It's easy to be deceived as to how good an NFL team was in a given season by looking at its record. Yes, the Vikings went 10-6 and won the NFC North last year, but was this really a team worthy of making the playoffs? After all, they beat the winless Lions by scores of only 12-10 and 20-16. They narrowly edged the Packers 28-27 when Mason Crosby's last-second field goal try went just wide, and if not for a 50-yard Ryan Longwell field goal at the gun in Week 17, they wouldn't have beaten the "nothing to play for" Giants.
We're not exactly talking world-beaters here. Sure, Adrian Peterson shined again with 1,760 yards rushing, but he managed only 10 touchdowns and gained close to a full yard less per carry than the season before. Gus Frerotte, who very well might be headed to the rocking chair of retirement, was sacked 29 times in 11 games after taking over for an ineffective Tarvaris Jackson, who despite being far more fleet of foot than Frerotte, was sacked 14 times himself in far fewer snaps.
The defense continues to be the best in the league at stopping the run, and although the Vikes could use a boost in the secondary after allowing the fifth-most passing plays of 20 or more yards in the NFL, it's otherwise solid. Clearly, however, this is not a team that could afford to stand pat in the offseason on the offensive side of things. Drafting Percy Harvin gives Minnesota a speed threat it has been sorely lacking, and when the team traded for Sage Rosenfels, it got a quarterback who is far more comfortable throwing the ball downfield than Jackson is.
But of course, looming over the organization was the big elephant in the room, wearing No. 4 on his back, keeping the whole 2009 season outlook in limbo
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Who is going to be quarterback for the Vikings in 2009? Back in January, the ESPN fantasy team was asked to predict the events of the coming year, and one of my responses in the "fill-in the blank" section was as follows: "Brett Favre will end up wearing purple." Well, after a lengthy "Will he or won't he?" offseason that was far better suited to a Sandra Bullock-Keanu Reeves romantic comedy, the old man has apparently, for now, decided to stay retired.
No matter Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson were going to be competing for a job either way, and now that battle appears to be for the job of outright starter. So far, the two have been running neck and neck, and Brad Childress has gone on record on the Vikings' official Web site that it will be a "fair competition" once the preseason starts. But with Percy Harvin being incorporated into a "wildcat" package, Jackson is essentially obsolete. Not only that, but with Jackson in the final year of his contract, and John David Booty signed until 2011, it makes far more sense for the long term for Minnesota to keep Booty as the team's No. 3 and pick up a cheaper, veteran presence to back up Rosenfels going forward now that the elephant has gone back to Mississippi.
Harvin's arrival also means that Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade will be competing to be the No. 3 receiver in this year's offense. The edge would seem to go to Wade, who is a much better possession receiver and more suited to a role catching passes over the middle in traffic. We're not sure Rice will be up to the wear and tear of such a role, given his history of knee problems. Cincinnati castoff Glenn Holt also might factor in this discussion, but if he makes the roster, we expect him to be used more on kick returns than anywhere else.
On the docket: One of the primary concerns for Minnesota coming into this season was the looming four-game suspensions of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, otherwise known as "The Williams Wall." With a judge having granted a temporary restraining order to the pair of defensive tackles on July 9, the duo appear to be able to start the season in the Vikings' lineup. Even if they don't win their lawsuit, with this ruling, they very likely will be able to postpone any disciplinary action by the league until after the 2009 season is over.
The Vikings' run defense is incredibly dominant, holding opposing teams to only 76.9 yards per game on the ground. They probably would still be a solid unit with Serena and Venus Williams on the line instead of Pat and Kevin. With the Wall firmly in place, and a healthy E.J. Henderson providing support from the linebacker position, you might want to bench any and all running backs when you see "MIN" on the schedule.
On the line: With Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson manning the left side of the line, the Vikings are in good shape there. They do lose center Matt Birk, who signed with the Ravens, and second-year man John Sullivan is a definite step down in quality. On the right side of the line, the trio of Anthony Herrera, Ryan Cook and Phil Loadholt likely will share time in the two remaining spots. Loadholt, drafted in the second round out of Oklahoma, is a huge space filler who should help Adrian Peterson's stats immensely, but he might have some trouble stopping speedy pass-rushers from slipping around him into the backfield. Let's hope Sage Rosenfels has learned from past mistakes (remember Indianapolis?) and now knows what to do when the jailbreak comes.
The bottom line
We're not going to say the Vikings would have been selling their soul to the devil by signing Brett Favre, but even the mere courtship of the veteran in the first place indicates how ready the organization thinks it is for a Super Bowl run right now. Now that he has passed on throwing passes, that's an awful lot of expectation to put in the hands of Sage Rosenfels.
However, the defense is standout. Adrian Peterson is a first-round fantasy draft pick, if not first overall. Percy Harvin, just by his mere presence on the field, will open things up for Bernard Berrian and, if he lives up to even half the hype, will supercharge this formerly one-dimensional offense. Really, all Minnesota needs is someone who knows what he's doing at quarterback to not screw things up too much. Favre would have been the answer. Tarvaris Jackson certainly isn't the guy.
I guess Rosenfels is the guy they'll have to settle for. Best of luck, gentlemen!
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.