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Fantasy Notebook: Big Ben Taking A Shine To New Staff
Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... Everybody get ready; let's take a deep breath and repeat after me: "I won't get caught up in this week's pre-draft hype. I won't get caught up. ..." Oh. What's the use? There's no escaping the hype. The coverage will simply be too pervasive for any sports fan, let alone football fan, to avoid.

But for today, let's try to focus on those already gainfully employed by NFL clubs -- at least as much as possible.

We'll get the ball rolling in Pittsburgh this week, where the Steelers opened their first mini-camp under new head coach Mike Tomlin and where Ben Roethlisberger insists last year's performance was an aberration.

It should also be noted that Roethlisberger isn't willing to make -- or abide -- any excuses for the substandard effort.

As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Ed Bouchette first reported late last month, Roethlisberger recently took issue with the excuses his former offensive coordinator provided for him recently and said nothing was to blame for his poor 2006 showing other than his play.

In other words, it wasn't the motorcycle accident, the appendectomy or the concussion.

"You know what? I might have still had the same year," if there had been no trauma, Roethlisberger said. "Who knows? I'm not going to look back and say, wow, this is what caused this and this is what caused that. There's no need for that. It's a bad year. It's going to happen. That's just the way it goes."

In case you missed it (see previous update), former Steelers coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, now the head coach of the Cardinals, told reporters in February that, in retrospect, he thought Roethlisberger may have been brought back too soon after his traumas of last year and that it may have caused the quarterback to be gun-shy in the pocket.

Roethlisberger says that wasn't the case.

"No, I don't agree with Whis. There were a lot of things I didn't agree with Whis about, and that's another one.

"I was always honest with the doctors. Everybody knows that Pittsburgh has some of the best doctors in the country -- look at my face for instance," he said, laughing. "We have an unbelievable medical staff. They cleared me and, if they gave me clearance, we never hushed anything.

"No, I don't think anything was rushed. I think I just didn't play well. I had a bad year. I'm sure Whis had a bad year once in his career."

It might be worth noting at this point that editor Mike Florio recently suggested Roethlisberger's comments -- specifically the signal caller's contention there were a lot of things he didn't agree with the coach about -- were indicative significant tension between the two last year.

A league source confirmed that suspicion to Florio.

Former Steelers quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple was apparently at the heart of the issue.

As the source explained to Florio; "Ben was extremely close to Whipple, to the point where he had almost no contact with Whis. From what I have heard, this caused a lot of tension between Whis and Whipple. It seems Whis resented Whipple for, in his opinion, creating a division between Ben and he. ..."

Whatever the case, Roethlisberger threw 18 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions last season, had a 75.4 passer rating and a 7-8 record in his third year as a starter. He was 27-4 as a starter in his first two seasons, counting playoffs, with a 98.3 overall passer rating and a Super Bowl victory under his belt.

Rather than the physical issues Whisenhunt and others have suggested, Roethlisberger attributes his 2006 performance more to his mental approach.

"I think that a lot of times, I got caught being a little too confident and knowing the offense too well and trying to force things a little too much. I wouldn't change a thing. I learned from it, it's a learning experience, and you know what, it's going to make me better."

According to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Scott Brown, Roethlisberger has made at least one believer with his more-focused mental approach, and it is rather a significant one.

"Ben has been a breath of fresh air," Tomlin said at last month's NFL owners' meetings. "I love his attitude right now. He's focused. He's committed."

Getting Roethlisberger right had to be high atop Tomlin's to-do list after he took over as the Steelers' coach in late January. This weekend the new boss and his staff are getting their first real hands-on chance to do that.

Tomlin put his new team through two workouts on the field Friday, two more Saturday and will have one more today. No pads can be worn and, supposedly, there is to be no contact during the drills.

This will be the first time the team gets a chance to run its new offense under coordinator Bruce Arians, who was promoted from wide receivers coach to replace Whisenhunt.

Arians has streamlined the playbook but at the same time changed its language. He also said he wants to use four wide receivers at times on first down with the quarterback under center, not in the shotgun, and that he will put more responsibility on Roethlisberger's shoulders.

Roethlisberger, for instance, will call the pass protections this year instead of a lineman doing it.

According to Bouchette, Roethlisberger's been busy studying that new playbook.

"I've been looking over stuff. I take it on the road with me," he said. "I sit on the airplane and read over our no-huddle stuff and read over our cadence stuff.

"It's going to be difficult, there's no lying about it. But I think as we progress in it, I think we can be really good in it. I wish this were my same offense I've had for the whole time, the way Bruce talks about it and the things we're going to be able to do.

"I think it's something that's going to be a lot of fun and, once we get the hang of it, we can really be successful with it."

Roethlisberger did his homework on new quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, too. He talked to Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich about his former quarterbacks coach. He said he will miss his old quarterbacks coach, Whipple, but understands the business of the NFL. He also said Tomlin has made a good impression.

"He's a lot of good things you want in a coach -- he has the energy, he has the excitement, he's a young guy," Roethlisberger said. "You can tell he has a fire, he has the players fired -- the enthusiasm, the energy -- and I think he's going to be a good coach. He has the passion."

Let's hope some of that passion rubs off on Roethlisberger.

As noted in a previous update, Post-Gazette columnist Peter Diana, discussing last year's struggles, recently wrote: "Big Ben's poor work habits had just as much to do with his rotten play."

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.

I have a hunch that won't fly with Tomlin coming on board.

Indeed, Roethlisberger seems to have embraced the head coaching change far faster than teammate Alan Faneca, who was a no show for this week's voluntary sessions (and who had previously expressed his belief former Steelers assistant Russ Grimm should have been hired).

It appears Roethlisberger wasn't just at odds with Whisenhunt. He wasn't that big a fan of former head coach Bill Cowher, either.

"It will definitely be different because coach Cowher was here before I got here," Roethlisberger said of the coaching change Friday. "Our relationship wasn't great because he was here before I got here and I was just a young kid.

"Coach Tomlin and I are rookies together in a sense so I think we will have a better relationship."

While much of the focus in Pittsburgh this week will probably be on Roethlisberger's feelings and comments about Cowher, from a Fantasy perspective, it should be on Tomlin and his ability to help Big Ben fulfill his potential. ...

The good news? Roethlisberger and Tomlin are developing a trust for one another.

"The communication has been clear, and I think that's all you need," Tomlin said of his relationship with Roethlisberger. "I've been clear in terms of what I expect from him. He's communicated clearly to me the things that are important from a quarterback standpoint.

"As long as we continue to be upfront and honest with each other, we'll be able to meet the challenges that await us."

If they do that, Roethlisberger's Fantasy value could rise considerably. ...

In New Orleans. ... By almost anyone's standards, as New Orleans Times-Picayune staffer Mike Triplett suggested on Wednesday, Deuce McAllister's performance in 2006 was outstanding.

Returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the veteran tailback ran for 1,057 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in the regular season. Then he had a dominating performance in the Saints' playoff victory over Philadelphia with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

But McAllister has had to take one step back before moving forward this offseason.

He had arthroscopic surgery in early February to clean out some scar tissue and repair a partially torn meniscus in his right knee.

He told Triplett that type of procedure is common for players recovering from ACL injuries, and he expects to be at full speed in time for offseason mini-camps and training sessions.

"It's not necessarily a good thing, but it's not necessarily a bad thing, either," McAllister said.

For now, he is working with the Saints' trainers during the team's 10-week conditioning program, lifting weights, running and doing many of the same knee-strengthening exercises he did last year.

Last offseason, McAllister never bought into the notion that it would take him two years to fully recover from the torn ACL. He didn't want to put any limitations on himself.

But heading into that second year, he kind of likes the idea.

"You go out there and you just want to be able to do some of the things that you were able to do before surgery," said McAllister, the Saints' all-time leading rusher with 5,586 yards in six seasons. "And whether your numbers are better or whether you're more explosive is yet to be determined. But you just want to go out there and be successful.

"That's the goal, just to come out and give the team any added weapon they can get."

As Triplett went on to suggest, it's hard to imagine the Saints' offense being better in 2007 after leading the league with 391.5 yards per game in 2006. But almost all of the key players are expected to be improved.

McAllister and Drew Brees have had another year to recover from major injuries. Tailback Reggie Bush and receiver Marques Colston are heading into their second NFL seasons, when players generally make their biggest leap. Receiver Joe Horn is gone, but new tight end Eric Johnson offers an added dimension.

And the offensive line has all five starters returning.

But the backfield is of primary interest to Fantasy owners. And McAllister and Bush really started to hit their stride in December and January, emerging as arguably the league's most dangerous 1-2 punch.

The obvious hope here would be seeing them pick up right where they left off.

That hope isn't outside the realm of possibility. Head coach Sean Payton proved that he could maximize their talents in his creative and versatile offense without limiting either of their abilities. McAllister and Bush quickly embraced their roles.

"It worked out pretty good," McAllister said. "You have to choose your poison. Obviously, he's an explosive player and I think I can be an explosive player, as well. ..."

I think so, too.

In a related note. ... Bush has been working out privately with a personal trainer in Santa Monica, Calif., with a program focused on speed, coordination and injury prevention.

He said he has fully healed from the ankle injury he suffered in a celebrity basketball game during the NBA's All-Star weekend. ...

In Kansas City. ... Head coach Herman Edwards was talking recently about the players who will catch passes for the Chiefs next season. According to Kansas City Star beat writer Adam Teicher, Edwards took care to mention two young receivers, Jeff Webb and Chris Hannon, even though they had three receptions between them as rookies last season.

"We've got two young guys, and I want to see whether they can play or not," Edwards said. "I know one thing: We don't cover them in practice very well."

So, while the Chiefs could use another wide receiver and will probably select at least one in next weekend's NFL Draft, they may be content to wait until later in the draft to do it.

"When you draft a receiver in the first round, a lot of times it's buyer beware," Edwards said. "For some reason, it takes them a while. Most rookie receivers don't come in and light it up their first year. They struggle. The dynamics have changed for those guys from college to the NFL. You have to understand that when you draft a receiver in the first round. A lot of them don't play their first year and even when they play, they don't live up to expectations.

"You can find guys to help you at wide receiver later in the draft, definitely."

Unless a draft pick pushes his way into the playing rotation, starters Eddie Kennison and Samie Parker along with Webb and Hannon will be the top wide receivers next season.

The Chiefs are trying to trade Dante Hall, who hasn't given them what they hoped as either a slot receiver or kick returner in recent seasons. He may be released if he isn't traded.

The Chiefs are counting on dramatic improvement from Webb, a sixth-round pick last year, and Hannon, who wasn't drafted. Webb is bigger and more physical, and Hannon is faster but must get stronger.

"They've got some talent," Edwards said. "They have enough that they've earned the opportunity to try to play. That's what we've emphasized. We're trying to create competition.

"It's just a matter of getting to the details of what we're trying to do. Now they know what we want from them. They're not just trying to figure out what to do."

According to the Sporting News, Webb must improve his route running and be more consistent in catching the ball in order to make a significant contribution as a receiver. But he could be the kickoff return specialist next season if the Chiefs don't keep Hall.

Webb did a nice job with limited return chances last season. ...

Meanwhile, Teicher notes that Kennison has been a regular at the offseason workouts since they began almost two weeks ago. He recently turned 34, an advanced age for a wide receiver.

But Kennison keeps himself in good physical condition. His streak of two straight 1,000-yard seasons was ended last year, but that had more to do with problems elsewhere in the Chiefs' passing game than with any drop-off in Kennison's play.

"I'm not going to let anybody else determine when I retire from this game," he said. "I want to retire when I'm ready. And I'm not ready.

"I'm better at taking care of myself: diet, exercise, doing the things that are right all the time. I'm not a guy that hangs out in the nightspots. I'm not a drinker. I keep finding ways to do things better. The workouts continue to get better for me. It makes things easier. That's my whole deal. ..."

Also of interest. ... In an article published Friday, Teicher advised suggested maybe the Chiefs are truly concerned about Larry Johnson's welfare. Perhaps it's a sign they believe he is ready to hold out or they're preparing to trade him.

The team has confirmed they'd be willing to listen to offers for Johnson, although the odds he'd actually be traded seem to lie somewhere between slim and none.

All that said, the Chiefs met this past week with at least four of the higher-profile running backs available in the coming draft: Cal's Marshawn Lynch, Ohio State's Antonio Pittman, Florida State's Lorenzo Booker and Louisville's Kolby Smith.

While team officials aren't talking, agents for all of the players said the Chiefs told them they planned to draft a running back in an early round. "They said they want the running-back duties shared a little more to save the wear and tear on (Larry Johnson)," said Smith's agent, Jerrold Colton.

That part makes sense; Edwards has already said he'd like to lighten Johnson's load (see previous update).

It might also be worth noting that Johnson and the Chiefs have worked on a new contract that would give him a raise, but they don't have an agreement yet.

That said, Johnson has not threatened to hold out if he doesn't get a new deal and has been participating in the offseason workout program. Of course, it could also be as simple as the Chiefs doing their pre-draft homework.

Whatever the case, it's an interesting development that's worth watching. ...

In Oakland. ... As Sacramento Bee staffer Jim Jenkins noted last weekend, Andrew Walter has been through this before but refuses to give up. The third-round pick from the 2005 draft twice has been relegated to a backup role while the Raiders went with free-agent veterans as their starting quarterbacks.

Two years ago, it was Kerry Collins who led the offense while Walter, a former Arizona State star, sat idle as the third-stringer behind Collins and backup Marques Tuiasosopo.

After the disappointing Collins was released, the Raiders replaced him with Aaron Brooks, formerly with the New Orleans Saints, in 2006.

Brooks flopped early, and then suffered a chest injury, and Walter stepped in to start eight games and direct the Raiders to their only two victories.

Now comes 2007, and the Raiders, by virtue of the worst record in the NFL, have the first overall pick in the April 28-29 draft. Observers speculate they will choose a quarterback with it. Team sources tell Jenkins that owner Al Davis has concluded the team clearly needs an upgrade at quarterback.

Walter, whose limited mobility behind a porous offensive line last year seemed to cloud his future, has no choice but to wait again as the scenario plays out. Last year, he was surprised and flattered when Oakland used its first-round pick -- seventh overall -- on defensive back Michael Huff rather than on a quarterback.

Last week at the Raiders' volunteer mini-camp in Alameda, Walter was the lone experienced quarterback running drills. Brooks had been released, and Tuiasosopo signed as a free agent with the New York Jets.

Those departures all but guarantee additional bodies added at the position soon.

NFL Network insider Adam Schefter reported on Thursday it appears the Raiders' chances of adding Josh McCown to the mix with Walter seem to be fading.

Without McCown, Oakland could explore the possibility of acquiring another veteran quarterback to stand in while the team redshirts its expected first-round pick, JaMarcus Russell. Tim Rattay has been mentioned as a possible candidate for that role.

However it works out, the Raiders still have some decisions to make at quarterback. But by the end of the draft, they should be wrapped up.

All that said, Walter hopes he is getting a fresh start under 31-year-old Lane Kiffin, the team's third head coach in three years.

"Coach is about competing, and I'm about competing," Walter told reporters. "So, whatever they do (with the quarterback position), let's compete. That's a front-office decision. That's not my decision."

He said his entire career has required him to compete for playing time.

"In college, I wasn't the man right off the bat," Walter said. "I had to earn everything I got. I've been doing it going back to high school, even back to middle school. I've never been handed anything."

Walter said he takes positive lessons from the struggles that resulted in the Raiders going 2-14.

"I was able to endure, keep my head up and get through it," Walter said. "I have so much more character than I did this time last year. ..."

Speaking of character -- and characters. ... Also according to Schefter, teams around the league have confirmed that Oakland is shopping its two high-profile receivers -- Randy Moss and Jerry Porter -- seeing what it can get in return.

But moving them won't be easy.

As Schefter explained, neither player has much value around the league, plus Davis typically wants a ransom for his players. But new coaching staffs like to start with their own players. Moss and Porter are leftovers from other regimes and darker times.

Schefter went on to advise readers it would surprise nobody if neither receiver returns to Oakland this season, whether each is traded or even released.

Should the Raiders release Moss, they would get the greatest return he could bring: Oakland would free up his $9.75 million base salary and save $7.75 million against its salary cap this season and another $9.25 million next season, space that could and would be used on other players.

Porter's contract voids after this season, so teams would be leery about trading for him. If Oakland cut him now, the Raiders would lose $4 million in salary-cap space this season, so it looks like, for now, Porter is back in Oakland. ...

In Arizona. ... Anquan Boldin has been favorably compared to Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, and Whisenhunt now plans to use Boldin in similar ways.

According to Arizona Republic staffer Kent Somers, Boldin has been moved from the "X" receiver to the "Z," where he played his rookie year. The Cardinals will move him around the formation, but he'll line up in the slot more than he did last year.

During his three-year tenure as Steelers coordinator, Whisenhunt developed a reputation for occasionally using gadget plays, so Boldin also could be called upon to throw once in awhile. What Boldin really wants to do, however, is to take a few of those 550 rushing attempts that Whisenhunt would like to have in a season.

"I don't have to throw the ball, just put me in the backfield a couple of times and let me run it, I'll be OK," Boldin said with a smile.

Would he be all right with running behind a fullback?

"Who me? Running behind a fullback? I wouldn't mind, extra blocker, but just put me in the 'I' by myself and I'll be OK. ..."

In San Francisco. ... Among the 49ers' needs heading into the NFL draft April 28-29 are a No. 1 receiver and a running back capable of easing the load on Frank Gore.

Tight end Vernon Davis says he can help on both fronts.

"When I get the ball, I'm a running back and I can run over somebody or make them miss," Davis said. "Or I can be a receiver and just catch the ball over them. I consider myself as being all three things wrapped into one: tight end, running back and receiver.

"You've got a guy that's a 250-pounder and runs like a receiver, you've got to find a way to get him the ball. Am I right or wrong?"

According to San Jose Mercury News beat writer Dennis Georgatos, Davis won't get an argument from new offensive coordinator, Jim Hostler. He already is working on ways to expand Davis' role in an offense that ranked 26th in the league last season.

Hostler said the biggest difference for Davis this year is the face he can expect to be on the field all the time and anywhere. There could be times when he's next to a tackle, lined up on the outside or in the slot or as a motion man.

With a featured role in the offense, Georgatos suggests Davis could do something no 49ers tight end has done: gain 1,000 yards receiving. Johnson came closest, gaining 825 yards (on 82 catches) in 2004. Brent Jones' best was 747 yards in 1990. ...

Of course, Davis, who missed six games with a broken leg as a rookie last year, will have to stay healthy for all 16 games in order to reach that milestone.

But based on his strong finish -- he pulled in 13 of his 20 receptions and two of his three touchdowns in the final four games -- there's absolutely no reason to believe a healthy Davis won't start to fulfill his whopping potential this fall, especially with Johnson now plying his trade in New Orleans. ...

In New York. ... According to New York Daily News staffer Rich Cimini, the Jets need to find a No. 3 option in the passing game. They're fine at wideout with Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, but they need someone who can attack the middle of the field.

That would loosen the outside coverage on Coles and Cotchery and make life easier for Chad Pennington.

The question is who's the No. 3 target?

Tight end Chris Baker flashed potential at the end of last season, but coaches view him as more of a blocker. Slot receiver Tim Dwight is recovering from foot surgery, so he's a question mark.

Second-year man Brad Smith has made a nice transition from college quarterback, but he's still learning the nuances of the position.

The Jets could pick a receiver or tight end on the second day of the draft.

And what about Justin McCareins?

According to the Nashville City Paper, the Jets are shopping the former Titan and Tennessee is a team that could have interest in bringing back the former fourth-round pick.

"I talked to (Titans GM) Mike Reinfeldt about three weeks ago and he told me they definitely would have some interest in Justin at the right price," McCareins' agent Cliff Brady told City Paper staffer Terry McCormick.

Brady said he believes the Jets are currently seeking a first-day (first three rounds) pick for McCareins.

Reinfeldt, who is seeking to bolster the Titans receiving corps, wouldn't comment specifically about McCareins or his team's level of interest in him, but did say, "there's always conversations about trades this point of the year. It's part of the normal course of business. ..."

"I read that this morning," Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said Friday, adding that he has not given Brady permission to facilitate a trade. "If opportunities were presented to the team, we would evaluate those opportunities at the right time."

It's believed that McCareins will be dealt during the draft, though the Jets' reported asking price of a first-day pick might be too high. ...

And last, but by no means least. ...

Electronic Arts, Inc., manufacturer of wildly-popular Madden NFL video game, officially announced Tuesday night that Titans quarterback Vince Young would grace the cover of the latest version, Madden '08.

"Vince was the guy all along," EA's director of marketing Chris Erb told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday.

Except that's not exactly the case.

Multiple outlets have since reported that LaDainian Tomlinson, in fact, was asked of his interest, was presented with an offer and told Electronic Arts he was not interested.

Tomlinson's decision reportedly had nothing to do with the highly-publicized curse, which has been attributed to the recent misfortune of such stars as Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and Shaun Alexander.

According to those close to Tomlinson, it had more to do with the fact that the people at Electronic Arts know that, for many, their cover is seen as the "Wheaties box endorsement" -- in that athletes are usually so honored they are willing to do it for less than market value. Tomlinson wasn't.

The deal usually pays the cover athlete $100,000 to $200,000 and requires multiple appearances to pump up the game.

Since the Madden game sort of sells itself, the athlete on the cover doesn't really matter that much, but expect more NFL stars to turn down the cover in the future, not because of the curse, but because the price is just too low.

And what about the jinx?

The past six cover players have been injured. Alexander was on the cover of Madden '07, and he broke a bone in his left foot early in the season. McNabb suffered a sports hernia the season he was on the cover of Madden '06.

Before that, it was Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (wrist) and Madden '05, Vick (broken leg in exhibition game) and Madden '04, Marshall Faulk (ankle) and Madden '03, and Daunte Culpepper (knee) and Madden '02.

The last player to not be injured was former Titan Eddie George, who appeared on the cover of Madden '01. In fact, that season (2000-01) was George's best as a pro.

Apparently, Young isn't worried.

"We don't believe in no jinx," agent Major Adams told Nashville Tennessean staffer Jim Wyatt. "People said when they put Vince on the cover of Sports Illustrated (that) it was going to jinx him in the Rose Bowl game, and (Texas) won the national championship.

"We don't believe in stuff like that. In the unfortunate event he gets hurt, it is just a part of the game, not because you have the cover."

Young was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2006, when he guided the Titans to six straight wins at the end of the season.

"Everyone wants to be the Madden guy," Erb said. "The issue is the guys that have been on the cover tend to be the guys that are around the football more often, and football is a rough sport.

"We've had a string of unfortunate incidents I guess you could say. … But we really don't believe in the jinx."

I don't either.

But I'm still glad Tomlinson declined. ...

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.