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Fantasy Notebook: Bengals WRs Front, Center... And Absent
Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... Although the free-agent signing period rolls on, most of the higher-profile players -- at least those of most interest to Fantasy owners -- have new deals in place (whether they remained with previous teams or landed new gigs). That being the case, most of the media will begin focusing on the upcoming NFL Draft.

But there's plenty of other stuff for Fantasy owners to keep up with -- especially with teams around the league cranking up their respective off-season strength and conditioning programs.

And that's what the Notebook will focus on in coming weeks.

Don't get me wrong, the draft -- along with its associated hype and (can you say ubiquitous?) speculation -- is plenty interesting. But from a Fantasy perspective, I have a hard time getting excited about it.

The bottom line is it's impossible to gauge the Fantasy value of players who aren't on teams yet.

Besides, as I mentioned above, anybody with a television box capable of tuning into ESPN and/or the NFL Network is probably getting their fill (although I highly recommend checking out the Mock NFL Draft currently underway on the Message Board to gain even more).

With that out of the way. ...

Let's get the ball rolling in Cincinnati, where Chad Johnson cranked up his ongoing, offseason-long campaign to convince Bengals officials to turn him loose another notch.

Among other things, the flamboyant wideout used a series of Los Angeles-based media appearances to make it clear he won't be taking part in the team's off-season strength and conditioning program.

"I will not be there," he said during a Tuesday afternoon stop at Current TV and "There are a lot of issues that need to be dealt with. Nothing has changed."

As Cincinnati Enquirer staffer Mark Curnutte noted, the Bengals will begin their off-season strength and conditioning program tomorrow at Paul Brown Stadium. It is not mandatory, though Johnson -- who has been an attendee every year since he was drafted by the Bengals in 2001 -- can earn a $250,000 workout bonus by participating.

"The sessions are voluntary," Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan told Curnutte when informed of Johnson's comments.

But it doesn't end there; Johnson didn't stop with proclamations about skipping voluntary workouts.

Mostly quiet since the week before the Super Bowl, Johnson also appeared on ESPN2's "First Take" early Tuesday.

Asked several times by "First Take" host Jay Crawford where he might be playing next season, Johnson said: "You know what? I want to continue my career wherever I have an opportunity at winning a playoff game and getting to a Super Bowl. ..."

Then asked if the Bengals were that team, Johnson said: "I'm not sure. I have no idea. ... I haven't made a decision on anything of that nature."

It should be noted, as Curnutte did, the venom of national broadcast and radio interviews in January and February was gone from Johnson's tone. Also worth noting, Johnson Crawford he has not spoken to head coach Marvin Lewis or anyone else in the organization since the end of the season.

During a subsequent appearance on NFL Network's "Total Access," Johnson -- albeit only after considerable prodding from host Rich Eisen and analyst Jamie Dukes -- reiterated his desire for "a change of scenery."

Or more to the point, Johnson (unintentionally?) added he needs a "fresh of breath air."

(Seriously. ... Check the video here -- specifically, watch the 6:10 mark)

So, does he have an idea where he would like to play in 2008?

"I don't know," Johnson told Crawford. "I am undecided."


That certainly didn't stop him from suggesting yet another possibility (in case you haven't been following along, Johnson has made rather overt references to playing for Miami, Oakland, Carolina and Washington since the season ended) on Wednesday night.

Now we can add another.

As Dallas Morning News staffer Albert Breer framed it Thursday: "Johnson could've climbed on the coffee table on the middle of "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" set and yelled at the top of his lungs 'Trade me to Dallas!!!'"

Breer is right. Johnson didn't come right out and request the deal, but Ocho Cinco, insisting he could work alongside Terrell Owens, got the message out.

"If I end up in Dallas, I would just look at which finger I'm gonna put it on," Johnson declared (presumably referring to a Championship ring). "That's it. Ain't no ifs, ands or buts about it.

"It's gonna work. ... T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) and Chad Johnson are no different than '81' and '85' because T.J. is a No. 1 receiver. We just happen to be two No. 1 receivers on the same team at the same time.

"It's no different."

According to Breer, Johnson even went as far as to stick up for Owens after hosts rolled 81's emotional outburst after the Cowboys' playoff loss.

"You know what's funny? Y'all don't have my clip," he said. "I'm crying about losing. We played Jacksonville, Sunday night, we're 4-0. I'm mad because we're 4-1. I was mad. I was the same way."

And as for the atmosphere if '81' and '85' were paired, Johnson again (unintentionally?) made funny.

"That'd be a circus," he said. ...

Of course, the Bengals' situation could take on a more circus-like atmosphere of its own soon enough.

According to NFL Network insider Adam Schefter, Houshmandzadeh is also expected to skip the start of the voluntary conditioning program for some of the same reasons as Johnson.

Schefter went on to advise readers it sets up one of the stickiest situations in the NFL, an issue that threatens to hang over the team until and through training camp.

To review: Cincinnati has two Pro Bowl wide receivers, each of whom believes he is underpaid, each of whom wants a new deal, each of whom is expected to be absent for the start of tomorrow's off-season drills.

For the record, Houshmandzadeh is in the final year of four-year contract that is scheduled to pay him a base salary of $2.525 million. He failed to show up to the Bengals' offseason conditioning program last season and, without a new deal in hand this time around Houshmandzadeh is not about to attend now.

According to Schefter, Cincinnati already has wrestled with the best way to handle the Johnson situation; it has made it known to any team that calls the team that the Bengals will not, under any circumstance, trade Johnson.

Or as Schefter framed it: "They refuse to 86 '85.'"

Did I say circus-like? More like a zoo. ...

At best, the Bengals will have one unhappy wide receiver. The only real question now seems to be whether they'll double the fun and have two.

Unlike Johnson, Houshmandzadeh never has had his deal restructured in Cincinnati. Unlike Johnson, who has three years left on his contract, Houshmandzadeh has only one.

So, if Cincinnati spends on a Pro Bowl wide receiver, it would seem that Houshmandzadeh has next. It's also safe to say whatever happens, if it includes Johnson remaining a Bengal, 85 is going to continue making waves. ...

For what it's worth, when Yahoo! Sports correspondent Michael Silver asked Carson Palmer on Thursday about Houshmandzadeh's expected absence from the voluntary workouts, the quarterback said, "I'm not worried about T.J. at all. He's got his own trainer in L.A. who works him very hard -- I worked out with him a couple of times over the offseason, and I'll fly back a couple of more times and get a few sessions in.

"We've been together five years now. Our timing and rhythm is pretty good. I know he busts his butt every day. He does Pilates and yoga and doesn't party. He'll show up for every OTA (offseason training activity) and workout and be good to go."

And Johnson?

"No comment," the signal caller said.

That response prompted Silver to add: "I know Palmer pretty well, and I strongly suspect that the ultra-competitive quarterback is not especially entertained by Johnson's approach, even if he won't say so. ..."

In a related note (following up on a previous Fantasy Notebook). ... Earlier this month, former Bengals defensive lineman Shaun Smith, during an appearance at a Cleveland Browns Backers meeting in Maryland, said Johnson punched Lewis at halftime of the Bengals' wild-card playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January 2006.

First, former Bengals receivers coach Hugh Jackson denied Smith's story.

"To shed light on it I'll say the same thing I said before," Jackson, now Baltimore's quarterbacks coach, said. "Chad Johnson never hit Marvin Lewis. Chad Johnson never hit me. Chad Johnson never put anybody in a headlock."

This week, Johnson chimed in.

"There was an incident," he admitted on both ESPN2 and FOX.

Johnson went into a more detailed description, however, during "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" appearance, explaining the incident as follows:

"Man, I was pissed off. I was mad. I'm in the biggest game of my career, I got one catch, y'all are not using me. I'm pissed off. I'm emotional. You know how I am about the game.

"So I'm in there going off. And I have an IV in my arm, and I get up screaming, I'm mad. Carson's hurt, he's on the table, knee's gone. I'm not getting ball, and I'm going off, I'm screaming. And Hugh Jackson restrains me. He put me in a headlock. So I couldn't move. Coach Lewis comes over, talks to me, restrains me also. That's where it ended.

"Yeah, something happened, I'm not going to sit here and lie. But that was it. Now, Shaun comes back with me throwing the punch. Man, if threw the punch, I wouldn't have no problem if I wanted to get out of Cincinnati, because I wouldn't be there right now. No one's bigger than no organization. Not even Chad Johnson, trust me."

Even in trying to clear "the punch" up, he vowed not to worry about what other people thought about that, or any other incident in his past.

Which, as Breer suggested, is to say Johnson claims he's stopped caring what other people think.

"Some people may not like Chad Johnson," he said. "Some people maybe do. But it really doesn't matter. When I touch that field, I'm just like insurance, you can count on me."

The numbers -- on the field -- bear him out. But until he hits the field this September, the only thing you'll want to count on is Johnson continuing to state his case. ...

In New Orleans. ... Reggie Bush finds himself in (for him is) an unusual position. As New Orleans Times-Picayune staffer Mike Triplett suggested this week, for the first time in his football life, Bush has hit a bump in the road.

Last year, he suffered through his first losing season at any level and missed games with a knee injury, also a first. And as Triplett further suggested, Bush faced more doubt and criticism than ever about his ability to succeed in the National Football League.

Fortunately, he also sounds like a man ready to get his game back on track.

"I've had plenty of time to reflect," said Bush. "I missed the last four games. That really hurt me because I never really had to miss any games before. I had a lot of time to think and just go through what approach I want to take this year and how I want to go about this year and getting to that elite level of athletes."

As noted in a previous Fantasy Notebook, that approach has been expected to result in an increased focus on football and the Saints, specifically, throughout the offseason.

Now, Bush has backed up his contention. He arrived for the start of the team's off-season workout program on Monday and plans to stay throughout most of the spring and summer.

As Biloxi Sun-Herald beat writer Larry Holder noted, head coach Sean Payton didn't exactly approve of Bush's regimen a year ago. So, Payton was more than pleased upon learning the third-year man would take a different approach this time around.

"He plans on being involved in all of our offseason, which is encouraging and good," Payton said. "I think it's important for him, especially running backs the pounding they take, to be real diligent in the weight room. That's his plans."

In case you missed it, Bush spent most of his time last offseason in Southern California. In an interview conducted last April (for the 2007 Fantasy Football Pro Forecast magazine), Bush told me working out on his own allowed for more flexibility.

"It's not always about how hard you work, but working smarter, and improving a lot of different areas," he explained at the time. "I'm focusing on improving my physical ability and my strength."

It would appear he's gained a better understanding of the benefits that come from being around teammates and coaches every day.

"Last year I kind of felt like I could still do the same things out there that I could do here. I was (doing so), but it was also a little different," he said. "Sometimes you can get your teammates in the film room, and with the coaches you get to go over little things that you can't get when you're not here at the facility.

"I definitely feel like there's a lot that I want to accomplish this year. I'm a competitor, and I'm just trying to do everything I can and get every little edge to compete and to make myself better."

Bush said that will extend off the field, as well.

"I'm taking a whole different approach this year in just how I go about my business and my life," said Bush. "These last two years, I definitely learned a lot. I feel like I'm maturing, and I feel like that's what it's all about. Maturing and learning. Going through life's experiences.

"And football, it's the right thing to do is to be here and working out with my teammates."

According to Triplett, that approach will be appreciated in the locker room.

This after Drew Brees and fullback Mike Karney suggested after last season that Bush needs to learn how to be more professional in his approach -- advice Bush has apparently taken to heart.

And let's face it; he has reason to be humble.

Bush's 2007 statistics were all lower than his breakout rookie season. He rushed for 581 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 3.7 yards per carry.

He also pulled in 73 catches for 417 yards and two scores but ranked among the league leaders in dropped passes, with 10, and fumbles, with eight, three of which were lost.

Once Deuce McAllister went down with a season-ending knee injury, Bush was erratic when carrying the load as the team's feature running back. It brought about more carries for Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas.

Then Bush suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament against Jacksonville midway through the season, eventually sidelining him for the final four games.

The good news?

Triplett believes several factors, in addition to increased maturity and understanding of the game, should help Bush rebound in 2008.

For starters, he'll be healthy again.

He also won't be thrown into an unexpected role this year, like he was after McAllister's injury.

Whether it's a healthy McAllister or the tandem of Stecker and Thomas taking more handoffs, the coaching staff will work hard to figure out the best way to use their unique offensive weapon.

When used the right way, Bush has proven to be dangerous as a runner, receiver and return man. In other words, coaches need to let Bush be Bush.

"I like to mix it up, because it gives me a chance to do different things from different positions, and it gives me different looks. I feel like in that respect I'm more dangerous," he explained. "It's going to pose more threats to defenses when I'm split out wide or returning punts and kicks."

Here's hoping his presence throughout the offseason is sufficient to serve as a creative catalyst for Payton and crew, who could probably use a reminder about Bush's unique abilities. ...

Also in New Orleans. ... Marques Colston is eager to get back to work, too.

He's also eager to get past last year's injury issues.

Colston hurt his hand during the final game at Chicago last season, but it's not expected to be a lingering problem.

He also had arthroscopic surgery on the left knee that bothered him throughout last season, but he also said that shouldn't affect him too much. He expects to be full speed in his training by next month.

"My major concern is getting my knee healthy and my hand healthy, and hopefully everything plays itself out right," he said.

Colston, who has kept up his conditioning on the stationary bike, among other methods, added: "Unfortunately I'm a vet to the surgeries, so I know exactly what it takes. I've just got to be patient with it. I had a lot of irritation going on in there throughout the season. Now's the time to clean it up and get healthy. ..."

As Triplett summed up, "It's hard to imagine, but a healthier, more mature Colston should only continue to improve. ..."

In Detroit. ... Tatum Bell is off and running as he tries to establish himself a second time as the Lions' starting tailback. And, as Detroit News staffer Mike O'Hara advised readers this week, Bell has set some lofty, yet "reachable" goals this season.

"I think I can get 1,300 yards," Bell told O'Hara Wednesday. "That's my goal -- at least 1,300, 15 touchdowns. I know it's reachable."

Of course, as O'Hara was quick to point out, Bell was limited to just 181 yards on 44 carries and one touchdown last season before being benched in favor of Kevin Jones (released last week) in Week 5.

Because of that, Bell decided to test the free-agent market but re-signed with the Lions after a strong recruiting pitch from offensive coaches.

And, O'Hara noted, several changes.

First, Jim Colletto, the offensive line coach last year, was promoted to offensive coordinator, replacing the fired Mike Martz. Under Martz last season, the Lions abandoned the run, finishing 31st in yards (80.5 per game) and last in attempts (20.2).

Sam Gash, a former Pro Bowl fullback, also moved from assistant special-teams coach to running backs coach.

"The biggest selling job we did was, the offensive staff stood on the table for him," head coach Rod Marinelli said. "They fought. They really wanted him back. They all felt really good about him."

Bell told O'Hara he considered Dallas, Houston, Tennessee and Tampa Bay before signing with Detroit.

"I feel like it will be a good fit for me," Bell explained. "I was talking to them (the coaches) once a week. I knew Martz was pretty much in control of everything. I used to have conversations with the coaches on the side last year.

"There wasn't anybody throwing anybody under the bus. I wasn't one of Martz' guys. That's just what it was."

Under Colletto, we can expect to see more running plays. The Lions will also employ a zone-blocking scheme similar to that Bell ran with some success during his three years in Denver.

He rushed for 921 yards and eight touchdowns as a Bronco in 2005 and 1,025 and two touchdowns in '06.

Gash thinks the new running system and Bell's style make a good match.

"Tatum possesses a lot of qualities that an NFL runner needs," Gash said. "He has good size (213 pounds). He's fearless in the sense that he'll block for you. He's been a successful back in the NFL.

"He's still a young guy who has a lot left in his tank. Last year, I don't know if you want to count it. With the speed and what we're going to do, he fits the mold."

And better still, Bell is first in line for the No. 1 spot. All he has to do is make good on the opportunity. ...

In Green Bay. ... Ryan Grant will work take part in the Packers' off-season program without a contract. But according to Green Bay Press-Gazette beat writer Pete Dougherty, getting Grant to training camp will require signing him to a contract well above the NFL minimum for a second-year pro.

Agent Alan Herman told Dougherty that Grant will take part in all the team's mini-camps and workouts this spring, but that he will not sign the $370,000 minimum tender for an exclusive-rights player who has only one accrued season in the NFL.

Grant is looking for a longer, far more lucrative deal after he rushed for 956 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry despite being the team's primary halfback for only the final nine games of the season.

Herman said he has talked to Packers officials about a contract, but that they haven't begun negotiating.

"I'm optimistic we're going to move along here and get something done," Herman said Wednesday.

Though there are some impediments to a possible deal, Dougherty believes there appear to be more factors that should make a resolution likely in the offseason.

Dougherty went on to explain that Grant has little leverage as far as free agency is concerned, because he won't be a restricted free agent until 2010 and an unrestricted free agent in '11. That will force him to ask for a lower price than a player closer to free agency.

But Dougherty further noted, Grant also has to feel some pressure for striking a big deal now, because even though he has only one accrued season in the NFL, he's been out of college for four years and is 25 years old at a position where players often decline noticeably by age 30.

Financially the Packers are in excellent position to do a salary-cap friendly deal because they're about $25 million under the cap now and will be more than $35 million under after Brett Favre turns in his retirement papers.

When asked about working out a long-term contract with Grant, general manager Ted Thompson said: "We like Ryan Grant a lot. I'm not going to speculate on something like that."

One thing definitely working in Grant's favor, however, is his presence with the team now.

"(Grant) is there to participate in everything they do (in the offseason)," Herman said. "I'd expect the goodwill on our side to be met with goodwill on their side. ..."

I think it's safe to say it will be.

The Packers clearly have a need to maintain much offensive continuity as possible after Favre's retirement. Having Grant skip out on training camp wouldn't be in either side's best interest.

Grant became a key player last season by resurrecting a poor run game, and the Packers need him in the lineup more than ever to take some pressure off new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. ...

In New York. ... In case you missed it last week, Derrick Ward -- not really wanting to leave and not finding much interest elsewhere -- re-signed with the Giants, getting a one-year, $1.1 million contract that includes incentives that could add up to another $1 million.

Ward, who turns 28 on Aug. 30, carried the load at the start of last season when Brandon Jacobs was sidelined with a knee injury. Ward averaged 88 yards per game in the first four games, but in keeping with his career history, was unable to stay on the field.

He missed four games with ankle and groin injuries but returned with a flourish, running 24 times for 154 yards in a victory in Chicago. In that game, Ward fractured his left fibula, putting him on season-ending injured reserve.

And according to New York Post staffer Paul Schwartz, where Ward fits into the team's plans this season remains to be seen.

Despite finishing with 602 rushing yards -- second to Jacobs' 1,009 -- and averaging 4.8 yards per attempt, Ward won't step right back into the role he left. In addition to Jacobs, the Giants also have Ahmad Bradshaw, who at times was brilliant as a rookie and surely will warrant increased playing time.

That being the case, Schwartz believes Ward figures to be No. 3 on the depth chart and his return likely will create a roster battle with veteran Reuben Droughns, who is scheduled to make $1 million next season.

On a more positive note. ... Ward told Schwartz his leg is fully healed, and he plans to take part in the offseason workout program, which begins March 31. ...

In Philadelphia. ... As the Sports Xchange framed it this week, "Andy Reid's lips are saying one thing, but his actions are saying another. ..."

The coach insists that he's perfectly happy with his receiving corps. Yet the team made a serious run at Randy Moss before he re-signed with the New England Patriots, and, according to sources, talked to the Arizona Cardinals about the availability of Larry Fitzgerald before he finally agreed to a restructuring of his contract.

"I'm OK with the guys we have," Reid said, referring to starting wideouts Kevin Curtis (77 catches, 1,110 yards, six touchdowns) and Reggie Brown (61, 780, 4) and backups Jason Avant, Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis.

"(With Moss), it was just a situation where we snuck in there trying to be aggressive. But the kid had his heart set on going back to New England. But like any great player out there, we're going to be aggressive and look into it, and that's what we did. It doesn't mean (we're unhappy with our receivers)."

Still, Schefter has suggested the Eagles may have some interest in the Cardinals' other starting wideout, Anquan Boldin. And rumors persist that they also might take a run at Lions wide receiver Roy Williams, even though Lions GM Matt Millen and Marinelli insist Williams isn't going anywhere.

Curtis had a very good year in his first season with the Eagles, averaging 14.4 yards per catch. After a slow start, Brown, the Eagles' 2005 second-round pick, finished strong, catching 22 passes in the Eagles' final four games.

But the Eagles finished 24th in the league in red zone offense last season, converting just 23 of 51 trips inside the opponents' 20 into touchdowns. That has been the impetus for much of the public clamor for another wideout.

The Xchange added, however, that Philadelphia's struggles in the red-zone were influenced by two other factors -- the ineffectiveness of tight end L.J. Smith, who missed six games with groin and knee injuries and was never anywhere close to 100 percent, and Donovan McNabb's lack of mobility much of the season as he tried to come back from a torn ACL.

The year before, with Smith healthy and Brown and Donte' Stallworth as the starting wideouts, the Eagles finished 10th in the league in red-zone offense. ...

In Chicago. ... The Bears talked a good game at this year's NFL Scouting Combine -- when they said they had great confidence in what would be a very unproven receiving corps if free agent Bernard Berrian were to split the scene.

But as Pro Football Weekly suggest, the recent cost-effective additions of veteran free-agents Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd emphatically prove otherwise.

Team sources are in agreement that Booker, who was a quality go-to guy for the final three years in his first five-year go-round with the Bears (1999-2003), and Lloyd, who has been reunited with Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who was his head coach at the University of Illinois, could probably be considered the No. 1 and No. 2 wideouts, respectively, by default (although one team official told PFW that Mark) Bradley could challenge Lloyd for the No. 2 spot).

But what about Devin Hester?

Didn't head coach Lovie Smith tout him as a serious candidate for the No. 1 spot last December (see here and here)?

Apparently, there's been a change of heart.

According to PFW, Hester is now being viewed as either the No. 3 or No. 4 guy.

"Bradley and Lloyd are the X-factors," an unnamed source told PFW. "Lloyd has some decent tools (14.5 yards per catch career average), but he's had a lot of other issues that have stood in his way. With Bradley, it's a case of better health and just getting more of an opportunity.

"The Bears admit it's partially their fault that he didn't get on the field more last season. ..."

Meanwhile, PFW went on to suggest that Booker should be a better fit in the locker room than Muhsin Muhammad, whom Booker has in effect replaced on the roster.

As has been suggested in the past, Muhammad was viewed by some observers as a shameless self-promoter. PFW reaffirmed that notion last week, characterizing Muhammad as a "behind-the-scenes grumbler of the highest order" who was never reluctant to complain about the team's quarterbacks or offensive strategy. ...

And finally this week, in a distant-but-ominous note. ... insider Peter King offered readers the following tidbit on Monday: "If I were you, I would be concerned about a labor dispute in this sport sometime in the next three years. Very concerned. ..."

Those who haven't been following this story should review editor Mike Florio's recent reporting on the topic to get up to speed. You might want to start here (you'll find a full list of Florio's blog entries on the topic here).

It's worth watching. ...

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.