Newman Coming To Play

While the starting strongside linebacker spot has been given to Napoleon Harris for now, Keith Newman isn't giving up hope of proving his consistency has starting value.

During a somewhat chaotic season for the Vikings at linebacker last year, Keith Newman was a sea of calmness. The state of the Vikings at linebacker has been downgraded from chaotic in 2004 to just a slight concern in 2005. Yet there Newman is in training camp still maintaining his role of quiet consistency.

Last year, thanks to a combination platter of injuries and inconsistent play, the Vikings shuffled around their lineup of linebackers on practically a game-to-game basis as if they were playing the shell game.

Gone from that group are Chris Claiborne and Mike Nattiel. The Vikings upgraded at the position in the offseason by trading for Sam Cowart of the New York Jets and landing Napoleon Harris from Oakland as part of the Randy Moss trade. Neither has caused jaws to drop so far, but both have done enough in training camp to hold their starting positions – Harris on the strong side, Cowart in the middle.

But heading into Friday's game against the New York Jets, E.J. Henderson has been moved from backup at middle to starter on the weak side; Dontarrious Thomas has been demoted from starter to Henderson's backup; Raonall Smith has been demoted from second-team weak to third-team at strong; and Rod Davis has been moved from third-team strong to second-team middle.

Meanwhile, there is Newman, who next to Harris and Cowart, is the only player to remain in the role he owned entering camp.

"I think I've done a fairly good job in camp," said Newman, who backs up Harris on the strong side. "I know Sam and Nap have been added to the group, but I want to make sure I'm doing what I can to be on the field with those guys."

In his first season as a Viking last fall it didn't appear that Newman would play more than a backup role. But with Henderson and Thomas struggling at times, Newman often filled in. By the end of the season he was considered one of the defense's most consistent players. He finished the year with 71 tackles.

Thanks to loose pockets during free agency, the Vikings underwent an overhaul at several positions on defense. While the team signed a defensive tackle (Pat Williams), a cornerback (Fred Smoot) and a safety (Darren Sharper), no single unit received more than one starting player — except for linebacker.

"Any time you can add two guys to your group of their caliber, you always welcome that," said Newman, even though the addition of Harris will affect his playing time. "I welcome the competition and the chance to go out there and compete. (Mike) Tice says he will put the top three players on the field and I want to be one of the top three."

Like any NFL coach, Tice is guilty of occasionally turning up the rhetoric to reporters to motivate his players. That could be the case here, since speed is needed at weakside linebacker. While Henderson and Thomas are guilty of making too many mistakes last season, their speed is enough of an asset to keep them on the field.

With Cowart and Harris — and Newman — maybe the younger linebackers will finally find a comfort zone that has been missing in recent years.

Vikings coaches agree it is a good thing Newman has already found that comfort zone.

"Keith's having a great camp," Tice said. "He really does not want to relinquish that starting job, even though it's kind of been — up to this point — given to Napoleon. It's going to be exciting to see who's the most consistent player, not only as far as playmaking, but also with the effort and enthusiasm and passion. And Keith is coming to play."

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