Building Blocks Still There

An 0-4 start isn't the way to convince fans that greatness lies ahead, but the Vikings really do offer a number of solid reasons for hope — even on defense.

Despite an overwhelming amount of distractions of late, the nucleus for very strong, very competitive football does exist in Minnesota.

Players can say that off-the-field distractions don't matter to them and that they still have their job to do, but anything that takes focus away from the common goal is certainly not helpful.

The tragic death of Rakiva Kelly, the Randy Moss fiasco, the Bryant McKinnie situation, the rumored sale of the team — not exactly the type of off-field issues you'd like to heap on a team trying to rebound from a 5-11 season.

Still, if you can see through all the garbage of the pre-bye week season there exists a nucleus around which this team can be built. To cut to the chase, all this team needs is another offensive lineman, at least one linebacker and maybe three defensive backs.

You might laugh, because that's like saying they're only about five or six players away. But here's the point: A year ago they were further off than that, and entering free agency 2003 the Vikings are expected to be about $30 million under the salary cap.

They might have had more experience on the field, but they still lacked the horses to truly compete. Head coach Mike Tice is taking the lumps for cutting the cord on a slew of veterans that made for bad team chemistry and ultimately never won the big one.

It might not look like it, but the opinion here is that this franchise is heading in the right direction.

Obviously, the ownership situation needs to be resolved. And ultimately the stadium issue. But the team is sitting pretty in terms of their salary cap situation heading into the future. They've bitten the bullet on their past mistakes and now look ahead with a clean slate in that regard.

Quarterback Daunte Culpepper has had his ups and downs, but unlike some of his former teammates and at least one obvious current teammate, he has shown not only a competitive fire but also a lot of character in adversity. He is a quality talent and a quality person around which this team is built.

Randy Ratio, Schmandy Ratio. This is Culpepper's team, not Moss'. The quarterback is the real leader, not Moss. Culpepper has the talent for it and he has the character for it; Moss does not.

The main thing Culpepper needs is stability once again on the offensive line. Despite all the tree peeing from both parties, the jury is in on the impact of the Bryant McKinnie holdout. It has devastated this team's ability to compete early in the season.

With McKinnie, the offensive line is dramatically improved in due time. McKinnie will learn the ropes and make some mistakes, but he will be a All-Pro type fixture at left tackle for about as long as his team can keep paying him, which for a good left tackle in the NFL is normally 10-15 years.

McKinnie at left tackle would enable Lewis Kelly to move to right tackle, which would enable Chris Liwienski to move to left guard.

That upgrades the offensive line at three positions.

McKinnie over Kelly as a left tackle, in that McKinnie is quite simply a rare and gifted athlete. Kelly is more a natural athlete for tackle than Liwienski. At right tackle, Kelly would face less pressure from premier pass rushers than he would on the left side.

Liwienski is a solid, over-achieving right tackle. But he'd be an even better guard, where any athletic limitations he has would be for the most part hidden.

That's Tice's dream line, from left to right: McKinnie, Liwienski, Matt Birk, Dave Dixon and Kelly. Experienced depth from Corbin Lacina, Everett Lindsay and Cory Withrow. Always a prospect or two being developed on the practice squad. Solid.

Even without McKinnie in, these guys have shown they can run block. It's the pass-protection breakdowns that have led to Culpepper's inconsistencies. If he has time to pick apart defenses, he has more than enough weapons to do so.

The owner has saved himself some money, but it has hurt the team on the field. Getting McKinnie in addresses their needs on offense. They've got the horses everywhere else.

Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Doug Chapman are a solid trio at running back. Each brings a little different style, but all three are capable of posting 100-yard productivity on any given Sunday when the blocking is there and the game plan allows for it. Tice also likes James Wofford, who hasn't played but has survived numerous roster trimmings this season.

Moss, Derrick Alexander, D'Wayne Bates and Chris Walsh are fine at wide receiver. Yes, Moss and Alexander have dropped some balls, but that's not a long-term problem. And they're developing some younger guys in Cedric James and Kelly Campbell.

A healthy Jim Kleinsasser is a Pro Bowl tight end. He's a devastating blocker at the point of attack, a capable pass catcher and a big-time load to bring down after the catch. Byron Chamberlain is an excellent pass-catching tight end, a capable blocker, a good team guy and also a Pro Bowl producer when he's healthy. Hunter Goodwin is a solid blocking tight end, and Tice seems to like Shawn Draper as a blocker as well.

The real player personnel deficiency is on defense. The nucleus is there, but there are still many holes to fill. Coaching can only do so much. Willie Shaw eventually needs more quality players.

But note this: They seem to like many of the players they have. It's just that they don't have enough really great ones.

In Kenny Mixon, Chris Hovan, Fred Robbins, Lance Johnstone, Lorenzo Bromell, Chuck Wiley, Talance Sawyer (when healthy) and Darius Holland, they have a solid defensive line. You'd always add another blue-chip defensive lineman if you could, but they can win with these guys.

At linebacker, Greg Biekert was a terrific addition. He alone hasn't turned their run defense around, but he alone can't.

Henri Crockett, who's recovering from an arm injury, is the only other proven, legitimate starter.

Patrick Chukwurah, Nick Rogers and Antonio Wilson all offer potential but are all still very green. Tice might be finding out what Denny Green concluded about Chukwurah — that he lacks the instincts for linebacker and needs to be a situational pass rusher. Quite frankly, he's just a lot, lot better going forward and attacking the ball than trying to read, react and pursue. Rogers appears to have a future at one of three linebacker spots, but the conversion from being a down end in college might take some time. He just needs some seasoning and perhaps some mentoring from Biekert. Rogers has spent time at all three linebacker spots now and appears slated to work mostly on the strong side the rest of this season. Wilson is a great athlete who makes some plays, but the rap on him is that he's not physical enough and that too many of those plays are downfield.

Chukwurah, Rogers and Wilson are all good prospects. Unfortunately, they are forced to start these guys. If one of them truly develops, great, but for now we are seeing the growing pains.

Lemanski Hall and Jim Nelson are solid players and good special teams performers, but neither are what you're looking for over the long haul as a starter.

Rookie Raonall Smith is out for the year with a shoulder injury but showed Dwayne Rudd-type promise before going down.

In the secondary, Corey Chavous is the best of the lot, and that's the problem. Everybody else is either a journeyman veteran (Ronnie Bradford), a solid backup-type (Tyrone Carter and Jason Perry) or a still-learning-on-the-job prospect (Willie Offord, Brian Williams, Eric Kelly, Jack Brewer, Brian Russell and Carey Scott).

Maybe one, two, or even three of these prospects emerge and prove themselves to be a long-term solution here, but right now they're about as effective as the 2000 Minnesota Twins — a great bunch of players learning and growing together, but on a team that went 69-93.

That's the bottom-line on the 2002 Minnesota Vikings, in this observer's opinion.

Tice has done a nice job of cleaning out the locker room of the poisonous influences and clubhouse lawyers. He's got one loose cannon in his most talented player, but he's got strong character, genuine leaders in Culpepper, Birk, Mixon, Hovan, Biekert, Chavous and company around which to build.

Tice is s trying to develop the young guys who in most cases are being thrown to the wolves too soon because they don't have anyone better right now. Some will develop and some won't. But on the whole, it's a pretty good bunch of guys. They work hard, they play hard, they don't give up. They're a lot like the Twins were just a couple years ago.

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