Minnesota Vikings Depth Threatens NFC North Title Defense
With the rookie mini-camp having passed fairly uneventfully, with the exception of the absence of Percy Harvin, the Minnesota Vikings will have plenty time to evaluate whether or not this cast of rookies will be enough to pick up the slack.
Even though Brad Childress has them steadily improving their record, the Vikings still aren’t putting much fear into teams, and with the NFC North improving across the board, this must be the year the team takes that last step forward.
For having as many holes as they did last season, Minnesota had a fairly lax free agency period.
Sure, they made a run at T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they were ultimately unable to close the deal, and they can’t count on Brett Favre to be healthy and willing enough to take the reigns. So how do the Vikings plan on filling the holes in the more glaring holes in their roster?
Of course, the most conspicuous weakness on the team for the past three seasons has been the quarterback play. Incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson has shown great athleticism, but never any consistency as a starting quarterback.
He routinely overthrows routes and makes poor throws in traffic. While Brett Favre would be a massive upgrade to the position, the Vikings should prepare to enter the season with 31-year-old Sage Rosenfels as the starter.
Rosenfels is a career backup for a reason. His arm strength and accuracy are ok, but nothing special and he’s had a number of poor notably bad performances, including a horrific two minute meltdown against Indianapolis last year.
Of course, the Vikings don’t play the Colts this season, so perhaps Rosenfels can stay on his feet this season. And really, all the Vikings need out of their quarterback is to be consistently mediocre, and Rosenfels can provide that.
If the Vikings go with Jackson based on his mild improvements in low pressure games at the end of last season, there is going to be trouble. He’s been terrorized by defenses the past two seasons, and has not shown an ability to remain consistent or healthy.
Rosenfels is obviously the better option, but if opposing defenses can limit the Viking’s running attack, Rosenfels is very poor at running the two minute offense, and is certainly not the most prolific passer in the league.
If he can strive for mediocrity, Rosenfels is a decent option, otherwise this will continue to be a gaping hole for the next few years at least.
Nafahu Tahi had a few decent games at the end of last season, but for majority of the season he was awful. He routinely missed blocks, and filled up gaps that Adrian Peterson couldn’t squeeze through.
Tahi’s only competition going into camp this year is veteran and former tight end Jeff Dugan, who won’t challenge for the role. But Tahi absolutely needs to improve to keep his job and keep the Vikings offense on its feet.
Tahi is Brad Childress’ guy, and he’s the only real option the Vikings have at this point. But he’s shown a penchant for clogging up running lanes and not making blocks when he needs to.
At points last season, Peterson requested that he be allowed to work out of the single back so that he could get a clearer view of the field, meaning Tahi is more a hindrance of a blocker than a help, which is not what you want out of your starting fullback.
Once considered the great strength of the Vikings, the offensive line has a whole lot of holes. Matt Birk is gone, moved on the Baltimore Ravens, and in his place will be second year center John Sullivan.
There isn’t even a second center on the depth chart through mini-camps, and Ryan Cook is the only other natural center on the roster. Sullivan impressed coaches last year with his grit and intelligence, but he’s going to have to play at a pro bowl level going in.
Cook is probably on his way out as the starting right tackle after two years of inconsistent play. In his place is massive second round draft pick Phil Loadholt. Loadholt is raw, but has undeniable talent, and as the right tackle won’t be working against most team’s best end, so he’ll have plenty of time to develop.
The left side of the line is still solid, but from center on, there are a lot of questions to be answered. Loadholt should be an improvement on the right side, but should is the operative word.
And while Sullivan has impressed in camps and practices, he’s never played a real NFL game, and center is one of the hardest positions to acclimate yourself to as quickly as he will need to this season.
As a result, if defenses throw a lot of blitz packages and heavy rushes to the Viking’s right side, they might be in trouble during the early portion of the season, and it might necessitate the insertion of blocking tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser on every down until Loadholt and Sullivan are up to speed.
The Williams Wall is impressive, but both Pat and Kevin Williams could be looking at a four game suspension to begin the season, and the dropoff after them is severe, and if either one of them were injured for a long period of time, the results could be disastrous.
Fred Evans is a big load to clog up the middle of the line, but he’s a capable starter. Journeyman Jimmy Kennedy returns after serving a handful of games on the Vikings roster last season.
But even though the line depth was so weak, and Pat Williams had hit the bench with an injury, Kennedy saw extremely limited time on the field last season, and he hasn’t impressed in his previous stints in the NFL.
Rounding out the tackles is second year man Letroy Guion, a project player who spent most of last season on the inactive list. He needs to prove his worth this season, or he will be on his way out.
Evans will be a decent space filler, but the Vikings defense should be prepared to be gashed quite a bit by strong running teams next year during the Williams’ suspension or an injury.
The line backing corps and ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards play excellent run defense, but the tackles are too important to the Viking’s 4-3 defense. The Williamses will be much less missed in pass defense, as defensive end Brian Robison slides to tackle in the nickle and dime coverages.
The Viking’s starting three, Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson, and Ben Leber, are amongst the best 4-3 linebackers in the NFL. But as the Vikings found out last year, depth is key.
E.J. Henderson’s injury was a massive hit to the team, and though free agents Napolean Harris and Dontarious Thomas filled in admirably, the defense was never quite the same. Heath Farwell is a solid back-up who can fill in at any position, but his value is more suited to special teams.
David Herron and Erin Henderson look to have roster spots sewn up, but neither did a particularly good job when they were asked to line up during games last season.
Two rookies to look out for are hard-hitting Jasper Brinkley, who is raw, but extremely talented, and Kenny Onatalu, an undrafted free agent from the CFL, who isn’t a superstar by any means, but has had a very serviceable football career.
Losing one of their talented starters wouldn’t be a death knell, they performed fine without Henderson last year and Farwell is a talented backup.
However, if any two Vikings go down with injury, there could be trouble, and each of Henderson, Leber, and Greenwood has missed time over the past three seasons.
The Vikings have historically had trouble covering intermediate passes, and a downgrade at any of the line backing positions makes it that much more difficult to cover these routes.
Gone is Darren Sharper, and in his stead is Tyrell Johnson. Johnson actually started a few games last season for the injured Maddieu Williams, but the pressure is on this season for Johnson to protect the passing lanes.
But even if Johnson and Williams are a success, they have nothing behind them. Hussein Abdullah is a fine player, but really his best value is on special teams.
The other reserves are Eric Frampton, another kick coverage-only player, and draft pick Jamarca Sanford, a seventh round player who will be fighting for a roster spot, not to back up Johnson. Not exactly spectacular choices.
Tyrell Johnson seems poised to take over the starting job, and the Vikings don’t lean very heavily on their safeties in coverage, usually using them as protection against deep routes. But if he or Maddieu Williams misses an extended period of time, teams will be able to attack on deep, middle routes against the Vikings inexperienced, less talented backups.
While the Vikings certainly have all the tools to compete for another NFC North Title, if not a first round Playoff win, the lack of depth on defense is a bit scary, and there are too many questions on offense to make them the preseason favorite to repeat.
Their roster is pretty much set going into the season, baring someone having an incredible training camp, but this is the year that these career special teamers and backups must be prepared to help a team with championship potential stick it out for 16 games.
Brett Favre or not, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the 2010 season.
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