Aside from injuries, there are very few differences in the personnel of the 2009 Vikings and the 2010 squad. The records of the two teams are markedly different – at this point last year, the Vikings were 10-2, a far cry from the 5-7 record they take into Sunday's game with the Giants – but the players taking the field remain almost entirely intact.
One glaring difference, however, has been a third-down back that can be a receiving/blocking threat that can help protect Brett Favre as well as be a primary receiver to move the chains. It can be argued that there was no better all-around third-down back in the league than Chester Taylor when he was with the Vikings. Not only was he adept at blitz pickup when asked to stay in and block, but he was among the league leaders all season in third-down receptions and converting those catches into first downs.
While Toby Gerhart has shown promise in that regard, he has never been a third-down specialist and, as a rookie, has a lot to learn about reading third-down defenses and making the right plays instinctively.
The Vikings hope that they have finally filled that void eight months later, signing running back Lorenzo Booker.
Booker was a third-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2007, the same year the Vikings took Adrian Peterson with the seventh pick of the draft. The following year, after the Dolphins fired head coach Cam Cameron and hired Tony Sparano, Booker wasn't a systematic fit and was traded to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick. He finished the season with just 20 carries for 53 yards. When the Eagles drafted LeSean McCoy in the 2009 draft, the handwriting was on the wall. Booker was released.
He had an opportunity to reunite with Cameron up in Buffalo, but Booker didn't see the new situation as an ideal fit. At the time, the Bills had a crowded backfield with Marshawn Lynch, rookie C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. If Lynch or Spiller won the starting job, Jackson would be the primary third-down back. Although he wanted to play for Cameron again, he didn't see where he would have a legitimate chance to play, and, more importantly, get a chance to get game film of himself for other coaches, general managers and personnel departments to see.
He turned down the chance and, for a time, regretted the decision. Nobody else came calling, and in mid-August he signed with the Hartford Colonials of the fledging United Football League. He didn't view it as a backward step professionally, he saw it as a calculated risk to let NFL decision-makers see what he was capable of doing.
"I thought about going there later, but my mind wouldn't have been right," Booker said. "Really what I needed was more tape (of me). Once I went (to the UFL) and got some tape, it wasn't an issue. I went to a situation where (Hartford coach Chris) Palmer used me like I was supposed to be used, so I could put on tape exactly what I wanted to put on there."
Booker did just that. He led the UFL in yards per carry (5.4) and rushed for 410 yards, finishing fourth in that category. However, the decision came with a big setback. Booker boycotted the Nov. 20 game between Hartford and the Las Vegas Locomotives, protesting the league's $150,000 transfer fee assigned to UFL players being signed by the NFL. In its first season, 43 UFL players were signed by NFL clubs following the season and the league decided to impose a fee for the NFL cherry-picking its talent.
Booker was of the impression that he would be available to sign with an NFL team at the conclusion of the season. He found out later that he was going to be beholden to Hartford until Feb. 1, 2011 – unless a team paid the $150,000 ransom to get him earlier. Two days after boycotting the game, he was suspended by the UFL. Ironically, the league dropped its transfer fee from $150,000 to $25,000 – a figure the Vikings front office found much more palatable.
It's never easy coming to a team during the season and without the benefit of knowing that exact system and going through the offseason portion of work to make an impression on coaches. He is a hired gun. As of Wednesday, he still didn't have his name and number over his locker – a locker that had remained vacant since the release of Randy Moss, which seems like light-years ago.
Booker said that his primary advantage coming in mid-stream to a new team is that, although different in the language used for "hot calls" at the line of scrimmage, changing snap counts or protection schemes when Favre identifies something in the defense that forces him to check out of the play called in the huddle, the basic scope of the Vikings offense is similar to the playbook he learned in Philadelphia.
"The good thing for me is that Philadelphia's offense was pretty much the same," Booker said. "It's not like starting from the ground up. For me, I just have to learn the terminology in terms of checks and protections and audibles. That might a little bit different, but I'm ahead of the game having been there, especially since Coach (Brad) Childress came from there."
Booker said that his strengths are exactly what the Vikings are looking for – the skill set of a third-down specialist that has been sorely lacking in the 2010 season post-Taylor. He said it's a great fit for him, as well, since he isn't going to be cutting into Adrian Peterson's running time on first or second downs.
"My (strengths) are catching the ball and making people miss," Booker said. "Those kinds of things – making mismatches with linebackers. Coming here, obviously I'm not going to be in on first or second down. That's not my strength. My strength is to be able to come in and catch balls on third down, catch screens and be good in space. That's exactly what I get to do here – the same thing I got to do when I was Miami with Cam Cameron."
Greg Camarillo played with Booker in 2007 in Miami and said he has the skills needed to be a good third-down back.
"He got a chance to see action when Ronnie Brown went down that year," Camarillo said. "He was asked to be a receiving back and did a nice job. You could tell right away that he was going to have a role in this league."
Booker wasn't quite as confident. He said he had some concerns about whether his call back to the NFL would ever come. He had been out of the league in 2009 and had some regrets about turning down the opportunity in Buffalo. He wasn't sure if his phone would be ringing, because it had been an awful long time since it had with an NFL decision-maker on the other end of the line.
But that call came Monday from the Vikings and he jumped at the chance to come back. He said he couldn't be happier with his situation as the newest member of the Vikings and said that the comfort factor is enormous. He isn't coming in blind and can make a contribution immediately.
"You want to be in a situation where you and the coaches are on the same page," Booker said. "I just feel like it wasn't the case (in Philadelphia) for whatever reason. Like I said, no harm no foul. I'm back in (a comfortable) situation. It feels good to look on the playbook and be on the same page as everybody else."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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