Training Camp Players To Watch

With so many new players, the Vikings will offer fans (and reporters) at training camp plenty of action to analyze. And besides the new faces, there are a number of scenarios involving returning players that will be interesting to watch progress.

Players to watch in training camp:

  • Defensive end Erasmus James: Right now, James is penciled in as the backup right end behind second-year pro Darrion Scott. The Vikings hope James lives up to his potential as a first-round draft pick out of Wisconsin and takes the job from the more experienced Scott.

    Scott is a solid player and a good run-stopper, but he will never give the Vikings the edge rusher they so desperately need on every down. Veteran Lance Johnstone has had double-digit sack totals the past two seasons, but he only plays on passing downs.

    James is big enough to play the run and quick enough to get around the edge. Coach Mike Tice compares him to former Vikings pass rusher Chris Doleman.

    James will get practice time with the first unit, so he will be matched against left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Although McKinnie hasn't been as good as advertised coming out of Miami in the first round in 2002, he's still a great test to see whether James is for real or not.

  • Wide receiver Troy Williamson: All eyes will be on the seventh overall pick out of South Carolina. Every move he makes will be measured against not only Randy Moss, but Detroit Lions rookie Mike Williams as well. The Vikings used the key piece of the Moss trade to obtain Williamson. Fans were hoping they'd use the pick on the more polished Williams instead.

    The Vikings are being overly careful to shield Williamson from unrealistic expectations. They haven't named him a starter and haven't defined his role. Training camp will provide the best glimpse yet into what kind of a role Williamson will fill.

    Williamson's 4.34 speed and 6-1, 203-pound body probably will be used as a deep threat in the passing game and possibly on kickoff returns. The Vikings desperately need some juice on kickoff returns. That might be Williamson's best chance to make an impact this season, because his receiving skills are pretty raw.

    Williamson dropped several catchable balls in his first minicamp. He admitted his nerves got the best of him. How he reacts in front of fans in Mankato will be interesting to watch.

  • Middle linebacker Sam Cowart: The 30-year-old Cowart was brought in to help save the defense. With youngster E.J. Henderson directing traffic in the middle last season, the Vikings often were confused and out of position. Cowart's savvy and previous experience in Ted Cottrell's defenses is expected to eliminate some of the confusion. Whether or not that happens will be detected early in training camp.

    Whether Cowart can hold up physically will be another area to watch. He has a history of injuries and isn't as athletic as Henderson, who is determined to win his starting job back.

    The Vikings redesigned their defensive coaching duties this offseason. They now have a passing game coordinator. It was created to eliminate confusion between the linebackers and defensive backs. It will be interesting to see whether it actually creates more confusion.

  • Running back Michael Bennett: Once again, the Vikings say Bennett is healthy, at the top of his game and ready to regain his Pro Bowl form of 2002. Let's see if he can make it through training camp first.

    Foot, ankle and knee injuries have dogged Bennett and stripped him of his starting job for most of the past two seasons. Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams have had to pick up the slack.

    With Smith serving a one-year drug suspension, Moore still too green to be a feature back and Williams too old to do it, the pressure is on Bennett to stay healthy and get the job done. If he doesn't, the Vikings' offense could fall apart.

    Look for the Vikings to take it easy on Bennett in training camp to preserve him for the regular season.

    NOTES

  • The Vikings have acquired a former teammate of QB Daunte Culpepper's. No, Randy Moss isn't back in town. The Vikings signed receiver Siaha Burley, who played with Culpepper at Central Florida. Burley caught 117 passes for the AFL's Arizona Rattlers this past spring.

  • Brad Madsen, the Vikings' director of community relations, was an on-camera extra in the movie "A Prairie Home Companion," shot in St. Paul. He also was a stand-in for Garrison Keillor, one of the movie's actors.

  • FS Darren Sharper admitted the Vikings really can't replace Randy Moss. But that doesn't mean they can't win, Sharper said. "We have a lot of different ways to put points on the board," Sharper said. "The guy pulling the trigger [Daunte Culpepper] is the guy who got the ball to Moss. He's going to lead us."

  • Coach Mike Tice took a gamble last week when he announced that the nickel cornerback job will be up for grabs when training camp begins on July 30.

    Brian Williams already is disgruntled that the Vikings gave his starting job to big-time free-agent acquisition Fred Smoot. After saying that Williams would be one of the best nickel backs in the game, Tice is now telling Williams that he's on even footing with Ralph Brown and Ken Irvin.

    Brown is a solid young corner whose stock rose considerably last year. Irvin is 32 and missed last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon, but he's in great shape.


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