Rookie-Filled Special Teams

The biggest area of concern for the Vikings last year and in this preseason has been special teams. With a key component out with injury, find out who the Vikings are relying on.

The Vikings escaped the preseason without injuries to their star players. But that doesn't mean they made it through the meaningless games untouched.

Backup free safety Jack Brewer, the best special teams player, is out four to six weeks because of a chest injury suffered in the final preseason game against Arizona. A CAT scan revealed a sprained sternoclavicular joint.

Brewer made a team-high 26 tackles on special teams as a rookie last season. The team had hoped he would compete for the starting free safety position this summer, but he quickly fell behind Willie Offord and Brian Russell, who ended up winning the job.

"But we still need Jack," coach Mike Tice said. "He's a valuable part of what we're trying to do on special teams."

The Vikings' special teams were an embarrassment last season. Kickoff coverage and punt protection were two especially sore spots.

After the 2002 season, Tice convinced Rusty Tillman, Tice's special teams coach when he played for Seattle, to come to Minnesota to revamp the pitiful special teams.

The next step was a draft and free-agent signing period that produced depth at linebacker, which gave Tillman a greater stockpile of the athletes he needs to build better special teams.

Brewer was the on-field leader of that movement. Two of the players being counted on to fill in for Brewer are rookie linebackers E.J. Henderson, the second-round draft pick, and Mike Nattiel, a sixth-rounder.

* The Vikings kept every one of their draft picks for the first time in team history.

"How many teams will not only do that, but also make them active and give them a role in the first game at Lambeau Field?" asked Tice, referring to Sunday's season opener. "We didn't keep them just to make the stats look good."

As for the rookies, No. 1 pick Kevin Williams will be a surprise force at left defensive end; No. 6a Eddie Johnson could be a Pro Bowl punter immediately; No. 3 Nate Burleson is exactly the sidekick receiver Randy Moss needs; No. 4 Onterrio Smith is a good power runner who will carry a bulk of the load until Michael Bennett returns; No. 7 Keenan Howry is the punt returner; No. 2 E.J. Henderson is a good special teams player and heir apparent to Greg Biekert at middle linebacker; and No. 6b Mike Nattiel is one of the best special teams players.

* The team wanted to cut rookie free agent nose tackle Colin Cole and then sign him to their practice squad, but felt he would have been claimed by another team, so they were forced to cut linebacker Max Yates instead.

* Claiborne, who was dogged for being out of shape in Detroit last season, is moving well. He broke up a pass 30 yards downfield against Arizona.

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