Backup quarterback Brad Johnson has come full circle. The Vikings' ninth-round draft pick in 1992, he was traded after the 1998 season. During the offseason, Johnson signed a four-year contract to serve as Daunte Culpepper's backup.
Gimme a shot
Wide receiver Travis Taylor, upon hearing that the Vikings had traded Randy Moss, wasted no time expressing interest in joining the team. He arranged a visit on the first day of free agency and offered to pay his own way to Minnesota. Taylor figures as the team's No. 4 receiver.
We liked Mike
The Vikings missed a chance to solidify their kicking situation by two spots in the draft. They were prepared to take Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent with the No. 49 pick, but the Jets took Nugent at No. 47.
Running back Mewelde Moore might have been the favorite to win the starting job this season, but coaches are still concerned about the two-month interval it took Moore to recover from a mildly sprained ankle last season. They want him to be tougher before they can count on him for 200 carries per season.
Defensive end Kenechi Udeze requested a position change from the right side to the left side during the offseason. Udeze, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, says he feels more comfortable at the position.
The Prophecy: "Kevin Williams emerged as a monster during the latter half of 2003 and could develop into one of the NFL's best tackles in '04."
The Lie: "Randy Moss is now the unquestioned foundation, if not leader, of this team."
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It is a brave new world in Minnesota. The Vikings will play without receiver Randy Moss for the first time since 1997. Unable to win a championship with Moss’ high-risk, high-reward act, the Vikings have re-cast their team with a more traditional mindset.
Hoping to impress new ownership in the final year of his contract, coach Mike Tice has centered his offense around quarterback Daunte Culpepper and the running game. And hoping to avoid a third consecutive collapse in the season’s second half, the Vikings have added five new starters to their defense.
“Team is the key,” Tice says. “We have to be a better football team. We were not good enough in some areas to win a championship. We need to address those other areas. We feel like being No. 1 in offense, although it may make for more standing and cheering at the Metrodome, doesn’t necessarily help us win the world championship. We need to be in the top 10 in defense, and we needed to address that significantly. That was where we were really lacking.”
After six years of development, Culpepper is now one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. His understanding of the game has matched his considerable physical talents, and the Vikings are hoping he can carry them to a championship without Moss.
In addition to losing Moss, however, Culpepper must cope with the departure of two other key contributors to his success. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Scott Linehan and backup Gus Frerotte, both close friends and mentors, left for Miami in the offseason. New quarterbacks coach Rich Olson and backup Brad Johnson must create the comfort zone that Culpepper thrives in. Johnson is an ideal backup for Culpepper. He possesses a veteran’s knowledge, is still physically capable of winning games and has no illusions about his status on the depth chart.
The Vikings have one of the NFL’s deepest backfields, with several runners who could start for most teams and another -- rookie Ciatrick Fason -- who could be their own starter in a few years. Tice plans to hold a training camp competition between Michael Bennett, and Mewelde Moore for the starting position.
Tice and the rest of the coaching staff hope Bennett recaptures the sprinter’s speed he displayed as a Pro Bowler in 2003, but some fear that foot and knee injuries have robbed him of that final gear. They were hoping Onterrio Smith could compete for the spot, but he's out of action after the infamous "Whizzinator" incident, for which the league suspended him an entire season.
Moore is the sleeper of the group, possessing surprising open-field running ability as well as the softest hands of the group. Veteran Moe Williams, perhaps entering his final season, will continue his role as a third-down/short-yardage specialist.
Nate Burleson, who led the team in receiving yards last season, will be asked to step into Moss’ role as the No. 1 receiver. Burleson does not have Moss’ speed or size, but he has a unique big-play capability of his own. Burleson is an excellent runner after the catch, regularly turning 12-yard hitches into 45-yard pass plays.
First-round draft choice Troy Williamson will be the Vikings’ best chance to stretch the field vertically, a task they hope to accomplish even without Moss. Williamson’s 4.34 speed will allow him to run past NFL defensive backs, and the Vikings hope he can be a home-run hitter in play-action during his rookie season.
Marcus Robinson is the Red Zone specialist, having established a nice relationship with Culpepper on jump-ball passes in the end zone.
Tight end Jermaine Wiggins became a favorite of Culpepper in 2004, and newcomer Travis Taylor could make some noise as a slot receiver.
Fingers are crossed that the team’s top blockers are healthy when training camp begins. Center Matt Birk, plagued by sports hernias last season, suffered from another one during the offseason and must monitor the situation constantly. Right tackle Mike Rosenthal, who missed 14 games because of a fractured foot, was also still in rehabilitation in the late spring.
Guard Chris Liwienski has moved from the left to right side, replacing veteran David Dixon, and the team will hold a training camp competition for left guard between Adam Goldberg, Anthony Herrera and rookie Marcus Johnson. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, a disappointment for much of his first three seasons, improved his run blocking late in 2004 and hopes to carry the technique into 2005.
The team’s run-blocking will get a boost if tight end Jim Kleinsasser, who missed 15 games last season because of torn knee ligaments, can return healthy.
An influx of talent spurred the departures of two long-time starters, end Kenny Mixon and tackle Chris Hovan. The team now boasts three first-round draft picks among its likely starters -- All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams, left end Kenechi Udeze and rookie right end Erasmus James.
The Vikings targeted free agent nosetackle Pat Williams to replace Hovan, and Williams should be a lively playmaker even at age 32. Another veteran, Lance Johnstone, has boiled down the pass-rush specialist role into a science. Limiting his appearances to about 30 plays per game, Johnstone has enjoyed back-to-back double-digit sack seasons.
James and Darrion Scott should share time at right end. Scott is the sturdier of the two players, but James is a strong pass rusher.
After inexperienced youngsters struggled at the position last season, the team overhauled its linebacker corps once again. Veteran Sam Cowart, nearing the end of his career, will temporarily take over for middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who was overwhelmed with the position in 2004. Cowart is smart and experienced in coordinator Ted Cottrell’s scheme -- he played for Cottrell in Buffalo -- and the Vikings would rather have an alert player like Cowart than Henderson’s yo-yo performances.
Napoleon Harris, acquired from Oakland in the Moss trade, replaces Chris Claiborne on the strong side. Harris has been injury-prone since the Raiders made him their No. 1 draft choice in 2002, but he believes the strong-side position is his best.
Second-year player Dontarrious Thomas, who like Henderson seemed lost last season, will get a chance to redeem himself on the weak side. Thomas’ speed allows him to make up some of his mental mistakes.
The addition of Fred Smoot gives the Vikings one of the NFL’s better cornerback tandems. Smoot is a smooth cover man with a knack for making big plays, while Antoine Winfield might be the team’s toughest pound-for-pound defender. Brian Williams, a starter the past two seasons, will be a luxury as the nickel back.
The Vikings also have upgraded at free safety, where Darren Sharper moved from Green Bay to replace Brian Russell. Sharper will help the team on defense, but he also should have some tips for their offense after successfully defending against it for years. Sharper’s arrival should also help strong safety Corey Chavous, who seemed to overextend himself in compensating for other players last season.
Unable to draft a kicker and unwilling to pay for one on the free agent market, the team is planning to give Aaron Elling another chance to win the job. Elling lost the position during training camp last summer, giving way to Morten Andersen, but the Vikings want a kicker -- like Elling -- who can also kick off and give them more range than Andersen.
Punter Darren Bennett is probably entering his final season. His leg strength has diminished but he still has decent ability to kick directionally.
The Vikings worked hard during the offseason to become a more balanced team. As long as Culpepper is on the field, their offense should score more points than the average NFL team. More important, however, is whether the team’s new defensive starters can jell in time to make a serious championship run.
Even assuming the typical amount of injuries, the Vikings are the most talented team in the NFC North and should be disappointed if they do not make a significant playoff run. In fact, Tice’s future hinges on it.