Brad Childress, Rick Spielman, Scott Studwell and the rest of the Vikings' personnel evaluators will be combing the countryside for college talent and burying themselves in film rooms at Winter Park looking for free-agent players that can help the team improve from its 10-6 season and first division title since 2000.
Inevitably, the Vikings will add a few players in free agency and the draft, but judging by the comments from most of the current players, consistency may be more important than wholesale changes.
"I think it's got to be consistency on both sides of the ball," said linebacker Ben Leber in response to the oft-asked question about what needs to happen to take the next step in the playoffs next season. "Defensively, as well as we played (against the Eagles), we can't give up big plays that hurt us. And, offensively, I think the overriding tone is probably turnovers and just missed opportunities on offense. And I guess we can't forget about the special teams. … We broke the record for touchdowns returned on us. All of those little things just add up to where we are at this point in the season."
Linebacker Chad Greenway, the team's leading tackler, echoed the sentiments of Leber.
"You can tell we're not very far away. It's not like we have to do a big thing and take a giant step. We just have to have a level of consistency. Not starting 1-3 would help," Greenway said. "Obviously we understand how important it was to have home-field advantage and we didn't take advantage of it. To get those home games, I think that's going to be a focus next year. It's going to be a tough season; they're all tough. We want to be put in a position where we can win tight games so we can possibly get home-field throughout like the Giants have. We just have to continue to get better. It will be another year in the system and that should make everybody play faster and be better."
Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who has lobbied for player acquisitions in the past, feels like the team now has the talent assembled. At this point, it might come down to simply getting that talent to execute the schemes a little better.
"We have the players on this team right now to go to the Super Bowl and win it, but it's all about putting it out on the field," said the first-time Pro Bowl cornerback. "If we continue to go out there and play hard and make more plays, we'll be there."
Another Pro Bowler, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, said the team is making progress.
"Definitely encouraged. I think we won some of those close games that in the past that we have lost and it helped us out this year. We still left a couple of close games out there this year, but for the most part we seized the moment and won those close games and did not fold," he said.
All of that said, the Vikings will no doubt consider their options in the free-agent market. One of their own free agents is safety Darren Sharper, who believes the team can improve its depth.
"You always want to get your depth a little bit better," he said. "You always want to add more playmakers. You always want to get more solid in every phase of the game. So you always look at every aspect, every player and always try to upgrade. That's what every organization does and I truly believe that's what we'll do here."
But improvement from within seemed to be the overriding message of the players to the media at the end of the season. Some of that is expected to come from players gaining another year of experience in the Tampa-2 defense and West Coast offense the Vikings will employ for a fourth straight season. Some of the upgrades will come in getting injured players back on special teams (if Heath Farwell re-signs with Minnesota) and defense with linebacker E.J. Henderson.
"I think we definitely took a great step. We captured the NFC North that we set for ourselves as a team goal. We just have to continue to grow and keep improving," said defensive end Ray Edwards. "Definitely getting E.J. back. Me myself keep playing at a consistent basis. I felt I let my team down a couple of times this year during games. Not playing at a very high rate, not getting sack production like I should have been getting."
While the team made progress from its 8-8 record of 2007 to 10-6 in 2008, winning the division title and getting into the playoffs, Williams said there was a feeling of unfulfilled opportunities.
"We're definitely not satisfied. We had our chances to win the (playoff) game and we kind of let them off the hook. … That's kind of a big and hard pill to swallow, but we have to take the positive and rebuild," he said. "We just have got to take care of what we can control out there and not allow those big plays that sometimes we (gave up) during the season."
The danger, of course, is that simply waiting for the current group of players to continue their progression might allow the window of opportunity close on some of the longtime veterans like Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield, who experienced the first division title of their careers this year.
"We have a great opportunity," Winfield said. "A lot of players, like you said, are going to come back. It always helps with another year under their belt with experience, so we'll see what happens in this offseason."
What do Vikings need? Players comment
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