QUARTERBACK: Starter - Daunte Culpepper. Backups - Brad Johnson, Shaun Hill, John Bowenkamp.
The Vikings are as sound at quarterback as any team in the league. Culpepper is in his prime and determined not to let the Vikings' offense slide without Randy Moss and Scott Linehan, the team's former offensive coordinator and security blanket for Culpepper. While Peyton Manning stole the spotlight during his record-breaking 2004 season, Culpepper quietly had 4,717 yards passing, a 69.2 completion percentage, 39 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 110.9 passer rating. Culpepper continues to get better at checking off at the line of scrimmage and checking down to his second through fourth or fifth options when receivers are covered. He was sacked 46 times last season, but avoided several more with his quickness and sheer strength. He also is the leading returning rusher with 406 yards on 88 carries (4.6).
The Vikings lost one of the league's best backup QBs in Gus Frerotte, but recovered nicely by signing Johnson in free agency. Johnson, a former Vikings, has won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. He can help Culpepper read defenses, which will help on game day since the new offensive coordinator, Steve Loney, will be focused on his offensive line coaching duties when the defense is on the field. Hill enters his third season as a third-stringer. He knows the offense inside and out, but doesn't have the arm strength or athleticism to be a No. 2. The Vikings hope the strong-armed Bowenkamp can push Hill for the No. 3 job.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Michael Bennett. Backups - Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams, Ciatrick Fason, "Butchie" Franklin Wallace, Adimchinobe Echemandu.
The success of this unit could depend on the wobbly legs of Bennett. The former Pro Bowl player hasn't been healthy since 2002. Knee and ankle injuries limited him to 276 yards rushing on 70 carries (3.9) in 2004. An excellent offseason and Onterrio Smith's yearlong drug suspension has made Bennett the undisputed No. 1 back heading into training camp. But he can't be counted on because of his history of knee, ankle and foot injuries.
Moore is the best overall back on the team. He is an instinctive runner with the ability to make defenders miss. He also the best hands of any of the running backs. The knock on him is a lack of mental toughness. Coaches feel he lets minor injuries affect him more than they should.
Williams is a straight-ahead, no-nonsense runner who is outstanding in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He's tough, plays bigger than he is and never makes mental mistakes. But he's also 30 and could break down at any moment.
Fason was drafted in the fourth round because the team had a suspicion that Smith would be suspended. Fason's upright, straight-ahead running style reminds coaches of a younger Williams. Wallace, a former practice squad player, probably won't be a factor this year.
TIGHT END: Starters - Jim Kleinsasser, Jermaine Wiggins. Backups - Sean Berton, Jeff Dugan, Richard Owens, Richard Angulo.
The Vikings could have the best tight end combo in the league if Kleinsasser can ever stay healthy. Kleinsasser missed all but one game last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Wiggins went on to lead the team with 71 catches. He is the ultimate garbage man when it comes to gobbling up Culpepper's bailout passes. Wiggins has a horrible body by NFL standards, but he also has the best hands on the team and is surprisingly nimble for such a pudgy player. Wiggins didn't block as well last season as he had in previous years with other teams.
Kleinsasser, on the other hand, is one of the best blockers in the league and an improving receiver. One of the reasons the Vikings couldn't run the ball last season is because Kleinsasser's blocking on the perimeter wasn't there.
Berton is a plow horse overachiever who can block. Dugan is similar. Owens is a better receiver and surprisingly agile after the catch. Angulo could be a gem if he can stay healthy. He's 6-8 with decent speed and soft hands. But he can't stay healthy. He missed all of last season because of a knee injury.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor. Backups - Troy Williamson, Kelly Campbell, Keenan Howry, Ryan Hoag, Ben Nelson, Skyler Fulton, Aaron Hosack, Siaha Burley.
Burleson, who had a team-high 1,006 yards receiving last season, was an excellent No. 2 receiver behind Moss. He's a polished route runner with a great team-first mentality, unlike Moss. Burleson also runs very well after the catch. He lacks top-end speed and will drop passes occasionally. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to more double teams now that Moss isn't around.
Robinson is the tallest receiver on the team (6-3) and will be a weapon near the goal line. He had eight touchdown catches last season. Robinson, however, tends to wear down or get injured.
Taylor will be a player to watch. The former first round draft pick of the Ravens never lived up to his pre-draft hype. Then again, he's never played with a good quarterback. He won't have that excuse now that he's paired with Culpepper.
Williamson was the seventh overall pick this season. He runs a 4.34 40 and was drafted to replace Moss as a deep threat. But he isn't ready to step in and produce like Moss did. Williamson doesn't have the hands that Moss has. He also can't match Moss' long arms, swagger and general knack for coming down with the ball. But Williamson seems to have outstanding character and work ethic.
The tiny Campbell is one-dimensional. He averaged 19.2 yards and had one TD on 19 catches last season. He won't be as big of a threat without Moss on the other side of the field.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Adam Goldberg, C Matt Birk, RG Chris Liwienski, RT Mike Rosenthal. Backups - C Cory Withrow, T-G Nat Dorsey, G-T Marcus Johnson, G Anthony Herrera, C Brandon Newton, G Shannon Snell, T Rian Melander, T William Obeng, C Kyle Schmitt, T Chris Jahnke.
One of the quietest question marks on the team is the offensive line. The Pro Bowler Birk has had four operations since last summer. He had three to repair hernias and one in March for a torn labrum in his hip. He will miss most of training camp, but is hopeful of playing in the regular season opener. Coaches say there is little if any drop off with Withrow, but they're being overly kind to Birk's scrappy little backup. Withrow isn't as strong as Birk, nor does he pull with as much athleticism and force as Birk.
There are many other concerns. Goldberg, an overachieving former practice squad player, is penciled in as the new starting left guard. He remains a project, although he did gain experience last year at right tackle when Rosenthal broke his foot in the second game of the season. Don't be surprised if Johnson, the second-round draft pick out of Mississippi, beats Goldberg out as the starter. Johnson is a rookie, but he has swift feet, long arms and is already developed physically. Liwienski moves from left guard to replace longtime starter Dave Dixon at right guard. Liwienski is coming off a subpar season in which he made a lot of mental errors. Goldberg is back from his broken foot, but he needs to make it through training camp before he can be counted on to hold up in a game. McKinnie is OK at left tackle. But as a former first round draft pick, he needs to be much better, especially as a run blocker.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Kenechi Udeze, T Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Darrion Scott. Backups - RE Erasmus James, T Spencer Johnson, DE Lance Johnstone, NT Steve Martin, T Eric Coleman, T Matt Mitrione, NT C.J. Mosley.
It's too early to be throwing around comparisons to the Purple People Eaters, as some already have. However, this unit has the potential to be dominant. Kevin Williams already is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. He has 22 1/2 sacks in two seasons, plays the run well even when he's triple-teamed and even has a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown. He was first-team All-Pro last season, and that came while he was playing alongside the undersized Chris Hovan and the undersized and inexperienced Johnson.
During the offseason, the Vikings signed Pat Williams, a legitimate nose tackle-sized veteran from Buffalo. Pat Williams will be able to absorb double teams so that Kevin Williams can do even more damage. The only concern is Kevin Williams is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and needs to get back into playing shape.
Udeze moves to his more natural left end position. He also had offseason shoulder surgery, so he won't be playing with one arm like he was toward the end of last season. Scott begins training camp as the starter at right end, but the second-year pro will have a hard time holding off James, the first round draft pick. Scott is a solid backup-type player who is better against the run. James' burst and first step around the corner already is being compared to former Vikings pass rushing extraordinaire Chris Doleman. The
Vikings also have better depth than ever. Johnstone returns as a pass rushing specialist after back-to-back seasons with double-digit sack numbers. He also could benefit from the beefy Pat Williams clogging up the middle on third downs.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Napoleon Harris, MLB Sam Cowart, WLB Dontarrious Thomas. Backups - MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Keith Newman, WLB Raonall Smith, MLB Rod Davis, MLB Quincy Stewart, LB Grant Wiley, LB Heath Farwell.
This appears to be the team's most glaring weakness. Thomas and Smith will wage a training camp battle for the starting weakside spot. The oft-injured Smith finally was maturing as a player early last season when two concussions ended his season. Thomas began last season as the starter, but quickly proved he couldn't handle it as a rookie. He was out of position too often. Obviously, he is further along mentally this year, but far from being as consistent as he needs to be.
The team hailed the arrival of Cowart from the Jets in exchange for a seventh round draft pick. Cowart has played for defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell before and knows the defense extremely well. Henderson, last year's starter, never grasped the defense and was usually out of position or unsure of his assignments or those of others around him. It's hard to get excited about a player who garnered only a seventh round draft pick in return. And Cowart has a long history of leg injuries.
Harris takes over as the starter on the strong side. The Vikings would love for him to have a breakout season because he was part of the Randy Moss trade with Oakland. Harris hasn't lived up to his status as a former first round draft pick. He struggled last season, but says he played most of the year with an injured knee. He's healthy now. If Harris falters, Newman, last year's starter, will step in. Newman is a big, strong player, but very one-dimensional. He can rush hard off the edge, but lacks coverage skills.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Fred Smoot, LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Corey Chavous, FS Darren Sharper. Backups - CB Brian Williams, CB Ralph Brown, CB-S Ken Irvin, CB Will Hunter, S Dustin Fox, CB Rushen Jones, SS Willie Offord, CB Adrian Ward.
A potential strength has the potential to fall apart in a hurry if the disgruntled Chavous and Williams become a couple of cancers. They were the only players to skip all four voluntary developmental camps during the offseason. Chavous is upset about his contract, which pays him $1.9 million this season. Williams is still upset that the team gave his starting job to Smoot, big-time free agent signee from Washington. Williams will be one of the best nickel backs in the league, if he parks the attitude at the door.
On a positive note, Winfield is the team's best tackler and is coming off a career-high three interceptions. The addition of Smoot, who like Winfield the year before garnered a $10.8 million bonus, gives the Vikings two of the best corners in the NFL. Smoot, an upbeat motor mouth, also injects a certain energy into what was a lethargic defense.
Sharper was signed two days after the Packers cut him in a salary cap move. If he can stay healthy, he will be an upgrade over former Viking Brian Russell, who left for Cleveland as a restricted free agent.
The depth appears to be OK. Offord finally is maturing as a player and a tackler, but he still isn't what everyone expected he would be. Irvin is back after missing all of last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon. He is one of the fastest DBs, but he's also 33. He'll start training camp at corner, but also has shown in developmental camps that he can play safety too. Brown was a surprise last season after signing in the wake of Irvin's injury. He will seize the nickel back position easily if Williams comes in pouting.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Darren Bennett, P Travis Dorsch, K Aaron Elling, K Paul Edinger, LS Cullen Loeffler, PR Keenan Howry, KR Mewelde Moore, KR Kelly Campbell, PR Nate Burleson, KR Troy Williamson.
Coach Mike Tice is determined to fix the placekicking woes that even he has called the "Achilles' heel" of his head coaching career. Tice has yet to have a kicker who is accurate and possesses a strong leg. In 2002, he had to pull Gary Anderson out of retirement after the Doug Brien fiasco. In 2003, Elling won the job as a first-year player, but wasn't reliable. In 2004, 44-year-old Morten Andersen was signed after Elling had a preseason meltdown and lost his job. Elling returned later as a kickoff specialist. He broke his leg midway through the season, but is back physically and, it seems, mentally.
He will compete during training camp with Edinger, who was signed after the Bears released him. Edinger had a horrendous 2004 season, but claims to have found his stroke again. The Vikings loved Edinger in 2003 when they signed him to a lucrative restricted free agent offer sheet, which the Bears matched. The biggest problem with this competition going into training camp is neither kicker is well rounded. Edinger is a more accurate place-kicker, but weak at kickoffs. Elling is strong at kickoffs, but less accurate as a place-kicker.
Because the 40-year-old Bennett doesn't kick off, the Vikings want their place-kicker to handle kickoffs. Dorsch, who led NFL Europe in punting this season, will push Bennett in training camp. Dorsch also has the leg strength to handle kickoffs. If Edinger wins the placekicking job, don't be surprised if Dorsch beats out Bennett, whose performance dipped considerably last season. The team's coverage units should be improved this season.
The demotions of E.J. Henderson and Brian Williams on defense will allow them to play more on special teams. Henderson was one of the team's better special teams players two years ago as a rookie. Also, third-round draft pick Dustin Fox should be an excellent special teamer.
The return units always seem to struggle. Howry returns as the front-runner at punt returner after missing most of last season because of a shoulder injury. He's slow, but shifty, and has exceptional hands. Burleson filled in for Howry last season and even had a return for a touchdown, but the Vikings don't want their No. 1 receiver returning punts. Williamson is a sleeper as a kickoff returner. There's an opening with Onterrio Smith's yearlong drug suspension. The Vikings want Williamson to make an impact this season. Because he's so raw as a receiver, his best chance to make a name for himself this season might be as a returner.
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