Vikings' Stopgaps or Starters? Players Who Need To Improve in '09

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IMay 15, 2009

SEATTLE - AUGUST 25: Sidney Rice #18 of the Minnesota Vikings looks on before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on August 25, 2007 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The Vikings had a number of players in 2008 that carried the team to their first division title since 2000.

However, there were high expectations for a Vikings team than an early first-round exit in the playoffs.

All the free agents Zygi Wilf brought in via his private jet proved dividends (minus Thomas Tapeh), each contributing to a struggling pass offense as well as pass defense.

The reason for optimism? Many players that looked promising in 2007 seemed to underachieve in '08.

Here is a list of the players that need to produce this season in order to keep their jobs and help the Vikings make a championship run.

1. Center/Right Tackle Ryan Cook

Vikings fans and media have been pretty lenient with the play of Ryan Cook his first three seasons in the league. Cook started 14 games, being benched before Week 12 due to his penalties and inconsistent play.

That wasn't the first time Cook had played off and on in his career, struggling most with his pass blocking earlier in his career.

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Cook was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft, the pick the Vikings received from the Dolphins for shipping quarterback Daunte Culpepper to Miami.

This summer, Cook's best bet is to move back into his natural position at center and compete with second-year player John Sullivan. With the selection of right tackle Phil Loadholt in April's draft, he can probably see the writing on the wall. If Cook wants to be in purple in 2010, he needs to show he can be a consistent offensive linemen and provide stable relief if he is in a backup position in '09.

2. Wide Receiver Sidney Rice

In his rookie season of 2007, Rice looked to be a young and promising receiver for the Vikings, as well as a mediocre deep threat. That season, Rice caught 31 balls for 396 yards and four touchdowns.

Last season, Vikings VP of Player Personnel Rick Speilman wanted a receiver who could stretch the field and brought in the former Chicago Bear Bernard Berrian.

In 2008, Berrian proved to be a receiver who could make big plays on third downs as well as keep the safeties honest. It's just too bad no one was on the other side.

Rice injured his knee in week two in a home game against the Colts that seemed to affect his play the rest of the season.

He did match his touchdown total from 2007 but only had about half the receptions (15) and less than half in yardage receiving (141).

If Rice wants to be a solid No. 3 receiver for the Vikings, he must remain healthy as well as come up with big plays between the 20's in 2009.

3. Cornerback Benny Sapp

While Sapp played decently in the nickel spot when cornerback Charles Gordon went down with an ankle injury in week ten, he committed many mental errors in 2008 that made the coaching staff cringe.

In Week 13 in a Sunday night game against the Chicago Bears with first place in the NFC North on the line, Sapp made a crucial error in the first half. After a key third down stop that would have forced the Bears to either punt or kick a long field goal, Sapp got into an altercation with receiver Rashied Davis in which he swung and hit Davis in the helmet.

He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and gave the Bears a first down. Luckily for Sapp, the Vikings made a goal line stand and went on to win 34-14.

Sapp will compete for the nickel corner spot in training camp. If the Vikings want to improve on defending the pass when offenses spread out, they will need Sapp to be a factor and not commit any penalties that keep the defense on the field in 2009.

4. Fullback Naufahu Tahi

This is a bit harder for me to say because I actually was impressed with Tahi's lead blocking for running back Adrian Peterson in 2008. He was thrust into the starting role when the team held out Thomas Tapeh and later released him and Tahi seemed to adjust well.

However, I would have liked to see Tapeh do more when catching the football out of the backfield. Numerous times I saw him catch a pass out in the flat and get tackled by one defender or simply drop the football.

If Naufahu Tahi can prove to be more of a threat catching the football in Brad Childress' west coast offense and continue doing a good job when lead blocking for Peterson, it will provide relief for whoever is under center in 2009 for the Vikings.

5. Defensive End Ray Edwards

Before the '08 season, Edwards claimed he would break Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks in a season after the Vikings acquired Jared Allen in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Okay, that didn't happen, and that's an understatement.

Edwards underachieved in 2008, recording only five sacks and not bringing consistent pressure up front.

If Edwards continues to underachieve, his starting spot could become up-for-grabs. Defensive end Brian Robison seems to be a promising young player for the Vikings and at this pace, he could become the next starter at left end.

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