February Means Scouting Time

Free agency starts in earnest March 3, so the pro scouting department is busy reviewing tapes. The combine is in two weeks and pro days are set, so the college scouting department is out and about scouting. The focus is on improving the defense.

Mike Tice, his coaching staff and members of the personnel department and scouting were in Mobile, Ala., recently with the other NFL teams getting ready for this year's draft by watching practice and interviewing players during the week leading up to the Senior Bowl.

"This is an important time," Tice said. "It's all about scouting right now."

While the Vikings could use a No. 2 receiver, a blue chip guard or tackle and a tight end if — probably when — Jim Kleinsasser leaves via free agency, Tice knows the team's No. 1 priority is defense.

The offense is good enough to get to the Super Bowl. The defense is improving, but needs, in order: a dominant defensive end, a playmaking outside linebacker or shutdown cornerback, and a Ted Washington-sized nose tackle.

After years of neglect under former coach Dennis Green, the defense got a couple of nice jolts of young, talented blue-chippers from the top two rounds of the 2003 draft.

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, chosen ninth overall, led the team with 10.5 sacks and will be a Pro Bowl player and potential all-pro very soon. Linebacker E.J. Henderson, the Butkus Award winner in 2002, made great strides during the 2003 season and is poised to replace Greg Biekert in the middle full-time.

Henderson, who can make plays Biekert can only dream of, and Williams give the Vikings two playmakers in the middle of the defense. Cornerback Brian Williams is on the brink of a Pro Bowl, while strong safety Corey Chavous made it for the first time this season.

Now, it's time to address the edges of the front seven. Chuck Wiley at right defensive end simply won't cut it for a team that wants to play in a Super Bowl.

The Vikings should either spend the money to get a great defensive end in free agency (can you say Jevon Kearse?), take one with the 19th pick if one is left, or trade up to get one.

The Vikings have no excuses. They will have about $22 million to spend under the salary cap. Owner Red McCombs doesn't like to throw big money around in free agency, but he should this offseason because, thanks to last year's drafting, the Vikings need fewer defensive pieces to challenge for a Super Bowl.

Also, if McCombs made a big splash in free agency, it would help his image and, ultimately, his push for a new stadium. Currently, fans view McCombs as a tightwad carpetbagger who's only interested in getting a stadium because he could sell his team for a better price.

Outside linebacker is less of a priority because second-year pro Nick Rogers still could develop into a playmaker, while Chris Claiborne is a playmaker when healthy and in shape.

If outside linebacker isn't the No. 2 priority, a shutdown cornerback is. While Williams is a budding star, Ken Irvin will be 32 this season. Denard Walker, last year's prized free agent pickup, lost his starting job to Irvin and might be asked to take a pay cut.

The Vikings have 64 consecutive sellouts at the Metrodome. Yes, they need a new stadium. But it's time for McCombs to spend the money to build a team worthy of a new stadium.

* The Vikings, who are trying to get a new stadium, have sold out 64 consecutive games at the Metrodome. They drew a team record 513,517 fans in 2003, including the largest in team history, 64,482 against Green Bay.

* The Vikings had more players from the Southeastern Conference (11) than any other conference this past season. The most players from one school was three from LSU (Denard Walker, Kenny Mixon and Chuck Wiley).
* Any underclassmen planning to declare themselves eligible for April's NFL draft under a recent ruling this week in the Maurice Clarett case must do so by March 1, the NFL announced Friday.

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