Keys To New-Look Vikings' Season

The offense has a new look without Randy Moss and the defense had and extreme makeover with five new starters. We look at the keys to the season and the key players to watch early on.

Randy Moss' absence means that without question this is quarterback Daunte Culpepper's team. Culpepper, coming off an MVP-type season in which he set an NFL record for most combined passing-rushing yardage in a season (5,123), seems to be relishing the role both on the field and in the locker room. While Moss' ability to change a game in the blink of an eye will be missed, Culpepper still has very capable receivers.

Nate Burleson, who caught 68 passes for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004, likely will be Culpepper's favorite target, but the quarterback also will look to get the ball to Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor and top pick Troy Williamson. Taylor, a free-agent signee from Baltimore, looked impressive in the preseason and moved ahead of Robinson on the depth chart.

For the first time in recent years, Vikings fans shouldn't have to cover their eyes when the defense takes the field. Five starters were added during the offseason in an attempt to improve a unit that ranked 28th in the NFL last season.

The additions include 317-pound nose tackle Pat Williams (Buffalo), linebackers Sam Cowart (New York Jets) and Napoleon Harris (Oakland), cornerback Fred Smoot (Washington) and free safety Darren Sharper (Green Bay).

Smoot played in only one preseason game because of a knee injury but all five veterans are expected to be on the field for the season-opener against Tampa Bay.

The first-team defense didn't look completely in synch during the preseason but much of that was attributed to the fact the players needed time to jell and the scheme played by coordinator Ted Cottrell was as vanilla as possible so opponents couldn't get a jump start on scouting.


In the post-Moss era, the Vikings say they will be committed to running the ball, as well as throwing it. It will be essential for them to have success in this area. Michael Bennett enters the season as the No. 1 running back but his injury history, which includes two preseason games missed this summer because of a strained neck, makes it difficult to believe he can get through a 16-game schedule. If Bennett goes down, Mewelde Moore will be expected to carry the load.

Defense has been the Vikings' Achilles' in recent seasons, but after spending some money in the offseason this group should be much improved. Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams and big Pat Williams should help stop the run and a secondary with Smoot and Antoine Winfield at the corners is expected to make life difficult on receivers.

Kicker Paul Edinger, a free-agent acquisition from the Chicago Bears, must prove his sub-par 2004 (a career-low 62.5 field-goal percentage) was an aberration. Kicking in the controlled environment of the Metrodome and not in the swirling winds of Soldier Field should help.


RB Michael Bennett: There should be plenty of motivation here. Bennett, entering the final season of his contract, has been declared the No. 1 running back and should get plenty of carries in an offense that plans to feature both the run and the pass. However, he most prove he can overcome an injury bug that caused him to miss 13 games over the past two seasons and continued this preseason when a strained neck forced him to sit out two games.

WR Nate Burleson: Coming off an impressive second season (68 catches, 1,006 yards, nine touchdowns), the receiver looked outstanding in training camp and appears ready to assume the role of a No. 1 receiver.

LB Sam Cowart: Eight-year veteran was obtained in trade from New York Jets with expectation he can anchor the middle and provide leadership. E.J. Henderson, now the starter on the weak side, struggled in that role last season, leading to numerous breakdowns.

CB Fred Smoot: Struggled to stay healthy in the preseason — he missed three of the four games — his ability to stay on the field will be instrumental to the Vikings' success. He and Antoine Winfield should give the Vikings their best cornerback tandem in recent memory.

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