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Fantasy Notebook: Backfields In Motion Edition
Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... Post-draft mini-camps continue to run their course as NFL teams evaluate new prospects and in many cases, give Fantasy owners a better feel for where both the newcomers and returning veterans might stand this coming season.

So, with the desired intelligence beginning to flow, there's no better place than the weekly Notebook to start getting a better feel for how key situations might play out in coming weeks.

This week's focus is on running backs and more specifically, backfields likely to be in some degree in motion. Let's get busy, eh?

We'll get the ball rolling in Philadelphia, where it's starting to sound like we might see an experiment in addition by subtraction. The theory to be tested: Whether the Eagles can improve offensive output by cutting back on their most dangerous weapon.

Say what?

Could Marty Mornhinweg's belief that less Brian Westbrook will lead to more overall production somehow be accurate?

"We really leaned on him hard last year," the Eagles' offensive coordinator explained last Sunday. "We had to. We had no choice. We were forced to because of injuries.Donovan [McNabb] was just coming back, L.J. [Smith] was hurt, and Brian had such an unbelievable season.

"Two-thousand yards rushing and receiving. He did everything -- "Let's get the ball in Westbrook's hands.'"

As staffer Reuben Frank suggested on Monday, there were times last year when Westbrook was the offense. With McNabb feeling his way through much of the season after knee surgery, with backup A.J. Feeley starting a few games, with Smith's season-long injury and inconsistency from starting wideouts Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis, there just weren't any other legitimate options.

That being the case, Mornhinweg believes the Eagles grew predictable last year.

Although they ranked sixth in the NFL in offense, the Eagles were only 17th in scoring. And even an All-Pro running back enjoying one of the greatest seasons in NFL history wasn't enough to bump the Eagles over .500.

That's why Mornhinweg thinks more balance will not only help the offense become less predictable but will also make Westbrook more dangerous.

"We have so many guys who can make plays," Mornhinweg said. "Reggie and Kevin, getting L.J. back, [newcomer Lorenzo] Booker, getting Donovan healthy -- and Donovan looks great -- and all the others.

"Brian is an amazing player, but if we can get everybody involved, now maybe that takes a little heat off Westbrook and puts a little heat on the defense, and Brian becomes even more explosive."

Westbrook's franchise-record 2,104 yards last year represented 37 percent of the Eagles' total offense. He became the fourth player in NFL history with 2,000 or more yards and 90 receptions.

Westbrook is fine with another 372 touches, but he understands that the ball will probably be spread around a little more this fall.

"I wouldn't mind it being the same," he said. "I think I've been very productive with the ball in my hands with that many touches. I think I can continue to do that.

"Of course, with us adding more playmakers like [rookie receiver DeSean] Jackson and guys like that, you need to get the ball in his hands, and Booker as well. You can try and do some different things that might take the ball a little bit out of my hands."

According to Frank, that's not as outlandish an idea as it might sound to Fantasy owners.

"As dangerous as Westbrook was last season when everybody knew he was going to get the ball," Frank wrote, "just think how much more dangerous he might be with the element of surprise on his side. ..."

No arguments here.

The need for threats that don't wear jersey No. 36 is as obvious as the need to cut back on a workload that leaves Westbrook in what seems to be a constant battle with a troublesome knee.

So in the end, I'm not arguing against Mornhinweg's basic premise that taking some heat off Westbrook will make him more explosive.

I'm just not sold on the notion that guys like Booker and Jackson are capable of doing that any more I'm sold on the notion that Smith is capable of picking up the slack (or staying healthy) or that Brown and Curtis will suddenly start playing at a higher level with greater consistency.

And I'm not alone in my assessment -- especially in terms of the newcomers.

As Delaware County Times staff writer Bob Grotz wrote after last month's NFL Draft: "Instead of drafting a franchise-type running back with the 19th overall pick, they traded out of the first round. Then the Eagles traded for Booker, a short, thinly constructed third-down back who makes Westbrook look like King Kong and acted like one of the guys they got in the second round (Jackson) really belonged in the first round."

In other words, it's a good thing Westbrook is okay with another 370-touch season. ...

In San Francisco. ... After watching the team's first mini-camp, San Jose Mercury News staffer Daniel Brown advised readers last Monday that Frank Gore "is catching on fast -- with an emphasis on 'catching' and 'fast'" when it comes to new coordinator Mike Martz' scheme.

The running back is the frequent target of passes, whether that means Gore comes out of the backfield or lines up as the slot receiver.

Such versatility is how Marshall Faulk blossomed into an MVP under Martz with the St. Louis Rams. Faulk lined up everywhere, even split wide, and in 1999 joined former 49ers star Roger Craig as the only backs to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

Gore is eager for an expanded job description.

"I want to show people that I can do it all -- run, catch, block," he said. "A lot of people feel that I'm just a running back."

Gore has led the 49ers in receptions in each of the past two seasons, with 61 catches in 2006 and 53 in '07.

Against Arizona last Nov. 25, he ran 21 times for 116 yards and caught 11 passes for 98 yards.

Still, Gore told Brown there is more to come.

As noted in a previous Notebook, Gore compared playing for Martz to playing under Norv Turner, the former 49ers offensive coordinator who helped the running back set the team rushing record with 1,695 yards in '06.

"Working with a guy who's had a lot of success in this league -- who has been a head coach and an offensive coordinator -- makes you really want to work for him and listen to him," Gore explained. "Because you know that he really knows what's going on."

The question is whether Martz will remember to make use of Gore's legs.

While with the Detroit Lions the past two seasons, his rushing game finished 32nd (in 2006) and 31st (in '07). Martz focused instead on the passing game, milking two top-10 finishes from a unit that had ranked No. 26 the year before he arrived.

So, Brown asked: "Can a pass-happy offensive coordinator still make Gore the focal point?"

By way of answering, Gore smiled and turned to fellow running back Michael Robinson, who has the locker next to him. "Do you think this offense is built around me," Gore asked his teammate.

Robinson nodded his head up and down repeatedly as if, Brown suggested, "to say, yes, yes, yes, yes."

"It's going to be fun," Gore said. ...

For what it's worth, Sacramento Bee staffer Matthew Barrows notes that Gore went through the mini-camp weighing 224 pounds, about 12 pounds above his playing weight.

Gore said he plans on losing that weight over the next month in his hometown of Miami, where his workout regimen includes sprinting up hills while pulling a truck tire. ...

One last related note. ... The Sports Xchange notes that Faulk has reached out to Gore.

Faulk, who works as an analyst on the NFL Network in Southern California, gave Gore his cell phone number and offered to travel to the Bay Area to help Gore with the offense. ...

In Carolina. ... As Gaston Gazette beat man Steve Reed framed it: "For about two months, it looked as though DeAngelo Williams would be the Carolina Panthers' featured back this season. ..."

That's no longer the case.

Nonetheless, Williams insists he's happy the Panthers drafted Jonathan Stewart with their first pick in last month's draft -- even if it means Stewart becomes the team's starting running back.

"It didn't bother me at all," said Williams, who had been penciled in as the starter after the DeShaun Foster was released in the offseason. "I still have the same mindset, whether I'm the starter or not the starter.

"This is the National Football League. Every year, there's another quarterback, wide receiver, offensive lineman, defensive lineman. They're just reloading. There's always competition."

As Charlotte Observer staffer David Scott explained this week, Williams and Stewart have different styles, with Williams more of an elusive runner who relies on his quickness and Stewart going "north and south."

"Everybody's going to the two-back system," Williams said after a mini-camp practice last Saturday. "So whether he or I start it off, we're probably going to get same amount of carries, give or take."

Williams, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season (his second as a pro), said coaches haven't talked about how playing time will be divided between him and Stewart, who is missing mini-camp while recovering from toe surgery.

"It will come down to training camp," Williams said. "If I can take most of the load or him, or if it's even, we'll do a great job with it.

According to Reed, head coach John Fox expects both Williams and Stewart to be a big part of the offense, although he gave no indication as to who'll start.

"I think we've been one of the first to have the tandem deal, starting back in 2003," Fox said. "It helps to have a change of pace guy. A lot of people are wanting to do that now. We want to full-suit ourselves.

"We knew we needed a running back this off-season, we just felt the best avenue for us was through the draft and not free agency, and hopefully we've accomplished that."

Reed, however, notes Panthers weren't as balanced as many think in 2003.

Stephen Davis got the bulk of the carries (318) over Foster (113). It was a little more balanced when they last went to the playoffs in 2005 with Foster getting 205 and Davis 180.

Last year, Foster carried 247 times. Williams carried 144.

And as Rock Hill Herald staffer Darin Gantt pointed out this week, since Fox took over the team in 2002, the second running back has generally gotten plenty of work.

The No. 2 man has gotten at least 21.6 percent of the work every year other than 2004, when injuries hit the position like a plague, and Nick Goings and fullback Brad Hoover were the last men standing to take hand-offs.

Whatever the case, Carolina wants to be a team that runs the ball 500 times this season. And under a best-case scenario Williams and Stewart would both get 225-plus carries.

In fact, Williams believes he and Stewart are similar enough in size and style to make predicting which of the two will be busier -- or to tell which is on the field at any given time -- a difficult proposition.

"We'll keep (the opposition) on their heels. Our (physical) stature is similar (Williams is 5-foot-9, 217 pounds; Stewart 5-10, 235). The only way to determine who's who will be by looking at our numbers."

And by that, he means their jersey numbers -- not their statistical totals. I still believe that once he's fully recovered from his recent toe surgery, Stewart is going to be of more interest to Fantasy owners. ...

In Detroit. ... Booth Newspapers beat man Tom Kowalski advised readers on Friday that Kevin Smith, an early favorite for the starting spot, wasn't on hand but the running back position already seemed a little overcrowded.

The Lions wrapped up three days of OTAs this week and four veterans took turns at the halfback position -- Tatum Bell, Aveion Cason, Brian Calhoun and Artose Pinner.

Smith, the rookie third-round draft pick out of Central Florida, pretty much has a lock on one of the three roster spots and that means the other four players are battling for the final two.

Bell reported a little overweight and head coach Rod Marinelli is aware of it, but isn't making a big deal about it.


"He might be up there a little bit more," Marinelli said of Bell. "Like I told these guys, 'Just make sure of where you're at.' It's still the off-season but I want to make sure we're working toward the perfect weight when they enter (training) camp. I'm aware of every guy.

"Right now, it's making sure we're on course to where we should be."

Since all four of the veteran backs have some running and receiving skills, Kowalski suggests the battle will likely be won with their work on special teams. Cason and Pinner have already shown they can contribute in a lot of ways there but Bell and Calhoun still have to prove they can add something.

Calhoun is a third-year veteran, but he missed 20 games in his first two seasons with the same knee injury. He's healthy now and Marinelli believes he'll be a factor on special teams.

"Yeah, I think some of those runners have got to be able to cover kicks for us, too," Marinelli said. "This system is what (Calhoun) is used to and he's got good vision. He's got really good third-down skills and one of the key things for all of those guys is special teams.

"That's where people are going to carve their niche."

As for carrying the load?

According to Detroit Free Press reporter Nicholas J. Cotsonika, Smith, Bell and Calhoun have played in zone schemes before. "So they're very familiar with the cuts," Marinelli said.

All things being equal, Smith will get every opportunity to shine.

As insider Don Banks suggested last week, Smith, who led the nation in rushing last year at Central Florida, couldn't have landed in a better NFL destination than Detroit in terms of first-year opportunity.

The Lions rushed for less than 1,300 yards as a team in 2007, and let their top two runners -- Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett -- go this offseason.

The Lions talked Bell into returning for a second season once they jettisoned Martz, Jones and Duckett. But the ex-Bronco has yet to prove he's tough enough to make it through a year without being injured.

Banks believes the Lions will likely find playing time for both runners, but he's looking for Smith to emerge as Detroit's lead back by October. No arguments here. ...

In Dallas. ... With the NFL draft in the books, the Cowboys know which pieces they'll be working with at running back in 2008. But as Dallas Morning News staffer Albert Breer advised readers this week, how those pieces fit together remains to be seen.

Last season, Julius Jones started all 16 regular-season games and alternated series with Marion Barber.

Jones has since departed for Seattle, and Felix Jones and Tashard Choice were drafted in the first and fourth rounds, respectively.

While they will obviously continue to further define the roles and responsibilities of each man, there are some safe assumptions at this point.

"We feel like we have some talented players at that position, and they each can do some different things," head coach Wade Phillips said. "Marion's gonna be our workhorse, and rightfully so. We believe we have a place that Felix fits, as far as what we want him to do, and Tashard does, too."

The Cowboys were able to alternate series between Julius Jones and Barber last season because both backs were versatile and experienced, making them viable options in any situation.

In that sense, Breer believes Choice may be more advanced than Felix Jones.

Choice played in a pro-style offense under Chan Gailey at Georgia Tech, which gave him experience catching passes and picking up the blitz in the passing game.

Jones, on the other hand, played in a spread-option attack at Arkansas and, while he flashed ability as a receiver at this weekend's rookie mini-camp, he caught only 39 passes in three collegiate seasons.

"Most guys that come from college, they haven't had an extensive opportunity in pass protection, regardless of what team they play for, unless they play in a pro-style offense," running backs coach Skip Peete said. "I think [Jones has] shown the willingness to block. Is he capable of playing on third down? In my mind, he can."

If that's true, Jones could be a valuable weapon in passing situations. Jones has big-play ability in the open field and can line up at multiple spots.

So Breer suggests the rotation could work by down, rather than by series, with Barber getting a break in passing situations. However it plays out, the coaching staff will determine and utilize and arrangement that gives the Cowboys the best chance at winning.

"We liked both of our backs last year, because they were versatile," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "They both could run inside, they both could run outside, they could catch, they could pass protect, they could do a lot of things.

"And we envision the guys we drafted or brought in being able to do those same kinds of things. The fact that they're rookies makes that more difficult."

One last note here. ... Asked whether Jones is sturdy enough to ever be more than a complementary back behind Barber, owner Jerry Jones apparently doesn't have much question.

"He's 6-feet tall, 207 pounds," Jones said. "Y'all probably heard this, gathered this, but he's thick in the bottom, from the waist down. And we've had another one that was this size, not in height, but about that weight that carried the ball 25, 30 times a ballgame -- Emmitt Smith. ..."

In Arizona. ... The biggest winner in the Cardinals' draft may not be a draftee. As East Valley Tribune staffer Mike Tulumello suggested this week, Edgerrin James should be ecstatic. While all the pundits predicted the team almost certainly would grab a running back with one of their first two picks, the Cardinals didn't take one until Round 5.

And even then, the little-known Tim Highsmith doesn't figure to take a whole lot of time away from James.

Which comes as no surprise. ... To James.

As the veteran tailback stated this week, "Running back is not the problem here. That's the least of my concerns. If they want to get something, it's their organization. If you look at the film, you look at everything, it's not me. So I'm not worried about it.

"I know where I stand in this game and at this position."

That standing begs further production. James currently ranks No. 13 on the all-time rushing list. With a solid, injury-free 2008, he will rise well into the top 10.

Two more such years and he could elbow his way into the top five, and that would generate a strong Hall of Fame bid. To do this, though, James -- who doesn't turn 30 until Aug.1 -- needs to keep grinding in the offseason.

"There's no slippage," James reports. "I made sure I got stronger. The main thing is to go out and work. You'll see for yourself."

Tulumello believes the team's decision not to take a running back early means the Cardinals agree that James can be counted on.

"I know I'm getting older. People say you're getting to be 30. But I take good care of myself. And I prepared for all of this in the early years. You won't see any slippage from me. ..."

Nor are you likely to see James caught up in any photo-related controversies like the one surrounding Matt Leinart last month.

Indeed, James had some other advice for Leinart: Stay away from the Internet and go where people can't take pictures.

"The places I'm at, it's dark," James recently told the Arizona Republic. "The (camera) phone won't work."

And in a few non-running back-related items of interest. ...

In Cincinnati. ...'s Peter King advised readers this week that it sounds like the Bengals didn't draft three wide receivers just because of Chad Johnson's holdout and the release of Chris Henry.

Head coach Marvin Lewis told King there's a T.J. Houshmandzadeh element to it, too.

"T.J.'s at the end of his contract this year," Lewis said, "and I don't know if it's possible to re-sign him. Chad says he won't play without a trade. We just have to be prepared for anything this year, and for the future."

It does make sense.

As King explained, this is the last year of a four-year contract for Houshmandzadeh, who has been in Johnson's shadow for most of his seven years in Cincinnati. He's due to make $2.65 million, plus a $100,000 workout bonus if he accrues enough time in the Bengals' off-season program.

Few receivers can match his production over the past two years -- 202 catches, 2,224 yards, 21 touchdowns -- and he'll be 31 at the end of this season. He's missed only four games over the last four years, so injury shouldn't be a concern.

The question is this: Will someone be willing to pay him $10 million a year if he becomes a free agent?

King believes that as long as Houshmandzadeh isn't hurt this year, somebody will pay the price.

King added: "Don't laugh. Shoot, if Javon Walker can get $27 million in the first three years of a deal with Oakland and he can't stay on the field for a season, and if the market for wideouts is weak, I could see Houshmandzadeh hitting the jackpot."

Also according to King, the Bengals wouldn't have taken the relatively unknown Jerome Simpson from Coastal Carolina in the second round if Lewis didn't think he could play a significant role as an NFL rookie. The Bengals think he's smart and ready to adapt quickly to their offensive system -- even though he had only 41 catches last season at a relatively low level of play.

And there's no change in the team's approach to Johnson, who says he wants out of Cincinnati after playing two seasons in a 2006 renegotiated contract with four years left (at $3 million, $4.5 million, $5 million, $6 million.

"We've made it clear what the stance is," Lewis said. "It's not going to change, today or in August, whenever. You cannot allow a player to get up on his high chair with four years left on his contract and demand to get out.

"If you do that, you set a terrible example for the rest of your team, and we won't do that."

That message has been consistent so far -- and that, of course, sets up what will undoubtedly be one of the summer's most interesting (and certainly the most-hyped) soap operas. ...

In Chicago. ... According to the Xchange, the Bears will be more judicious in their use of Devin Hester's considerable return abilities in an effort to fast track his development as a wide receiver this season.

That doesn't mean Hester will be eased out of the job at which he may already be the best in NFL history. But Hester will probably not be asked to return every kickoff and punt in 2008.

Hester's 15.5-yard punt-return average was second in the NFL last season, and his 42 chances were tied for third most in the league, even though many teams refused to allow him to touch the ball. He was fifth in the NFC with 43 kickoff returns but averaged just 21.7 yards, as teams routinely kicked high and short to curtail his returns or keep the ball out of his hands entirely.

In his second NFL season, Hester scored four touchdowns on punt returns and two more on kickoff returns. He had five kick-return touchdowns as a rookie, plus a 108-yard TD return of a missed field goal and another kickoff-return TD in Super Bowl XLI.

But, with the free-agent losses of No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian and No. 2 receiver Muhsin Muhammad (and the selection of a pair of wideouts in last month's draft), the Bears need Hester to make some strides as an offensive player over last season, when he showed flashes but still looked rough around the edges while catching 20 passes for 299 yards.

"He will still be our returner," head coach Lovie Smith said, "and from there we'll just try to bring him along as a receiver. He can handle them both. I know it's hard, and it's been a long time since anyone has been able to do (punt and kickoff returns) full-time and be a full-time receiver too. I think you make those decisions as they come.

"If we're in a game, and we need a play, and they're kicking the ball off to us, there is a good chance you are going to see him back there. If they're punting the ball to us, and we need a big play -- no matter what part of the game -- there is a good chance you are going to see him back there."

By most accounts, Hester was the Bears' offensive MVP last season, even though he had just nine receptions in the first 12 games. With a dearth of offensive playmakers on the roster, the Bears hope Hester can step up as a No. 2 receiver or at least a consistent No. 3.

"I think Devin Hester can be pretty much what he wants to be wherever we play him," Smith said. "Can he be a three-down receiver? Definitely so."

It's just not clear if he can do it this year. ...

Also in Chicago, following up on an ongoing story. ... insider John Clayton advised readers this week that Cedric Benson won't be cut. ... For now.

With the Bears saying nothing over the past couple of days, it's now clear they will bring Benson to training camp and let him compete against second-round choice Matt Forte for a starting job.

Internally, sources tell Clayton, the Bears aren't rendering an opinion on his recent boating incident and will let him work out his legal troubles in court. Benson will be judged on how he bounces back from a broken leg.

It should also be noted that independent witness have begun to add credence to Benson's claims that police might have been overly aggressive in their efforts to pursue, arrest and subdue him. ...

In Pittsburgh. ... In case you missed it, Hines Ward didn't take it lightly when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suggested the team could use taller receivers to help the offense next season.

So when the Steelers drafted 6-4 Limas Sweed out of the University of Texas in the second round, everyone in Pittsburgh wanted to know Ward's reaction and got it during the first day of Steelers mini-camp.

"There are no hard feelings," Ward said. "They felt like this guy could help us get to the next level and win a championship. Why would I be mad at that?"

Ward spent the day on the sidelines giving pointers to Sweed and the other receivers. Ward is recovering from minor knee surgery and will not participate this weekend.

And as's James Walker suggested, the selection of Sweed could have been just as much about age as it is about his size. Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl MVP, is 32-years old and entering his 11th season.

"To this day, everybody is waiting for Hines Ward to fall off and I love that," Ward said. "That gives me motivation to go out and prove people wrong. It doesn't matter who we bring in, because I'm not going to change the way I play my game.

"I'm going to be Hines Ward, and No. 86 is going to continue to play the way he's always played. ..."

And finally this week, in Tennessee. ... At least for a few minutes early this month, it appeared the Titans might have found their next No. 32. According to the Nashville Tennessean, undrafted rookie running back Rafael Little from Kentucky walked onto the field wearing the number previously worn by Adam "Pacman" Jones -- but removed it after a chat with head coach Jeff Fisher.

"He's not going to be wearing that," Fisher told reporters later. "We had discussed it this morning and for some reason someone told him to get dressed and come out. But that won't be his number.

"He'd prefer to wear a different number than 32 and you can read into it all you want."

Asked what Fisher told him, Little, who is rehabilitating from a serious knee injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl and will not play this year, replied: "He said, 'Just take it off. We don't know what number you're going to get yet.'"

No Titan wore the number last season.

Jones, who is still on suspension, was traded to the Cowboys last month. Asked if the Titans were retiring the number or exorcising it, Fisher said: "I'm sending it to Dallas. ..."

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.