NFC North: Leslie Frrazier
|AP Photo/Jim Mone|
|With Brett Favre out of the picture, the Vikings' quarterback competition comes down to Tarvaris Jackson (7) and Sage Rosenfels (2).|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MANKATO, Minn. -- The scene was set for a rock concert. Now, temporary bleachers sit empty at one end of the practice fields at Minnesota State University, Mankato. A super-sized interview tent now seems out of place. One lowly blogger sits in the overflow media room.
Vikings training camp opened to a quiet and anticlimactic scene, one that once seemed destined to be dominated by the arrival of quarterback Brett Favre. Instead, the Vikings have been left with Plan B and C at quarterback as they prepare to defend their NFC North title. And a largely veteran roster has been left to pick up the pieces and steer clear of the letdown that surrounds it.
"That's our job as adults," defensive end Jared Allen said. "We're not in high school. You don't need to carry little grudges with you. It's professional football. [We're] professionals. Let's go do our job. Our job is to win games, defend our division championship and hopefully win the Super Bowl."
It's a fair question. After all, in a combined 11 NFL seasons, neither player has proved worthy of a full-time starting job. For what it's worth, camp hardly started in ideal fashion. Rosenfels appeared still to be growing comfortable with the offense while a sprained knee felled Jackson in the third practice.
Jackson's injury is not serious, but his long injury history illustrates the perils of counting on him to be a full-time starter. Rosenfels, meanwhile, is a career backup who now realizes the Vikings' offense isn't as familiar as he previously believed. His transition from Houston's version of the West Coast scheme will take some time.
|Tom Dahlin/Getty Images|
|Rookie Phil Loadholt is the early favorite to win the starting right tackle spot.|
But at this point, the Vikings have given themselves no choice but to count on one of them to step up after Favre turned down their overtures last month. In the competitive NFC North, that gambit could mean the difference between the division title and missing the playoffs.
2. Can the offensive line withstand the addition of two new starters?
Rookie Phil Loadholt appears set to take over the right tackle position, and his sheer girth -- 6-foot-8, 343 pounds -- will make it difficult for most defensive ends to get around him. Loadholt also looked relatively smooth as a run-blocker early in camp, and it's hard to imagine him losing a competition for the starting job.
The prognosis for new center John Sullivan, however, is not as certain. He is universally recognized as a smart player, but his ability to match up with the NFL's top defensive tackles has not been measured yet. From a physical standpoint, Sullivan might be at a disadvantage. The Vikings list Sullivan at 6-foot-4, but he has an odd build -- short legs and a long torso -- that make him look and play much shorter.
I asked Pro Bowl nose tackle Pat Williams if he thought Sullivan was ready.
"He doesn't have a choice," Williams said. "That's all we've got. He's still learning, but I think he'll be a good center for us."
Williams, however, also noted the long list of big defensive tackles Sullivan will have to match up against this year -- starting with Cleveland's Shaun Rogers in the Sept. 13 season opener.
"He's got to be strong," Williams said. "The guys he is going to be playing are some big dudes."
3. Are the Vikings prepared for the possibility of losing the Williams Wall?
The team is developing a contingency plan in the event that defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are forced to serve their four-game suspensions. (A Minnesota judge will decide by Aug. 7 whether the players' legal case can proceed in state court.) Few teams have starting-caliber defensive tackles in reserve, but the Vikings are hoping to patch together a decent lineup if they have to.
Fred Evans, Jimmy Kennedy and Letroy Guion have been working as the second-team defensive tackles during practice. Guion also has been working with the first-team nickel defense when Pat Williams takes a breather.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier acknowledged it will be "a bit of a drop-off" if Evans, Kennedy and/or Guion is forced into the starting lineup. But Frazier added: "We feel confident we will still be able to play good defense with those other guys in the lineup."
I think that's a fair way of looking at it. The question will be whether the replacements can hold their own, not whether they can maintain the NFL's top-rated run defense. That's an unrealistic expectation.
You have to wonder where veteran receiver Bobby Wade will fit in after the Vikings drafted receiver Percy Harvin and welcomed back a healthy Sidney Rice. Even with Harvin unsigned at the beginning of training camp, it seemed clear that Wade will lose some playing time after leading the team in receptions the past two seasons.
If everyone stays healthy, early indications are that Bernard Berrian, Rice and Harvin are first in line for snaps this season. Wade could share some slot responsibilities with Harvin, but the Vikings want the exciting rookie on the field as often as possible.
It's hard to imagine Wade not making the team after catching 107 passes since 2007. But he does appear to be in a fight for playing time that also includes youngsters Jaymar Johnson and Darius Reynaud. Depending on how many receivers they carry on the roster, the Vikings might have to decide whether to keep a reliable veteran or an intriguing up-and-comer.
Newcomer to watch
Harvin missed the first three days of training camp, but it wasn't difficult to see the multi-faceted role the team has mapped out for him.
Reynaud played Harvin's role during practice, roving all over the field -- much like Harvin did while playing at the University of Florida. It's also possible the Vikings will use Harvin as a punt and kickoff returner if he gets into camp soon enough.
Harvin is the kind of open-field runner who can change the dynamic of a game on one play. He'll give the Vikings the best weapon they've ever had in taking defensive attention away from tailback Adrian Peterson. If he and Peterson stay healthy, Harvin is an early candidate for rookie of the year.
Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is back after a pair of dislocated toes caused him to miss the final 12 games last season. In his first practice this summer, Henderson brought the entire defense together to discuss his goals for this season. "You could hear a pin drop in our huddle," Frazier said. Henderson is normally a quiet leader. "For him to do that," Frazier said, "it makes everyone feel as if this is for real. No more playing around." ... The Vikings signed free agent Karl Paymah ostensibly as their nickelback, but early in camp he was playing with the third team. Benny Sapp, Marcus McCauley and rookie Asher Allen were rotating at nickel. ... Coaches would like to get Peterson more involved in the passing game, but so far tailback Chester Taylor has gotten most of the third-down snaps. "We have a Chester Taylor and we might as well use him," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. ... Peterson on rushing for 2,000 yards in a season: "It is something I think about and dream about." ... With Loadholt the likely starter at right tackle, Ryan Cook is getting a chance to win a backup center/tackle job.