Isn't That Special?

The Vikings didn't make outrageous claims about starters on draft day -- for a good reason. This may be remembered in January as the year of the special teams draft. The offense was good, the defense was addressed in free agency. The draft was all about special teams -- the unit Mike Tice was the most upset with in 2002.

In previous years, coming out of the draft, Vikings talking heads from Gilliam to Green to Studwell to Tice have all chimed the same tune – we're getting three or four starters from this draft. You didn't hear that in April. The Vikes are cleaning up one of their three teams in this year's draft. But it's not the team – defense – that most anticipated … at least not in the short-term.

Aside from DT Kevin Williams, who will likely be part of an early platoon, the Vikings didn't draft an immediate starter. That in itself speaks volumes to Mike Tice's mindset and could go along way to bringing the weakest of the three team links together.

For those unaware of the three-team concept, there is offense, defense and special teams. As awful as the Vikings defense was last year, the special teams were worse – far from special. From blocked kicks to kicks returned for TDs to being forced to cut Doug Brien because he was too heinous to keep, the Vikes' special teams stunk last year. Here come the changes.

Regardless of his "regular" playing time, Williams will be on special teams for field goals and extra points. One block and he's a plus to the unit.

The Vikes don't expect E.J. Henderson to be their starting MLB this year – that's Greg Biekert's job. Until then, he makes a suspect special teams much better.

RB Onterrio Smith could end up being the steal of the draft, but he's going to be invaluable as the new kickoff return man. Wanna make a June bet? He brings at least one kickoff the distance this year.

The same that applies to Henderson applies to LB Michael Nattiel. A sixth-rounder from Florida, Nattiel has a better-than-average chance of making the team for his special-team skills.

Finally, Eddie Johnson could be the key the puzzle. To date, he has shown the ability to be "the next Mitch Berger" – a punter/kickoff specialist that could return Gary Anderson for one more run.

The wild card is special teams coach Rusty Tillman. Regarded as tops in his field, Tillman will give an emphasis to special teams the Vikes haven't had in years.

You may not see it in the local media – for a few days yet – but Tice's disgust with the special teams prompted this year's draft. Neither the offense nor the defense may feel a big impact of this year's draft class in 2003, but the special teams will. In the process, the other two teams will reap the benefit.

* Signing Note I – The deal signed by Brian Urlacher looks good, but expect changes – soon. While technically a contract extension, Urlacher – who signed a nine-year, $56.7 million deal with a $13 million signing bonus – has a cap number of $5.1 million this year. If the Bears intend to sign anyone else, expect to see this year's number re-worked for cap reasons. That being said, VU has been told the "real" contract is seven years for $40.2 million. Worst case scenario, take the latter figure to the bank.

* Signing Note II – As expected, the Dolphins signed Brian Griese to a two-year deal. Or is it? Griese will carry a cap number of $6 million next year if he's still under the current contract. Unless former Viking Jay Fiedler's arm falls off, expect this to be a one-year deal. Welcome to Capology 101.

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