Competition Heating Up

The roster has improved each of the last three offseasons, and the players competing for starting roles and backup spots have more talent than in recent years. It's all part of Mike Tice's philosophy of competition, from highly publicized positions all the way down to the long snapper.

With a roster that is becoming more and more talented with each year Mike Tice overhauls it — maybe even each month — good players won't necessarily be starters. A better player could be starting in front of a good player.

That's the goal in rebuilding a roster and bolstering a depth chart, and that's exactly the situation in which the Vikings find themselves two years and four months after Tice was hired as the head coach. He is preaching competition at every position, from the highly publicized right defensive end spot to the rarely talked-about long snapper.

First-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze will be the starter at right defensive end, but veteran Lance Johnstone and rush specialist Nick Rogers will be seeking out their opportunities to chase down the quarterback.

At long snapper, Brody Liddiard is going to camp with real competition for his starting start. Not only did the Vikings re-sign backup center/long snapper Cory Withrow, but they added rookie free agents Cullen Loeffler and Richard Owens, both whose best chance to impress is by beating out Liddiard as the long snapper.

"I told Brody a couple months ago when I sat down with the guys and had meetings, ‘You better get rid of the hitch,'" Tice said.

"We'll have a legitimate competition at deep snapper for the first time since I've been on the team in 20 some years. So I think we improved in a lot of areas. "

Back on defense, third-round pick Darrion Scott will be pushing Kenny Mixon for playing time at left end, and Scott will be competing with Billy Lyon and Chuck Wiley for a rotational role at left end and inside at tackle. Roster numbers dictate that either Lyon or Wiley probably will not be in purple come Sept. 12, the Vikings' regular-season opener with Dallas.

Behind the line, second-round pick Dontarrious Thomas is expected to start at weakside linebacker, but Tice said he would feel comfortable if Mike Nattiel was the starter there if Thomas can't earn it.

"If Thomas works out, he can start opening day. That would be excellent," Tice said. "Certainly we don't feel that Mike Nattiel is a throwaway either. Nattiel is the most instinctive linebacker we have on our roster."

Tice also feels good about the upgrade the secondary has made in the last two years, saying that they will likely keep 10 defensive backs on the active roster and one on the practice squad, which has been expanded to eight players this year. That could leave Rushen Jones, Jermaine Mays, Horace Willis and Rhett Nelson competing for the final active roster spot if sixth-round pick Deandre' Eiland is given a one-year pass to learn the nickel back position at the pro level on 53-man roster. Antione Winfield, Brian Williams, Ken Irvin, Eric Kelly, Corey Chavous, Brian Russell, Willie Offord and Tryone Carter are expected to occupy the other eight spots.

But the competition for the roster spots on July 31, the opening day of training camp, won't stop on the defensive side of the ball. Wide receiver is stacked with players who are now fighting for situational time, guys like Kelly Campbell and Nate Burleson for the third receiver with less experienced receivers fighting for roster spots behind them.

Running back will be one of the most talked-about battles in training camp, as Michael Bennett works to hold off last year's impressive rookie, Onterrio Smith. But Smith will also be feeling the heat from behind from this year's fourth-round pick, Mewelde Moore. And Moore will also be grooming for the third-down duties held by wiley veteran Moe Williams.

"It's good that we brought in a third-down back (Moore)," Tice said. "That'll push Larry Ned and that'll push Onterrio and the rest of the guys. Obviously Moe doesn't need to be pushed and Michael, but those other guys need to be pushed."

Tice has preached competition at every position each of his three offseasons, but each year the level of that competition improves. As he said after this year's draft, players win games. Now it appears the Vikings have the players to win games in the playoffs.

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