Keeping It Together: Offense

While the Vikings prepare to open training camp with the majority of their 2002 team in place, we take a look at the length of their contracts and what it might tell us about the future personnel of the offense.

Note: On July 9, we took a look at the future of the offensive line. One of the changes we mentioned for the future is already in the experimental stages, with Lewis Kelly getting a shot at the starting right tackle spot. Because we already looked at the offensive line in that story, we'll concentrate on the other offensive positions here.

The Vikings offense was the best in league history in 1998, scoring an unprecedented 556 points. But that was then, this is now. In 2001, the Vikings offense scored only 290 points, yet many believe the formula for long-term success is coming together quickly.

So if the Vikings can recreate the magic of 1998 on offense in 2002, will they be able to keep this unit together long-term? The salary-cap situation says it is likely that will happen, with more than $20 million in cap space next year.

In addition, the team already has many of their top offensive players under contract for the next two to three years, some much further into the future.

The players with the contracts extending furthest out are also the players most would consider the stars of the team. Randy Moss, who led the 1998 offense in his rookie year, is signed through 2008, as is center Matt Birk, the foundation of the offensive line.

This off-season also helped ensure that Moss will have quality receivers opposite him for years to come. After the departure/retirement of Cris Carter, Moss has appeared to take on more of a leadership role and can finally be the veteran starter in the receiving corps. He also has a new offensive coordinator he says he is excited to work with in Scott Linehan.

And the additions to the receiving corps are no slouches, either. Head coach Mike Tice made no secret of his desire to obtain speed opposite Moss, and Tice got it when he and Vikings management were finally able to sign Chiefs free-agent receiver Derrick Alexander to a three-year contract. That move should give the Vikings two solid starters at receiver through the 2004 season.

It doesn't end there. Before Alexander was signed, restricted free agent D'Wayne Bates joined the team (actually twice, but that's another story). Bates had a chance to secure a starting spot until Alexander signed; either way, he looked like a quality addition in spring practices and is signed through 2004 as well.

Behind Moss, Alexander and Bates are Cedric James (signed through 2003) and Chris Walsh (who signed a one-year contract this off-season).

The tight end situation is nearly as good, if not as certain in the long term. Byron Chamberlain, who had a career best year in 2001, re-signed after a short foray into the free-agent market. Eventually, the Vikings inked him through the 2005 season, all but ensuring they have their top pass-catching tight end for years to come.

While Chamberlain is the main pass-catching threat at tight end, Jim Kleinsasser is expected to be a valuable asset to Linehan's multiple-set offense. He will be used mainly as a blocking tight end, but look for him to motion often and move to a blocking back on occasion. It is a contract year for Kleinsasser, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

At running back, Michael Bennett is entering the second of his four-year contract, and the Vikings are hoping to build on the momentum he appeared to gain at the end of 2001. But this is also a position where depth is uncertain. Moe Williams, under contract for only this season, is expected to be the primary backup, with Doug Chapman (a free agent after this season) and rookie James Wofford (signed through 2003) fighting for carries at the No. 3 running back.

Finally, the big question mark of the future — quarterback Daunte Culpepper. He is signed through 2003, but the Vikings likely won't wait too much longer before broaching the topic of a contract extension. He has proven ability and may only need to show that he is fully recovered from late-season surgery and able to return to form behind a better and more established offensive line.

Backup QB Todd Bouman showed flashes of brilliance in a short relief role last year before he, too, joined Culpepper on the sideline with injuries. Bouman's contract also runs through 2003, so it will be an interesting quarterback signing period whenever the Vikings decide the time has come to pay the signal-callers.

If the 2002 offense shows what some insiders believe it is capable of under the direction of Linehan, the future is very bright for the Vikings' scoring ability. The receivers appear to be in place for years to come, and the quarterbacks and starting running back, while somewhat uncertain, are intact for two more seasons of growth.

In six weeks, we'll begin to find out how good this young combination of talent can be with a fresh start to a new regular season.

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