Next week, I'll reprise conspiracy theories regarding the pending sale of the Vikings, but, for now, there is concrete news to address. And it is news that should be encouraging for those fans who believe that a large part of the Vikings' defensive problems last season stemmed from the woeful play of their linebacking corps, as well as for those fans who were concerned about the thinning receiving corps and the lack of a proven backup at quarterback.
While the Vikings, as currently comprised, appear intent on giving Donterrious Thomas another shot at starting as an outside linebacker, it also appears that the team finally is willing to concede that E.J. Henderson is not the middle linebacker of the immediate future. That concencession is much easier to make, of course, when the team has a fall-back plan, as the Vikings now do.
On Friday morning, the New York Jets agreed to trade middle linebacker Sam Cowart to the Vikings in exchange for one of the Vikings' two seventh-round draft selections in the 2005 draft. While a seventh-round pick is about as valuable as a warm bucket of spit, Cowart's value to the Vikings--should he recover from injuries that pushed him out of the starter's role with the Jets last season--is significantly higher.
Just 30 years of age, Cowart should have several serviceable years left in the tank should he regain his health. But even a somewhat balky Cowart promises to be a significant upgrade over a fully healthy E.J. Henderson circa 2004. In his last full season as a starter, 2003, Cowart tallied 140 tackles, and most players and coaches around the league regard him as an ideal middle linebacker personality--clear on assignments and able to pick up the schemes. His past association with Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell should also be a plus.
As I have noted on several previous occassions, it is the rare NFL team that wins a championship employing a middle linebacker with less than four years of NFL experience. In fact, no time without several Pro Bowl defenders manning the remaining defensive positions has ever won the Super Bowl with a middle linebacker with less than four years of NFL experience.
And the reason for this is apparent. While college linebackers might enter the NFL with considerable physical attributes, it generally takes them some time to catch up with the speed of the NFL game and, more significantly, to learn to read offensive sets. The latter quality is increasingly imperative in a middle linebacker as league rule changes and heightened offensive sophistication have conspired against inexperienced linebackers, requiring them to learn the game from the outside position or on the bench. That's particularly true of middle linebackers who play in the 4-3 system that the Vikings employ.
Cowart's experience, and track record, suggest that he is an ideal fit for the Vikings. Cowart brings Pro Bowl-caliber experience to the Vikings, even if his play is no longer up to that lofty standard. If healthy, he should be a great addition.
Cowart's addition also means that E.J. Henderson will either move outside or to the bench. Some have speculated that the Vikings might employ a 3-4 defense with Cowart and Henderson in the middle, but that makes little sense given the other personnel currently at the Vikings' disposal. Despite the additon of Cowart, linebacker remains a weak spot for the 2005 Vikings. It is still unclear who will play the outside positions with Claiborne gone, but, even grangting one outside role to Napoleon Harris, the Vikings need to find a healthy, able player to fill the other outside spot. That could be Raonall Smith, Mike Nattiel, Donterrious Thomas or even E.J. Henderson. Or it could be someone who the Vikings add following the June 1st cuts or whom they add through the draft. But the host of question marks at starting positions makes a shift to the 3-4 unlikely.
But an even more compelling argument against a Vikings' shift to the 3-4 set is that the Vikings do not have two legitimate defensive ends on their current roster. Moreover, a move to a 3-4 defense would leave either Kevin or Patrick Williams without a position. Given that those two players apppear to be the most NFL-worthy along the current front four--assuming P. Williams is healthy and in shape--the change to a 3-4 doesn't appear to fit the Vikings' defensive line personnel. Given this issue, and the lack of viable linebackers, fans should expect to see a continuation of the 4-3 through 2005, even if it is less suited to stopping the West Coast offense than is the 3-4.
Building the Receiver Corps
The Vikings also made news earlier this week when they signed free agent Travis Taylor, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens. Taylor did not exactly set the world on fire as a receiver with the Ravens last season, but, then, what it means to set the world on fire is a matter of perspective. Had Taylor played with the Vikings last season, he would have ranked fifth among Vikings' receivers in catches and yardage. That would make him the fourth receiver for the 2004 Vikings.
This looks like a good pickup for the Vikings, however, particularly when one considers that Taylor put up his stats in a quarterback-challenged Ravens' offense. Playing for Baltimore, Taylor might have had better numbers had he been able to throw to himself, because the alternative was to have a Ravens quarterback--and I use that term loosely--throw to him. Without an option, Taylor was stuck, and his numbers, in that light, appear better than they would for some other number four receiver.
The Vikings will need to make an early determination on Taylor's role with the team in 2005 as the team assesses whether to take a wide receiver with the number seven overall pick in the draft. If the Vikings believe that Taylor is a legitimate number two receiver, the Vikings might go with defense with the number seven and the number eighteen picks.
With Taylor in the fold, the Vikings' wide receiver corps is beginning to have some shape, if not some depth. Nate Burleson stands as the current number one, with Marcus Robinson and Taylor battling for the number two role. With Robinson's injury history and fall-off in production at the end of last season, the tip of the hat in that race likely falls to Taylor. That still leaves Robinson as the number 3, assuming that the Vikings are convinced that Taylor is a slot receiver to Robinson's downfield threat--in which case, the two would flop.
Kelly Campbell also remains in the mix, despite his recent legal problems. Campbell will battle for the number four receiver spot along with a host of other heretofore non-starters. If Campbell stays clean from here on out and can demonstrate an ability to contribute on special teams--a big question mark--he will sew up the position. If not, he will probably be released.
Welcome home Brad Johnson. The former ninth-round Vikings' draft choice has agreed to terms with the Vikings that should make Johnson the backup for a few years in Minnesota. There is little doubt that Johnson can fill the roll as backup and there is little question that he has resigned himself to that roll. That makes him a perfect fit behind Daunte Culpepper and relieves a source of angst for the Vikings' personnel people who were aware that Shaun Hill was not yet ready to serve such a role in the NFL.
*As a footnote to the Cowart deal, Vikings' capologist Rob Brzezinski released a statement on Friday in which he contended that the deal that brought Sam Cowart to the Vikings was made possible by the Vikings' trade of Randy Moss and the Vikings' subsequent receipt of a seventh-round pick. That pick, Brzezinski contended, gave the Vikings sufficient depth with the number of selections in this year's draft, to trade a seventh-round pick for Cowart. Never mind that the Jets, in all likelihood, would have released Cowart absent this deal (in which case one could make the argument that the Vikings overpaid for Cowart), it is clear that the Vikings' front office is now trying to justify the Moss trade by pointing to the benefits to the defense that the trade made possible. That's unfortunate.
Up Next: Back to the Draft and Free Agency.