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Fantasy Notebook: Rams, Ravens, Titans In Focus
Another Sunday, another Fantasy Notebook. ... And by golly, another interesting week for Fantasy owners following the latest mini-camp developments. We're definitely starting to see how these early workouts help Fantasy owners build the baseline of information necessary to create more realistic expectations as our drafts draw closer.

This past week was especially useful in helping us get up to speed on a handful of teams getting up to speed under the guidance of new offensive coordinators. So let's get busy, eh?

We'll get the ball rolling this week in St. Louis, where Steven Jackson heads the list of Rams eagerly anticipating the installation of new coordinator Al Saunders' vaunted offense.

Jackson, however, is also stoked about the notion of heading into his contract year.

As St. Louis Post-Dispatch staffer Bill Coats noted this week, with about $1.7 million due him this season, Jackson ranks as a major bargain among NFL running backs. But if the Rams want to keep him beyond 2008, it's going to cost them.

Jackson is entering the final season of the original five-year, $7 million deal he signed in July 2004 after the Rams made him their first-round draft choice (No. 24 overall) that year.

Coats went on to suggest Jackson's next deal, whether it's in St. Louis or elsewhere, will be far more lucrative.

"I think I've been a good person on and off the field," the star tailback said during the team's initial mini-camp workouts last weekend. "So I expect to be rewarded."

Naturally, a monster season would push him even further up the potential-earnings chart. And he's counting on putting up big numbers.

"Well, we all know what happens in a contract year: you ball out," he said with a laugh. "So, I expect to."

Still, he isn't setting any personal goals just yet.

In an exclusive interview conducted for last year's DraftBook magazine, Jackson told me last May that he was shooting for 2,500 total yards from scrimmage.

He wound up with about half that, rushing for 1,002 yards and adding 271 receiving yards in 12 games. He missed four games with injuries, and the Rams tumbled to 3-13 and last place in the NFC West.

"My goal right now until (training camp in) July is to (learn) this offense, so I can play fast," Jackson told Coats last week. "When I'm playing fast, I know what I'm doing."

The team's three-day mini-camp (which wrapped up last Sunday) was the first on-field primer in adjusting to the scheme brought in by Saunders.

According to's Mike Sando, Saunders sees in Jackson an authoritative and powerful runner with outstanding speed, excellent hands and good blocking skills. He also sees an improving route runner, an asset not always associated with 230-pound running backs.

"When you get somebody of his stature and his physical makeup, with his speed and his ability to run, catch and block, you are only limited by your own imagination in terms of what you can do with a player like that," Saunders said of Jackson.

The excitement is a two-way street.

"It's exciting to have Al; he's a big-name guy and he's proven himself around the league with different teams," Jackson said. "But what I'm more excited about is my offensive line coming back. That's really what I missed."

As Coats reminded readers, the line was decimated by injuries last year, and Jackson didn't come close to replicating his 2006 numbers -- a league-leading 2,334 total yards.

If the unit can remain healthy and intact this season, Jackson figures he can rebuild his stats. Fantasy owners will want to keep a close eye on the health and progress of those linemen and Jackson this summer.

Assuming all looks well in terms of health, there's absolutely no reason Jackson shouldn't be on a top-three Fantasy back on your rankings. ...

Other notes of interest in the wake of last weekend's mini-camp. ... Torry Holt raised eyebrows in April ago when he talked about reuniting with his brother Terrence Holt -- a safety for the Panthers -- when the final two years of his Rams contract were up.

"I wanted to just send in my resignation to the Rams and join him down here," Holt told a North Carolina television station, with a laugh. "What better place to come and play football than in your home state?'"

As Post-Dispatch staffer Jim Thomas suggested, it was clear Holt was joking, particularly the remark about "resigning" from the Rams. But last Saturday, in his first comments to St. Louis reporters since the end of the 2007 season, Thomas advised readers it was clear that Holt is taking a realistic view about his future with the Rams.

"I have this year and next year, and hopefully I can finish those years out," Holt said at the conclusion of the day's mini-camp practice. "Then, I'll see where I'm at. I'll see where I'm at physically. I'll see where I'm at emotionally, financially.

"And then, if they would like to do something here, I'll consider it. If not, then I'll have the option to go and explore and give my services somewhere else. So if that happens, Carolina will definitely be the first choice -- no question about it.

"But I have '08 and '09 left to play, and that's what I plan on doing."

Still, after watching longtime teammate Isaac Bruce's unceremonious release this offseason, Thomas reports that it is clear Holt isn't betting the mortgage on a fairy-tale finish in St. Louis.

According to Thomas, those familiar with Holt said he was taken aback -- even shocked -- at Bruce's release this offseason.

For what it's worth, Holt told reporters that his troublesome knee is feeling much better than it did a year ago at this time. ...

Meanwhile, the veteran superstar wasn't cutting rookie speedster Donnie Avery much slack during the youngster's first workouts as a pro. "He came to me a couple of times, shouting at me," Avery admitted.

Asked his early impressions of Avery, Holt didn't pull any punches.

"Right now, I don't have any impressions of Donnie Avery," he said. "Hopefully, during training camp he'll show me something."

It's not that Holt is unhappy with Avery; he just wants to let him know that he has to prove himself before he can run with the big dogs. Which is fine with Avery.

"I like that," he said. "When other people are strict on me, it brings the best out of me."

After spending the 33rd overall selection on Avery, the Rams are counting on getting his best. That starts with his running ability: He can zip 40 yards in 4.29 seconds, giving the Rams a much-needed downfield threat.

The added speed makes "a big difference," Marc Bulger told reporters. "We can put him inside against some nickel defensive backs or some linebackers. But at the same time, he's going to have to. ... Do some other things, because if they know every time he comes in that we're going deep, they have answers for that."

The 5-11, 190-pound Avery proved at the University of Houston that he offers more than a sprinter's package, especially during a senior season in which he piled up 91 catches, a Conference USA-record 1,456 yards and seven touchdowns.

"He's not just a pure track guy," said Billy Devaney, the Rams' vice president of player personnel. "This guy is a legitimate wide receiver also."

But as Pro Football Weekly pointed out, the selection of Avery ahead of a host of other high-profile possibilities (Devin Thomas, DeSean Jackson, Limas Sweed) shocked a lot of draft experts.

The Rams, however, clearly saw things differently.

"[Avery] was definitely their top-rated guy, and apparently 8-10 teams had him in the same slot," a team insider told PFW. "The fact the receiving crop was flawed with so many character issues to begin with probably helped Avery's cause.

"The Rams considered some other pass catchers, particularly Jackson, but they thought Avery offered more dimensions."

Because he was the first receiver off the board, it should come as no surprise to learn the No. 3 job behind Holt and Drew Bennett is pretty much Avery's to lose.

Avery was seen lugging Saunders' massive playbook around team headquarters. According to Thomas, said playbook is the size of "a large metropolitan area's phone book."

"They're throwing a lot at me; in meetings, everything sounds foreign," Avery said. "But you've got to understand that language so you can be on the right page."

Backup quarterback Trent Green, well-versed in Saunders' scheme, made it clear that Avery needs to keep his nose buried in Saunders' massive tome.

"This is a multi-set, multi-movement, multi-play offense, and the volume is tremendous. So, in order to utilize that speed the way (Avery) should, he's going to have to really spend time in the playbook and get as many mental reps as he can. ..."

The same, of course, goes for Bennett, who also faces the rather daunting task of replacing Bruce.

As's Nick Wagoner explained: "It's one thing to be asked to replace a player who was productive player for a long time. It's another thing to be asked to replace a legend that doubled as the face of the franchise."

And learning Saunders' scheme adds to the pressure.

Meanwhile, Belleville News-Democrat staffer Steve Korte advised readers that it's hard to find anybody more excited about Saunders being offensive coordinator than tight end Randy McMichael.

"As soon as I found what was going on and they had hired coach Saunders, I got really excited," McMichael said. "This is the kind of offense that I have dreamed my whole career of playing in. I'm having a good time right now, and hopefully I can extend my role and keep doing the things I like to do."

McMichael likes to catch passes, though he didn't do much of that last year in his first season with the Rams. He tied a career-low in receptions with 39 and set a career-low in receiving yards with 429.

Saunders has a reputation for making the tight end an integral part of his passing attack.

Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez averaged 80 catches per season in his six seasons with Saunders calling the offensive plays. Under Saunders, Washington's Chris Cooley caught 57 passes for 734 yards and two touchdowns in 2006 and 66 passes for 786 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007.

"He said the funniest thing to me the first time I met him," McMichael said of Saunders. "He said, 'I've had a Pro Bowl tight end eight straight years.'"

Now the pressure is on McMichael to keep that streak going. ...

One last note here. ... At age 61, Saunders isn't expected to go stride for stride with wide receivers who can dash 40 yards in a tick or two over 4 seconds. But he does.

"He runs up and down the field like a maniac," observed rookie wide receiver Keenan Burton.

"It was pretty famous, the lore around here about Al," head coach Scott Linehan said. "I asked him if he was going to still chase the receivers, and he said, 'You'll see.' I hope when I'm that age I can run that well. ..."

In Baltimore. ... As insider Vic Carucci pointed out this week, the Ravens might not know the identity of their starting quarterback, but they do know who they expect to carry the bulk of their offensive load.

In 2007, his first year with the Ravens, Willis McGahee finished fourth in the AFC in rushing with 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns.

He's expected to be asked to do even more this year, given that the Ravens' No. 1 quarterback will either be a rookie (Joe Flacco), a second-year pro with only two starts (Troy Smith), or a sixth-year veteran who has yet to establish himself (Kyle Boller).

"I'm looking forward to that challenge," McGahee said during the team's recently-completed mandatory mini-camp. "Out of all my years playing football, I'm (most) excited about this year."

Rightfully so, it would appear.

New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is installing a scheme that will call for McGahee to have the ball in his hands plenty of times as both a runner and a receiver. Cameron has the same plans for McGahee that the coach used so successfully with LaDainian Tomlinson when Cameron ran San Diego's offense.

So, as Carucci believes, it would not be a stretch to see a highly productive McGahee easing the burden on Flacco, Smith or Boller the way Tomlinson did during Philip Rivers' first two seasons as the Chargers' starter in 2006 and 2007.

"I'm excited about him, I can tell you that," Cameron said of McGahee. "Last year was the first time I had seen him in person playing. I didn't know he was that big (6-0, 232 pounds). He's big and physical. I think he's just scratching the surface of what he can be, based on what I've seen."

The Ravens' new offensive approach should allow McGahee to offer Fantasy owners further proof of that.

"Sometimes you can say, 'I want to throw to set up the run,'" Cameron said. "Well, we're going to run to set up the passing game. That's our starting point. That's kind of my history. It just gives you a foundation to build from.

"But you can't just figure you're going to hand it to (the running backs) all the time. You want to get them the ball in a variety of ways. There are so many good run defenses. There's one for sure (Pittsburgh's), maybe two, in our division. Sometimes you get those guys biting and you throw it to (the backs)."

McGahee has never been used extensively as a receiver.

He caught a career-high 43 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown in '07, but anticipates making many more receptions in Cameron's offense. He's looking forward to matching one of the top pass-catching seasons that Tomlinson has enjoyed: 100 in 2003, 79 in 2002 and 60 last season.

"It was fun to watch LaDainian develop as a receiver in his first couple of years," Cameron said. "He's really developed into a great receiver, but he'll tell you that it took a lot of work. And no question (McGahee's receiving skills are) going to do nothing but get better and better and better."

And as Carucci summed up: "No one should be happier about that than the Ravens' starting quarterback, whoever that might be. ..."

Meanwhile, one of the questions heading into Ravens mini-camp was the pecking order of the wide receivers. But it's starting to look like Derrick Mason, Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton aren't battling against each other.

According to Baltimore Sun staffer Jamison Hensley, if the wideouts play up to expectations there is a possibility the Ravens could roll with three receivers in their base formation.

"It's not a possibility. It will happen," Mason argued. "But I guess it all depends on who we're playing and what we're trying to do in a game. Using three wides is not far-fetched with the three guys that we have."

Whether it was injuries or just former coach Brian Billick's scheme last season, the Ravens rarely spread out defenses. Of the Ravens' 557 passes thrown last season, only 39 percent came in a three-wide alignment.

According to Hensley, Cameron wants to be unpredictable and will change up the formations as well as the personnel groupings. But he told the receivers their play will influence the direction of the offense.

"If we had to start a game today, three wide receivers might be our starting group," Cameron said. "We always like to mix it. But our best 11 players will be our primary personnel group."

And the wideouts were clearly among the most disappointing groups last season.

Outside of Mason catching a team-record 103 passes, Clayton and Williams took a step backward.

Clayton's receptions went from 67 in 2006 to 48 last season. Williams' yards-per-catch average dropped from 18 to 14.5. Injuries were an issue. Clayton was banged up all season (ankle, turf toe, Achilles' tendon and back), and Williams missed the final seven games with a high left ankle sprain.

As a result, they combined for no touchdowns.

During last weekend's mini-camp, the Ravens worked on routes that allow the receivers to catch intermediate passes while moving upfield. That would allow them better opportunities for yards after the catch.

"We're going to have to find a way to manufacture the big plays," Mason said. "In this league, you are not going to get a guy open streaking down the field all the time. The misperception around town and throughout the media is that we have to constantly throw the ball down the field. You catch a 15- to 20-yard pass and then you run after the catch."

The Ravens' passing attack continually struggled under Billick, ranking 22nd or worse in five of the past six seasons. Last season, the Ravens were 23rd in the NFL in passing.

So, taking the positive view, there's plenty of room for improvement. Taking the realistic view, there's no reason to believe they'll have the quarterback necessary to make a significant leap. ...

In Tennessee. ... The evolution of Vince Young continues with new coordinator Mike Heimerdinger focusing on improved footwork. "We're trying to fix his feet," Heimerdinger said. "Just getting his feet underneath him when he throws -- he just always seems to be off-balance and throws just with his arms and not with his feet. … If we can get that fixed, it will give him a chance to throw an accurate ball more often."

By all accounts, Young has made improvements this offseason. But as Nashville Tennessean staffer Jim Wyatt notes, old habits are hard to break. And Heimerdinger suspects it's been an issue for Young since his playing days in high school.

The good news? Young isn't fighting the change.

"I feel like 'Dinger is getting me prepared to play, to take it to the next level," Young told Wyatt. "This is my third year; I'm getting a lot of reps and film work. I really feel like I have a lot of help and all I have to do is stay focused and work hard. I'm getting better; we're all getting better."

While Young's completion percentage improved to 62.3 percent last season -- he completed just 51.5 percent of his passes as a rookie -- he still had a bad habit of throwing without his feet planted firmly underneath him, which caused many of his throws to sail.

Aside from improving his technique, Young has also spent a lot of time in the classroom. In 2007, he threw 17 interceptions and just nine touchdowns on the season.

It's worth noting the Titans spent a good part of their first mini-camp workout last week working on red-zone offense, a year after finishing last in the NFL in that category.

New weapons, such as tight end Alge Crumpler and receiver Justin McCareins, joined Young and later this month, he'll have running back Chris Johnson, the team's first-round pick, working with him.

"To me and the rest of the guys around here, the coaches and the staff, we feel like the guys around here are doing a great job," Young said.

"We just have to keep working and. ... Keep getting our chemistry down and keep getting better."

Speaking of the speedy rookie Johnson. ... LenDale White has heard the comparisons between his old college teammate, Reggie Bush, and his new one in the NFL, Johnson.

"There are some comparisons between Reggie and (Chris) because of their height and weight," White said. "I know Chris was the fastest guy at the combine, so he has a lot that comes with him. From what I've seen, he can definitely make an impact."

Johnson will line up in the backfield on some plays, and split out as a receiver on others. According to PFW, coaches hope to get Johnson about 8-12 touches a game in his first season.

On paper, he looks like he'll be the Titans' most dangerous player in space.

But the same thing could have been said of then-rookie Chris Henry this time last year.

In fact, the selection of Johnson marked the third time in three years the Titans picked a running back in the first two rounds of the draft. White was a second round pick in 2006, while Henry was taken in the second round last April.

White will continue to get the carries, and in 2007, he had 1,110 yards on 303 attempts. What it means for Henry remains to be seen. His lack of productivity and improvement led the team to draft Johnson, who could also aid the return game.

White said he "loves' Heimerdinger but said he misses his old offensive coordinator, Norm Chow as well. Chow also coached White at USC.

Meanwhile, White, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in January and said he played the entire 2007 season with a torn meniscus after injuring it last preseason, said he's been "rehabbing like crazy."

White said he's "anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds from where I need to be." He played in the 245-pound range last season and said he wanted to come to training camp around 230 or 235.

"It is way better (than last offseason)," White said. "I want people to keep speculating and keep guessing what I (weigh) because it is great talk. So I am not going to tell people what I weigh, I just want people to speculate. ..."

Also in Tennessee. ... Receiver Roydell Williams is still recovering from the broken ankle he suffered at the end of last season and isn't sure when he'll be back on the field.

Williams just started running two weeks ago. As a result of inactivity, he's gained 7 pounds and is up to 197 but said he plans on losing the weight.

For now, he's learning Heimerdinger's offense from the sideline.

"It is tough, especially with the new coordinator," he said. "It is a whole new offense and I learn best by going out and (working)."

Williams also said he's liked what he's seen of Heimerdinger.

"The thing I like most about (Heimerdinger) is he listens to what the players have to say; he allows you to be a football player instead of a robot. He just lets you play football," Williams said. "Before it was a certain way you had to do things and that was it.

"Now it is basically, 'Get open'. I am pretty sure every receiver would like it like that."

According to Wyatt, Heimerdinger knows what he wants out of his receivers, but right now he isn't sure which ones are right for him. Four months into his second stint with the team -- and with five mini-camp practices behind him -- he's still in the process of assessing them.

"I told the guys from the beginning: I don't care what you've done in the past. If you make plays then you have a chance to be on board," Heimerdinger said Tuesday. "So right now I'd rank them all in a giant wad. I want to see who produces and who does what.

"When we put pads on we'll find out if they'll block in the run game or if they're going to chicken out."

In initial mini-camp workouts, Justin Gage and Justin McCareins worked mostly with the first-team unit. Gage led the team in receiving yards last season while McCareins is back with Heimerdinger after playing for him previously in Tennessee and New York with the Jets.

Listening to Heimerdinger, Wyatt advised readers it's evident the coach is high on both players, but Nashville City Paper staffer Terry McCormick, Brandon Jones hopes to project himself into the mix.

Jones has mostly been running with Biren Ealy on the second unit behind Gage and McCareins.

"Brandon makes a big play every day, but he has to block in the run and he has to be consistent catching the ball," Heimerdinger said. "He can't make a mental mistake every day. He has to keep concentrating. He has a good feel for things, but he can't space out and has to catch the ball and not make mental mistakes."

Mike Williams has dropped more than 20 pounds this offseason, but always blunt Heimerdinger isn't offering much in the way of praise at this point.

"He has great ability," the coach explained. "It's a new scheme to him, a new thing, so he has to stay on top of what we are doing.

"And he has to keep working to stay in shape so he can run more than two routes in a row. ..."

Did I mention that Heimerdinger calls 'em like he sees 'em?

In other Fantasy-specific news and notes of interest. ...

In Minnesota. ... The Vikings don't report to training camp for another two months, but Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Judd Zulgad advised readers Adrian Peterson has clearly put plenty of thought into what he can do for an encore in his second NFL season.

Peterson's goals for 2008 include a 2,000-yard campaign, an improvement on the 19 catches he had last season and, perhaps, an MVP trophy.

"I definitely feel like I can do it," Peterson said Thursday when asked about being voted the league's top player. "Anything is possible. Especially with how my mindset is. I set my bar high. I expect a lot from myself. I'm surrounded by a great group of guys offensively and defensively on both sides, special teams, so it's possible for anything to happen."

Peterson was on pace for a 2,000-yard rushing season eight games into his rookie year, but a lateral collateral ligament tear in his right knee suffered Nov. 11 at Green Bay forced him to miss two games.

Peterson said Thursday the knee feels "perfectly fine."

Peterson said one of his goals is to be on the field in more passing situations in 2008 but quickly points out that veteran running back Chester Taylor "does a great job."

Of course, there is the possibility of Peterson and Taylor being on the field at the same time -- something that did not happen frequently last season.

Peterson said he is "looking forward" to that possibility and feels that might present opportunities for the Vikings to devise ways to get him the ball via the air more frequently.

Fantasy owners will obviously be more interested in Peterson catching more passes than to seeing him share time with Taylor. ...

In Chicago. ... Cedric Benson is still the Bears' starting running back, head coach Lovie Smith said in a question and answer session on the team's Web site.

Benson, who was arrested earlier this month in Texas and charged with boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest, has been criticized for a lack of production over three seasons in Chicago.

But in fielding a question about rookie running back Matt Forte, whom the Bears took in the second round of April's NFL draft from Tulane, Smith made it clear that Benson is still the starter.

"Matt Forte has never played a down for us here. He's like all other rookies, starting from the bottom and working his way up. Cedric was our starter last year, and he's our starter right now," Smith said.

Perhaps the coach should have said "for now" instead.

I still expect Forte will have more than a little to say about Benson's place on the depth chart (and perhaps the roster) before all is said and done. ...

In Detroit. ... PFW reports that coaches "are tickled" with rookie halfback Kevin Smith, who not only could start as a rookie from the get-go, but could be the first-year player who makes the biggest immediate impact for the Lions.

Smith appears a great fit in the team's new zone-blocking scheme, and with a serious need at the position -- only Tatum Bell figures to challenge Smith for a starting role -- there are many who feel he could put up very strong numbers as a rookie.

New coordinator Jim Colletto figures to run the ball more as he has said he wants better balance in an offense that was way too slanted toward the pass under former coordinator Mike Martz.

According to PFW, the biggest adjustments for Smith likely will be third-down duty; whether or not he can learn to catch the ball and pass-protect likely will determine whether the coaches will give him full-time duty or have him split time with Bell or others. ...

In Miami. ... During a golf tournament in Texas this week, Ricky Williams told the Austin media that he plans on playing two more seasons in the NFL.

Williams will be 31 years old this week but he carried only six times last year before being injured in his one and only game and he didn't play at all in 2006.

So Williams has put very few miles on his legs the last couple of years.

And as Miami Herald staffer Armando Salguero suggests, whether Williams sees his retirement on the horizon, it is clear the Dolphins have plans for him in 2008. The team hopes to split carries between Williams and Ronnie Brown.

But based on the fact Brown is coming off ACL surgery, Salguero believes Williams may actually have to step up as the workhorse early in the season until Brown gets completely comfortable.

And in (ideally) two years, when it's over?

"All professional athletes have to come face to face one day with their professional mortality and finding a way to cope with it," Williams said. "I've managed that.

"I have a couple of more years of football left in me and then I'll go off and explore the world."

Sounds cool.

I'll go ahead and suggest some Cyprus Hill -- and perhaps the old Rush standard, "A Passage To Bangkok" -- when the time comes to compile a soundtrack for the home movies of that trip. ...

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.