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Fantasy notebook: L.J. returns to Chiefs

After an extended training camp holdout, Larry Johnson has agreed in principle to a new six-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. He reported to the team on Tuesday morning. Johnson had spent his time away from his teammates working out at the Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Arizona.

The move will make it much easier for fantasy owners to take Johnson in the first round, but it answers only one of the questions still surrounding the veteran running back heading into the 2007 regular season.

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No one can doubt Johnson's potential to record explosive numbers. He has finished with 2,000-plus all-purpose yards in each of the past two seasons and has accumulated 40 touchdowns in the same time period, but changes to the team's offensive line and questions about the quarterback position loom. The Chiefs have lost two Hall of Fame-caliber linemen over the past two seasons in Willie Roaf and Will Shields, and the offseason trade of Trent Green leaves the coaches to decide between Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle as their top quarterback.

Huard was impressive in the absence of Green last season. However, he has made 14 career starts in 10 NFL seasons, while Croyle has never made a regular-season start and has tossed a grand total of seven passes in regular-season action. With Croyle still considered the favorite, Johnson could see countless stacked fronts behind what seems to be a weakened offensive line.

With some real conundrums attached to Johnson's value, the question owners now face is how high to pick him in drafts even with the contract extension signed. The answer in my mind is still third overall behind fellow backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Steven Jackson, and here are the reasons:

First, the runners on the same level as Johnson - Frank Gore and Shaun Alexander - also come with their share of questions. Gore lost offensive coordinator Norv Turner in the offseason, and 2006 was the first season he had avoided injuries and made a significant impact. Alexander, who turns 30 next week, has the wear of 1,969 regular-season carries on him. Furthermore, he missed six starts last season due to a broken foot, so questions about whether his age is shaving down his durability are bound to arise.

Second, other backs like Joseph Addai, Willie Parker, Brian Westbrook and Rudi Johnson are all solid choices across the board, but none are on the same level as Johnson from a statistical perspective.

Third, even if Johnson does experience a decrease in his overall level of production, he should still record somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 all-purpose yards and double-digit touchdowns. Those are pretty impressive numbers, even if they're not on par with what Johnson has done from 2005-2006.

"He's Larry Johnson," NFL Network analyst Adam Schefter said. "I think his numbers will be down because the line isn't as good and there are questions about the quarterbacks with Croyle and Huard, but he's still Larry Johnson. To me he remains one of the two or three best running backs in the NFL."

With Johnson back in the mix, the status of Priest Holmes becomes a greater question. He hasn't done much in training camp, and earlier reports indicated he might not make the team if L.J. ended his holdout. For handcuff purposes, owners need to watch the battle between Holmes, Michael Bennett and Kolby Smith.


Now that Michael Vick has agreed to a plea deal in the well-documented dog fighting case, the Atlanta Falcons will be without their quarterback for the 2007 season. The team must now also deal with major changes on the offensive side of the football, including a new starting quarterback in Joey Harrington.

Head coach Bobby Petrino's plan to bring in a pass-laden offense built on Vick's strong left arm won't be altered, but it also won't be as effective with Harrington under center. The first-round disappointment out of Oregon isn't playing for his third team in three seasons by coincidence. While he can post decent numbers from time to time - remember his performance on Thanksgiving against his former team, the Lions? - Harrington is far too erratic overall to warrant serious consideration in fantasy football drafts.

In an offense that is built to throw, the fact remains that the two top fantasy options on the team are running backs, Jerious Norwood and Warrick Dunn. Norwood is the more attractive fantasy option, but neither running back should be selected as more than a No. 3 runner. Furthermore, the chance that rookie Jason Snelling will see short-yardage and goal-line work could hurt their individual draft values.

Alge Crumpler, who just returned to practice this week after offseason knee surgery, is the top receiver on the Atlanta roster. However, he must now attempt to gain a rapport with Harrington - one that won't be close to what he had with Vick. He's still a viable No. 1 fantasy tight end, but his value has fallen just a bit. In fact, owners would now be wise to take a future tight end star like Vernon Davis ahead of Crumpler.

While Joe Horn, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins will post good numbers in certain weeks (the team will have to throw the football often to make up what could be a lot of second-half deficits), none will be consistent enough to warrant a prominent role on fantasy teams. In fact, only Horn is draftable, and he's a borderline No. 3 or 4 fantasy wideout. Rookie Laurent Robinson has been impressive in the preseason and is one to watch, but his draft value is limited to deeper keeper and dynasty formats at this time.


--Reports out of Tennessee indicate that veteran Chris Brown, not LenDale White, could open the regular season atop the Titans' depth chart. Brown has been impressive in the preseason, while White has been limited due to ankle and knee injuries. With rookie Chris Henry also in the mix, this is a backfield situation that fantasy owners should look to avoid. White is still the most attractive choice in drafts due to his potential, but none of the three will produce solid numbers on a consistent basis.

-- Marques Colston has had a second MRI on his sore knee, but no significant damage was revealed. The ailment has been defined as general soreness, but last season's breakout rookie star is still not expected to play in the Saints' next preseason contest. The soreness is not considered serious - the team believes it's no more than the affects of training camp - so fantasy owners shouldn't drop Colston on rank lists. Still, it does make sense to check on his status for setbacks over the final two weeks of the preseason.

-- The Broncos have decided to rest Travis Henry for the remainder of the preseason. The veteran back sprained his knee in a loss to Dallas, but he should be fine for the start of the regular season. With Mike Bell also out for a few weeks due to a hip ailment, Cecil Sapp and Troy Fleming will see most of the work out of the backfield for head coach Mike Shanahan. Fantasy owners should still consider Henry a No. 1 fantasy back, but be sure to take Bell (or Sapp if Bell is limited) as insurance in the later rounds.

-- Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron has announced that Trent Green will be his starting quarterback this season. Cleo Lemon will be second on the depth chart, while rookie John Beck is third. Green has been inconsistent in preseason work, and fantasy owners can expect much of the same in the regular season. A borderline No. 2 or 3 fantasy quarterback, Green is worth a late-round selection. However, owners shouldn't expect him to record anywhere near the 4,000 passing yards he had on a regular basis with Kansas City.

-- Contrary to earlier reports that he could miss the start of the regular season, Eagles tight end L.J. Smith has been doing work on a treadmill and should return to practice soon. Smith, who endured a surgical procedure to repair a sports hernia in the offseason, hurt his groin earlier in the month and has been limited ever since. While he is still isn't a lock to be 100 percent soon, at least the chances that he will be active in Week 1 seem to have improved. Still, owners should target him as no more than a No. 2 fantasy tight end in all formats.

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