Kleinsasser Key to '04

The Vikings are expecting big things from their offense this year and a surprising amount may hinge on the success of Jim Kleinsasser.

Jim Kleinsasser has been something on an enigma since joining the Vikings. Denny Green was so impressed with him that he traded up on draft day to get the young man from the University of North Dakota. At the time, Green claimed he would be the best tight end in football.

Then the shifting began -- tight end, fullback, H-back, you name it. It slowed Kleinsasser's progress and, while it may not have struck a chord with the media how much better he had become, it sure did with the Vikings. After the 2002 season, the Vikings slapped the franchise tag on him to avoid anyone else plucking him away. Following the 2003 season, after hearing the Redskins were going to make a quick, strong push for him, the Vikings ponied up $15 million over the next five years to make sure he stays a Viking.

The faith in Kleinsasser runs deep and some offensive coaches think that he could be the key to the Vikings offense next season. What? With a deep stable of running backs and speedy Marcus Robinson expected to open up the deep game, how can a tight end be that valuable? Just look back at 2003 for the answer to that.

Through the first eight games of 2003, Kleinsasser was unassuming -- delivering crunching blocks, but catching just 12 passes. But then a funny thing happened. In the final eight games of the year, Kleinsasser caught 34 passes -- behind only Randy Moss and Moe Williams.

The plan for this year is to play off that "forgotten receiver" role. With defenses worried about containing Moss and Robinson as well as trying to keep Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith bottled up -- not to mention Daunte Culpepper's scrambling ability -- the expectation is that Kleinsasser will be wide open much too often. Unlike previous years when Culpepper would still force the ball to Moss, the Vikings have accepted that Kleinsasser can be an important offensive weapon and not just a lineman wearing a running back's number.

Believe it or not, if the Vikings offense is to be successful this year, some of that will be credited to Kleinsasser, who has lived up to Green's early hype and is finally now a complete receiver/blocker -- and perhaps ready to make his first trip to a Pro Bowl following this season.

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