QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Daunte Culpepper. Backups — Gus Frerotte, Shaun Hill, Matt Kegel.
Culpepper matured last season en route to his second Pro Bowl appearance. He cut his interceptions from 23 to 11 and turnovers from 32 to 17. Expect an even better season in 2004 because of an upgrade at receiver and tight end. Frerotte is the perfect backup — talented and content as the No. 2 guy. He was 2-0 with a 118.1 QB rating last season when Culpepper was sidelined because of a back injury. Hill might never be more than a No. 3 QB, which is a problem because Frerotte is in the last year of his contract. Don't be surprised if the Vikings replace Hill with the rookie free agent Kegel.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Michael Bennett. Backups — Onterrio Smith, Moe Williams, Larry Ned, Mewelde Moore, Butchie Wallace.
Bennett is lean, fast, healthy and eager to return to his Pro Bowl form after being slowed last season because of an offseason foot injury. After missing the first seven games last season, Bennett was average as he shared the running back duties with Smith and Williams. This season will be different. Bennett was the most impressive Viking in minicamp and developmental camp. Bennett's increased playing time could bother Smith although his attitude has been good so far. Ned is the best athlete on the team, but he's a fumbler. Williams is the most consistent performer on the team. He turns 30 July 26 but has at least one more year as the third-down pass-catcher before turning that role over to the rookie Moore.
TIGHT END/H-BACKS: Starters — Jim Kleinsasser, Jermaine Wiggins. Backups — Sean Burton, Richard Owens, Ben Steele, Jeff Dugan, Richard Angulo, T.J. Cottrell.
The Vikings' top priority in free agency was re-signing Kleinsasser. Already one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, the Vikings think Kleinsasser can become an increasing threat in the passing game. Wiggins is more athletic and is expected to fill a role similar to the one Byron Chamberlain held when he caught 57 balls during his 2001 Pro Bowl season. Although the Vikings don't lack for bodies behind their starting tight ends, the rest of this group is either first- or second-year players. Dugan, a pile-driver from Maryland, was the team's seventh-round draft pick.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Randy Moss, Marcus Robinson. Backups — Nate Burleson, Keenan Howry, Kelly Campbell, Kenny Clark, Lane Danielsen, Omar Jenkins, Ben Nelson, Ryan Hoag, Aaron Hosack.
Moss is coming off his best season, but questions linger concerning the plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Although he said he played with the injury during the last month of the 2003 season, the injury did not improve with rest following the season. Moss was 15 pounds overweight at minicamp but vows he won't let the injury stop him. Despite his reputation as a part-time slacker, Moss works hard and has never missed a game in his six seasons. If Moss is healthy, he could produce even more than last season, when he caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns. Robinson, a big receiver with speed, should be the best sidekick to Moss since Cris Carter. Burleson is coming off a successful rookie season. Campbell, although small, is one of the best deep threats in the NFL. A youngster to keep an eye on is Danielsen, the rookie free agent from Iowa State.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Chris Liwienski, C Matt Birk, RG Dave Dixon, RT Mike Rosenthal. Backups — T Adam Goldberg, Adam Haayer, OL Lewis Kelly, T Nat Dorsey, G Anthony Herrera, T Alan Reuber, C Cory Withrow, G Tam Hopkins.
The Vikings have one of the best and biggest left sides in the NFL. McKinnie is massive at 6-8, 346 but looks leaner than ever. The 6-5, 325-pound Liwienski is the Vikings' most underrated lineman. He's a tackle who excels at guard. Then there's Birk, the three-time Pro Bowl center who will continue to rack up trips to Hawaii. The right side contains more questions. Such as: Can the 35-year-old Dixon squeeze out a 12th season? And is Rosenthal overrated? Dixon is in great shape, but he might fade during training camp. Rosenthal has beefed up and is in a contract year, but he struggled with the better defensive ends last season. If either Dixon or Rosenthal stumbles, this could be the year Kelly steps in as a starter. The heir apparent to Dixon, Kelly is at peak strength and valuable because he can play all five positions. Dorsey, the team's fourth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, has the size and athleticism to play left tackle. He needs a year to increase strength. If Rosenthal leaves, look for Dorsey to step in at RT. The Vikings believe they got a steal in the rookie free-agent market when they signed Tennessee's Herrera.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — RE Kenechi Udeze, T Chris Hovan, NT Kevin Williams, LE Kenny Mixon. Backups — RE Lance Johnstone, RE Nick Rogers, E Chuck Wiley, DL Billy Lyon, NT Steve Martin, DL Darrion Scott, T Spencer Johnson, T Brock Lesnar.
A weakness only a few years ago, the defensive line should be a strength in 2004. Williams, a first-round pick in 2003, was outstanding as a rookie. A year later, the Vikings reinvested in their defensive front, drafting Udeze 20th overall to fill their most glaring weakness — pass rushing. Udeze has a lingering shoulder injury that scared away some teams in the draft. The Vikings cleared him and anointed him their starting right end immediately, although he was a reserve during spring camps. Hovan is 10 pounds lighter, in a contract year and frothing at the opportunity to prove his subpar 2003 season was an aberration. Mixon is a solid left end but could face a two-game league suspension for substance abuse following his latest a drunken-driving conviction. Scott has a mean streak and can start in place of Mixon. The added depth also will allow pass-rushing specialist Johnstone to play about 15 snaps a game, keeping him fresher and more effective, if Udeze does indeed get the starting role.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chris Claiborne, WLB Mike Nattiel. Backups — LB Keith Newman, WLB Dontarrious Thomas, MLB Max Yates, SLB Raonall Smith, MLB Rod Davis, LB Grant Wiley.
This is by far the Vikings' biggest question mark heading into training camp. Yes, there is talent. Yes, there is speed. In fact, there's more speed at linebacker than the Vikings have had in years. But there is concern whether all that speed will be going in the right direction. Henderson, in his second season, replaces retired veteran Greg Biekert as the leader of the defense. Although Henderson played well in the nickel defense last season, he has never started and is coming off an offseason in which he was convicted of drunken driving and was arrested following a fight outside a bar at closing time. Claiborne, the only starter with starting experience, is coming off heel surgery. He looked a step slow and heavy during minicamp. The starting WLB job probably will shift from the second-year Nattiel to the rookie Thomas early in camp. Thomas is bigger and stronger than Nattiel, who excelled as a nickel linebacker last season. The depth is dangerously thin, which is why the Vikings signed the veteran Newman, a former Atlanta Falcon and Buffalo Bill who has starting experience and has worked with defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. Smith, a second-round pick in 2002, has been a major bust to this point. This is his make-or-break season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Brian Williams, FS Brian Russell, SS Corey Chavous. Backups — CB Ken Irvin, CB Rushen Jones, FS Willie Offord, SS Tyrone Carter, CB Deandre' Eiland, CB Rhett Nelson, CB Jermaine Mays, CB Horace Willis.
Although he's no Ty Law or Champ Bailey, Winfield, the team's prized free-agent acquisition, is the best CB the Vikings have had in years. His height (5-9) is a concern in the NFC North, but his tackling ability is outstanding. Williams is poised to have his first Pro Bowl season. Russell, despite tying for the league lead in interceptions with nine in 2003, isn't a lock to start. He needs to be a better tackler. Coaches also cling to the hope that Offord will wake up and use his chiseled 6-1, 216-pound body the way they had hoped when the Vikings selected him in the third round in 2002. Don't bet against Russell, who wrestled the job away from Offord last season and will again this summer. Chavous is a team leader and coming off his first Pro Bowl season. A devoted student of the game, Chavous' weekly scouting reports help prepare the entire secondary. Depth is a concern because CBs Denard Walker and Eric Kelly forced the Vikings to release them rather than except reduced roles. The nickel back is 32-year-old Irvin. Jones, a second-year pro who surprised many as a rookie free agent, is the leading candidate as the dime back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Aaron Elling, K Dan Orner, P Darren Bennett, P Filip Filipovic, LS Brody Liddiard, LS Cullen Loeffler, PR-KR Keenan Howry, KR Mewelde Moore, KR Larry Ned, PR Kelly Campbell.
Bennett improved the Vikings' special teams considerably when he was lured away from San Diego. Eddie Johnson, who was released, was inconsistent during his rookie season. He eventually had to be replaced late in the season after dropping snaps in three consecutive games. Elling, who also was in his first season last year, was average (18 of 25 on FGs). Even worse, the Vikings lost confidence in his ability to make anything longer than 40 yards. That created many difficult fourth-down decisions for coach Mike Tice. The job is Elling's for at least another season. Orner is a rookie free agent who won't make the team. Liddiard, the incumbent LS, probably is on his way out. The Vikings have warned him about the hitch in his delivery. Also, rookie free agent Loeffler is from the University of Texas and a favorite of owner Red McCombs, a huge Longhorns fan. The Vikings could use an upgrade at PR. Howry is sure-handed but slow and not much of a threat to score. Campbell would like to return punts, but the coaches say he's too small. The addition of Moore means Onterrio Smith won't return kickoffs. Moore had limited experience returning kicks in college but has great hands.
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