The Vikings begin their home schedule for the 2009 season against the Kansas City Chiefs, a second team this preseason that is starting over with a new coaching staff and a lot of new personnel. As the Vikings attempt to set a tempo heading into the regular season and return the focus to the job at hand rather than the Brett Favre media circus, the Chiefs may be an ideal opponent for the home opener.
The changes are almost top-to-bottom, starting with the front office and general manager Scott Pioli, who was lured away from the Patriots with the promise of carte blanche to build the team in his image after 20 years of Carl Peterson at the helm. New head coach Todd Haley, the former offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, has promised to bring increased offensive production, with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey at his side, and a new-look defense that will try to pull the Chiefs from the dregs in which they were mired last season.
Perhaps the biggest change is at quarterback, where one of Pioli's first moves as G.M. was to reunite with former Patriots QB Matt Cassel. Cassel, a career backup, stepped in Week 1 last year when Tom Brady went down in the first quarter and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. While that wasn't enough to make the playoffs in a very tough AFC last season, Cassel showed poise under pressure and is expected to be a significant upgrade at quarterback from what the Chiefs had last year, when Brodie Croyle and former Viking Tyler Thigpen battled it out. How much have things changed. With the recent pickup of another former Patriot – Matt Guttierez – there is the chance that the loser of the Thigpen-Croyle battle could actually get released when the final cut-downs come – making every snap important for all three of the players behind Cassel.
The running game has been a mess for some time, due to lost time each of the last two years by Larry Johnson, who, after signing a huge contract following a 2007 training-camp holdout, has missed games due to injury and team suspension. When he has his head right, Johnson can be a dominating workhorse that can carry 25-30 times a game and control the clock and tempo of the game. While there are some limited age concerns with L.J., even with the changes made to the passing game, without him the offense grinds to a halt. Jamaal Charles is a nice change-of-pace and third-down back. At 5-11, 199, he's undersized for the NFL, but has the speed to make the corner and be a threat both as a runner and a receiver. When Johnson was out last year, Kolby Smith was handed the lead-back duties. He is a straight-ahead, one-cut runner that picks up the most yardage possible on every carry. While not the dominator that Johnson has been, he gives an honest day's work when called upon, but he's been slowed with a knee injury in camp, allowing other backs to get a longer look. The real battle is for the final spot or two, a fight between second-year men Jackie Battle and Dantrell Savage and seventh-round rookie Javarris Williams. A year ago, rookies like Battle and Savage were able to make the roster. This time around, nothing is guaranteed. Fullback Mike Cox made an impression as a lead blocker as a rookie last year and is facing only a cursory challenge from first-year man Jed Collins.
The receiver corps is much different, but, as Pioli did in New England, his philosophy has been to go with veterans from other teams in hope of getting a collection of receivers that can be effective. Clearly the main man in the pass offense is Dwayne Bowe. Despite being in Haley's dog house much of the preseason, Bowe is the closest thing to a Randy Moss big-play threat Cassel is going to have this year. He's been made an example of – demoted to the second and third team on the depth chart – but don't believe it for a minute. When the games are for real, he will be in the starting lineup. How the rest of it shakes out is still very much up in the air. The competition for the No. 2 receiver spot includes Devard Darling, transplanted veterans Amani Toomer, Terrence Copper, Bobby Engram and Ashley Lelie, half-time 2008 starter Mark Bradley and rookies Quinten Lawrence, Taurus Johnson and Rodney Wright. There are 10 players fighting for most likely six roster spots, making this a competition to watch Friday. Can vets like Toomer and Engram step up like so many veteran receivers did in New England on Pioli's watch? We'll soon find out.
Perhaps the reason for adding so many wide receivers from other teams is that the tight end is no longer expected to be a focal point of the offense. For years, Tony Gonzalez was the top receiving option in Kansas City, but he has been shipped off to Atlanta and the plan is to make the current tight ends more of glorified blockers than receiving threats. The battle for the starting spot is between second-year man Brad Cottam and free-agent import Sean Ryan. The team is likely to keep three tight ends, which will be a fight between rookies Jake O'Connell and Tom Crabtree. If one of them makes an impression against the Vikings, it could go a long way to solidifying his spot on the roster.
Offensive line remains a work in progress, as injuries have hit the line hard, especially at guard. Starter Mike Goff has been suffering from back pain and reserves Wade Smith and Tarvares Washington have both missed time with injuries of their own. As result, the Chiefs are patching together a lineup in practice that includes 10-year veteran Brian Waters at left guard and the combination of rookies Darryl Harris and Colin Brown at right guard. It is unclear how many guards will play, but you can bet the rookies will get a long look. The only position locked down is left tackle, where Branden Albert exceeded expectations as a rookie in 2008. He has the left side locked down, with his only challenge coming from rookie Cameron Goldberg, who will likely play much of the second half. Right tackle is another story. Damion McIntosh was supposed to be the starter, but the Chiefs have been shuffling the first-team reps between McIntosh, second-year man Barry Richardson and third-year man Herb Taylor, who spent last season backing up Albert. It's clear that position hasn't yet been decided. At center, fourth-year pro Rudy Niswanger has a lock on the starting job with former starter Eric Ghiaciuc expected to beat out practice-squad player Brian De La Puente for the backup spot.
As bad as the Chiefs defense was last year, big changes are expected. The first change is the scheme itself. The Chiefs have switched to a 3-4 defense, but have a lot of position battles going on. Tank Tyler, a third-year nose tackle, was expected to be the starter, but has yet to supplant nine-year veteran Ron Edwards on the depth chart. The same is true at the end position. While it appears second-year man Glenn Dorsey has locked down one end spot, rookie Tyson Jackson is still trying to move past former Bear Alphonso Boone for the other starting spot. If the trio of Dorsey, Jackson and Tyler do end up as the starters, they will have only three combined years of NFL experience at the starting position. In fact, aside from Boone and Edwards, youth is the name of the game on the D-line. First-year pro Derek Lokey is trying to win a spot at nose tackle and the battle for backup spots at defensive end behind the top three guys are second-year man Wallace Gilberry and rookies Alex McGee, Bobby Greenwood and Dion Gales. This is the youngest defensive line in the league and, given the Vikings experience on the offensive line, this could be a matchup the Vikings control from start to finish.
While the front line is young and aggressive, the linebacker corps is much more a mix of veterans and young stud talent. In the offseason, the team acquired 13-year veteran Mike Vrabel to play the outside and 14-year vet Zach Thomas to play the inside, flanking budding superstar Derrick Johnson and converted defensive lineman Tamba Hali. Johnson is the leader of the defense and has excellent athleticism and range to the sidelines. Hali was brought in to be a pass-rush specialist and failed miserably. It is expected that moving him to outside linebacker will allow him to use his speed and athletic burst to make plays as a pass rusher more effectively. On the outside, the Chiefs have experience with Turk McBride, who started nine games last year. Others competing for roster spots include unproven Andy Studebacker, Vince Redd and rookie Pierre Walters. On the inside, veterans Monty Beisel and Corey Mays are likely to win roster spots, but the guy to watch is Demorrio Williams. Initially slated to be a starter on the outside, he has the look of a man out of position. Others hoping to hook on due to special-teams ability include rookies Corey Smith and Jovan Belcher – both roster longshots.
Injuries have already taken a toll on the safety position with both strong safeties – 2008 leading tackler Bernard Pollard and DaJuan Morgan – having missed significant time due to injury. The only other strong safety on the roster is former Bear Mike Brown, a walking injury report in his own right. At the free safety spot, the team appears set with
Jarrad Page and Jon McGraw. Page struggles at times in man coverage, but has good adjustment skills and makes enough plays to hold on to his job. McGraw brings a lot of value on special teams and situational play. At the cornerback spot, the Chiefs are hoping that a pair of rookie starters last year can make the next step up the success ladder in their second seasons. Brandon Flowers was thrown into the starting lineup from the opening game last year and, despite being targeted by opposing offenses, held up well and gained some valuable experience along the way. On the right side, Brandon Carr replaced Partrick Surtain in the starting lineup. He is a physical corner, who, while he doesn't have great speed, has shown exceptional leaping ability to break up plays deep down the field. Depth is provided by Maurice Leggett, who shined as a nickel corner last year, and fourth-round rookie Donald Washington, who has off-the-charts athleticism but needs a lot of refinement to excel at the NFL level. Those looking for a chance to make the roster as backups include six-year pro Ricardo Colclough, who never panned out with the Steelers, fifth-year man Trabis Daniels and rookies Jackie Bates and Londen Fryar.
The Chiefs have one of the youngest teams in the league and, with new coaches trying to install new systems, this looks like an opponent that, on paper, the Vikings should handle easily. With the national media is expected to pay closer attention to the Vikings now that Brett Favre has dominated all the headlines, this should be a game in which the Vikings send a message – that they're better on the first team, second team and third team than the Chiefs.
Young Chiefs have many questions
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