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Ranking the new Vikings - from the good to the bad

From The San Jose Mercury News
BY DON SEEHOLZER
Knight Ridder Newspapers

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Vikings earned high marks for their offseason spending spree, including a spring endorsement from SI.com as the NFL's most improved team.

Through five games, though, they don't have a lot to show for it.

Despite the addition of five new starters, the Vikings have the NFL's 23rd-ranked defense and last-ranked run defense heading into Sunday's game against Green Bay, and their 1-4 record has them in a last-place tie with the Packers in the league's worst division, the anemic NFC North.

There are many other reasons for that, starting with the stunning free fall of quarterback Daunte Culpepper, but the Vikings were expecting bigger things after acquiring seven veterans via free agency or trades.

Today, we put them under the microscope, ranking the Vikings' veteran pickups from boom to bust.

BOOM

Nose tackle Pat Williams (unrestricted free agent, Buffalo): Don't blame the Vikings' No. 32-ranked run defense on him. Williams has earned every penny of the $6 million he got in signing and roster bonuses.

In fact, he has been more of a force so far than the man he was brought in to complement, all-pro defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

Pat Williams has done more than take some of the double-teams off his running mate. He has made plays, never more so than in last week's 28-3 loss at Chicago when Williams, back in the 3-4 defense he was accustomed to in Buffalo, dominated Pro Bowl Bears center Olin Kreutz to the tune of seven tackles and a forced fumble.

If a few more players were performing at Williams' level, the Vikings' defensive ranking and record would be a whole lot better.

Wide receiver Travis Taylor (UFA, Baltimore): After five seasons in the Ravens' Stone Age offense, Taylor was looking forward to a career's worth of catches.

Instead, the former No. 1 draft choice has had to settle for being the Vikings' biggest free-agent bargain.

With Nate Burleson missing the past three games because of a sprained knee ligament, Taylor also has emerged as the team's No. 1 wide receiver with 20 receptions (second only to tight end Jermaine Wiggins' 26) for 252 yards and two touchdowns.

If not for Culpepper's struggles, those numbers would be better, but Taylor has had his moments, including a seven-catch game against Cincinnati and a two-touchdown outing in the Vikings' 33-16 win over New Orleans.

Not a bad return on the team's two-year, $3.2 million investment.

B TEAM

Cornerback Fred Smoot (UFA, Washington): The Vikings' most expensive offseason acquisition got off to a rough start this summer, missing almost all of training camp and three of four exhibition games because of neck and knee injuries.

Smoot hasn't played poorly, but he and Antoine Winfield have yet to live up to their preseason billing as one of the NFL's top cornerback tandems.

To be fair, there have been several games when Smoot wasn't allowed to play the pressing, man-to-man style that led the Vikings to offer him a six-year, $37.55 million contract.

If he and this team are going to turn this season around, the Vikings need to turn Smoot loose and give him a chance to be the shutdown corner they thought they were buying.

FS Darren Sharper (free agent): The longtime Green Bay starter opened the season with a bang with an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown in the season opener against Tampa Bay.

Sharper has played just one game since, missing two weeks because of a sprained knee ligament, so it remains to be seen whether he's still the playmaker who went to two Pro Bowls while with the Packers or the aging, declining player they considered him to be when they let him go.

LB Sam Cowart (trade, New York Jets): The coaches felt good enough about Cowart to move backup E.J. Henderson to weak-side linebacker during the preseason, and the eighth-year veteran has done a solid job of tackling and getting the defense lined up correctly.

He has missed one game because of a calf injury, however, so the jury is still out - given his age (30) and injury history - on whether he can hold up for an entire season.

BENCH-BOUND

Quarterback Brad Johnson (FA): The Vikings needed a proven backup behind Culpepper after Gus Frerotte left for Miami, and Johnson, on the street after being released by Tampa Bay, has an impressive resume that includes a Super Bowl title in 2002 with the Buccaneers.

Despite Culpepper's struggles and countless fan e-mails, Johnson has yet to get into a game, though, except as a holder on field goals and extra points. That could be a commentary on his skills or Culpepper's fragile psyche or both.

BUST

Linebacker Napoleon Harris (trade, Oakland): There's no sugarcoating this one. Harris, acquired in the Randy Moss trade, has been a major flop. In fact, if not for his involvement in that trade, Harris likely would have lost his starting strong-side linebacker job long before last week.

Before ascending to the starting job, Keith Newman did more in considerably less playing time than Harris, who had nine tackles in four games before being benched and has done nothing to shed his Raiders reputation as a wasted No. 1 pick.