MANKATO, Minn. (Aug. 14, 2005) -- Hearing about a player entering the last year of his contract is nothing out of the ordinary. Hearing about an entire organization headed into the last year of its contract is.
Welcome to Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes and zero long-term deals. No Vikings coach, front office member or scout has a contract beyond this season. This means that head coach Mike Tice, and all the men he has assembled, are performing for their futures in Minnesota. This is a highly uncommon situation that will leave many men highly anxious, and motivated, for the coming season.
When Zygi Wilf bought the Vikings this past spring, he knew he would be able to put his stamp on his new franchise. But he didn't realize it would be so widespread, so soon.
With three first-round picks on their defensive line, the Vikings front four has a chance to be fearsome. At the very least, the Vikings front four has become the strength of their defense. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, the player the Vikings were mocked for waiting to draft, has turned into one of the league's premier players, piling up 22 sacks in his first two seasons. He will line up next to Pat Williams, the run-stuffing tackle whom Minnesota lured away from the Buffalo Bills. And the Vikings have been completely unable to run the ball up the middle against the Williams Boys this summer.
At left end, last year's No. 1 pick Kenechi Udeze -- who has had a terrific camp -- will return to the position he played at USC. At right end, this year's No. 1 pick Erasmus James will be no worse than the backup to former third-round pick Darrion Scott. If those ends can chase down Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, the Vikings could play into the first Sunday in February.
Not only did the Vikings draft wide receiver Troy Williamson with the pick they acquired for Randy Moss, they also picked the South Carolina wideout ahead of USC's Mike Williams. And it's hard not to feel bad for the guy about this -- Williamson always will be compared to Moss and Williams. So far, the comparisons are not favorable.
In training camp, Williamson has struggled to consistently hold onto the football. Right now, he has an ankle problem that's impinging on his practice and playing time. But even before he injured himself Tuesday night, Williams was running as the Vikings No. 5 receiver -- not something a team expects out of the No. 7 overall pick.
And the Vikings scouting department is fortunate their former owner, Red McCombs, sold the team. Because prior to the draft, the Vikings had to explain to McCombs -- a big University of Texas backer -- why they were passing up Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson. Some in the Vikings organization thought Johnson tackled more like a cornerback than a linebacker and he wasn't physical enough. But this summer, Johnson has excelled while Williamson has struggled. It's still early, but eventually, Williamson is going to have to go Daunte and get his roll on.
There are those in the Vikings organization who believe Mewelde Moore, not Michael Bennett, should be Minnesota's starting running back. But ever since Moore failed to catch a swing pass from Culpepper last season against the Giants, and the play turned into a crucial turnover that helped cost Minnesota the game, the running back has fallen out of favor. Vikings coach Mike Tice prefers Bennett, a former Pro Bowl running back in 2002. But Moore averaged almost two more yards per carry last season than Bennett. And some believe Moore is the most versatile, talented back on the Vikings roster.
Speaking of Daunte Culpepper, one of the biggest reasons the Vikings traded Moss was to hand over the team's undisputed leader role to its quarterback. From the moment Moss was dealt to Oakland, Minnesota became Culpepper's team. But even when Moss was in Minnesota, he wasn't always the leader, not in the way the Vikings would have liked. Moss didn't lead the Vikings in receptions last season; tight end Jermaine Wiggins did with 71 catches, despite missing two games. Moss didn't lead the Vikings in receiving yards last season; Nate Burleson did, with 1,006 yards worth of receptions. Moss didn't lead the Vikings the way the front office wanted; Culpepper did. Now, without the player who became synonymous with the franchise, Wiggins, Burleson and Culpepper must lead the Vikings back to the playoffs.
A prediction: They will.