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Thursday, May 29
Updated: June 20, 10:35 AM ET
 
Offseason Overview: Minnesota Vikings

By James C. Black
ESPN.com

2002 RECORD: 6-10
TEAM RANK (NFL): Defense (26th); Offense (2nd)
ADDITIONS:
Free agents -- DL Billy Lyon (Packers), QB Gus Frerotte (Bengals), CB Ken Irvin (Saints), OT Mike Rosenthal (Giants), LB Chris Claiborne (Lions), CB Denard Walker (Broncos).
Draft picks -- 1. DT Kevin Williams (Oklahoma State); 2. MLB E.J. Henderson (Maryland); 3. WR Nate Burleson (Nevada-Reno); 4. RB Onterrio Smith (Oregon); 6a. P Eddie Johnson (Idaho State); 6b. OLB Mike Nattiel (Florida), 7. WR Keenan Howry (Oregon).
SUBTRACTIONS:
LB Patrick Chukwurah (Texans), FB Harold Morrow (Ravens), DB Tyrone Carter (Jets), LB Jim Nelson (Colts), P Kyle Richardson (Eagles).
Team news | Roster | More on Vikings draft

Wed., June 18
Can the Vikes count on QB Daunte Culpepper making more great plays than miscues?
Not based on the performance of the enigmatic Culpepper in the last two seasons. His new phat contract aside, Culpepper clearly has regressed, particularly in terms of his overall decision-making in that period. It's been well documented that in 2001-02, Culpepper threw more interceptions than touchdown passes (36-32), but that just begins to illustrate his slippage, and the breakdowns have been both mechanical and mental. The latter problems might be reduced simply by moving into the second year under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, whose design is more West Coast-based than the one in which Culpepper played previously. But in general, Culpepper has to assume more control in the huddle and in the pocket, and certainly must take better care of the ball. He fumbled 49 times the last two seasons, reflective in part of a lack of concentration and awareness, and lost 26 of those bobbles. As evidenced by some of the sideline contretemps with his wide receivers, he has missed open people, and misread coverages. In what is historically said to be the most important statistic for any quarterback, victories, he has come up short. There aren't many quarterbacks in the league with the big-play potential that Culpepper possesses and, at any point in a game, he could rifle a 60-yard touchdown pass or rumble out of the pocket for a huge gain. But it is consistency, not the occasional big play, which is most required of the Vikings' quarterback. That's the area in which he must improve.

Aside from signing quarterback Daunte Culpepper to a new long-term contract, the big offseason headlines weren't positive for Minnesota.

In April, the Vikings were involved in a historic Draft Day snafu. Minnesota was attempting to trade the seventh overall draft choice to Baltimore, which was apparently interested in moving up to select quarterback Byron Leftwich. When the deal fell through, the Vikings found themselves scrambling to make their own selection and eventually ran out of time, allowing the Jaguars and Panthers to rush to the podium with their picks. Minnesota, which attempted to take advantage of the Cowboys under similar circumstances in 2002, finally selected defensive lineman Kevin Williams with the ninth pick.

"I'm ticked," Vikings coach Mike Tice said at the time. "I felt that would've been a hell of a deal to get your guy and two more picks."

A month later, a nightclub incident involving running back Michael Bennett resulted in gunshots being fired at Bennett's vehicle. Bennett wasn't injured in the incident, but has not participated in on-field workouts because of foot surgery in March. However, he should be ready to resume workouts at the start of training camp.

What they've added?
In what has become their rites of spring, the Vikings spent much of the offseason trying to upgrade a defense that continually struggles. Their first move was firing defensive coordinator Willie Shaw and promoting defensive line coach George O'Leary, who also serves as assistant head coach.

Then, Minnesota used the draft and free agency in an a effort to address every area of the defense. In addition to drafting Williams, the Vikings got linebackers E.J. Henderson and Michael Nattiel in the second and sixth rounds, respectively. The highest profile linebacker acquired, however, came from within the division.

Minnesota signed Chris Claiborne, who had 101 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions for the Lions last season. Claiborne, the only newcomer slated to start at linebacker, joins lineman Billy Lyon and cornerbacks Ken Irvin and Denard Walker as Minnesota's defensive veterans acquired this offseason.

On offense, the additions could be viewed as minor. Journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte was picked up but considering Culpepper's new $102-million contract, the Vikings don't project using him much. They also drafted wide receivers Nate Burleson and Keenan Howry, but Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates and Derrick Alexander should have the first three spots sewn up.

What they're missing?
Perhaps the biggest concern is special teams. Veteran kicker Gary Anderson wasn't retained and punter Kyle Richardson signed with the Eagles. The Vikings are now relying on 2002 draftee Hayden Epstein, who lasted just half a season in Jacksonville, and punters Eddie Johnson and Nick Murphy. Don't be surprised if a veteran specialist is acquired at some point.

Fantasy Focus
Prior to his rookie season in 2001, first-rounder Michael Bennett was hyped to be Robert Smith's immediate replacement. Though Bennett had the physical talent with his speed and explosiveness, he lacked sound running skills. He only gained 630 yards, failing to find running lanes quickly. But, in 2002, a more experienced Bennett broke out with 1,296 rushing yards for a sterling 5.1 average. Although Bennett was pulled in goal-line situations, he still scored six touchdowns. Heading into 2003, Bennett is primed for another strong season. The Vikings have revamped their offensive line to make it bigger and more athletic, and the coaches have eliminated the need to throw to Randy Moss on 40 percent of the passing plays. This means Bennett will be more involved in the offense via both running and receiving. Draft him as the No. 2 back on fantasy squads and he'll produce like a No. 1 runner.
-- Roger Rotter, ESPN.com fantasy editor

Defensively, the Vikings lack depth and experience in the secondary. Most of their reserves are second- or third-year players who have gotten very little time. Given their cap situation ($13 million under), don't be surprised if they target a veteran safety or cornerback in training camp.

On paper, the Vikings appear set on offense, but it remains to be seen if skill players other than Moss or Bennett will actually step up. Alexander was a free-agent bust last year, catching just 14 balls for 134 yards. In order to minimize the burdens placed on the running game and defense, someone other than Moss needs to come up big -- and that includes Culpepper. If the Vikes are going to make a playoff push, they can't afford another 47-sack, 23-interception season from Culpepper.

What it all means?
In a division where only one foe (Green Bay) played .500 ball last year, the Vikings like their chances of making a run in the NFC North.

Minnesota won three straight games to close last year -- their longest streak since November 2000. They also led the league in rushing (156.7 ypg) -- getting nearly 1,300 yards form Bennett and 11 touchdowns from Moe Williams. And despite the perceptions that he fell off, Moss still had more than 100 catches and 1,300 yards.

Yet, their success this year will likely be determined by their offseason priority -- defense. If O'Leary's unit shaves a touchdown off last year's 27.6 ppg (ranked 30th), the Vikes have a shot at eclipsing the Packers.

James C. Black is an NFL editor for ESPN.com.





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