Still Concerns At Running Back

The Vikings are fortunate to have the depth they do in the offensive backfield, but there are obvious concerns with all the injuries they've endured already and a pending suspension.

Roster depth is a critical component for any successful team in the National Football League. With a rash of injuries league-wide, especially at the key skill positions, the Minnesota Vikings will continue to fight through these same issues.

Luckily, the Vikings may have the deepest assembled talent of any team in the game today in the offensive backfield. As evidenced last season when running back Michael Bennett was out of action due to foot surgery, veteran Moe Williams and rookie Onterrio Smith provided the team with quality relief.

Much the same can be said when quarterback Daunte Culpepper injured his lower back. In this case Gus Frerotte rose to the occasion and kept the Minnesota offensive machine rolling in a convincing manner.

Just one week into the 2004 season, the Minnesota Vikings have had a solid case of reality dealt to them. Bennett remains out with a knee injury, Williams is sidelined for at least one week with an ankle injury and starting fullback Jim Kleinsasser could be lost for a month, maybe more, with a knee injury. With the rash of injuries to key players, a lesser team could be on the verge of folding the tent.

But, the Vikings have the all-important depth to remain one of the elite teams in the NFC.

"Heading into the offseason we wanted to improve our club in many ways. Our speed and depth on the offensive side of the ball was adequate, but we were looking for players to supplement and fit into our scheme," a team source said. "Adding a player like [wide receiver] Marcus Robinson to a group which has Randy Moss, Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell, we feel very solid at the wide receiver position. Now, if an injury occurs we have what we believe is ample depth and quality to go on without missing a beat."

The Minnesota Vikings had to feel a somewhat similar comfort level at the running back position heading into the season. As the team proved in the 2003 season, they have the ability to run the football and can overcome injury and adversity.

When starting running back Michael Bennett went down in preseason with a knee injury, the team had Williams and Smith to fall back on. Just as Smith could have established himself as a legitimate candidate to become the Vikings' future running back, he and the team were notified he violated the league's substance abuse policy.

"Onterrio is one talented kid that has the ability to become a starting running back in this league. We said it last season when we drafted him, and you could see it in the way he performed when given the opportunity. He can play," the source continued. "We were extremely disappointed to hear he had an issue and may ultimately be suspended by the league. We support Onterrio and hopefully his situation will be resolved shortly.

"It's tough to watch a talented kid throw away an opportunity. Smitty hasn't yet. He has become a good teammate, he is maturing and realizes he is an important member of this team. We headed into training camp with him being our No. 2 back. We're pretty fortunate to have a player the caliber of Moe Williams here to step in and keep our rushing attack formidable."

As the league has not set an official date to hear Smith's appeal, the second-year back can continue to play. With injuries to Bennett and Williams, the depth in the Minnesota backfield is extremely limited and inexperienced.

Right now, the Minnesota coaching staff is concerned with the state of the running game. With Bennett still out and Moe Williams on the sideline for no less than a week, Smith and rookie Mewedle Moore will be counted on carrying the load heading into an important early-season contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Smith has proven in his young career he can run with the football and is much further along than he was a year ago. He understands his responsibilities in the backfield, in pass protection, etc. He knows what needs done," the source said. "If he were to go down, then we will have some serious issues, but we have this Moore kid just may be something special in time. Right now, he can step in and play in certain situations and he got more time in camp because of Onterrio's issue."

It's early and the Vikings look to get off to a quick start to the 2004 season. All fingers are crossed in Minnesota that the team has tasted the injury bug and the worst is past, just one week into the season.

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