Star Draft Power

The Vikings' top selection in each of the past five drafts are all starters, or even stars, on the present team. It's a testament to recent drafts and the potential this team has with its nucleus.

The jury might still be out to a certain degree, but it looks at this point as if the Vikings now have a five-year streak of successful first-round draft picks around which the nucleus of the team's future success will be built.

In fact, from 1998 to 2002 the team has connected solidly with their (early) first-round picks. Granted, there's the first-round fiasco that was Dimitrius Underwood with their 1-B pick in 1998, but they are five-for-five on the rest during that span.

As much hype and excitement that goes with the NFL draft each spring, it's much more an art form than an exact science. No matter where a team picks — early, middle or late in the first round — it is a significant accomplishment to connect the way the Vikings have the past five years with their top picks.

Bennett arrives
One productive season does not a career make, but second-year running back Michael Bennett has really hit his stride as Robert Smith's successor for the Vikings.

"Michael has run very, very well," head coach Mike Tice said recently. "Mike is … squaring his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and really finishing plays well. He's really in a good rhythm right now and his confidence level is very high."

Bennett has proven to be exactly what the Vikings envisioned when Dennis Green tabbed him with the team's first-round pick in the 2001 NFL draft — a home run threat from the line of scrimmage anytime he touches the ball.

There have been numerous comparisons of Bennett to Smith since the former became a Viking. While their styles are different, the results they produce are very similar. Like Smith, Bennett has established himself as perhaps the premier long-distance threat as a runner from the line of scrimmage.

Providing he can avoid long-term injuries, it's probably just a matter of time before Bennett surpasses many of Smith's marks in the team's record book.

He also appears destined for a Pro Bowl appearance in just his second pro season, offering a key cornerstone in the team's rebuilding process to return to playoff contention once again.

McKinnie a fixture
Perhaps one of the most amazing attributes of the team's top pick this season, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, was how he had never given up a quarterback sack — not in junior college at Lackawanna Junior College in Pennsylvania and not in two seasons for the National Champion Miami Hurricanes.

Well, that streak quickly went by the wayside for McKinnie since being thrown to the wolves after ending his lengthy contract holdout that lasted well into the regular season.

At times, quite frankly, he's looked like a guy who missed all of training camp and nearly 100 days in all. But he's also shown flashes of being every bit the fixture at the all-important left tackle position for years and years to come.

Despite the struggles he has had, Tice remains extremely high on McKinnie.

"He's our best pass protector, without a doubt," Tice said.

But he can still get better, much better.

"He has a ways to go in the run game to learn about leverage and finishing," Tice added. "Where his problem lies is when the play is away from him, when the play is on the other side and cutting the guys off. That is where he needs to improve right now."

But the work to round out his game continues its crash course. "We're doing a lot of things with him now in the two-point stance because he's missed so much fundamental work and technique work, but without a doubt he's the best pass protector we have," Tice said.

That's lofty praise and a real tribute to McKinnie, especially considering how long he's been here.

Quickness of 99
Hovan, Hovan, Hovan.

That was the cry from owner Red McCombs when the Vikings were on the clock as they turned in their card to select Boston College defensive tackle Chris Hovan with their top pick in 2000.

With a little better supporting cast and a little more team success and recognition, Hovan is on the verge of a perennial run at the Pro Bowl.

Super-quick off the ball, Hovan's intensity and relentless style of play make him virtually unblockable one-on-one. In his third pro season, he's emerged as the true nucleus on defense and a player around which the rest of the unit will eventually be built.

Daunte's peak?
Daunte Culpepper looked lost as a rookie in preseason. He totally exceeded expectations in his second year and earned Pro Bowl honors. He struggled at times and got hurt last year. He struggled mightily earlier this season but has bounced back like the high-character individual that he is and has generally played good, solid football of late.

People are quick to bail on the starting quarterback's bandwagon when things don't go well, but Culpepper remains a quarterback around which this team can build. He has all the physical tools, he'll work hard, and the adversity he's endured will only make him better in the long run.

The best is yet to come.

Moss still the big dog
Yeah, he's had his share of controversy and he hasn't always been a model citizen in terms of his maturity. But keeping things in a football perspective, the guy has put up Pro Bowl productivity in each and every one of his five professional seasons. He has done this despite the fact that no single player in the league commands more attention from opposing defensive coordinators when scheming how to slow down the Vikings' offensive attack.

Tice's "Randy Ratio" was a philosophical bust, but the concept of getting the ball into Moss' hands as often as possible remains a high priority.

Why? Because he makes big plays and is as explosive a weapon the league has ever seen from the wide receiver position.

Record speaks for itself
How does the Vikings' five-for-five record with their top picks over the past five years compare to other teams around the league?

In some cases, trades have eliminated teams from having consistent No. 1 picks. In other cases, free agency has cost them relatively successful picks as long-term contributors.

Dwayne Rudd (No. 1 in 1997), Duane Clemons (No. 1 in 1996), Dewayne Washington (No. 1 in 1994) and Todd Steussie (also No. 1 in 1994) fall into that category for the Vikings.

But if those guys would have completely lived up to expectations, they wouldn't have been allowed to sign elsewhere.

There are numerous full-blown busts to report — Andre Wadsworth (third overall by Arizona in 1998), Curtis Enis (fifth overall by Chicago in 1998), Cade McNown (12th overall by Chicago in 1999), Jason Peter (14th overall by Carolina in 1998), Reggie McGrew (24th overall by San Francisco in 1999), Erik Flowers (26th overall by Buffalo in 2000), and there are numerous others.

Only a handful of teams even have all five No. 1 picks from the last five seasons still on their roster. None have done better.

In McKinnie, Bennett, Hovan, Culpepper and Moss, the Vikings have gone five-for-five in adding proven, current or future Pro Bowl-caliber talent. All five are current starters, all five are playing critical roles, and all five are performing at or near a very high level.

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