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2003 camp battles: Widespread fighting at wideout

Posted: Thursday July 24, 2003 8:40 PM
  Marc Boerigter Marc Boerigter had just 20 catches last season but eight TDs, including a 99-yarder. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

By Bob Harris, Special to SI.com

The third of a five-part series previewing some of this year's more interesting training camp battles -- both traditional and non-traditional -- from a fantasy perspective.

This week: wide receivers -- and lots of 'em. Let's get busy.

Arizona Cardinals: Slim vs. None
And slim probably left town shortly after David Boston, Frank Sanders and MarTay Jenkins.

I know what you're thinking: The Cardinals are going to pass the ball and somebody is going to catch those passes. Unfortunately, we're talking about 12 men with a combined career total of six touchdown catches.

In fact, Jason McAddley, with eight NFL starts -- and nine games -- under his belt, is the most experienced receiver on the roster. McAddley has good size and track-star speed; his intelligence and maturity give him a chance to develop into a good player. But McAddley is just beginning to develop. He was thrown into the fray a little sooner than expected due to a devastating series of injuries on the outside last year, and he has a long way to go.

"He's still not a finished product," Dave McGinnis recently admitted. "This offseason is very important for him. He's a guy we are going to depend on this year. ..."

McAddley, Bryan Gilmore, former Lion Larry Foster and Kevin Kasper, as well as rookies Bryant Johnson and Anquan Boldin, all have a legitimate shot at a starting job with the Cardinals this fall. That doesn't mean any of them should get that same shot with your Fantasy team.

Atlanta Falcons: Peerless Price vs. Reality
An optimistic Price recently told reporters he expects to improve on his 2002 totals -- once he gets in sync with Mike Vick this summer.

"It's a little different," Price said about working with Vick. "You've got to get used to it. I've never played with a left-handed quarterback, so the spin is a little different on the ball."

Asked about his goals in Atlanta, he said: "I just want to have better statistics than I did last year. Last year I had 94 catches; this year I'm shooting for 100. Last year I had around 1,250 yards, this year I'm shooting for around 1,400 this year. Last year I had nine touchdowns and I want to have double digits this year. ..."

Admirable goals; I'm just not sure they're incredibly realistic. In fact, I'm looking for a more even distribution of offensive production in Atlanta than we saw in Buffalo, a change that makes matching last year's numbers fairly daunting.

As for true battles, the most interesting could be at flanker, where incumbent Brian Finneran will compete with MarTay Jenkins -- unless the speedy former Cardinal continues to drop more passes than he catches, which was apparently the case in early workouts.

Baltimore Ravens: Travis Taylor, Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson vs. Todd Heap
In his first full season as a starter, Heap not only established himself as the Ravens' most versatile receiver and most dangerous downfield threat, he also emerged as a truly elite Fantasy tight end. He accomplished both feats despite playing alongside a receiving tandem -- Travis Taylor and the since-departed Brandon Stokley -- that simply wasn't capable of keeping opposing defenses honest.

That said, the addition of previously productive veterans Sanders and Robinson might actually be enough to keep said opponents honest. It may even help Heap, an excellent route runner with very soft hands and the unique ability to get open deep, lead the Ravens in receiving for a second consecutive season.

Taylor heads into the final year of his contract, one that likely will determine his long-term fate with the Ravens. Even though his totals have improved in each of his first three years, Taylor realizes he still needs a true breakout season to quiet his critics. Plus, Taylor will no longer benefit from the presence of Jeff Blake, the QB of record on all six the former first-round pick's 2002 TD catches.

During initial mini-camp workouts, Sanders worked as the starter opposite Taylor when the team ran out of its base, two-receiver formation. When the team went to three-wide, Taylor moved into the slot and Robinson took his place on the outside.

Buffalo Bills: Josh Reed vs. A Pair of Very Large Shoes
A second-round pick in last year's draft, Reed will be asked to fill the void left opposite Eric Moulds when Peerless Price was traded to Atlanta earlier this year.

When he was drafted, a lot of people found it odd that the Bills, who already had two established receivers, wanted Reed as well. Now we know why. Reed finished 2002 with 509 yards on 37 catches, an average of 13.8 yards per catch -- a better average than Marvin Harrison (12.0), Randy Moss (12.7) and Terrell Owens (13.0).

Price finished 2002 with 1,252 yards playing opposite Moulds, the spot now owned by Reed, who should have little trouble catching Drew Bledsoe's eye.

It's worth noting, however, that Reed doesn't yet consider himself the No. 2 receiver. According to Buffalo News staffer Allen Wilson, free agent acquisition Bobby Shaw could push Reed for playing time. Shaw has more speed than Reed and similar skills after a catch. But Reed is more physical and has the size and strength to make plays in traffic. He remains the favorite.

Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith vs. The Skeptics
They say Smith is too small; they say he's not a positive locker room presence; they say he might be better suited to handling a No.3 role. They may be right.

But the skeptics didn't keep Smith from finishing the 2002 season with 54 catches for a team-high 872 yards. He also scored three TDs, matching the total posted by No. 1 man Muhsin Muhammad.

Sure, the team tried to upgrade their receiving corps -- signing former Titan Kevin Dyson to a contract early this year, but he tore Achilles tendon that will cost him at least half the season. According to the Charlotte Observer's Stan Olson, offensive coordinator Dan Henning loves Ricky Proehl, another offseason acquisition, especially when it comes to conversion downs, but said the team is still trying to find a wideout to replace Dyson.

"We're one short of where we want to be because of that injury."

Henning believes seventh-round pick Walter Young, who impressed in June, could be that guy. But I'm still looking for the speedy Smith to at least match last year's totals.

Chicago Bears: David Terrell vs. Jerry Angelo
According to Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times, Terrell didn't take kindly to draft day comments by Bears GM Jerry Angelo, who said the team moved up in the fifth round to take Missouri's Justin Gage as a challenge to the former first-round pick.

Terrell said if Angelo doesn't like him "he knows what to do," and that he's more concerned with winning a starting spot than worrying about a rookie. Mulligan suggested the Bears are not pleased with Terrell because he didn't take part in "voluntary" offseason workouts with new quarterback Kordell Stewart.

Terrell says he's 100 percent recovered from the foot injury, and he's ready to make a contribution more befitting his draft status. He also says he's prepared to deal with competition from Gage. All of which is well and good as long as he doesn't talk himself out of a job -- something that becomes increasingly likely every time Terrell opens his mouth.

Cincinnati Bengals: Peter Warrick vs. Unfulfilled Potential
If you believe new head coach Marvin Lewis, Warrick is going to catch more passes, gain more yards and score more touchdowns than he did a year ago.

Jon Kitna agrees. "You might want to pay close attention to Peter this year," Kitna said. "The new strength coaches are doing a great thing for him. ... It's his third year in the system. He's got a great feel for the game now."

Warrick wasn't all that bad last season when he led the Bengals in touchdown catches (six) and ranked second to Chad Johnson with 53 catches and 606 yards.

As Dayton Daily News reporter Chick Ludwig recently noted: "Warrick has always been dangerous after the catch because of his rare quickness and good lateral movement, but his small size and inconsistent hands held him back.

"Now that he's generating more separation in his routes, he's going to become more of a downfield threat."

It's certainly time.

Cleveland Browns: Dennis Northcutt vs. Andre Davis
With Quincy Morgan, who coaches fully expect to lay claim to the No. 1 spot, and Kevin Johnson locked in as the starters, the primary battle of interest in Cleveland will be between Northcutt and Davis.

Both are coming off productive seasons. They combined for 11 receiving touchdowns in 2002 and caused matchup problems for opponents. But as Medina County Gazette reporter Steve King recently noted, Northcutt was the Browns' best wide receiver when last season ended.

King went on to suggest that Northcutt, who is entering the final year of his current contract, could really assert himself if Kelly Holcomb beats out Tim Couch for the No. 1 spot as the two seem to work extremely well together.

Dallas Cowboys: Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant vs. Terry Glenn and Bill Parcells
There's a new sheriff in Big D, and it remains to be seen just how Galloway and Bryant will get along with him. For starters, the intensity level -- even in the preseason -- cranks up noticeably with Parcells running the show.

Parcells believes training together develops camaraderie. He also believes champions are made in the offseason, because the strongest players avoid injuries and play better in the fourth quarter than foes who aren't as strong. Galloway, of course, has always preferred to work out on his own in the offseason.

Bryant must learn to control his emotions or face his new coach's wrath -- something Parcells demonstrated early on.

According to observers, the Big Tuna lit into Bryant during a two-minute drill in a May 23 practice session. After failing to catch an overthrown pass, Bryant didn't hustle back to the huddle. With Parcells screaming at him to get back, Bryant finally made it back, but was moving as the ball was snapped. That prompted Parcells to stop the play and yell, "That's a penalty, Antonio. A penalty."

An unhappy Bryant tossed his helmet down, but was quickly ushered to the sideline by veteran running back Richie Anderson, where he was undoubtedly advised that the sideline tirades he became known for as a rookie simply won't fly any more.

From there, Bryant had a solid practice, making several nice catches in different drills. Bryant is still considered a heavy favorite to line up as the starter opposite Galloway, but Glenn will be a factor.

"My role is to be the best member of the Dallas Cowboys that I can be," Glenn recently stated. "I'm coming in here to work hard and compete."

Don't underestimate Glenn's relationship with Parcells, the coach of record during his huge rookie season in New England. If nothing else, he's obviously better prepared for the coming summer than Parcells newbies Galloway and Bryant.

Denver Broncos: Ashley Lelie vs. Ed McCaffrey
Lelie is certainly ready to compete for a starting job, but Denver Post beat man Patrick Saunders says he's still a raw talent and has a lot to work on before he blossoms.

First, Lelie needs to bulk up so that he can fight off physical corners and safeties. Second, he needs to improve his blocking, because he won't start for Broncos honcho Mike Shanahan if he can't put some defensive backs on their backs. Saunders further suggested that Lelie's route running needs to be more precise.

Still, nobody will deny that Rod Smith and, to an even greater degree, McCaffrey are slowing down. Slow isn't a word easily associated with Lelie, who, based on big-play capability alone, is very hard to keep off the field.

Lelie had an opportunity to work with the first team extensively with McCaffrey recovering from mid-March groin surgery. And as offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said: "We know what Ed's going to do when he gets back. It's been good for Ashley. He's getting a ton of reps."

Sorry "Easy Ed" fans, but it's time. ... Repeat after me: "Lelie, Lelie, Lelie!"

Detroit Lions: Charles Rogers vs. First-Round Expectations
Team officials have been trying to take some pressure off Rogers by publicly stating the talented youngster needs time to adapt to the NFL. But as Booth Newspapers writer Tom Kowalski recently reported, "sizzling" mini-camp performances have coaches very excited.

Demonstrating his sub-4.3 speed, remarkable athleticism and the natural receiving ability that made him the second overall pick, Rogers repeatedly beat Detroit's top defender, Dre' Bly, on an assortment of routes. Kowalski went on to suggest -- even though veterans like Bly are rarely in top form in May -- Rogers obviously won't need much time to shine.

Teammates agree. "He's got all the tools and the talent. Now he just needs to learn the system," fellow wideout Bill Schroeder said. "The sky is the limit for this kid and hopefully good things will come from him."

I agree, too. It might not be this year, but Rogers definitely has the look of a player destined for greatness.

Rogers' arrival will allow coaches to take full advantage of Az-Zahir Hakim's speed and playmaking ability out of the slot. "He will stay in the slot," GM Matt Millen said. "That is where he will line up when we are three-wide. He is still going to play on first and second downs."

Hakim, who has reportedly fully recovered from last year's season-ending hip injury, is expected to be first man off the bench -- joining Rogers and Schroeder -- when the Lions line up in three-wide sets. It's a role he's ideally suited for, and one that could result in surprising productivity.

Green Bay Packers: Robert Ferguson vs. Javon Walker
Ferguson comes of a 2002 season in which he given the starting split end job in training camp, fell to the fourth receiver, then played his way back to No. 3. He finished the year with 22 catches for 293 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a memorable 6-catch, 105-yard, two-TD Sunday night performance against Minnesota.

"This guy made leaps and bounds," position coach Ray Sherman said shortly after the season. "He has matured so much. He's a sharp guy. He takes notes, he listens, he asks questions and he plays with a lot of confidence."

Walker's rookie year was marked by inconsistency. He had shining moments, but also struggled holding onto the ball (he led all Green Bay receivers with nine drops). He also vanished for a long stretch, going between Weeks 2-12 without catching more than two balls in a game.

That said, Walker reportedly looks like an entirely new man at 225 pounds -- up about 20 pounds from last year's playing weight.

The competition with Ferguson should be intense; as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Silverstein recently noted: "Ferguson is a better blocker and middle-of-the-field receiver, and Walker is better as a deep threat and run-after-the-catch guy."

Early prediction? I like the more sure-handed, more experienced Ferguson but I suspect both men will make significant contributions this year.

Houston Texans: Andre Johnson vs. Corey Bradford
There's no doubting Bradford's speed, but given his inconsistent, injury-marred 2002 performance, it's still not clear whether he's ready to go up against the league's top cover men on a weekly basis.

Which brings us to Johnson, selected in the first round of April's draft, who already appears to be ready for prime time. Given Johnson's presence -- and because Bradford has never demonstrated the kind of possession skills Jabar Gaffney brings to the table -- I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the former Packer winds up working off the bench as Houston's No. 3 man.

It isn't necessarily a bad thing in terms of his career, but not good news from a Fantasy perspective.

Indianapolis Colts: Reggie Wayne vs. The 50-Catch Limit
The Colts desperately need Wayne to take defensive pressure off four-time Pro Bowler Marvin Harrison, and Wayne is starting to look like he's ready to do just that. While he's been effective running from the outside, last year he proved more than capable of running out of the slot, too.

Not that he was thrilled with the notion early on. But as Wayne began to understand the role, he also began to like it. Why? After catching 17 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown in the first seven games of the season, he caught 32 passes for 509 yards and 3 touchdowns in the last nine games. Included in that span were three 100-yard games, including a six-reception, 121-yard, one-touchdown game in Philadelphia last November.

Wherever he plays, Wayne understands the importance of improving on last season. "I know my game-level has to step up," he recently said. "I have to keep that intensity going and take that pressure off of Marvin."

No he doesn't.

Harrison comes off an incredible 2002 season in which he shattered the league's single-season receptions record, collecting 143 passes while the rest of the team's wideouts pulled in a combined total of 112 passes last season -- which is really nothing new.

After all, the last Colts receiver to catch more than 50 passes -- other than Harrison -- was Sean Dawkins, who caught 68 in 1997.

Jacksonville Jaguars: J.J. Stokes and Donald Hayes vs. Kevin Lockett
The almost desperate need for a No. 2 man to complement Jimmy Smith led to the offseason acquisitions of Stokes and Hayes, neither of whom played up to expectations in their previous stops.

An eight-year veteran, Stokes has been a bust since San Francisco drafted him in the first round in 1995. He has 327 career receptions for 4,139 yards and 30 touchdowns, but injuries and inconsistency have limited his production.

The 6-4, 220-pound Hayes was expected to provide the New England with a big target over the middle last year, but found himself mired at the bottom of the depth chart instead. It's probably worth noting that Hayes, who admittedly struggled when it came to picking up New England's offensive system, played under new Jacksonville coordinator Bill Musgrave when the two men were in Carolina. He had 118 receptions for 1,523 yards and seven touchdowns over his previous two seasons with the Panthers.

Lockett started four of 14 games for the Jaguars in 2002, catching 16 passes for 205 yards with four touchdowns and according to Florida Times-Union beat man Bart Hubbuch, he obviously impressed the team's new coaching staff during early workouts.

Of course, the real question here is whether any of these guys are capable of playing up to standard set by former No. 2 man Keenan McCardell and the short answer is no.

Kansas City Chiefs: Johnnie Morton vs. Marc Boerigter
Although Morton clearly has the early edge, he still has to beat out Boerigter for the No. 2 spot opposite Eddie Kennison.

In case you weren't paying attention, Morton was a disappointment in his first season with the Chiefs, catching only 29 passes. Boerigter, meanwhile, made the most of his time on the field, catching 20 passes and eight touchdowns. And at 6-foot-3, 225, Boerigter isn't an easy man for the average NFL corner to match up with.

But Morton won't be easy to unseat.

As the Kansas City Star's Adam Teicher noted, the former Lion reported for initial mini-camp workouts in superb physical condition and fully prepared for a position battle. Dick Vermeil agreed with that assessment and recently told reporters Morton was among the most improved players on the field during early workouts.

According to Topeka Capital-Journal beat man Rick Dean, a switch from flanker (where he played last year) to split end (a position he played for eight seasons in Detroit) also weighs in Morton's favor

Trent Green agreed with that assessment.

"I think he just feels more confident -- not just from moving to that [split end] position he's played his whole career, but also from having a better understanding of the offense," Green explained.

Bottom Line? Morton is the most complete receiver on the team and the monster contract he signed upon arrival in KC will make it very difficult to keep him on the bench.

Besides, whoever loses the Morton-Boerigter competition will be first man off the bench when the team lines up in multiple receiver sets -- not a bad consolation prize, as the Chiefs often play three wideouts.

Miami Dolphins: James McKnight vs. Derrius Thompson
The Dolphins view Thompson, who caught 53 passes while working with three quarterbacks last season in Washington, as a young player on the rise; an ideal complement to Chris Chambers. Even though he'll open camp as the No. 3 receiver, those who follow the team closely like his chances of moving into the starting lineup before summer's end.

After all, McKnight, currently working opposite Chambers with the first-team offense, was beaten out by Oronde Gadsden in last year's training camp. Thompson, who made several impressive catches during initial workouts, is the same size (6-2, 215 pounds) as Gadsden.

Bottom line? McKnight couldn't hold onto the starting job last year and I doubt he'll keep it this year, either.

Minnesota Vikings: Randy Moss vs. The Randy Ratio
Though he'll still be the focal point of the passing game, coaches have abandoned last year's highly-publicized "Randy Ratio," which offensive coordinator Scott Linehan recently admitted "may have messed with his head a little."

Nonetheless, Moss still managed to pull in a career-high 106 passes despite facing constant double-coverage. "We figure 70 offensive plays a game, maybe he saw one-on-one coverage maybe five of those 70 plays," Linehan said.

Moss spent considerable time this offseason working to improve his sub-4.3 speed -- in part by pulling 90-pound sleds up and down a beach and running on sand. And just last week, the former Marshall star told reporters: "I might have lifted more than I have since I've been in the league. I'm ready to go."

According to the Sports Xchange, team officials would love to have a player step up and challenge D'Wayne Bates for the starting spot opposite Moss. Kelly Campbell has the big-play ability, but he's probably not well suited to handling an every down role.

New England Patriots: Troy Brown vs. Weekly Beatings
Brown was punished from start to finish last year, and while he still managed 97 receptions, he had his post-catch running production limited because of the attention.

Brown, whose 3,033 receiving yards over the last three seasons ranks 16th in the league, may have played in 14 games, but he wasn't the same player after a knee injury in Week 3. A bad back kept him from playing at full speed late in the year.

Although he'll never be mistaken for the biggest, fastest guy on the field, Bill Belichick believes instinct, intelligence and mental toughness still set him apart. "The simple ability to play the game -- the Troy Brown Factor [is still important]," the coach suggested. "Whatever [Brown] has is pretty good. He's not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, he doesn't have the greatest vertical jump but he's a good football player."

As long as he stays healthy, a decent Fantasy prospect, too.

New Orleans Saints: Joe Horn vs. Donte' Stallworth
Stallworth suffered through the growing pains typical first-year receivers, especially in terms of contributing to the 67 dropped passes that New Orleans wideouts were responsible for last season. To that end, Stallworth, who wasn't blessed with the world's softest hands, promised coaches he'd catch 2,000 passes in the offseason.

According to New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Duncan, team officials believe Stallworth will eventually evolve into a bigger, faster, more physical version of Joe Horn -- if he can become a more consistent pass catcher.

I not only agree, I think it could happen this year.

Stallworth has been working with local fitness and nutrition guru Mackie Shilstone during the offseason to strengthen his hamstrings. Remember, he had gaudy rookie production -- 42 catches, 594 yards and eight touchdowns -- despite he missing several weeks of training camp and three and a half regular-season games because of two hamstring injuries.

New York Giants: Ike Hilliard vs. Full 16-Game Season
The Giants re-signed Hilliard, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on a questionable hit by Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins on Oct. 28, to a five-year, $12.5 contract back in March.

According to New York Newsday beat man Neil Best, Kerry Collins always has been a big fan of Hilliard as a route-runner and clutch receiver. If Hilliard, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey stay healthy, they have the potential to be an effective trio.

Health is a concern and team officials still aren't sure if Hilliard, who has only hit the field for all 16 regular season games twice in six seasons as a pro, is actually capable of making it through a full season. Those who follow the team closely believe Ron Dixon's failure to emerge as a suitable replacement last year led directly to Hilliard's return.

But all indications are Hilliard will be ready to go full speed this summer. It remains to be seen how long he stays that way.

New York Jets: Curtis Conway, Wayne Chrebet and Santana Moss vs. the Ghost of Laveranues Coles
According to New York Times staffer Judy Battista, Chad Pennington has already shrugged off Coles' free agency defection to Washington and hits the field this summer boasting a stronger relationship with his receiving corps than ever before.

By all accounts, newcomer Curtis Conway and holdovers Wayne Chrebet and Santana Moss have looked good in early workouts. But as the New York Post's Rich Cimini noted that Pennington and Coles clearly had something special and offensive coordinator Paul Hackett just as clearly tried to make the most of that chemistry with his play-calling.

Pennington attempted 399 passes, and 30 percent of those balls (118) went to Coles, who caught 83, making them one of the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandems in the league.

"I think Chad will miss [Coles] a lot," an unnamed AFC scout told Cimini. "He's still a good quarterback -- definitely not a flash in the pan -- but he doesn't have as many options. Conway is an average NFL receiver, nothing more. It's going to affect their offense."

I have to agree. I don't care what anybody says: Conway is no Coles. Neither, for that matter, is Moss. And I have a very hard time buying into the logic behind Hackett's theory that Conway and Moss will combine to replace Coles. Any time you need two guys to replace one, you're gonna come up short somewhere down the line.

Oakland Raiders: Jerry Porter vs. Tim Brown
In an article published shortly after the Super Bowl, Contra Costa Times staffer Steve Corkran said that Porter is likely to move in as the starter opposite Jerry Rice this summer.

The athletic Porter was gradually worked into Brown's role as the season progressed last year and coaches want to make Porter a bigger part of the offense. He has big-play ability, as demonstrated by his average gain per catch of 13.5 yards -- an average greater than either Jerry Rice or Brown.

I'll also remind you that Porter's nine touchdown catches equaled the combined scoring output of Rice and Brown. Those nine scoring strikes made Porter and Rich Gannon the fifth-most prolific touchdown battery in the league.

Philadelphia Eagles: Freddie Mitchell vs. Billy McMullen
Both Mitchell and McMullen, a third-round pick from Virginia, drew praise from head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress for their work in the club's initial mini-camp workouts in May. The two are likely to battle for the No. 3 spot behind starters Todd Pinkston and James Thrash throughout the summer.

Mitchell knows the clock is ticking. The former UCLA star remained in Philadelphia after the season and has been a regular at the club's voluntary offseason workouts. "Freddie's attitude has changed, his work ethic has changed," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "You can see it out there on the field. He has a better feel for the offense and what coach Reid expects from him."

But coaches are clearly high on McMullen, a big 6-3, 210-pound target who caught 152 passes his last two seasons at Virginia. He doesn't have great 40 speed, but he's an excellent route runner who knows how to work the middle of the field. McMullen’s learning curve has been reduced by the fact that Virginia, like the Eagles, played the West Coast offense.

"Watching him in practice, I think it's a good thing for us to have a guy like that," McNabb said of the newcomer. "He has great hands and has a knack for using his size against DBs. I definitely think he can help us in getting deeper in the routes. He has a great feel for running different routes."

Based on everything I've seen from Mitchell to date -- which of course, is nothing, I suspect McMullen has a very realistic shot of winning this one.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Hines Ward vs. Plaxico Burress and Tommy Maddox
Ward has polished himself as one of the best all-around -- and perhaps most underrated -- receivers in the league. We're talking about an extremely reliable pass catcher with big-play ability who also excels when it comes to making the tough catches over the middle of the field; he's an effective run after the catch player; he blocks downfield; and he does it all without complaint.

Of course, Ward's overall effectiveness is enhanced greatly by the presence of Plaxico Burress. Both men racked up more than 1,300 yards receiving last year. How big a deal is that? Until last season, when Ward and Burress did it, the Steelers never had two 1,000-yard receivers in a season.

The worry here, however, is the fact that Burress and Tommy Maddox were able to get a little something going last year when they ranked 12th in the league in TD hookups with seven. With Maddox, who only started 11 games last year, moving in as the full-time starter, it's not hard to envision Burress improving over last year's totals this fall.

Not that I recommend passing on Ward come draft day. In fact, all indications are the league's top receiving tandem has yet to reach its full potential -- something that might not be out of reach this year; Pittsburgh doesn't play a single defense that ranked higher than 12th against the pass last season.

St. Louis Rams: Troy Edwards vs. 10 Good Pounds
According to recent reports out of St. Louis, Edwards could be one of the keys to this offense returning to the excellence of the previous three seasons. Acquired last August in a trade from the Steelers, he spent the season learning the offense and trying to fit in. He worked hard in the offseason, lost some weight and has the ability to stretch offenses with his speed and acceleration.

"Troy's taken it upon himself to lose a good 10 pounds," head coach Mike Martz said in May. "He's got exceptional speed, but with that extra weight, it did affect his speed. In talking to him when he came here, he knew he was a little overweight."

Sure, the fact he's entering the final year of his contract probably had something to do with his willingness to bust tail all offseason, but whatever the reason, it's probably good news. After all, when the Rams' offense is hitting on all cylinders, even the No. 3 man in St. Louis can be very productive.

It's worth noting that incoming rookies Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald were very impressive this spring, as was former Arena League star Mike Furrey, but coaches clearly expect big things from Edwards.

San Diego Chargers: Reche Caldwell vs. Tim Dwight
The spot behind recent free-agent addition wide receiver David Boston is wide open. Dwight was the No. 2 receiver last year, but durability concerns and his diminutive size make him more suited for being a third receiver.

The San Diego Union-Tribune's Jim Trotter recently reported that team officials privately hope Caldwell wins the No. 2 job. Caldwell came on last season as a rookie; the question is whether he can take his route-running and the mental aspect of his game to the next level.

Eric Parker also figures to be in the mix. In fact, head coach Marty Schottenheimer likens Parker, who is currently listed as Boston's backup, to Webster Slaughter and says he has impressive "suddenness" with his quickness. He could be moved to the other side in order to push Caldwell and Dwight.

San Francisco 49ers: Terrell Owens vs. The World
According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion, the biggest concern of 49ers training camp isn't Dennis Erickson's leadership. It isn't Jeff Garcia's back. It isn't the city of Stockton's hurt feelings. It's Owens' mood.

Killion added that in the past, the 49ers have always made a point of locking up the premier players they wanted. Owens, however, has yet to receive a contract extension. The longer Owens remains unsigned, the more unlikely it appears that he’ll be signed to a new, long-term contract. Owens reaction to his lame-duck status will be interesting to say the least.

In case you missed it, Owens skipped all three voluntary mini-camps held under new head coach Dennis Erickson -- at least one of which he never bothered to explain to the new boss. No other player on the team missed an entire mini-camp during that time.

Owens missed the first mini-camp because he was filming a movie, The Playmaker, in New Orleans. The small part won't test Owens' acting range too much: He will play a football player named Omar in a movie that includes fellow NFL stars Ray Lewis and Jason Taylor.

Ironically, the focus of that initial mini-camp was on finding more ways to get the ball down the field to Owens, Erickson said. But those of you looking for more serious distractions will have to wait until later this fall to get your jollies.

Simon & Schuster Publishing has scheduled an October release for Owens' first book, Catch This. According to a catalog touting the book, it is "a savagely honest look at the NFL from a controversial, unpredictable superstar who is as outspoken as Charles Barkley and John McEnroe."

Barkley wrote the introduction. His offseason shenanigans notwithstanding, Owens will love playing in Erickson's new offense, which will be more vertical than it has been in the past. It should also be more than enough to help Owens move back in as the league's top Fantasy receiver this year.

Also of interest, the San Francisco Chronicle's Ira Miller said there are whispers Cedrick Wilson could push Tai Streets for the starting job opposite Owens. Streets emerged last year, but Wilson has more speed, and Erickson likes to have a burner in the lineup. Miller further suggested that fourth-round draft choice Brandon Lloyd also could figure into the mix.

Seattle Seahawks: Koren Robinson vs. Steve Largent
Offensive coordinator Gil Haskell believes the old corollary that states NFL players tend to make the most progress between their first and second seasons. The more talented the player, the bigger the jump.

Robinson, who added more precise route-running to an arsenal that already included great hands and remarkable body control, proved that theory in spectacular fashion with a 78-catch, 1,240-yard season in 2002. The former North Carolina State standout, who was drafted in 2001 and signed a six-year, $10.1million contract with the Seahawks, finished the year with five 100-yard outings.

Better yet, 38 of his catches and four of his five touchdowns came over the final six games of the season, thanks in part to a nine-catch, 103-yard, one-TD effort against San Diego in Week 17.

All that and he fell just 35 yards short of Steve Largent's single-season team record for receiving yards. "Mr. Largent is safe for this year," Robinson said at the time.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Keyshawn Johnson vs. Fantasy Football Owners
Asked earlier this week about his relative lack of production since leaving New York for Tampa, Johnson responded: "I came to Tampa to win a Super Bowl, so how could I not be satisfied? The only people who weren't satisfied are fantasy football fans. ... And I don't play fantasy football."

Thanks Keyshawn. Now tell us something we don't know.

Tennessee Titans: Drew Bennett vs. Justin McCareins
Kevin Dyson's offseason departure forces a fight for the No. 2 spot opposite Derrick Mason. And there is no shortage of candidates vying to fill the void. For the time being, third-year men Bennett and McCareins are the clear-cut favorites, although others, like second-round pick Tyrone Calico and second-year speedster Jake Schifino, could force the issue before training camp ends.

Unfortunately, both McCareins and Bennett share a common weakness: Inconsistency.

Bottom line? The 6-5 Bennett might be the early favorite, but he's by no means a lock to win this competition; keep a close eye on developments as camp progresses and adjust your strategy accordingly.

Washington Redskins: Darnerien McCants vs. The Smurfs
As reported by the Sports XChange, the 6-3, 214-pound McCants has great size and considerable talent. However, the emphasis in Washington is on quickness rather than size, and McCants' speed is more straight-line.

Which explains why prospects like Taylor Jacobs and Cliff Russell garnered all the attention during offseason practices.

But if he can't hang in Washington, McCants, who emerged as a solid No. 3 man last year with 21 catches for 256 yards and two touchdowns, won't be unemployed long.

That's all for now. Check back next week when I review this year's hottest competitions at tight end.

Bob Harris is Editor and Webmaster of the TFL Report and Senior Editor for fantasy Sports Publications.


 
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