All this, and Tarvaris Jackson, too?
The Vikings have become a justifiably chic pick to contend for both the NFC North crown and the NFC title in '08, thanks to a major acquisition along the defensive line and the continued ascendancy of one of the game's most exciting young players at running back. Considering how stout the defensive tackles have been for years, and how vicious the left side of the offensive line is, Minnesota deserves the ton of attention it will no doubt receive starting July 25 in Mankato, Minn.
But in the end, it may all come down to Tarvaris.
Surely, opposing defenses are going to try to make the Vikings' passing game beat them. It's what successful foes did against Minnesota last year, and Jackson wasn't up to the challenge often enough, throwing 12 interceptions and just nine touchdowns, posting a quarterback rating of 70.8, and often looking so terrible with his mechanics that announcers felt obligated to break down why his throws were so poor. The Vikings' coaching staff has told every reporter in the Land of 1,000 Lakes that Jackson looked 100 percent better in minicamp, but the fact remains: This is a quarterback who connected on 4 of 36 attempts of 20 yards or longer in '07. He has a long way to go on a team that otherwise looks absolutely stacked. Can he do enough to keep defenses honest? Or is Minnesota looking at another year of nothing but eight-man fronts?
What to look for in camp
Fitting in: The biggest trade acquisition of this offseason was certainly DE Jared Allen, who brings 38 sacks in the past three years north from Kansas City. Allen signed the richest contract ever for a defensive player in April, and if he can stay out of trouble off the field (he has two DUIs), he figures to be terrific for the Vikings. Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are dominant in the middle on this defensive line (the Vikings allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL last year), and this linebacking corps can bring heat when it needs to. For sure, Allen is going to be doubled on nearly every play, but that should only add to the chances for DE Ray Edwards (who'll be opposite Allen) to become an IDP option.
Bernard Berrian has never posted a 1,000-yard season or caught more than six touchdowns in one campaign, but he was a sought-after free agent this winter and landed a big bonus and a large overall contract with the Vikings. A very nice downfield threat with a 14.6 career yards-per-catch average, Berrian will have his fantasy owners worrying about Tarvaris Jackson's seeming inability to go deep in '07, and also about the apparent overlap in skills with Sidney Rice. If both guys are constantly running straight down the field, they're going to cannibalize stats from one another.
Madieu Williams replaces Dwight Smith at free safety, a move on which the Vikings probably overpaid, but they were tired of Smith's own off-field troubles. Williams isn't a big hitter, and neither is his running mate Darren Sharper, so it'll be interesting to see if there's too much overlap (and not enough thunder) in this duo in the middle of the defense.
Finally, Thomas Tapeh will have to replace 2007 Pro Bowler Tony Richardson at fullback, an important position in Brad Childress' West Coast offense. Now, Richardson may have earned that Pro Bowl bid as kind of an emeritus position; he's not the same guy he was back in his Kansas City days (he's moved on to the Jets in '08), but he can still flatten a linebacker. Tapeh did nice work leading for Brian Westbrook in Philly, but probably isn't quite the blocker Richardson is, even at age 36. Adrian Peterson should still be under consideration for the first overall pick in your fantasy draft regardless of who's blocking for him, but it would be nice to see Tapeh blend in well early.
On the line: If it's available, the left side is terrific. Tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson are excellent run-blockers, and if McKinnie occasionally has lapses in the passing game, the Vikings can live with it. What they may not be able to live with are McKinnie's legal troubles. He has a court hearing scheduled for Sept. 24 and faces four charges, including felony battery, stemming from a Feb. 24 incident. He allegedly got kicked out of a Miami nightclub, spat in a bouncer's face, then later returned and hit the bouncer in the head with a pole. The NFL is keeping close tabs on his situation, and may suspend McKinnie even in advance of his day in court. If the big left tackle is gone, swingman Artis Hicks will probably take his place. Hicks was a starting guard last year, but the offense really took off when Anthony Herrera replaced him on the right side. Matt Birk is slowing down a little but is still effective at center, and right tackle Ryan Cook, best known as the guy selected with the draft pick Minnesota got for Daunte Culpepper, is young and adequate.
On the mend: Defensive tackle Pat Williams had an "offseason procedure on his arm," according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but has begun weight training as of June. He's a run-stuffing force, so he needs to be healthy for this team to be effective. Slot receiver Bobby Wade had an arthroscopic procedure on his knee, and was back to full speed in minicamp. And CB Antoine Winfield had chest surgery this winter, and is supposedly back to full strength. The perimeter of the Vikes' secondary is perhaps its one shaky area; Winfield and Cedric Griffin have big names, but were consistently beaten when quarterbacks had time in '07. The hope, clearly, is that quarterbacks won't have time in '08.
The bottom line
McKinnie needs to be there, Berrian needs to get open, Allen needs to wreak havoc, but really it all comes down to Tarvaris Jackson. If he makes a leap forward in his progress as an NFL quarterback, the Vikings should contend. If he doesn't, they won't. Watch his completion percentage, watch to see if he's hitting receivers downfield, and watch if there are articles that continue to complain about his mechanics. If he can't get the basics settled by camp, Minnesota might waste a golden opportunity.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.