when they were both with the Patriots in 2004. ...

In Jacksonville. ... Receiver Matt Jones wowed observers in 2005 with a seemingly legendary performance at the combine.

But as Florida Times-Union staffer Michael C. Wright noted, his name has become synonymous with two words since then: "Workout wonder."

Jones' 2005 performance became part of the chatter in the media room at the combine last weekend when head coach Jack Del Rio spoke with a group of more than 30 reporters from across the country.

While Jones' impressive workout numbers haven't quite transferred to the football field, he's still developing while learning the subtleties that come with switching positions from college to the NFL.

"He's been two years now at wide receiver," Del Rio said. "In both of those years he had some soft tissue injuries that slowed his development. He's really shown the ability to be a terrific playmaker down the field."

Despite missing time with nagging leg injuries, Jones finished with a team-high 643 yards receiving and four touchdowns in 2006.

But as Wright reminded readers, during a three-game stretch in November, Jones virtually disappeared, catching just four passes. In a loss to Houston, he dropped two passes that resulted in interceptions in the club's loss.

"Our challenge this offseason is to work with him on being a more consistent route runner and a more consistent player at his position," Del Rio said. "Part of that should be a natural development in his third year now that he's playing the position.

"He went from a quarterback who handled the ball, and there's a little bit of a transformation there that's taken place, and he'll take another step this year for us."

Or at least they hope he will.

After using first-round draft picks on offensive players in each of the last four years, the Jags are expected to go the other direction during this April's NFL Draft.

Jaguars vice president of player personnel James "Shack" Harris made that clear last Saturday, saying the team doesn't have any plans of using the No. 17 overall pick this year to take a wide receiver.

"We won't go receiver in the first round this year," Harris said. "There are certain things we're going to look for on defense in this draft [and] hopefully, the right fit is there when we pick."

Part of the reluctance to commit another first-round pick to a receiver stems from the Jaguars' desire to give former first-rounders Reggie Williams and Jones more time to develop.

Williams and Jones caught a combined 93 passes for 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns.

By comparison, AFC South wide receivers such as Houston's Andre Johnson caught 103 balls for 1,147 yards and five touchdowns. Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison hauled in 95 receptions for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and teammate Reggie Wayne caught 86 passes for 1,310 yards and nine touchdowns.

The team addressed their desire to land a veteran capable of playing in the slot and to help in the development of Williams and Jones Saturday, when they signed Browns veteran wideout Dennis Northcutt.

"We're just looking for an addition to the group we have, maybe someone that can do something different," Harris said before Northcutt's signing. "He'll just give you other options. Also, he'll maybe help the other guys. We're just looking for a good fit."

They're obviously hoping the speedy Northcutt, who is certainly best-suited to a limited role, provides that fit. ...

In New York. ... Following up on an item from Thursday, when the Jets made a big splash by announcing the signing of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery to a contract extension, we now have some numbers to go with the news.

Cotchery, who will be entering his fourth NFL season, signed a five-year extension that Newark Star-Ledger beat writer Dave Hutchinson reports is worth slightly more than $20 million, with a $7 million signing bonus.

Cotchery was entering the final year of his four-year deal.

During training camp last summer, Cotchery beat out veteran Justin McCareins for the starting job and went on to post a career-best 82 catches for 961 yards and six touchdowns. Before that, he had just 25 career receptions in his first two seasons.

"Jerricho Cotchery exemplifies everything we're looking for in our players," head coach Eric Mangini said in a statement. "He's smart, tough, hard-working, selfless, competitive and football is important to him."

Cotchery, a fourth-round pick who has turned into an emerging star, could've waited until he became an unrestricted free agent following the 2007 season and possibly land a mega-contract.

"I really didn't (think about that) because I wanted to stay with the Jets," Cotchery said in a conference call. "This is the organization that drafted me and I wanted to be loyal to them. The other teams, if they wanted me, they could've drafted me. This time around, they won't have a second chance to get me. I love the Jets and they've shown me tons of love. ..."

Also according to Hutchinson, the Jets tried to acquire Redskins running back Ladell Betts in a trade but a potential deal fell through.

The Jets have been tied to any number of free-agent running backs -- San Diego's restricted free agent Michael Turner and unrestricted free agents Dillon and Chris Brown -- but based on the effort to land Betts, it's clear they're willing to look at other possibilities, too. ...

In Dallas. ... According to Fort Worth Star-Telegram staffer Mac Engel, Terrell Owens said he was groggy after having surgery on his right ring finger Thursday, but was "good."

It's the second procedure Owens has had to repair a torn tendon in his finger since the season ended.

"Everything went OK," Owens said. "I'm good."

Owens said he is taking his rehab "day by day."

The surgery took place in Miami. Owens said he didn't know when he would return to Dallas to start the off-season program, which begins later this month, but agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN viewers on Thursday that his client would be ready to catch passes as early as May.

Don't bet on that; previous reports have indicated Owens won't be ready to start catching passes until July.

In Oakland. ... While most of the attention being paid to Raider receivers has been directed at Randy Moss and Jerry Porter, they certainly haven't been the sole focus of team officials.

While new coach Lane Kiffin continues to concentrate on bolstering an offensive unit that scored a league-worst 168 points and had few productive players, receiver Ronald Curry was one of the few exceptions.

To that end, the Raiders turned their attention toward restructuring Curry's contract as a means of avoiding a $5 million roster bonus due Wednesday and giving them more salary-cap room.

Working out a new deal with Curry would prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent after next season.

"We are in the process of negotiating a long-term extension for Ronald to remain with the organization," said Brian Levy, Curry's agent. "The negotiations are proceeding in a positive fashion between myself and Michael Lombardi."

According to the Contra Costa Times, that Lombardi, the team's senior personnel executive, is involved passes as news, as well.

Managing general partner Al Davis handled the coach search process this time, with Lombardi left to wonder what the future held for him. In the past, Lombardi has been an integral part of any coach search and has been the point man on most of the contract negotiations. ...

Also. ... The Raiders also have approached LaMont Jordan about restructuring a contract that calls for the running back to receive a $4.75 million roster bonus Wednesday and counts $7.15 million against the cap this season.

A person close to the negotiations told the Times Jordan isn't sure if he wants to restructure. If not, that increases the likelihood of the Raiders releasing him.

In Buffalo. ... The Bills are happy with their receiving corps, so much so that they may wait until late in the draft to take one. Still, Buffalo News staffer Allen Wilson believes the emergence of Lee Evans last season showed that the team needs another threat to take pressure off their best receiver.

As Wilson sees it, Evans is sure to see more double coverage, which will force J.P. Losman to seek out other options.

Meaning the team needs their other wideouts to pick up the pace.

Peerless Price made some clutch catches, but needs to be more consistent. Wilson added the Bills got as much out of Josh Reed as they could have expected. Roscoe Parrish isn't an every-down receiver, but team officials have to make better use of his big play talents.

As Wilson pointed out, Losman is showing signs of being a good quarterback, but he'll only be as good as the people around him. ...

In Green Bay. ... While reiterating that he wants unrestricted free-agent Ahman Green back, head coach Mike McCarthy indicated that he believed Green was still capable of 20-22 carries per game at this stage of his career.

That news should be very interesting to the handful of teams -- including Denver, Houston and the Giants -- looking to add a veteran tailback to their roster. ...

In New England. ... According to Boston Herald beat man John Tomase, word at the combine was Chad Jackson's knee injury isn't as serious as first reported.

There have been reports by multiple outlets claiming Jackson tore his ACL -- something Tomase is still inclined to believe.

Nonetheless, there's a school of thought that he didn't suffer a complete tear, with part of the evidence being that he had surgery four days after the game instead of the typical week or two while swelling subsides.

Either way, Jackson's 2007 season is not off to a good start.

As Tomase reminded readers, lack of practice time torpedoed his rookie year and even taking the best-case scenario on his latest injury, he's still going to be playing catch-up come training camp. ...

And finally, in Houston. ... Asked about Domanick Williams' future last week, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak did not give a promising report.

Said Kubiak: "Domanick's a fine young man, a heck of a football player. He's got a knee that's giving him a lot of problems. Right now, not a lot has changed. He has continued to rehab. He has made progress. It seems like every step forward that he takes, eventually there's something that stops it.

"The process is continuing. We sure hopes he makes it back. We want the best for him. But this has been a tough go, and there's still a lot of questions to be answered."

Williams -- then known as Domanick Davis -- missed the 2006 season with a left knee injury. But the problem wasn't related to the surgery needed to repair the knee late in 2005. Davis had worked through that.

The real issue was a bruise to the same knee suffered early in training camp. Team doctors told Williams at the time the he could play -- but would have to do so with some pain. Williams then visited his own physician to get a second opinion and was essentially told the same -- that there was no structural damage -- just discomfort.

Still, Williams was reluctant to take the field, all but forcing the team to shut him down.

It should be noted that those who follow the team closely, including long-time Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain, have also openly questioned whether Williams will ever play again -- whether for Houston or another team.

I suspect Kubiak feels the same. At the very least, the coach must have serious questions about Williams' toughness and desire.

That said, despite the widespread belief he would be released this past week, Williams remains on the roster. ...

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.