"It helps that we have some very good veteran guys that we brought in," coach Mike Tice said. "For example, (middle linebacker) Sam Cowart is a guy with great savvy who is really confident and can help the E.J. Hendersons of the team come along. Just like (new starting free safety) Darren Sharper is helping the (rookie) Dustin Foxes.
"You're really blessed when you're able to bring in veteran players who are leaders and willing to take on that role. We have a bunch of those guys now. We're really excited about it."
Cowart, a 30-year-old eight-year veteran, will start ahead of Henderson, who failed as the starter in 2004 in his second season. Sharper, a nine-year veteran who turns 30 in November, replaces the departed Brian Russell.
Other new starters include 32-year-old nose tackle Pat Williams, a nine-year veteran who takes over for 2004 rookie free agent Spencer Johnson; strong-side linebacker Napoleon Harris and right cornerback Fred Smoot, the team's marquee free agent signing this offseason. Smoot began training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a mild neck strain.
Rookie Erasmus James, the 18th overall pick from Wisconsin, could give the Vikings a sixth new starter on defense if he beats out Darrion Scott. James was not signed in time for the start of training camp.
The Vikings also have some talent returning on defense. The two best players on defense are holdovers Antoine Winfield at left cornerback and All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams.
Williams is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and is a tad overweight at the start of camp, but he's still one of the best defensive tackle in the league. He's also excited about the new faces that are around him.
"I sat back and looked at every guy we signed and my eyes just got bigger and bigger," Williams said. "I mean it's more of a chance for us to pull our own load on the defensive side for a change, and not have to depend on the offense."
CAMP CALENDAR: Intra-squad scrimmage, 8-9:30 p.m., Aug. 5, Minnesota State, Mankato Stadium; Intra-squad passing scrimmage, 8:30-9:30 p.m., Aug. 9, Minnesota State, Mankato Stadium; Intra-squad passing scrimmage, 8-9:30 p.m., Aug. 16, Minnesota State, Mankato Stadium.