Two-Day Camp Observations

Analysis without pads on the players and so early into the players' learning curve is difficult, but we take a stab with our observations from the meat of minicamp.

It's a familiar site to see newly acquired free agents and especially rookies getting overwhelmed in their first full practices with the Vikings. The Vikings do have sporadic cases of that again this year, but it appears to be far less than in years past — and best of all it isn't from starters.

After two days of minicamp, the Vikings defense looked far more mature and seemingly closer to being in the correct position to make plays than in years past. All this despite another year of adding significant new starters to the defensive side of the ball. However, this year, the new starters are beginning to understand the defense sooner and the leadership positions — middle linebacker with Greg Biekert and one safety with Corey Chavous— are manned by intelligent players who have been in the system a full season already.

Indeed, there is reason for hope that the offense will be better with a more stabile offensive line, but there is also reason to believe that they won't have to beat their opponents in a shootout every time they take to the turf.

After two days of camp, here is an eclectic set of notes, details and observations:

* Assistant defensive line coach and consultant Blaze Winter have spent extra time working with rookies to use their hands more effectively, and defensive coordinator and defensive line coach George O'Leary is all for it. "Their hands are more important than (other drills)," O'Leary told Bercich as he continued to work with free-agent rookie Colin Cole.

* Speaking of Cole, the Vikings projected him at about a sixth-round draft choice, but when he went undrafted they were all over acquiring him. He looks like he has a chance to blossom with continued work on his technique.

* How did the Vikings come away with Cole and a couple of other rookie free-agents? For the second year in a row they shelled out larger signing bonuses to acquire those they really wanted. All total, one team source estimated they spent about $115,000 in rookie free-agent bonuses.

* Willie Offord continued to get the reps with the first-team defense, but the Vikings are a little short in numbers at safety so all safeties are rotating in and out with the second- and third-team defense.

* If Jack Brewer doesn't take the starting safety job eventually from Willie Offord, part of the reason might be because Brewer is so valuable on special teams.

* Rookies who have completed their college semester or quarter can report to practice again full-time after May 16. However, the top draft picks may not attend for fear of injury before they sign a contract.

* Friday we reported that Henri Crockett and Chris Claiborne were the nickel linebackers. Why not Greg Biekert? Well, for now it is because he is recovering from surgery to clean up an injured shoulder. However, Biekert is sneaking onto the field whenever he can. He is expected to easily be full strength by training camp.

* Linebacker received a major upgrade with the signing of Claiborne, and even Red McCombs knows that position should be solid. Friday he stood behind the rookies on the sidelines and joked, "God, if we just had some linebackers." He promptly greeted second-round draft choice E.J. Henderson with a smile and handshake.

* The stationary bikes continued to get a workout on the sidelines. Derrick Alexander is a regular, along with Michael Bennett. Saturday Kelly Campbell joined them.

* The team definitely upgraded their speed at running back. John Avery and Larry Ned are showing long-range speed once in the open field, but it is unlikely both with make the 53-man roster in September.

* Daunte Culpepper, the new $102 million man, revealed his nickname for big left tackle Bryant McKinnie: "Eclipse."

* Seventh-round draft choice Keenan Howry, D'Wayne Bates and Kelly Campbell (who practiced Friday) were the main punt returners.

* Fourth-round draft choice Onterrio Smith is returning kickoffs. The Vikings are impressed with his vision, and his cutback ability looks superb for a rookie.

* The two players getting the most kudos in minicamp? Punter Eddie Johnson and Claiborne. Johnson has a cannon in his leg, especially when he gets the ball to spiral high in the air. However, he has struggled with getting some punts blocked.


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