Living Up to Expectations

The Vikings are the trendy pick to win the NFC because of an off-season spent revamping one of the worst defenses in the league. Just be careful before jumping on the bandwagon.

For starters, there have been other infusions of talent to no avail in recent years. And, secondly, the weakness of last year's defense, the linebackers, is the area least improved.

Even coach Mike Tice said one of his two biggest concerns heading into training camp is weakside linebacker. Dontarrious Thomas and Raonall Smith are competing for the starting spot vacated when Chris Claiborne signed with the Rams as a free agent.

Thomas is the team's fastest linebacker, but he was overwhelmed by the professional game as a rookie last season. Smith, a former second round draft pick, has been a major disappointment mostly because of injuries. He finally showed glimpses of success last season, but then suffered a season-ending concussion.

"I have not seen to this point the consistency that I've been looking for out of either one of those athletes," Tice said. "My hope is that one of those guys shows me that coming out of preseason. That's one concern."

The Vikings also will have new starters at strongside linebacker (Napoleon Harris) and middle linebacker (Sam Cowart). Both are coming off leg injuries. Harris, who was part of the Randy Moss trade, has never lived up to being a first round pick. Cowart knows defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's defense better than E.J. Henderson, last year's starter, but age and a history of injuries make him a suspect replacement

Tice's other major concern is at kicker, where there team's woes aren't solved just because former Bear Paul Edinger was signed to compete with Aaron Elling.

Tice desperately wants someone who can kick off and placekick. But it's looking as though he might have to go into yet another season with two kickers.

"I have one who can hit the ball through the end zone (Elling) and one who can hit field goals," Tice said. "I need someone to emerge and do both consistently and very good."

NOTES, QUOTES
--Coach Mike Tice predicted that SS Corey Chavous and CB Brian Williams "will both be in training camp with their heads on straight, and that's all I asked them to do." Chavous and Williams missed all 13 voluntary developmental practices because they're unhappy with their contracts.

"I'm not going to get involved with their business," Tice said. "I don't do contracts, and that's it. I don't want to address it again. OK. And I am not angry at either one, regardless if I just sounded angry."

Although he said "business is business, and we have to respect that," Tice also sent a subtle message to the disgruntled Chavous and Williams.

"We move forward and we work and develop the guys we have (at developmental camp)," Tice said. "Guys like (cornerback) Ralph Brown had an excellent off-season, and showed that he can be a guy for us. (Safety) Willie Offord has had a very consistent off-season for us. They both seized the opportunity and did the best with it, which is what you hope they do. So that's a good thing."

--Rookie first-round draft pick Troy Williamson dropped his share of passes during mini camp and the four developmental camps. "He dropped some balls wide open every once in awhile," Tice said. "But that's youngness, a guy looking to run with the ball before he has it. We'll get that fixed. He's shown he can make the tough catches."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I wasn't going to put them out there with a game tonight. If they pull up, (Twins manager Ron Gardenhire) would knock me out." -- Coach Mike Tice on Twins outfielders Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, who were invited observers of the team's final developmental camp practice on Tuesday. Hunter told reporters he was ready to suit up if Tice needed him.


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