Where Do Carter, Vikings Go From Here?

While it is assumed wide receiver Cris Carter will not be back next year, the bigger question might be who will succeed him if he isn't?

According to Fox broadcaster Pat Summerall, wide receiver Cris Carter still wants to play two more seasons and is willing to sign a three-year deal for salary cap reasons and play two seasons.

Nobody doubts that Carter can still play.

To this point, head coach Dennis Green has not publicly ruled out Carter's return to Minnesota. But all signals point to his departure.

So what of the much-publicized rift between Carter and Green?

Probably both too much and too little have been made of this. But it might make a good story to paint Carter's apparent departure as such a personal thing between him and Green. In reality, this will be a business decision, not a personal decision for either party.

This was destined to be a tough year for everyone in the organization the day Korey Stringer collapsed in Mankato this summer. The players and coaches kept working, kept preparing to play and still gave what they could, but the grieving process for human beings — and it may go overlooked that players are human — simply takes longer than that.

Connected with God or not, mentally tough or not, the loss of someone close, especially in the manner in which Stringer was lost, is something that affects even the toughest and most mature of people.

On the issue of Carter's leadership role on the team, there are others who would suggest that Carter has always gotten way too much credit for his leadership role on the team, anyway. And his leadership may have been overplayed with Randy Moss' development.

In fact, some who spend plenty of time over at Winter Park have suggested long before this issue became such a hot topic late this season that the Vikings might in fact be a better team without the influence of Cris Carter. That his role as a leader, both spiritually and in the locker room, smacked of hypocrisy given his volatile and at times selfish (at least in appearance) nature on the field. Somewhere along the way, Carter's emotional outbursts undermined his credibility with at least some of his colleagues.

This makes neither Carter nor Green the bad guy. It's simply another of the downsides to NFL players making the kind of money they make these days. It's a business, and the effects of the salary cap impose their relevance on virtually every personnel decision that is made nowadays.

In this case, it just so happens that the player, not the organization, is probably going to have just a little more control over their fate than usual. There doesn't appear to be, and there shouldn't be, any hard feelings.

In Carter's farewell statement on the Jumbotron during the team's final home game this season he thanked the fans of Minnesota and the Twin Cities, the coaching staff, especially Dennis Green, the ownership, Red McCombs and his family.

That didn't sound like sour grapes.

Heir apparent for Carter?
It's been a long time since the Vikings entered an offseason with any pressing needs at the wide receiver position. But with the departure of Cris Carter apparently imminent, the team will have some big shoes to fill. In fact, in reality, nobody is really going to fill the shoes of a Hall of Fame-type player of Cris Carter's caliber. Better put, someone will simply have to succeed him.

Who?

Randy Moss, regardless of the criticism of his effort and performance, remains the primary weapon at wide receiver. So any team with Moss at one spot hardly has a bare cupboard.

But who complements Moss once Carter is officially out of the picture?

Veteran Jake Reed is a free agent and is probably not apt to regain the role as the No. 2 receiver again at this stage of his career.

Chris Walsh is a leading special teams performer and a clutch, reliable, possession-type receiver. But that will likely remain his primary role, not as that of a starter.

Troy Walters, a fifth-round pick in 2000, has some potential, but like Nate Jacquet is primarily a return specialist. A more likely role for Walters with the offense would be to move up a notch into perhaps a legitimate No. 3 or No. 4 receiver role, or even a David Palmer-type role in the offense. Regardless, he's not likely to be Moss' other half.

That essentially exhausts the active roster, bringing closer scrutiny to a pair of prospects — Cedric James, a fourth-round draft pick who spent the entire season on injured reserve, and Kenny Clark, an undrafted free agent who spent the season on the team's practice squad.

Are either ready for such a dramatic promotion?

James was essentially "stashed" on injured reserve after being hampered by a hamstring injury in training camp. He's healthy now and has all the physical tools many look for in an NFL receiver.

James (6-foot-1, 199 pounds) has nice size and sub-4.5 speed in the 40. He played some at Texas Christian University in college, but even there he did not gain extensive experience in the passing game. The team's scouts have said that he has better-than-Jake Reed potential, however. He is tough, he works hard and does have an extremely high upside. But it's a huge jump to being Cris Carter's heir apparent.

Clark is probably best known locally for being Daunte Culpepper's cousin, as well as high school and college teammate. But Kenny Clark was a legitimate NFL prospect, despite being undrafted last spring, whether he was Culpepper's cousin or not.

At 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, Clark is also a big, physical wideout with the build to play in the slot in the NFL. Like James, he has pretty good speed (4.55 in the 40) for his size and also has a lot of upside potential.

According to wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, Clark has improved his pass routes, his ability to recognize coverages and is learning to better use his body as a pass receiver.

However, also like James, it might be an unrealistic expectation for him to make such a dramatic jump in just his second season.

Carter himself has worked closely with Clark at his training camp in Boca Raton, Fla., and will likely continue working with him there during the offseason.

The draft will also offer some other intriguing prospects.

It's unlikely the Vikings will invest their top-10 pick in a wideout in the first round, but they figure to use at least one of their early picks on one of the top wide receivers in this year's draft.

There's also the prospect of entering the free-agent market here, although history indicates that to be a hit-or-miss proposition.

Regardless of who moves up the ladder or who they add, Moss is going to have to carry the load.

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