The Big Unknown For Loney

When asked about his goals for training camp, offensive coordinator Steve Loney said he will be curious to see how one group in particular performs. He also talked about his known commodities and what he expects from them.

Four out of the five starting offensive linemen from this time last year are returning to the Minnesota Vikings offense, with David Dixon being the lone exception. The Vikings appear content to move on without him.

At tight end, the team's leading receiver from last year, Jermaine Wiggins, returns. So does Jim Kleinsasser, who was lost for the season in the opening game last year and is expected to resume his role as one of the league's best blocking tight ends in 2005.

At running back, Michael Bennett, Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams all return to familiar roles, even if the first two have yet to prove it long term.

At quarterback, Daunte Culpepper is one of the league's best.

And that leaves receiver as the Vikings' big unknown on offense this year. With Randy Moss in Oakland, the receiver corps is probably in its biggest state of flux since before Cris Carter's rights were purchased from Philadelphia in 1990.

Nate Burleson, a third-round draft pick two years ago, blossomed as the No. 2 receiver last year but has yet to prove he can do it without the most feared receiver in the league on the other side of him. And former first-round pick Travis Taylor is hoping to make a bigger impression in a new offense with a new team, as is the Vikings' first-round draft pick from this year, Troy Williamson. And Marcus Robinson is hoping his career can continue to rebound for another season.

Yet, for the all the uncertainty at the position, offensive coordinator Steve Loney is optimistic.

"I really love our wide receiver group. I'm really excited about what they can bring to the table next fall," Loney said at the tale end of the Vikings' developmental camp workouts. "I think some goals will be set as far as some shifts and some motions, being involved in a lot of different ways. There are a lot of guys that you can spread the ball to. I think that's one goal, to utilize that group, myself and them, that they have that comfort level that everybody is going to get the ball spread out to them. They've just got to get themselves open.

"You've got a lot of experience at quarterback, you've got an experienced offensive line, you've got experienced tight ends. The youth of that wide receiver group, we're going to grow as fast as they grow."

It is that aforementioned experience that has Loney at a decent comfort level entering the one of the year's most uncertain times. That, despite not having Randy Moss as a chuck-it-up crutch.

"You don't want to sit back and say there are no concerns. Every group has to get better in the things they're doing, but when you look and say, ‘What group is going to really showcase themselves for the first time?' it's really that group. … When you talk as a collective group, it will be really fun to watch how that group works in the early games. How that entire group functions within our system – that to me is the most interesting thing to look at."

It doesn't hurt that Loney has Culpepper leading his offense – and leadership is exactly what Culpepper displayed to his offensive coordinator in spring practices.

"He has been very forward on the sideline with the offense and all those things of stepping in and saying, ‘Hey guys, we've got to get this done,' – being that leader," Loney said. "And not just with his group or the offense, but really team-wide he seems very comfortable in his role."

And then there is that pesky and all-important running back position.

Mewelde Moore looked very elusive and very versatile in three strong outings last year before losing the confidence of coaches and getting injured. But Michael Bennett is being handed the favored seat at the table as the team's starter.

While Bennett is in the final year of his contract and needs to overcome a pattern of injuries that have befallen his promising career, Loney has seen another aspect of Bennett's game that is flourishing.

"He has embraced the protection challenges that come to the running back spot. I haven't seen him miss a blitz or a dog (in spring practices)," Loney said. "That shows his dedication to learning the system, number one. And number two, showing a desire to get the job done and to execute the blocking assignment.

"That sense of urgency maybe wasn't as strong in the past as it is now. It's obvious when you watch him execute that there is a sense of urgency on his part to block people and to protect the quarterback. You've got to be the complete package before you can expect to be in on all downs."

As the Vikings prepare to open with their first practice of training camp on Saturday, the offense is generally pretty stable, despite the loss of Moss. Loney estimated that at least 90 percent of the offense was implemented during those practices in May and June. Now it will be time to throw in another 10 percent, fine-tune what already exists and hope his receiving corps passes by most people expectations faster than Williamson's 4.3 speed.


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