Chiefs-Vikings: Preseason Precursor

The Chiefs and Vikings meet tonight in the first opportunity for each team to test their strengths and weaknesses against a player that isn't a teammate. We examine the questions surrounding each team and how those tender areas stack up against each other.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings have both experienced moderate success in recent years, but new coaching staffs on both teams leave many questions to be answered when they meet up today for a combined practice at the Vikings' training camp facility at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

It has been a few years since there were squabbles between the two teams due to aggressive defensive play from the Vikings, one of which ended in an injury to a Chiefs receiver. But with new taskmasters at the helm of each team, much of the emotions of the past are gone with the focus of today's workouts on the assessing key issues for each team.

The Kansas City Chiefs need to learn quickly if Kyle Turley can indeed play left tackle. In practice thus far, he's given defensive end Jared Allen all he can handle. But today in Mankato, he will be going up against the Vikings' Erasmus James, a first-round pick in 2005 who is expected to have a big year with one season under his belt and more freedom to rush the passer under defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's scheme.

If the Chiefs can solve their problem at left tackle, then they need someone to step up and claim the right tackle spot. Currently, it's a two-man race between second-year pro and NFL Europe standout Will Svitek and third-year pro Kevin Sampson. But applying pressure on that tandem will be 2004 first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze, who is coming off microfracture surgery on his knee last fall and says he's been feeling 100 percent for some time now. With Udeze needing to have a healthy, breakout year, his first test against the Chiefs will be one he needs to pass.

The other parts of the offense seem to be in place for Kansas City, though the team has little experience at wide receiver. Eddie Kennison is the elder statesman, and he reported to camp in the best shape of his career. Training camp wonder Samie Parker has been impressive thus far, but can he take the next step in live action? He's shown bursts but not any real consistency.

Facing them will be a secondary that is far more talented than the one that got under the skins of the Chiefs a few years ago. It is a secondary that has been aggressively hitting in camp all week on their own teammates. This time, a red jersey won't mean they have to stop to protect their own quarterback; instead, it will be a chance to stick a hit on someone other than their own teammate. The Vikings are looking to create a hard-hitting identity in the secondary and have the weapons to do it.

With the Vikings stealing All-Pro fullback Tony Richardson from the Chiefs during free agency, Kansas City is relying on Ronnie Cruz to fill those big shoes. Going up against some live competition will either make the Chiefs feel comfortable or begin the search for another veteran insurance policy.

The big question for the Chiefs will be on defense. With the addition of Ty Law, the secondary is the best it has been since the Marty Schottenheimer era was in high gear in Kansas City. Patrick Surtain and Law are two of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. If they can shut down the secondary and help support the run, this defense has to improve.

The Vikings can only welcome that challenge as they search for an identity to their receiving corps. Koren Robinson is expected to be the No. 1 receiver, but his playing time was limited last year after a bumpy battle with alcoholism last summer. But the Vikings liked what they saw out of him and signed him to a multi-year deal in hopes that his veteran leadership in their new West Coast offense will pay dividends. The Vikings also have to figure out a rotation behind him, with possession receiver Travis Taylor and speedster Troy Williamson both looking for a place in the starting rotation.

In Kansas City's second level of defense is linebacker Kendrell Bell, who is 100 percent healthy, and last year's top pick Derrick Johnson. Johnson was a player many Vikings fans craved at No. 7 when they chose Williamson instead, and Johnson is a year wiser, so that bodes well for the Chiefs as they implement the same Tampa-2 defense as the Vikings.

But the key for Friday's scrimmage will be how effective the Chiefs front four can be against one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Rookie defensive end Tamba Hali has been a man among boys in training camp, and third-year man Jared Allen looks even stronger and faster than he was a year ago.

Still none of that will matter unless nose tackle Ryan Sims and Lional Dalton, who will not scrimmage against the Vikings, can get penetration up the middle. Until that happens, those lingering questions will hang on this team well after they leave Mankato.

On the offensive side of the ball for the Vikings, they need to see running back Chester Taylor in action with their new offense, and they need to see how Brad Johnson's timing is with his receiving corps with the bullets flying.

On defense, it would be good to see nose tackle Pat Williams back in action, but he continued to be conditioning on the side Thursday after failing his pre-camp conditioning test.

It will also be a chance for the Vikings linebackers to try and stake their claim to a starting spot. While Ben Leber is expected to start on the strong side, after that the starters are still trying to establish themselves. For now, Napoleon Harris is starting in the middle and E.J. Henderson on the weak side. If first-rounder Chad Greenway can earn starting role on the weak side, then Henderson could move into the middle to compete for that starting job.

In the secondary, the only question among the starting ranks is who will start at one of the safety spots opposite Darren Sharper. Will it be Dwight Smith, who was acquired days before training camp opened, or will it be Tank Williams, signed during the first wave of free agency?

Fred Smoot and Antione Winfield are the starting cornerbacks, but the nickel back position is a wide-open battle between a number of candidates. At this point, the leaders in that race appear to be second-round draft choice Cedric Griffin and second-year player Dovonte Edwards, who had a role in the nickel and dime defenses at the end of 2005.

Questions abound on both sides of the ball for the Chiefs and Vikings, but this is the time of year those questions start to get answers. Today, the live action is regulated, but it's a precursor to the preseason and the best test since each team's season ended eight months ago.

NOTES

* The practice starts at 6:30 p.m., with teams rotating practice fields. The Vikings will start practicing in Blakeslee Stadium and the Chiefs on a practice field. Then the Vikings offense and Chiefs defense will be in the stadium, and the Chiefs offense and Vikings defense on a practice field. The third session will bring the two teams fully together in the stadium.

* Tickets are available at the entrance for $10. A paid admission means scouts from other teams are allowed to attend, so the teams likely won't go deep into their schematic arsenal.


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