Veterans Being Scrutinized

With minicamp next weekend, much of the focus will be on the solid class of rookies the Vikings have added to the roster, but head coach Mike Tice has also pointed out a couple of returning veterans that will be getting critiqued.

Scott Studwell and Mike Tice expressed concerns about how young their linebackers were getting. Athletically they have improved at the position, they said, but they are expecting to be much more inexperienced with E.J. Henderson and either Dontarrious Thomas or Mike Nattiel making their first NFL starts at two of the three linebacker positions.

While getting too young is a concern for a team with championship expectations, there are a couple of veterans Tice expressed concern over as well.

The old man on the offensive line — one that features a bright future with Bryant McKinnie, Chris Liwienski, Matt Birk and Mike Rosenthal (or Nat Dorsey if Rosenthal's contract isn't extended after 2004) — is right guard David Dixon. It's not the first time Tice has mentioned Dixon's age as a concern, but the big guard came into camps last year in the best shape of his career and endured the rigors of starting a full season without many complications.

Dixon started all 16 games for the Vikings last year, and he is expected to provide that same consistency this year. But coaches usually are concerned with 35-year-old linemen that have been carrying 350 pounds on their frame throughout their careers. It's the nature of the bigger and stronger NFL.

"Dave looks great right now, but how's he going to look after we get through minicamp?" Tice said.

He'll find out soon, as the official, full-team minicamp starts Friday and runs through Sunday. That will also be a chance for the coaching staff to see the progress of safety Brian Russell.

Russell had a breakout season last year, capitalizing on his first opportunity as a full-time starter with nine interceptions for 185 yards. But there were still concerns about his ability to consistently diagnose running plays and be in the right position.

"We need to continue to get better in the back end as far as free safety is concerned, as far as Brian is concerned," Tice said. "It concerns me a little bit that he's not here right now. He's at college."

Russell is expected to be at minicamp, but he hasn't been attending the offseason workout program, which Tice said had 44 of 50 available athletes attending. (The 50 athletes excludes those playing in NFL Europe, unable to participate because of injury or post-surgery mending, and rookies.)

One area of concern for many fans — the kicking game — doesn't sound like it's much concern yet for Tice. For now, he is sticking with his public backing of second-year kicker Aaron Elling.

"I think we might have our kicking game sewed up. I really do like Aaron Elling a lot," he said.

Minicamp is mostly about getting the first look at rookies, but Tice has pointed out a few veterans he will be keeping his eye on as well.

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