Analysis Shows Many Upgrade Options

The Vikings are in the heart of their scouting season, with the Senior Bowl behind them and the combine, free agency and the draft still ahead. A look back with a position-by-position needs analysis shows there are plenty of paths the Vikings can take.

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Daunte Culpepper. Backups — Gus Frerotte, Shaun Hill.

Culpepper, 26, improved tremendously while earning a Pro Bowl start, but he can get better. He cut his turnovers from 32 in 2002 to 17 in 2003. That's a huge reason the team finished 9-7 — a three-game improvement from 2002 — and challenged for the playoffs. But while Culpepper was more careful with the ball, he also became a touch more robotic, seemingly afraid to make any decisions or take any chances that weren't pre-programmed into him by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Culpepper also shied away from running the ball after breaking small bones in his back at Detroit in Week 3. The Vikings need Culpepper to make smart decisions, but they also need him to loosen up a bit. That will come in time. If Frerotte isn't the best backup in the league, he's close. He was nearly flawless in winning two starts while Culpepper recovered from back injury. In a 35-7 rout of San Francisco, Frerotte completed 76 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He's under contract for one more season, and wants to be a starter somewhere after that. He knows this is Culpepper's team, which also makes him a quality backup. Hill, a long-shot project with questionable arm strength, has been holding down the third spot.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — RB Michael Bennett. Backups — RB Moe Williams, RB Onterrio Smith, RB Larry Ned, RB John Avery, FB Charles Stackhouse.

Bennett, who missed the first seven games last season because of a fractured foot, will be available for the entire season. He rushed for only 447 yards in 2003, but averaged 5.0 yards per carry. With training camp and preseason games to get him ready, Bennett should return to his Pro Bowl form of 2002. He doesn't appear to have lost any speed, showing a good burst when healthy. Williams was one of the team's most valuable players in 2003. When no one else was healthy enough or experienced enough to handle the starting job, Williams made the adjustment from career third-down specialist and/or backup to steady workhorse back. Williams turns 30 July 26. Don't count on him carrying the bulk of the running game again, but do count on him remaining a reliable third-down receiver out of the backfield. Smith, the rookie who had back-to-back games of 148 and 146 yards rushing against Chicago and Kansas City, needs more carries. A physical runner with nice moves at the point of attack, Smith is a good change of pace from Bennett, a slasher with speed to go the distance. The key will be keeping Smith happy with a reduced workload. He was happy in 2003, but he also was a wide-eyed rookie. Stackhouse, who joined the team late in the preseason, is a good blocker, but offers little as a receiving threat.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jim Kleinsasser. Backups — Richard Angulo, Sean Berton, Hunter Goodwin, Brody Liddiard, Sean Farmer.

It's a good bet Kleinsasser won't be with the Vikings in 2004. He will be a free agent, and the Vikings won't put the franchise tag on him for the second consecutive year. Kleinsasser wants to test the open market and the Vikings are willing to let him go, even though they'll be about $22 million under the salary cap. Kleinsasser, who caught 46 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns, was the only tight end on the roster who was equally adept at blocking and catching, although he's a plodding runner who won't break any long gains. Angulo, claimed off waivers from St. Louis during the season, is an intriguing prospect. He's 6-8, 283 with hands that coach Mike Tice, a former tight end, absolutely loves. The Vikings never activated Angulo, choosing to keep him in the weight room and add some much-needed strength. Another player to watch is Sean Farmer, a 6-4, 253-pound rookie free agent from Tennessee State. Farmer was making strides in training camp last summer when he blew out a knee and was placed on injured reserve. Goodwin is an OK second or, preferably, third tight end. Berton is about the same, only less experienced. Liddiard carries the tight end title, but only long snaps. In other words, if Kleinsasser leaves, the Vikings need to pick up a tight end in free agency. The Vikings use their tight ends too much to risk going with what they have behind Kleinsasser.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates. Backups — Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell, Keenan Howry, Kenny Clark, Ben Nelson.

Moss is the best receiver in the league, but Tice already has mentioned that he needs to find a way to get the all-pro wideout more motivated against inferior opponents on the road. Good luck. Bates battled injuries through most of 2003 and isn't a No. 2-caliber receiver even when he's healthy. The question is whether Burleson, a rookie with advanced route-running and ball skills, can make the leap to full-time No. 2. The defense is a higher priority, but another Pro Bowl-caliber receiver would make the Vikings unstoppable on offense. Campbell is a deep threat, but should be used in only special occasions because of his size. Howry is too slow and might not even make the team if a new punt returner is found. Clark and Nelson are practice squad players.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Chris Liwienski, C Matt Birk, RG David Dixon, RT Mike Rosenthal. Backups — G Lewis Kelly, G-T Everett Lindsay, C Cory Withrow, T Adam Haayer, T Adam Goldberg.

The left side of the line and center is set for years with McKinnie, 24, Liwienski, 28, and Birk, 27. Birk is a three-time Pro Bowl selection. McKinnie will get there one day soon. And some believe Liwienski was better than even Birk this past season. The right side isn't as solid for the long haul. Right guard David Dixon, 34, probably will return for one more season, although Kelly will challenge him for the starting job in 2004. Rosenthal, a free-agent acquisition from the Giants before last season, makes a lot of mistakes and is sometimes overmatched against the top speed rushers. He will suffice, but the Vikings should keep their eyes open for a possible replacement. Lindsay is an aging backup who still has value as a backup at both guard and tackle positions. Haayer and Goldberg are practice squad players who aren't ready.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — RE Chuck Wiley, T Chris Hovan, NT Kevin Williams, LE Kenny Mixon. Backups — DE Lance Johnstone, DL Billy Lyon, NT Fred Robbins, DE Talance Sawyer.

The Vikings' No. 1 priority is a dominant right defensive end. They have the cap room to pay for one in free agency. But whether they have the desire to spend the kind of money that would bring a Jevon Kearse is doubtful. Either way, Wiley isn't the answer at right end. There's also the question of whether Hovan is the answer at the under tackle position. He's a great self-promoter who used Brett Favre's coattails to get national attention. But when it came time to play, Hovan had only two sacks and was invisible for most of the season. He didn't have the quickness he used to have because he's obsessed with bulking up in the weight room. Kevin Williams, a rookie first-round draft pick who had a team-high 10.5 sacks, excelled after being moved from left end to nose tackle. He's better suited for the under tackle position, but can't switch with Hovan because Hovan isn't big enough to play nose tackle. If a hefty nose tackle — ala Ted Washington — is found, the Vikings could move Williams to under tackle and ask Hovan to share time with Williams. That probably wouldn't go over well. Mixon isn't flashy, but he will suffice at left end. Johnstone, who had 10 sacks, found his niche as a situational pass rusher. Lyon and Sawyer are expendable. Robbins too if another nose tackle is signed.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Chris Claiborne, MLB Greg Biekert, SLB Nick Rogers. Backups — WLB-SLB Henri Crockett, MLB E.J. Henderson, WLB Mike Nattiel, WLB-SLB Raonall Smith, MLB Max Yates.

Biekert, 34, has another year left on his contract, but don't expect him to be a starter in 2004. In fact, it's possible he will retire so that he can spend more time with his family in Oakland. Either way, Henderson, a rookie in 2003, is ready to become a starter. Henderson was worked in slowly as a nickel back and was sharing time in the base defense by the end of the season. He's faster and more of a playmaker than Biekert. Claiborne is coming off heel surgery and should be ready by training camp. He was a playmaker early in the season, but fell apart physically (heel, shoulder, knee) down the stretch. Word is Claiborne, 25, is more willing to hit the weight room with the Vikings than earlier in his career with the Lions. Rogers, who played as a down linemen at Georgia Tech, is still learning how to play linebacker. He'll be in his third season. If the Vikings have a crack at a dominating outside linebacker either in free agency or the first round of the draft, they should consider taking him. Especially if they don't sign a dominant defensive end. Crockett is good for depth, but his long-term future with the team is questionable. Nattiel, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, surprised a lot of people who thought he was too small for the NFL. Time is running out on Smith, a second-round pick in 2002, who is a fragile bust.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Ken Irvin, RCB Brian Williams, SS Corey Chavous, FS Brian Russell. Backups — CB Denard Walker, CB Eric Kelly, CB Rushen Jones, CB Horace Willis, CB Rhett Nelson, S Willie Offord, S Jack Brewer, DB Jermaine Mays.

Chavous, who had eight interceptions and a team-high 108 tackles, made his first Pro Bowl and will get even better. Williams is on the brink of becoming a multiple Pro Bowl selection. He has good hands, speed and is a solid tackler. Russell tied for the league lead with nine interceptions, but he also missed a lot of tackles. He isn't a lock to be the starter in 2004. Offord is bigger, stronger and faster. If he ever lives up to his potential, the Vikings would start him ahead of Russell. Russell, of course, has been counted out many times before. The former college quarterback and practice squad player will get better and won't just hand over the job to Offord. Russell is still learning how to play safety. The cornerback opposite Williams is a concern. Irvin turns 32 on July 11, so he could fade quickly. Walker, the prized free agent signing before the 2003 season, lost his starting job to Irvin during the season. The Vikings might ask him to take a pay cut. That could get messy and result in Walker being released. Fortunately, cornerback will be the strength of free agency this offseason. The Vikings have the cap room to spend, but they haven't been a team that throws around a lot of money in free agency.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — P Leo Araguz, K Aaron Elling, LS Brody Liddiard, H Gus Frerotte, PR-KR Keenan Howry, KR Kelly Campbell. Backup — P Eddie Johnson, KR Onterrio Smith.

The Vikings chose to save money on their punter and place-kicker in 2003, and it hurt them. Johnson lost his starting job but not a roster spot late in the season after flubbing snaps in three consecutive games. Tice brought in Araguz for the rest of the season, but still thinks Johnson will be the team's punter in 2004. He better have a backup plan in place. Elling got progressively worse throughout the season. He made 18 of 25 field goal attempts, but Tice lost confidence in him and as a result made some shaky decisions between the opponents' 25- and 30-yard lines. Tice had better have a backup plan for Elling as well. Of course, he needs the OK to spend the money on the kicking game, something he didn't get this past season. The Vikings also need a new punt returner. Howry has great hands and didn't drop a single punt or kickoff. But he's slow and can't make the first defender miss.

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