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Fantasy Notebook: Chiefs-LJ Standoff The Next Big Story?
Nothing like a two-week vacation -- and one of the biggest NFL stories in years -- to get the ol' blood flowing again! And by the biggest NFL story in years, I am indeed referring to the ongoing Michael Vick dog-fighting saga. Those interested will find my initial report on Vick's indictment here, ongoing updates in News & Views section of the site and a full rundown of all available info on the FootballDiehards.com Vick page.

So, given all the coverage already available, this week's Fantasy Notebook will be Vick-free from here on out.

That'll give us a chance to review other stories that might be easily overlooked with the spotlight aimed elsewhere. In fact, this week's first item could ultimately be of even greater interest than Vick's -- at least from a Fantasy perspective.

And that story will be in Kansas City, where as NFL Network insider Adam Schefter suggests the biggest training camp battle isn't going to be between quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard. It's going to be between Larry Johnson and the Chiefs.

While this story has been on the radar for some time (read more here and here), Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock warned readers this week that the record contract the Colts handed defensive end Dwight Freeney adds a new wrinkle in the Chiefs-LJ contract saga.

Freeney's $72 million deal, which includes $30 million in bonuses and $37.5 million over the first three years, raised the roof on all future contract demands across the league.

So much so, the deal that LaDainian Tomlinson, the league's best running back, signed in 2004 is obsolete when talking about Johnson's value in today's market. As Whitlock suggests, if the Chargers signed LT today, he would garner a $30 million signing bonus and $36 million over the first three years of the contract.

Under that scenario, what does the game's second-best running back deserve?

According to Whitlock: "Larry and his agent have virtually no choice but to demand $25 million in guarantees."

The two sides have been on vacation, not having had any contract talks since around mid-June. But Schefter reports the two sides returned this week, the first contract proposal was sent to the Chiefs and the fun now begins in earnest.

According to Star beat writer Adam Teicher, Johnson -- appearing at local promotional event on Thursday -- wouldn't answer definitively whether he would stay away from Chiefs training camp when it begins next week if he doesn't receive his contract extension.

Still, all indications are Johnson will absolutely refuse to report until he has a new contract.

The Chiefs believe Johnson already has a contract, which has one year remaining on it, scheduled to pay the running back over $1.9 million this season. That's not quite what LJ has in mind. In fact, Schefter believes Whitlock's estimate was a bit low; Johnson is seeking somewhere in the vicinity of $28 million in guaranteed money.

At this time, Johnson is unwilling to take much less.

The Chiefs have countered with an offer of guaranteed money somewhere between $11 and $14 million, which is the bonus money paid to some of the game's other highest paid running backs, including San Francisco's Frank Gore, who received $14 million worth of guaranteed money last spring; Seattle's Shaun Alexander, who received $13.5 million worth of guaranteed money last year; Arizona's Edgerrin James, who got $11.5 million worth of guaranteed money last year; and New Orleans' Deuce McAllister, who landed $11 million worth of guaranteed money in his extension in 2005.

At this time, Schefter advises readers the Chiefs are unwilling to pay much more.

As Whitlock put it: "The Chiefs still operate like a $10 million bonus is a big deal. Yes, Tony Gonzalez got $18 million in guaranteed money, but only $10 million was in signing bonus. The rest was in guaranteed salary over the first four years of his new deal."

That being the case, and with Johnson and the Chiefs currently in the neighborhood of $14 million in guaranteed money apart, nobody should get their hopes up too high -- at least in terms of a quick resolution.

Should the stare down continue as expected, speculation about a trade will increase.

Green Bay, Tennessee and even the New York Giants each have questions at running back that Johnson would help answer. Dallas has also been mentioned as a potential suitor. Whatever the case, a trade is a possibility here, an outcome that Schefter believes could appease all sides.

Those taking the "glass is half full" approach might note the team isn't scheduled to report to training camp until July 27. The two sides have until then to continue to try working out a deal.

But again, history tells us the Chiefs won't rush into a deal. They have a history of taking negotiations right up to the regular season -- as have with Gonzalez and Priest Holmes in past seasons.

Team officials further demonstrated their stubborn approach in personnel matters with their handling of quarterback Trent Green this offseason. But in this case, Johnson is said to be equally stubborn -- an attitude I certainly picked up on in a past conversation with him.

As Schefter summed up: "It sets up a showdown that could be the most compelling one of the summer. ..."

It's certainly one I believe we'll all be watching. ...

In a related note. ... The Chiefs will get an immediate opportunity to find out what rookie running backs Kolby Smith and Marcus O'Keith are capable of if Johnson follows through on his threat to hold out.

Michael Bennett would become the starter, but as Teicher noted this week, the former Viking isn't capable of carrying the load all by himself.

Smith, a fifth-round pick, and O'Keith, who was undrafted, need to find some sort of role. According to Teicher, O'Keith showed particularly good receiving skills during the offseason work. ...

In a semi-related note. ... Getting back to the quarterback competition, SI.com insider Peter King suggested on Monday that a Johnson holdout would be "disastrous" for a team with such a tenuous quarterback situation.

Nonetheless, Pro Football Weekly reports that Croyle's passes came out of his hand quickly during Kansas City's summer sessions and that there was a real difference in how crisp his throws were, compared to those of Huard.

Teicher also chimed in on this one, advising readers that not only does the 24-year-old Croyle have more raw talent and intangibles than Huard, but if he becomes the starter, it could solve the Chiefs' quarterback problem for years to come.

If it's Huard, the Chiefs will have to look for another young quarterback next year and open the competition again.

Still, as King further suggested, "Croyle had better grow up fast and get some extra armor. ..."

In Buffalo. ... Back in March, BuffaloBills.com staffer Chris Brown asked head coach Dick Jauron about which way he was leaning in terms of his approach to the running game. Would there be a featured back or would Buffalo's ground attack be running back by committee in 2007?

Jauron, at the time, was favoring a group effort. "We think it's in everybody's best interest that we do have more than one back that carries the load," the coach explained.

Of course, as Brown reminded readers this week, Anthony Thomas, Fred Jackson and Shaud Williams were the only running backs on the roster when Jauron expressed those sentiments.

Since then, the Bills added a pair of running backs in the draft selecting Marshawn Lynch with the 12th pick overall and Dwayne Wright in the fourth round. Free agent Josh Scobey was also added to the mix.

So. ... Has Jauron's approach to the position changed?

"It hasn't," Jauron told Brown this week. "It's just more competition. I still would like, if we have the option, to run the ball by committee. ... We'd like to have two or three guys that perform well enough that you'll rotate them and keep them healthy. It will figure itself out."

I agree. It will figure itself out -- with Lynch doing most of the figuring.

"I think we're expecting a lot out of him," said J.P. Losman. "Especially with Marshawn's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He just brings such a good energy to the offense and such a competitive nature and he's very coachable. His athleticism and his running ability are good to see. We're excited."

"He sure looks to have a lot of different abilities," offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said of Lynch. "He looks to be not only a tremendous runner, but a guy that can come out of the backfield and do some things in space. I'm really excited to be honest with you, and we'll just see where it goes."

In an article published last week, Buffalo News beat man Allen Wilson reminded readers the Bills haven't used the running back as a receiving threat since Thurman Thomas was building his Hall of Fame credentials. But Wilson further noted that Lynch was very impressive catching the ball from the backfield during the OTAs and mini-camps.

While I believe those receiving skills all but guarantee him copious playing time -- even if he's not always lined up in the backfield -- Lynch isn't a one-dimensional player. Brown also believes the first-round pick's combination of power and elusiveness is superior to every other back on the roster and that Lynch clearly figures to see more work than the others.

It's also worth noting that Brown believes Wright, who showed he's more than just a power runner during off-season workouts, could emerge as a wild card this summer. A natural receiver out of the backfield with some burst and shiftiness, Brown believes Wright could join Thomas in the rotation behind Lynch.

"He's a good tough-nosed, downhill runner," Fairchild said of Wright. "He looks a little more elusive and is able to function in the passing game better than I thought he might. We'll just see."

Speculating on how a committee approach might shake out, Brown suggested that Thomas might handle a third down role in the backfield, while Lynch is split out wide. Wright might be given the short yardage and goal line carries.

Before you get too excited about the committee talk though, I'll remind you there is something that could change Jauron's approach. And that would be one candidate showing he ranks considerably higher on the talent meter.

"If you have one that's just so good then he's got to get the bulk of the work because it's in the best interest of your team to get that guy the ball more than the other ones," Jauron admitted. And as Brown summed up: "If that's going to be anyone it will be Lynch. ..."

Again, I agree.

Fantasy owners are looking for this year's Maurice Jones-Drew, a rookie running back likely to provide tremendous value (certainly based on my expectations and his current AntSports.com Average Draft Position of 23) if events this summer transpire as anticipated, should keep a close eye Lynch. He's definitely my favorite to be that guy. ...

In Dallas. ... The Cowboys are another team heading into training camp with a running back situation Fantasy owners will be watching closely this summer.

As DallasCowboys.com staff writer Rob Phillips reminded readers this week, former head coach Bill Parcells molded Julius Jones and Marion Barber into a solid two-pronged rushing attack that sneaked into the top half of the league the last two seasons.

The Cowboys finished 13th in rushing both times and slightly improved their season average from 116.6 a game in 2005 to 121.0 in 2006.

Parcells was a strong proponent of the two-back system because he believed it promoted longevity at a physically taxing position, and one can argue Barber's increased role in short-yardage and goal-line situations helped Jones play a full healthy season for the first time in his career.

And make no mistake about it: Jones' first injury-free season and first 1,000-yard performance of his career were no coincidence.

The fourth-year back finally stayed healthy enough to become the Cowboys' first 1,000-yard rusher since Emmitt Smith in 2001. His 1,084 yards ranked 17th in the league last year and some observers are predicting another career year with his contract expiring after the season.

So even though his production will depend on the number of carries he gets, Jones is out to prove he's an elite back and will be looking to cash in with a lucrative long-term deal.

And barring injury, Jones should continue to have a large role in the offense because of his breakaway speed. Barber will continue to serve as a major threat on third downs and around the goal line.

Of course, it's possible that Barber, who had 135 carries to Jones' 267 last year, could push for more playing time in 2007. And Tyson Thompson could once again offer a speedy change of pace now that he's fully recovered from last year's season-ending fibula fracture.

But new head coach Wade Phillips doesn't appear to be in any hurry to tinker with the committee his predecessor started. Meaning at this point in time, it looks like no single back is likely to dominate the carries.

And that's why I'm still so high on Barber, who led the NFC in scoring among non-kickers with 96 points last season, including 14 rushing touchdowns. His 16 total touchdowns was the highest single-season total by a Cowboys player since Smith's 25 in 1995.

It's safe to assume those totals haven't been lost on the new coaching staff.

In fact -- thanks largely to Barber's nose for the end zone -- the Cowboys led the conference with a 60.3 touchdown percentage in the red zone. Their 285 red zone points also ranked fourth in the league behind San Diego (346), Indianapolis (334) and New England (305).

So at the very least, Barber's aggressive, hard-running style ensures his ongoing status as a dangerous scoring threat; at best, he'll steal an increasing number of Jones' carries.

Either way, I believe he'll continue to serve as the team's top Fantasy threat at the position. ...

Also in Dallas. ... In terms of the passing attack, the team's receivers -- including the tight ends -- are said to be buzzing about the fact that there appear to be a greater number of deep passes in the repertoire.

In Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn, the Cowboys have two strong deep-route runners, but PFW advised readers to keep a close eye on Patrick Crayton, who could enjoy a nice niche as a breakout player in the new scheme. ...

In Arizona. ... James doesn't like to play much in preseason games, but The Sporting News suggests that might change this year. According to TSN correspondent and Arizona Republic beat man Kent Somers, this is a new offense and coaches likely will want James to get as much work as possible running behind a fullback, which he hasn't done for several years.

Last year, coach Dennis Green barely played James in the preseason. The Cardinals' running game was horrible early the first two months of the regular season. Maybe the two factors aren't related, but it's not a situation that's likely to be repeated under Ken Whisenhunt.

James realizes that -- and he sounds willing to go the extra mile.

"If you're getting hit in the backfield, what difference does it make if you're carrying the ball in the preseason?" said James, referring to last year's team.

"Look, I've been playing football forever. I know how to run. I'm in the top 20 all-time. But if [Whisenhunt] wants me to go out there and get five, six carries, I'm not going to say no. If they want me to do it just to save face, so there's no complaining, I'll do it."

Why so eager?

According to Republic columnist Dan Bickley, James sees 2007 as a year of resurgence, a time to step up, not down. The new-look Cardinals have committed to running the football. Whisenhunt has promised James at least 300 carries. New assistant coach Russ Grimm almost guarantees a better offensive line all by himself.

And James seems focused on getting with the program. Heck, he's even ditched the trademark gold teeth.

"It was time to take them out," the veteran running back said. "I had them for a long time, but I took off my mask. Now the real 'Business Edge' will surface."

And if the real "Business Edge" looks anything like the James we saw late last year, I can't wait.

Remember: James rushed for more than 100 yards only three times last season, and those games all occurred in the final five weeks of the season. From Week 13 on, he rushed for 464 yards on 111 carries, or 4.2 yards per carry, the same average he posted for the Colts in 2005.

If he can be as productive over the full 16-game slate as he those final five games last year, James would move back into the top-10 Fantasy tier many placed him in last summer. ...

In Carolina. ... The Panthers will report for the start of training camp next Friday and Fantasy owners will have a couple of key position battles to follow once the team hits the field.

Among those of primary interest: The starting running back spot and the No. 2 wideout. Tight end will also be a battle worth watching.

According to Gaston Gazette sports writer Steve Reed, DeAngelo Williams would seem to have the upper hand in the running back competition with DeShaun Foster because new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson's offense favors his running style.

The offense Williams played in at Memphis when he broke all sorts of NCAA records is almost identical to what the Panthers will run.

However, the Panthers still have a lot of faith in Foster, even though he's never had a 1,000-yard season.

In fact, Reed believes Foster will open as the starter with Williams replacing him at some point down the road. Reed added: "Regardless of who lines up on the first offensive series of the game, both players are going to get plenty of carries and should contribute. ..."

As for the No. 2 receiver, Drew Carter and rookie Dwayne Jarrett are the players to watch.

Carter has three years under his belt and has shown steady improvement but it remains to be seen whether or not he's capable of stepping to handle the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Steve Smith. Certainly he has the speed, but his route running could improve.

The Panthers drafted Jarrett in the second round to fill the role of Keyshawn Johnson, but the big question will be if he's ready to start as a rookie.

Reed believes Carter will begin the season as the starter but give way to Jarrett early in the season unless he lights it up. Clearly, Jarrett is the guy the Panthers want to emerge in this role.

And at tight end?

With Kris Mangum retired, the Panthers will need to decide on a replacement. Michael Gaines has the most experience and seems like the odds-on-favorite, but Jeff King and rookie Dante Rosario both looked good in mini-camps.

Reed gives the early edge to King at a position that could receive more emphasis this year than in previous seasons. ...

In St. Louis. ... During a recent interview on Sirius NFL Radio, Marc Bulger hinted that if he doesn't have a new contract in place before camp, he might consider a holdout.

"I don't think it's going to happen, but you never know. I don't want to rule anything out," he said. "The Rams have been good to me. I've been there my whole career, and I think everything's going to get worked out. ...

"I would have done it in January or February, if it was up to me. Tom Condon, my agent, handles that. He's been doing it for a long time. He has the best guys in the league and I follow his advice."

Bulger, 30, is entering the final season of a four-year, $19.1 million dollar deal he signed in May 2004. He's also coming off his top season in four full years as the Rams' starter.

Bulger posted career bests in completions (370), passing yards (4,301), touchdown passes (24) and interceptions (eight). He ranked second in the NFL in completions, third in yardage, and only Peyton Manning had a better TDs-to-interceptions ratio.

According to figures compiled by USA Today, seven NFL quarterbacks were paid more than Bulger in '06: New England's Tom Brady, Vick, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, Green Bay's Brett Favre, Manning, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Green, then in Kansas City.

So how much is Bulger worth?

Pat Kirwan of NFL.com has gone on the record with his belief that "Tom Brady money" -- about $60 million over six years -- wouldn't be an unreasonable price for Bulger.

While that seems a bit high, one must consider the intangibles in any discussion of Bulger. As Post-Dispatch columnist Jeff Gordon noted, "[Bulger's] rapport with [Scott] Linehan, his chemistry with Torry Holt and Co., his emerging leadership skills, his toughness, his work ethic and his general reliability" all add to the quarterback's value.

Gordon went on to sum up: "Many NFL coaches come and go without having this sort of quarterback running the show. What Bulger does can't be taken for granted -- and it won't be in '08, should he hit the market as a free agent."

And that's an absolute fact. ...

In Cleveland. ... According to Akron Beacon Journal columnist Terry Pluto, Derek Anderson is the Browns' starting QB heading into training camp. As Pluto explained it, "The Browns won't say it and might not even act like it early in camp, but [Anderson] clearly came out on top in the mini-camps."

Pluto went on to suggest Charlie Frye -- based on Anderson's strong mini-camp efforts and the arrival of first-round pick Brady Quinn -- is a man whose stock is in decline. I won't argue, but it's safe to say a lousy training camp by Anderson and a holdout by Quinn could result in a quick turnaround.

And at least one of those possibilities is starting to look suspiciously like a certainty.

General manager Phil Savage does not expect Quinn -- or fellow first-round pick Joe Thomas -- to be signed in time for the team's three-day rookie orientation scheduled to begin on Monday. Getting either man under contract for the first team practice of training camp on July 27 will be problematic, too.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thomas, the third player overall chosen in the 2007 draft, wants to fall in line with the contract figures of recent No. 3 picks Vince Young, Braylon Edwards and Larry Fitzgerald, all skill players who averaged more than $20 million in guaranteed money -- unheard-of for a rookie offensive tackle.

Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding Quinn (specifically pre-draft expectations, his precipitous draft-day fall and the Browns' subsequent trade back into the first round to land him) will require creativity in contract talks. "I would say there's probably been a little bit more consistent conversation between Joe Thomas and us than Brady Quinn," Savage explained this week.

Not that getting into camp on time would guarantee a quick rise for Quinn. In fact, Pluto suggested this week that it would be shocking if Quinn starts early in the season unless there are massive injuries.

But Canton Repository reporter Steve Doerschuk has a different view.

In an article published on July 10, Doerschuk wrote: "If Quinn is, as advertised, the most NFL-ready rookie quarterback to come down the pike in years, the Browns have little to lose in playing him early. Frye and Anderson have some good qualities but don't project as long-term NFL starters.

"Quinn does, and he will be playing behind a much-improved line, with workhorse back Jamal Lewis at his disposal. Ben Roethlisberger succeeded as a Pittsburgh rookie because he had a strong line and a reliable back. The Browns should be looking for reasons to get Quinn on the field early as opposed to reasons to hold him back. ..."

Interesting arguments on both sides -- although I too believe Quinn will emerge as the starter at some point this season. Of course, it's hard envision Cleveland's passing attack striking fear into the hearts of opponents this year -- and not just because of their situation under center.

According to PFW, no Browns receiver -- Edwards included -- impressed in off-season workouts. Joe Jurevicius looked the best of the lackluster bunch, but his lack of speed was noticeable, and the Browns will enter training camp with questions about their group of pass catchers.

And don't forget that even though he appears to be on schedule, Kellen Winslow's availability for the start of training camp is up in the air as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. ...

In Minnesota. ... Head coach Brad Childress essentially shot down rumors that the Vikings are trying to sign a veteran quarterback but did not rule out the possibility they could acquire one sometime this summer.

What the Vikings are doing, Childress told reporters on Tuesday, is evaluating personnel throughout the league -- at quarterback as well as other positions -- in the event that training camp performances necessitate a move. But barring a complete turnaround, the Vikings will enter training camp next week with Tarvaris Jackson and Brooks Bollinger as their top two quarterbacks, as they have planned all along.

"I doubt whether that would change before camp," Childress said. "I don't think [other teams] are making a lot of changes right now. Everybody is standing pat. You see as you go. But as you know, things happen."

As Minneapolis Star Tribune staffer Kevin Seifert noted, recent comments by Philadelphia backup Kelly Holcomb, who faces an uphill battle making the Eagles' final roster, fueled the speculation.

Holcomb, capable of providing short-term competence if needed, recently told FOXSports.com that he was intrigued by the idea of playing for the Vikings. That doesn't mean the interest is mutual. ...

Also of interest. ... Childress said the Vikings will have "one more pow-wow," probably this week, to make a final determination about rookie Adrian Peterson's availability for the start of training camp.

Peterson, as has been well-documented, is recovering from a broken collarbone that he re-injured Jan. 1. The team decided in May to bypass surgery, believing Peterson would heal on his own in time for camp. Childress said that Peterson "hasn't had any backsteps," but it will be necessary to perform one more evaluation before he is officially cleared for contact.

Oh yeah. ... He'll also have to be under contract.

Negotiations on Peterson's rookie deal remain in the early stages and it is too early to know for sure if a holdout is looming.

Profootballtalk.com editor Mike Florio predicts that Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, will wait and see what kind of deal sixth overall pick LaRon Landry gets from the Redskins and what kind of deal eighth overall pick Jamaal Anderson gets from the Falcons before getting down to serious business with the Vikings.

Childress this week emphasized the importance of getting Peterson into camp on time but it'll take more than the coach's prodding to get this one done. ...

In New Orleans. ... SI's King is counting on Reggie Bush being more versatile and just plain better this year.

According to King: "It's ridiculous that [Bush] rushed for a fullback-like 3.6 yards per carry last year. He'll be at least a yard better because he knows the best carries are sometime the zero-yard gains, which are better than the seven-yard losses. He's already learned that -- in December, Bush averaged 5.1 yards per rush. The Saints scored 30 or more points six times in November and December last year"

Based on that strong finish, King summed up: "I expect 10 of those days this year."

Me, too. ... And I can tell you from talking to him myself in April that Bush shares in those expectations. ...

In Miami. ... Although the Dolphins believe rookie Lorenzo Booker is ready to be Ronnie Brown's backup, they likely would explore veteran options if Brown is hurt, Booker struggles in camp or potential third-stringers Jesse Chatman and Patrick Cobbs flop.

According to Miami Herald staffer Barry Jackson, free agent Corey Dillon likes the Dolphins, but they haven't called. ...

And finally this week. ... Training camps are right around the corner -- literally -- with the Steelers reporting tomorrow and holding their first practice on Tuesday. Making things even more interesting, new head coach Mike Tomlin has scheduled 15 two-a-day practices, which are believed to be the most of any team in the league.

"This is what training camps are about," Tomlin said. "They are not supposed to be pleasant."

The Steelers' training camps became relatively predictable during former coach Bill Cowher's 15 seasons, with a limited number of two-a-days and occasional practices called off to give the players a break or to take a trip to the movies.

"I'm not familiar with how it is has been in the past," said Tomlin, who said he took considerable time planning his first camp. "I really can't speak to that, but it will be trying at times. There will be some adversity."

Oh yes. There'll be no shortage of adversity in Pittsburgh and around the league. And I can't wait. ...

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 -- especially with training camps getting under way -- and watch the Headline News section for more in-depth reviews of current events -- including the Fantasy Notebook.