Five keys to improvement in 2007

Five players, all first-round picks by the Vikings, could have a lot to say about how much improvement the Vikings can make from their disappointing 6-10 finish a year ago.

Wouldn’t you be excited if your favorite team had 5 first-round draft picks in one season?

Granted, this is a perspective heavily weighted on the side of optimism.  But consider the productivity this Vikings’ team had going 6-10 last season at several key positions, and then consider the reasonable possibilities for 2007.

Every season there is at least one team that makes a dramatic turnaround.

Last season, it was the New Orleans Saints.  Ignited by the addition of Reggie Bush the Saints went from 3-13 to 10-6.  In 2005, the Chicago Bears improved from 5-11 the previous season to 11-5.  The Carolina Panthers improved from 7-9 to 11-5 in 2005.  In 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers improved from 6-10 to 15-1.  It happens every year.

The Vikings’ five most recent first-round draft picks, for various reasons, were largely unproductive in 2006.  If things come together, that could change dramatically in 2007.

These five players could be the key to improvement in the upcoming season:

RB Adrian Peterson (2007)

The Vikings got terrific production out of Chester Taylor last season.  Taylor racked up 1,504 total yards from scrimmage (1,216 rushing; 288 receiving).  But the load was a bit too much and he wore down a bit late in the season.  The Vikings got good productivity from Artose Pinner, Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason in spots, but none offered consistent excitement or Taylor’s reliability.

Peterson, of course, was in college.  So the Vikings got zero production from him last season.  But the apt comparison is probably the situation in New Orleans last year, where Sean Payton found a way to utilize BOTH Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush effectively.  McAllister put up 244-1057-10 (4.3 avg.) rushing and 30-198-0 (6.6 avg.) receiving.  Bush added 155-565-6 (3.6 avg.) rushing and 88-742-2 (8.4 avg.) receiving.  Together they accounted for 2,562 yards from scrimmage.

Like the McAllister-Bush combination in New Orleans, the Taylor-Peterson duo are multi-purpose backs from scrimmage and catching the ball out of the backfield.  A combined 2,500 yards or more from scrimmage from Taylor and Peterson is not that big a stretch.

LB Chad Greenway (2006)

Greenway blew out his knee in his first preseason game last season.  He spent the entire season on injured reserve.  Production in 2006?  Like Peterson, zero.

By all accounts, Greenway is ready to step in and contribute like a first-round pick at weakside linebacker for the Vikings this season.  He has shown no ill affects from the knee injury and has more familiarity with the system and his environment than a true rookie would.

Playing in the “featured” Will linebacker spot in this defense last season, E.J. Henderson had a breakout season with 109 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries.  With no disrespect to E.J., Greenway is every bit the athlete and physical specimen and should do nothing but excel in the Vikings’ defense as long as he stays healthy.

WR Troy Williamson (2005)

Williamson had a horrible season hanging onto the ball last season.  He still caught a respectable 37 passes for 455 yards (12.3 avg.) but was coach-killing inconsistent.  It didn’t help that he had a quarterback (Brad Johnson)who could not get him the ball downfield, but even when he did (Tarvaris Jackson), Williamson looked like a guy with some sort of vision or depth-perception problem.

All indications are that Williamson has discovered the source of a vision problem and appears to have gradually re-established his confidence.  The kid never had bad hands and showed in college and as a rookie that he can pluck the ball, but the drops completely destroyed his confidence.

If he can sustain the confidence and refine his game under the veteran coaching of receivers coach George Stewart, T-Will could finally have that breakthrough season.  He’s an incredible talent with rare speed.

DE Erasmus James (2005)

As a true rookie, James got off to a slow start after holding out coming into training camp.  He earned a starting role for final 9 games ranking 5th among all NFL rookies and 2nd among linemen with 4.0 sacks on the season.  Not spectacular, but okay with flashes of potential.

He entered 2006 as the starter at RDE.  He had 4 quarterback hurries in the season opener (vs. Washington), another 3 QB hurries against Carolina, and recorded 4 tackles before tearing up his knee and missing the rest of the season.

A healthy Erasmus James is capable of being a double-digit sack guy in the Vikings’ defensive scheme.  If he can come all the way back, he could provide dramatic pass-rush improvement off the edge in 2007.

DE Keneche Udeze (2004)

As a true rookie in 2004, Kenechi Udeze had 5 sacks.  His sophomore campaign (2005) in Minnesota was essentially wiped out by a knee injury.  Last season, he started 15-of-16 games and led the Vikings with 13 tackles-for-loss, was second on the team with 41 quarterback hurries and was stout against the run.  However, zero sacks.  Zero.

In college, where they don’t play 16 games, Udeze had 7.5 sacks (in 2002) and 16.5 sacks (in 2003) in his two full seasons as a starter at USC.  Udeze is not incapable of being an effective pass rusher.  In fact, it should ultimately be one of his strengths.  He was close at least a half-dozen times last year, yet was unable to close the deal.

Given his work ethic, intensity and natural ability, Udeze should at least match his rookie numbers, and like James is very capable of developing into a double-digit sack guy.

Will all five players step up and have true first-rounder impact for the Vikings in 2007?  Maybe not, but the likelihood of increased productivity over 2006 is very, very likely.  And even if two or three emerge as impact players it will make a big, big difference.  Perhaps the difference between 6-10 and 10-6 (or better)?

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