Football season couldn’t have come at a better time. With the Twins being such frustrating teases all season long, hovering around six games back with a chance to get back in the pennant race but not being quite good enough to win the games they should win, it’s nice that they aren’t the only game in town anymore.
Vikings Free Agency
This off season was a particularly painful one for Vikings fans. In a weak market for receivers, the team went after one high profile guy in Kevin Curtis and settled on Bobby Wade, a guy who had a well-deserved reputation for dropping passes. The team signed a tight end no one had ever heard of in Visanthe Shiancoe, a special teams ace in linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, injured safety Mike Doss, receiver Cortez Hankton and another "wide receiver" Todd Lowber, a guy who has never played football.
So you’re thinking, great, the rebuilding continues…with average players. I do not remember a more dispiriting Vikings off season.
The Vikings Draft
But then the 2007 Vikings draft rolls around and the picks give you reason to hope. Adrian Peterson is clearly a talented and explosive back but who has durability issues. We stocked up on receivers with Sidney Rice, Aundrae Allison, and Chandler Williams; took a cornerback who was project to be a first round pick last year in Marcus McCauley; got depth at linebacker with Rufus Alexander; took a pass rushing defensive end in Brian Robison; and got another young gun in quarterback Tyler Thigpen.
The draft gave me a bit of hope. If he stays healthy Adrian Peterson could be an amazing running back; Sidney Rice, at 6′ 4" is a nice tall target and Allison and Chandler Williams have got speed. Then there’s Marcus McCauley, the first-round grade cornerback.
Hope springs eternal during the preseason and I’m perfectly happy to oblige.
The Vikings Preseason
The Vikings are heading into the 2007 season with essentially three number one draft picks. There’s Adrian Peterson, of course, but If you also count Marcus McCauley, who, as I said, most people consider a first round talent, and last year’s first round pick Chad Greenway, who didn’t play last year because of injury, we’ve got three first rounders this year.
You have to figure the offensive line will be better–hopefully much improved–after a year together in the zone blocking scheme. So the only questions on offense are 1) playcalling, 2) Tarvaris Jackson, and the wide receiving corps.
The defense looks to have gotten stronger with a healthy Greenway, a healthy Dovonte Edwards and Tank Williams, and the addition of McCauley and Mike Doss. I think we’ve got four starters at the corners, intense competition at safety, more speed at linebacker, and the only question is at the defensive end positions.
I was very impressed with Ray Edwards last season and now he’s got a year’s experience under his belt. But it remains to be seen how Erasmus James will bounce back from his injury and Kenechi Udeze has done nothing to warrant anyone’s confidence.
I don’t know if special teams can get much worse than last year, so we’ll see what happens there.
So what do we know after two preseason games? So far, so good.
The offense looks to be better for having been liberated from Childress‘ playcalling script.
Thus far, Tarvaris Jackson hasn’t done anything to make you groan but he hasn’t had many chances to make mistakes yet, either. He has lead a few impressive drives, he looks decisive, and he hasn’t had any center/quarterback exchange problems, so his concentration is good.
But if Jackson isn’t the real deal, then we’re in real trouble.
Against St. Louis, the Vikings got the ball to Troy Williamson early and frequently and the receiver caught all the catches you expect him to make. On the one he didn’t haul in, it was a difficult catch because the ball was thrown high and Williamson had a receiver draped all over him. He probably should’ve caught it, but at this point, who are we to quibble? It’s progress.
Against the Jets, Williamson got a long bomb down the right sideline and he fought for position with the defender, got the position, looked to have a bead on the ball with his hands in position for the catch but the safety came in to swat the ball away before Williamson could have a chance at it.
It is notable that they haven’t yet thrown to him down the left sideline. Williamson has historically had the ball slip through his arms on deep passes where he’s had to look over his right shoulder. That’s something to watch for in the remaining preseason games.
Bobby Wade is as advertised. He’s a catch and run slot guy who has caught nearly everything thrown to him. So far he’s proved me wrong about him being stone-handed. He did not make a tough third down pass that would have given the Vikes a fresh set of downs but he did have a defender all over him. Still, he should’ve caught the ball. He’s shown several times that he’s got the ability to make people miss and make a lot of yards after the catch, so that’s very good.
Wad is also an excellent blocker, a talent he showed off on Peterson’s 43 yard run against the Jets by sealing one defender to allow Peterson to get out on the edge, then moving on to another which freed Peterson up for a long run.
What little we’ve seen of Sidney Rice thus far has been good. He’s a big guy who’s not afraid to catch the ball in a crowd. Aundrae Allison and Chandler Williams have yet to make an impression, but Martin Nance has had a few nice nabs.
New tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has not yet shown up as a receiver, so we’ll watch for him to make some plays.
We didn’t get to see much of what Adrian Peterson can do against the Rams but man did we in his performance against the Jets. The shake and bake, the spin, the acceleration; we haven’t seen that in a running back since Robert Smith. You could see his power when he hit congestion at the line and moved the pile. For all his toughness, we didn’t see a lot of that from Chester Taylor last season. Peterson looked like he was hitting the holes a little too quickly at times but the patience should come. If he learns to pick up blitzes effectively, we could be in for a lot of entertaining football. Here are Peterson’s highlights from the Jets game:
The offensive line looks good enough but depth is still an issue; against the Jets, Marcus Johnson demonstrated yet again his trouble picking up the outside rush.
Well, it looks like the defense will still be the strength of the team and very possibly much better than last year.
The defense has been fantastic thus far. Against the Rams, linebacker Dontarrious Thomas took his pick 82 yards to the house for the Vikings’ only touchdown and safety Dwight Smith picked Marc Bulger to end another Rams’ drive. Against the Jets, both Darren Sharper and Chad Greenway returned interceptions for touchdowns and rookie Brian Robison recovered a fumble for a score.
I think the secondary is stronger than last year. A healthy Tank Williams and newcomer Mike Doss provide competition and depth at the safety spots. If they both make the team, we’ll have experienced starters as backups regardless of what the depth chart looks like.
At the corners we’ve got Winfield and Cedric Griffin, who I liked a lot last year. He’s got a year under his belt and should only improve. Marcus McCauley has looked solid so far and Dovonte Edwards is healthy and had a pick against the Jets. Those two will battle for the nickel spot and regardless who wins the spot, we’ll have an upgrade in both speed and talent at both the nickel and the dime positions.
At linebacker we lost Napoleon Harris and so E.J. Henderson will move to the middle linebacking position. He didn’t fare so well at that position early in his career but he had a fantastic season last year and let’s hope that experience and maturity will help him excel at the Mike position.
Ben Leber returns after a solid season last year and Greenway is healthy. Chad Greenway didn’t do much against the Rams but he was outstanding against the Jets. In addition to scoring on an interception return, he lead the team in tackles and sniffed out a screen and tackled the Jets’ back for a loss. He’s very fast, so our drop coverage in the Tampa 2 will probably improve. Dontarrious Thomas provides depth as a roaming backer but with rookie Rufus Alexander lost for the year (what is it with linebackers and season-ending injuries?) with an ACL injury and Jason Glenn retiring, we’re a little thin at the position.
Ray Edwards has been a rock star at defensive end so far this preseason; in both games he’s put consistent pressure on the quarterback and his rush of Chad Pennington caused the ill-advised pass that Greenway picked off for a score.
It has been rookie Brian Robison who has had the most eye-opening performance this preseason. He had one sack against the Rams and was absolutely unstoppable, putting constant pressure on the passer. But I withheld judgment until I got to see him play against a first-team line. Against the Jet, Robison had four tackles, one sack, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
I was wrong about Robison. When the Vikings picked him, it looked like a reach to me. I was really wrong. The guy is lightning-quick. He made D’Brickshaw Ferguson look like he was playing in water and put some pretty good moves on the tackle on his way to the quarterback.
On one play he motored in around the tackle and though he didn’t have a chance for a sack, he batted the ball out of Kellen Clemens‘ hands for a forced fumble that the Jets recovered. On the very next play, the Jets center snapped an errant ball that Clemens couldn’t reach from the shotgun position.
Robison, of course, was there in the backfield and as Clemens reached down for the ball, he smartly pushed the quarterback out of the way, and all in one motion scooped up the ball, and dove into the end zone for the score. A lot of players would have either tried to tackle the quarterback or dove for the ball but Robison realized he’d have a clearer path to the ball by simply pushing the QB out of the way.
If Erasmus James returns to his former self and we can get either Edwards or Robison to play the opposite side, we won’t have to worry about whether or not Udeze fulfills his promise.
Leslie Frazier‘s defense looks very much like Mike Tomlin‘s of last year, except with more blitzing. It’s been effective. We may even see some 46 defense.
Vinny Ciurciu doesn’t seem to have improved the coverage units measurably, so that remains a weakness. Alex Reyes, however, may just beat out Chris Kluwe for the punter position on the strength of his kickoff power and his directional punting ability. Reyes’ kickoffs haven’t been particularly consistent but at least he’s hit some to the one and three yard lines. Neither Kluwe nor Reyes has displayed much power on their punts, but Reyes can do the coffin corner.
It was impressive to see the field goal unit quickly assemble on field as time ticked away before the half of the Jets game and nail a 54 yard field goal as time expired.
And, by the way, it was a 54 yard field goal. Outside. In wet weather. Last year, Ryan Longwell was solid inside the forty but had trouble with the longer field goals.
Next Saturday: Seattle Seahawks
We should get to see some extended play of Tarvaris Jackson on Saturday and I expect he’ll throw a lot. Expect the ball to be thrown primarily to Troy Williamson, Sidney Rice, Aundrae Allison and Visanthe Shiancoe.
The defensive spotlight will shine on Erasmus James to see how his recovery has progressed.