Offseason additions should bolster Vikes
With several key offseason additions the Vikings should be strong contenders in 2004.
Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
The Vikings' additions far outweigh their subtractions entering this season, which is intimidating to other teams since the offense ranked No. 1 overall last year.
On offense, the Vikings lost Hunter Goodwin, a dispensable veteran tight end; WR D'Wayne Bates, an injury-plagued player during his stint with the team; and FB Charles Stackhouse. Meanwhile, the Vikings added WR Marcus Robinson, who starred in Chicago while Bates was on the bench, and TE Jermaine Wiggins, who adds an element that's long been missing from this team.
On defense, the Vikings lost MLB Greg Biekert, CBs Denard Walker and Eric Kelly and LB Henri Crockett. Of the bunch, Kelly had the most potential to help this year's team. He wasn't content being a backup, and the Vikings dumped him, but they sure wish he were still around given the struggles they've had at that position so far in training camp with Brian Williams sidelined with a knee sprain. Walker, meanwhile, was a bust after the team signed him to a reasonable contract, and he was released. Crockett was easily replaced by Keith Newman, a versatile veteran 'backer.
The Vikings will miss the veteran experience of Biekert, Walker and Crockett.
They were all athletic liabilities, and their replacements are marked upgrades in that area. But the new players will learn on the run, especially E.J. Henderson, who replaces Biekert in the middle. That's a difficult task for Henderson at a very difficult position, but Biekert, despite his film-study and experience, became a liability toward the end of last season. But the Vikings' defense didn't only subtract from their roster. They added one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Antoine Winfield, going against their usual strategy of not spending a lot in unrestricted free agency.
Winfield provides the team with its best shutdown corner since -- and this a stretch -- Corey Fuller in 1998.
Quarterbacks: Daunte Culpepper had a Pro Bowl season last year, but he's looking to play even better. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is anticipating marked improvement as well. The coach said he and Culpepper, entering their third year together, have been able to take their relationship to another level: Linehan said Culpepper knows what the coach wants, and they're able to dissect plays to a much greater degree. Meanwhile, No. 2 QB Gus Frerotte has looked very good. He embraces his role, and he gets along well with Culpepper. He's an ideal fit for the team because he also has a strong arm that's capable of delivering deep passes to Randy Moss. Grade: A. Running backs - You want it, they got it. Want speed? How about Michael Bennett. Want a strong short-yardage runner? How about Moe Williams. You want a versatile backup? How about Onterrio Smith. And a young, promising, change-of-pace back? How about rookie Mewelde Moore. The Vikings don't have a stud like Jamal Lewis, but they've got tremendous depth and versatility in their backfield. Bennett was running as well as ever but then went down with a sprained right knee in the third preseason game, which was expected to keep him out until Week 2. Williams is still a solid back because of his versatility and likely will get the start in place of Bennett in Week One. He's the best blocker and downhill runner of the Vikings' running backs, and he's excellent as a receiver out of the backfield. Larry Ned, who has good speed and runs hard, is also an interesting commodity. Smith is expected to be suspended for four games. Grade: A.
Receivers: The team has finally replaced Cris Carter. Derrick Alexander was a waste, and Bates wasn't able to stay healthy. But Robinson doesn't exactly fill Carter's void. He's tall, fast and has good hands, but what makes the team confident is the fact that they have both Robinson and second-year WR Nate Burleson. Burleson is not well-known, but with Robinson likely sidelined for the rest of the preseason with a strained left hamstring, he has supplanted Robinson as the team's No. 2 receiver. He's a very good route runner who catches most everything thrown at him. Moss, meanwhile, looks as good as ever. And if the NFL follows through on its promise to crack down on illegal contact against receivers, Moss would surely be one of the biggest beneficiaries in the league. He could shatter receiving records because he's got credible secondary receivers to finally take some pressure off him. Kelly Campbell is one of the fastest players in the NFL, and he's shown an ability to come up with long, gamebreaking plays. Keenan Howry is short, but he's a good receiver with lateral quickness. Jim Kleinsasser got paid like one of the upper-echelon tight ends this offseason. While his statistics aren't overwhelming, Kleinsasser is a beast as a blocker, and he's capable of lining up in multiple formations, which causes fits for opposing defenses. Kleinsasser also has good hands, but he's very shaky once he gets the ball, which is why the team was elated when they landed Wiggins. He'll be a hybrid receiver, getting a chance to punish teams for leaving space open in the middle of the field and concentrating on Moss. Wiggins isn't a great athlete, but he's quick for his size, and he's a smart and experienced player. Grade: A-plus.
Offensive linemen: Perennial Pro Bowl C Matt Birk is showing how important he is to this team. The Vikings' offensive line has looked spotty running the ball without Birk. Backup Cory Withrow is a solid player who could start on some teams. OLT Bryant McKinnie may eventually become the unit's highest-paid player, but Birk's leadership and ability to man the middle is something the Vikings have not taken for granted. That said, however, McKinnie may finally dominate the way the team had hoped when they drafted him No. 7 overall two years ago. Veteran ORG David Dixon somehow remains entrenched as a starter, and OLG Chris Liwienski is quietly developing a strong reputation around the NFL for his hard-nosed play. Interestingly, ORT Mike Rosenthal has impressed coaches in training camp. He's come into camp in great shape, and he's playing more solid. Last season, he was exposed in several games. But that's acceptable since he protects the strong side of Culpepper, one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league. Grade: B-plus.
Offensive linemen: This is probably the team's best D-line since 1998. At defensive end, Kenny Mixon is a solid starter on the left side, and rookie Kenechi Udeze can be solid on the right. Veteran Chuck Wiley is a decent backup on the left side, and Lance Johnstone is still a very credible pass rusher. Rookie Darrion Scott will get a shot at earning more playing time as the season approaches. What makes this line special is the tackles. Kevin Williams tallied 101z2 sacks as a rookie, and he's easily the young jewel of this defense. He's a gritty player, with great strength and quickness. Chris Hovan dropped 15 pounds, and he's trying to revive the quickness that made him effective two years ago. Although he had only three sacks last season, Hovan is in a contract year, so he'll try to step it up. Those two players, though, are quicker than they are big or strong. That's where Steve Martin steps in; at 330-plus pounds, he's a beast of a man. One last thing: Get off the Brock Lesnar bandwagon - at least for this season. He's proof positive that speed, strength and size don't make you a good football player. Grade: B.
Linebackers: After a brief holdout, WLB Dontarrious Thomas was the talk of training camp. He's big, strong and fast, and he's distancing himself from Mike Nattiel as the starter on the weak side. Henderson has looked good in training camp. But therein lies the problem: Neither player has any meaningful NFL experience. Both have obvious potential, and they've played well so far. But opposing offenses are using vanilla schemes, so will these guys be able to handle the live bullets come regular season? Perhaps, but it's not a certainty. The only veterans are SLB Chris Claiborne and versatile backup Keith Newman. Claiborne has always shown flashes of brilliance but seems to stagger down the stretch. Rod Davis has looked sharp recently moving behind Henderson, and could back up Claiborne if Claiborne is injured. Nattiel is a special-teams star, and he's played well when given the opportunity. Grade: B-minus.
Defensive backs: It may sound familiar, but this is the team's best secondary since '98. Brian Williams has grown into a fine starting corner, and SS-CB Corey Chavous has been exceptional as a leader in this unit. Also, the Vikings developed Brian Russell into one of the up-and-coming free safeties in the NFL. He's a strong tackler, and he's smart. But he still needs to get more experience given that he played quarterback for two years at San Diego State. The Vikings, though, filled their other glaring need by handing a $34 million contract to Winfield, a potential Pro Bowl player. Winfield doesn't get a lot of interceptions, but he's a brilliant tackler, and he makes receivers earn every catch. The only concern is his height, but he's managed just fine so far in his career. Ken Irvin has shown this preseason that his best years aren't behind him, and Rushen Jones, who played very well against Atlanta in the preseason, shows enough skill to possibly give this team some depth here. But the talent pool plummets after him. With Williams out, the team struggled, which is forcing it to try to find one more solid backup as it shoots for a special season. Recent waiver pickup Derek Ross, a former third-round pick of the Cowboys' who did well his rookie season before falling out of favor in Dallas, might fill the bill. Rookie Deandre' Eiland was switched once again from cornerback to safety, to help fill the void left by the injured Tyrone Carter (knee). Willie Offord, a former third-round pick, remains somewhat of an enigma as a backup. He's just good enough to maintain a roster spot, but he doesn't engender a lot of confidence if he had to play. Grade: B.
Special teams: PK Aaron Elling was released Aug. 31 after missing two field goals and an extra point in the third preseason game vs. San Francisco. The Vikings signed Brett Conway to replace Elling. Conway made 14-of-19 field goals last season, when he played for both Cleveland and the Giants. P Darren Bennett is a huge upgrade over Eddie Johnson because he's consistent. Once in a while, even, Bennett can be brilliant. Moore has shiftiness and quickness to be a fine returner, and Howry is likely to be the second returner because of Smith's expected suspension. Howry is also the man on punt returns because he is reliable. Grade: C.
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