THE BOTTOM LINE
By John Clayton, ESPN.com
The Mariners and Rangers surprisingly improved after the loss of Alex Rodriguez. Even though the Vikings can't replace Randy Moss as a talent, they have become a better team in his absence. The Vikings are loaded and should win the NFC North.
Daunte Culpepper might not repeat his 41-touchdown performance of last year, but he can spread the ball to more weapons. Nate Burleson has looked great, getting deep and snatching the ball out of the air. He should have a monster season. Travis Taylor is battling Marcus Robinson for the split-end job, but he has developed a good relationship with Culpepper because of good route running and sure hands.
The Vikings plan to run the ball more and have plenty of options -- Michael Bennett, Mewelde Moore and Moe Williams. Tight end Jermaine Wiggins is understated for his value catching passes underneath coverage.
Coordinator Ted Cottrell has a talented defense filled with former No. 1 and No. 2 picks -- the best of that unit is along the defensive line. The Williams tandem, Kevin and Pat, is one of the best defensive tackle combos in the league. The Vikings have pass-rush threats with Kenechi Udeze, Erasmus James and Lance Johnstone. The team is more solid at linebacker with Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris being added to a young, agile group. On paper, the Vikings are loaded, and Culpepper is the trigger man who makes this paper tiger a power.
By Joe Theismann, ESPN.com
The Big Question?
Can the Vikings maintain offensive balance? The loss of Moss is supposed to give them more balance because they won't have one guy to rely on, but it isn't Randy's fault that they threw the ball to him so much. They have to start trying to incorporate the running game -- with Bennett and Moore -- into their game plan on a more consistent basis to take the next step and have a shot at contending for the Super Bowl.
By Scott Engel, ESPN.com
Sleeper: RB Mewelde Moore
Michael Bennett is an unfortunate annual injury risk, and past health problems have seemingly robbed him of the speed that was the signature of his game. Moore played very well last year when he was briefly called on to start for the Vikings. It seems inevitable that Moore will get a chance to start again at some point and he could keep a firm grip on the job.
Bust: WR Marcus Robinson
Robinson's final totals looked pretty good last year, as he finished with eight TD catches. But Robinson is very inconsistent, and injuries also can be an issue for him. Robinson will sometimes use his size and leaping ability to make some big plays. But he isn't dependable. Robinson is simply not fantasy starting material.
From ESPN the MAGAZINE
The Big Number.175 Psst. Pass the word: the NFL's a marathon, not a sprint. Over the first half of the last five seasons, the Vikes are a combined 23-17 (.575). But they've limped to the finish line at a .400 clip (16-24). That's a .175 difference.
STRENGTH --> NEW-LOOK D
From sieve to cement block: the run D has solidified. New DT Pat Williams (left) feasts on tailbacks, freeing fellow DT Kevin Williams (12 sacks) to be more disruptive in the pocket. Udeze, a first-rounder last year who struggled as a rookie, will thrive with support from Williams and Williams. Second-year RB-stuffer Scott and rookie QB-hunter James split duties at Udeze's old spot. Looking for a hole? Keep looking.
WEAKNESS --> NEW-LOOK O
Culpepper (left) is back, which is more than nice. But he's about the only thing the Vikings can count on. Minus Moss, they have no true No. 1 wideout (sorry, Nate). The running game has plenty of depth, but no lead dog (sorry, Michael). And the defection of coordinator Scott Linehan to the Dolphins means the whole unit is missing its
central brain. (Sorry, everyone.)
Fred Smoot knows better than anyone that netting a bunch of big-money free agents doesn't mean jack without team chemistry. He was in DC in 2003 when a mammoth Daniel Snyder spending spree yielded just five wins.
"Individuals sit at home in January," Smoot says. "Families win." That's why Minny's road to the Super Bowl started with ... super bowling. Monday through Thursday after workouts this offseason, more than a dozen Vikes -- including newbies Sharper, Pat Williams, Harris, Cowart and Smoot -- regularly adjourned to the Brunswick Eden Prairie Lanes for some bonding. Cocky corner that he is, Smoot claims he's the team's top bowler. Sharper disagrees: "Big Pat is the best." Nothing like a little loving bickering among family.