QUARTERBACK: Starter - Brad Johnson. Backups - Brooks Bollinger, Tarvaris Jackson.
Johnson stepped in for an injured Daunte Culpepper last season and led the Vikings to a 7-2 finish that enabled the team to finish above .500. This season he is being counted on to ease the transition to the West Coast offense - a system Johnson excelled in while leading Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title. Johnson rarely makes mistakes and is an excellent game manager, meaning he should fit right in to coach Brad Childress' system. Staying healthy will be the key for the soon-to-be 38-year old. Mike McMahon had a terrible camp and Jackson is only a rookie from Division I-AA Alabama State, so Brooks Bollinger was acquired from the New York Jets.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Chester Taylor, FB Tony Richardson. Backups - RB Ciatrick Fason, RB Mewelde Moore, RB Artose Pinner.
Taylor left Baltimore after four seasons to sign as a free agent with the Vikings and get the opportunity to step into a starting role for the first time in his five-year career. Richardson, who left Kansas City to sign with the Vikings, will be Taylor's lead blocker. Both players are good at the physical game and will be willing to run over people to get yards. Fason was used in short-yardage situations as a rookie but has passed Moore on the depth chart and should start the season as the first option off the bench. Fason has good size (6 feet) but surprised the coaching staff with his moves. Moore, slowed by a knee injury in the preseason, needs to prove he can stay healthy or Childress and Co. are going to lose confidence in him quick. Pinner was added over the weekend and could vie for the No. 2 role once he gets comfortable with the offense.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Jermaine Wiggins. Backups - Jim Kleinsasser, Richard Owens, Jeff Dugan.
Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell both admit they have been impressed with Wiggins' ability to get the job done. Wiggins doesn't look very good doing it, but the guy can flat out catch the football and should be a good fit for the quick rhythm, short-passing West Coast system. Kleinsasser is a top-notch blocker and also could find himself being used in the passing game more. Childress and Bevell have made it clear they want the tight ends to be capable of both blocking and receiving.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor. Backups - Marcus Robinson, Todd Pinkston, Billy McMullen.
The seventh-overall pick in the NFL draft last year, Troy Williamson appears to be putting things together both physically and mentally. Williamson has great speed and is really the only consistent big-play vertical threat the Vikings will have this season. Not that the vertical game will be a big part of this offense, but the threat will help keep defenses honest. Taylor and Robinson are veterans who should be good fits. Taylor isn't afraid to go over the middle on short routes and take big hits; Robinson has played in the West Coast offense before and his ability to go up and get the ball in the end zone is a definite plus. Pinkston was signed over the weekend to add another deep threat and shouldn't take long to acclimate himself to the offense, the same one that head coach Brad Childress coordinated in Philadelphia. McMullen is another Philly product that was acquired from the Eagles for rookie free agent Hank Baskett, who had an outstanding training camp for Philadelphia. The Vikings likely will regret that move because McMullen has done little to stand out.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Steve Hutchinson, C Matt Birk, RG Artis Hicks, RT Marcus Johnson. Backups - C Jason Whittle, T Mike Rosenthal, G Anthony Herrera, G Steve Edwards, T Ryan Cook.
This unit was expected to be a strength, but there has been concern because of Hicks' and Johnson's play in the preseason. Hicks, who came over from Philadelphia in a trade, is making the move from the left to the right side of the line; Johnson, entering his second season, continues to learn and might not be ready to move into this role. He struggled with needless penalties as a rookie and has done the same at times in the exhibition season. Birk returns after a one-year absence because of injury and appears to be rounding back into to his Pro Bowl form. Hutchinson received a $16 million signing bonus - a record for a guard - and will be counted on to combine with McKinnie in opening up some big holes for Taylor. McKinnie appears on the verge of turning into an elite left tackle. Whittle, Rosenthal and Herrera are all solid backups - Rosenthal and Herrera are former starters for the Vikings - but Cook is light years away from being ready. The Vikings, though, aren't about to let go of a guy they took in the second round with the pick obtained in the Daunte Culpepper trade. Edwards was signed Monday after being released by Chicago.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Kenechi Udeze, UT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Erasmus James. Backups - LE Darrion Scott, UT Spencer Johnson, NT Ross Kolodziej, RE Ray Edwards.
This unit will be counted on to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks without a whole lot of blitzing help. Udeze and James have looked good in the preseason. Both lost weight in the offseason and appear ready to prove they were worthy of being first-round picks. Pat Williams is coming off an outstanding season but he began training camp on the physically unable to perform list because Childress wasn't happy with his conditioning. Kevin Williams must return to his Pro Bowl form of two years ago if the line is to perform to its maximum potential; he was coming off knee surgery last season and struggled with his conditioning. Scott stepped in last season with Udeze injured and proved he is capable of making a contribution. Johnson and Kolodziek are both veterans who can be counted on. Edwards, a rookie from Purdue, had a good preseason but will be learning on the job.
LINEBACKER: Starters - SLB Ben Leber, MLB Napoleon Harris, WLB E.J. Henderson. Backups - MLB Dontarrious Thomas, WLB Heath Farwell, OLB Jason Glenn.
Henderson is the key guy in this unit, playing the weak-side role in the Tampa-2. That is the job that Derrick Brooks has perfected with the Buccaneers. Harris, who had a disappointing 2005, is going to need to prove he can drop back into coverage and make the right reads and decisions. Thomas could get a look off the bench if Harris struggles. Thomas certainly has athletic ability but his instincts are questionable. Leber left San Diego to sign with the Vikings and seems to be fitting into the scheme. Farwell had an outstanding camp after moving up the depth chart following Chad Greenway's season-ending knee injury.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Fred Smoot, SS Darren Sharper, FS Dwight Smith. Backups - LCB Cedric Griffin, RCB Ronyell Whitaker, SS Greg Blue, FS Will Hunter, S Rashad Baker.
This area should be a strength for the Vikings with four veterans. Smoot is going to need to prove that last season's disappointment was a fluke and he was worth the free-agent money the Vikings paid him in March 2005. Sharper was a standout in 2005, finishing with a team-leading nine interceptions. In the Tampa-2, Sharper and Smith will have interchangeable roles but look for the former to remain the playmaker. Winfield is Mr. Consistent and playing in a defense that asks the corners to be physical is perfect for him. This system also calls for the linebackers and defensive backs to keep their eyes on the quarterback, so there should be plenty of interceptions. Griffin and Dovonte Edwards had battled for the nickel job, but after Edwards' season-ending broken arm, it's expected to be a battle between Griffin and Whitaker. Blue and Hunter are both big hitters and figure to contribute on special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Williamson, PR Moore.
Longwell got a $3 million signing bonus to leave Green Bay and join the Vikings' arch-rival. That gives the Vikings some stability at a position that continually seemed to have turnover under former coach Mike Tice. Kluwe, picked up off waivers from Seattle right before last season, has recovered from surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament and easily beat out rookie free agent John Torp for the job. New special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro wants Kluwe to punt directionally, so he has been working on that throughout the exhibition season. Kluwe also will hold for Longwell. The return jobs are still open as the season approaches. When healthy, Moore is expected to be punt returner, as he was last season. Williamson could be the kick returner, but the team is still searching for a definitive answer there.
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