Hopes for postseason play have essentially faded, so the Vikings are playing for pride. But perhaps more importantly, many talented younger players who may lack only experience will be getting the seasoning they'll need to make the step to the next level.
The defense has been retooled once again, big plays have been sparse, injuries have ravaged the offensive line and discipline and consistency have quite frankly been lacking. Yet through a season that has seemed hexed at times, a lot of young guys with some talent and upside potential have been earning their spurs.
Daunte Culpepper — Nobody has gotten more of a test under adversity this season than quarterback Daunte Culpepper. A virtually non-existent running game, an injury-plagued offensive line, and a flashy but inconsistent and emotionally volatile receiving tandem have put a huge burden on Culpepper's shoulders this season.
On the downside, it's put far more pressure on him than anyone ever intended. But it's also been a positive growing experience. One that will serve Culpepper well in the future.
"We think he is going to be around here a long time," head coach Dennis Green said of Culpepper.
Michael Bennett — Michael Bennett wasn't a rookie sensation, but he's lightning in a bottle and a threat to score any time he clears the point of attack. Like his predecessor, Robert Smith, he can turn a simple screen pass into an 80-yard touchdown by using pure speed to outrun angles of pursuit.
"He's got to learn a lot about the game of football, but he has some great potential," Green said. "He's only carried the ball probably an average of only 10 or 11 carries a game. I think if we give him the ball, I think he can make some big plays.
"He runs hard. He goes in, and it looks like he is down and he doesn't stop," Green added. "I think that as the season goes on he's going to have a chance to break out and make some more big plays. He obviously has the speed and the explosiveness, and he knows how to run the football. Hopefully we'll get a chance to run the ball more and more often. I think that's really what we need."
Behind Bennett, the Vikings have also found a pair of good young backs in Doug Chapman and Travis Prentice. Both figure to have a critical role under "normal" circumstances as part of the rotation when a steady running game does exist. And both appear more than capable of carrying the rock if called upon for extended stretches.
Randy Moss — Randy Moss has had a disappointing season by his standards. Especially after signing a big-money contract extension prior to the season. But if you ignore the foolish things he says to the media, he remains a game-breaking player on the field, even with the drops and even with the plays he takes off. As much running as he does up and down the field, Moss needs to take some plays off. And even when he does, he can take two defenders with him.
He needs to be pushed, but he's still very young, very much under contract and a very, very, very good football player.
Offensive line — The offensive line has been in upheaval much of the season. Todd Steussie's departure, coupled with the tragic death of Korey Stringer in training camp, dealt the Vikings a severe blow even before the regular season began.
Then injuries hit this critical aspect of the offense the hardest of any on the team.
Through the turmoil, however, the team may have identified a couple long-term possibilities in Chris Liwienski and Cory Withrow, though perhaps neither at the spot at which they've shown their wares this season.
Liwienski has done a more-than-admirable job as the starting right tackle all season long. He's a tough, hard-working, lunch-pail kind of guy who can bury defenders at the point of attack. He's generally held his own on pass protection, as well, though he'd be much better suited inside at left guard (where he was originally intended to be the starter) than out on an island like he is at right tackle. In the long run, it looks like Liwienski will be a long-term solution on a rebuilt offensive line that, as everyone knows, has lost four Pro Bowl players over the course of the last two seasons.
Withrow, primarily a backup center who had never really seen any significant action in a regular-season game, was thrown to the wolves when David Dixon was injured earlier this season. He stepped in at right guard and did a very steady job. While guard may not be his best position, Withrow has shown that he can indeed play at the pro level.
"Cory Withrow has done a really good job," Green said. "(Against Pittsburgh), this was a team that was one of the leaders in the National Football League in the way of blitzing the quarterback and putting pressure on. Cory did a great job at the right guard."
"I thought he was only a center," assistant head coach/offensive line Mike Tice said. "I was wrong, and I'm glad I was wrong."
If the coaches have enough confidence in him down the road, he could be a Jeff Christy-type center, which might enable them to move Pro Bowler Matt Birk from center to one of the tackle spots, depending on the influx of talent via the draft next spring.
Another young blocker to keep an eye on for next year is Lewis Kelly, who's begun to see some playing time, even if it's been as an extra tight end.
On the defensive side of the ball there are a number of good, young players who are somewhere between promising prospects and on the verge of stardom.
Defensive line — On the verge of stardom would be defensive tackle Chris Hovan. Lighting quick off the ball, Hovan has really picked it up a notch in his second full season as a starter.
The Vikings also have a string of good young defensive linemen who have shown flashes but have yet to put it all together on a long-term, consistent basis — Fred Robbins, Winfield Garnett, Willie Howard, Shawn Worthen, Jeff Hazuga and possibly even Michael Boireau.
From this group, Robbins has made a nice step forward this season. Garnett came out of nowhere and is a real load to block. Howard has really come on of late and could easily be pushing for a full-time job somewhere along the line next season. Worthen was sidelined with a toe injury late in training camp but had shown flashes of big-time promise before that. Nobody thought Hazuga was anything more than a camp body when he was signed as a rookie free agent, yet he worked his way onto the field until an injury shelved him. And if Boireau can ever get a clean bill of health he could emerge out of nowhere, as well.
A bit of an in-betweener, rookie Patrick Chukwurah is also a good, young football player. Finding the right position or role for him in the long run might be the only challenge there.
Linebackers — Kailee Wong has made steady progress in just his second season as the starter at middle linebacker. Re-signing him will be a key, as he's one player who probably still has his best football in front of him.
Injuries have also opened the door for second-year man Antonio Wilson, who has gotten some action in relief of Ed McDaniel at weakside linebacker of late. Wilson has generally held his own and then some. He's a marvelous athlete who can fly to the ball and appears to have gotten more confident and physical with the added experience he's gotten.
Secondary — In the defensive backfield, rookie Eric Kelly has been a starter much of the season. Despite his lack of experience, he has not been a liability and figures to only get better.
Tyrone Carter has moved in as the starter at free safety in his second season and has showed steady improvement. He's not what most teams are looking for size-wise, but if you could measure a player's heart, TC would get very high marks.
As always, the Vikings also have a squadron of players on their practice squad and injured reserve that offer some promise for the future. Given their history of developing players from those ranks, it wouldn't be surprising to see a player or two emerge from that area next season, too.
Emerging Young Players
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