1. YEP, THE ARRESTS — The arrests of linebackers E.J. Henderson, Mike Nattiel and tight end Steve Farmer made plenty of headlines, and deservedly so. But besides the increased media coverage for a day or two to get "no comment" on film, the arrests seemed to have very little affect on what went on during practices. Henderson remained the starter at middle linebacker and Nattiel continued to get reps with the first-team defense until he sprained his ankle on Monday. Farmer continued to ride a stationary bike on the sidelines during practices to rehabilitate his knee, but he was a no-show Tuesday, leading one to think that his official release could come by the end of the week.
2. PLANTAR WHAT? — Randy Moss' plantar fasciitis was big news during May's minicamp, but he showed almost no signs of it during June's practices. He was returning punts for fun, but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Moss is just learning to manage the pain better.
3. THE STREAKER —When people talk about Michael Bennett streaking down the field, it's a compliment, not a scene from "Old School." Bennett looked terrific in June developmental camps and has some big goals set for this year. More on that and how his role could change next month. Onterrio Smith, Moe Williams and maybe even Mewelde Moore will be decent role players and good options in a pinch, but Bennett is simply the clear-cut favorite for the feature role in 2004.
4. NUMBER TWO SOLVED — The second wide receiver spot has been up in the air since Cris Carter retired. But instead of having Derrick Alexander on the stationary bike with a hooded sweatshirt, the Vikings got Marcus Robinson on the field and acclimated to Linehan's offense. If Robinson does find the sideline again because of injury, Nate Burleson looks like a very capable replacement at this stage in his career.
5. THE UNDRAFTED ONES — The Vikings have put more bonus money into their undrafted rookie free-agent signings the past few years and it shows. As the overall team improves, it will be harder for rookie free agents to find much of a contributing niche during the season, but there are a few that could find a roster spot with the team. The leading candidates appear to be guard Anthony Herrera, long snapper Cullen Loeffler, wide receiver Lane Danielsen and linebacker Grant Wiley.
6. KICKER QUESTIONS — Besides being down to earth and an all-around nice guy, Darren Bennett looks like the old guy on a men's softball team out on the practice field with 20-somethings. But he earned respect with his powerful, consistent leg. The veteran just knows how to get the ball off his foot in time and get it deep. On the field goal side, kicker Aaron Elling has been quietly improving behind the scenes. He looks more consistent and a bit more powerful. It's still not a year-long certainty, but Elling looks improved enough to give him a pass into at least the preseason and probably beyond.
7. LINE TIME — Chris Hovan insists that fans shouldn't just look at one or two guys to improve the defense — meaning a better year from him doesn't mean the whole defense will automatically be better. Look at the defensive line this way: Last year at this time Billy Lyon was thought to be pushing for a rotational role. Now Lyon is going to be pushing to make the roster. It's not a knock on Lyon; it just shows that the defensive line has improved its depth. Kevin Williams and Hovan have had more than a dozen full-team practices next to each other on the interior of the defensive line, and Lance Johnstone and Kenny Mixon have another year next to Hovan and Williams on the outside. Throw in free agent Steve Martin, rookies Darrion Scott and Kenechi Udeze, and pass rusher Nick Rogers and it's a deeper line than last year.
8. YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS — The linebackers remain a concern for several reasons. First, youth. Chris Claiborne is the veteran of the group and he still doesn't appear to be 100 percent back from his injuries of last year. E.J Henderson, Mike Nattiel and Dontarrious Thomas have started zero NFL games. Then throw in the injury factor, like Nattiel spraining his ankle earlier this week and Henderson sitting out the first week in June with a torn meniscus and the position still looks dicey, even with the veteran addition of Keith Newman last week.
9. WINFIELD FACTOR — Antoine Winfield showed his "quicks" all during spring camp season. The cornerback that got the largest outside free agent deal in franchise history doesn't look like he's going to let pressure get to him. He battles right with the best receivers in practice and keeps on smiling. He's not tall, but, as he says, he's not playing basketball either. The Vikings were ecstatic about getting him in March, and he's done nothing in May or June to make them feel otherwise.
10. ROOKIE IMPACT — First-round pick Kenechi Udeze is no longer expected to be an every-down player at the start of the season. Third-round pick Darrion Scott wasn't able to practice with the club this month until the last two practices because of school work at Ohio State, and none of the lower-round draft picks are expected to contribute regularly on offense or defense. That leaves second-round pick Dontarrious Thomas, who impressed from the start of minicamp to the end of developmental camp with his speed. He also seemed to pick up the defense as it was being installed, no small task for a rookie linebacker.
11. THE MOST IMPROVED — Two words: Nate Burleson. While Marcus Robinson will get most of the reps when healthy in two-receiver sets, Burleson looked so comfortable the past three weeks that it's hard not to envision a true breakout season for the second-year receiver. He ran routes with confidence, caught the ball well and ran after the catch with authority. He should be primed for an excellent season as the "third" receiver.
Note: From now until the start of training camp, we'll be running additional interviews with players and coaches, as well as reports from NFL scouts on the Vikings' rookies, and other "offseason" news. Our coverage doesn't end.
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