If the Minnesota Vikings did not already have plenty of off-season concerns, they do now. With the decision this week to release dunderheaded safety Dwight Smith and the on-going medical treatment of Kenechi Udeze, the Vikings now have two sizeable gaps to fill that they had not anticipated having had to fill when the off-season began. For the Vikings, that means not only filling additional holes, but probably diverting time and resources to scouring the ranks for players that already are in short supply in the NFL.
Entering the off-season, the Vikings considered both safety and defensive end priorities. The priorities were, however, to find players capable of backing up or supplanting Darren Sharper and Erasmus James. With Smith gone and Udeze likely out for the 2008 season, the Vikings now find themselves in need of two safeties and two defensive ends. And for Vikings' fans who have preached patience with the current coaching regime, the fact that such players will be more difficult to find than ever before will be a difficult pill to swallow.
The difficulties facing the Vikings are greater, of course, than the mere loss of a starting safety and a starting defensive end. For the Vikings, the losses represent chinks in the armor of what was to have been the team's constant heading into the 2008 season. Other than running back and possibly linebacker, the Vikings were as comfortable with Udeze and Smith as they were with starters at most other positions. That might have been a bit of a pollyanna assessment on the part of the Vikings, but it was an assessment that at least focused the team's attention on the more glaring needs of wide receiver, offensive line, receiving tight end, and James' defensive end position. Now the calculus has changed.
The alternative to replacing Smith with a new player is to find Smith's replacement from within. The most obvious choice would be to move Sharper back to his preferred free safety position and to move Mike Doss or Tank Williams to strong safety. With Doss out for the bulk of the 2007 season with an injury and unlikely to return to the Vikings in 2008, Williams appears the more likely in-house candidate to take over the strong safety duties should Sharper move to free safety--assuming the Vikings re-sign the oft-injured, soon-to-be free agent. Even that would still leave the Vikings precariously thin at a safety position for which the team will have an even greater need for proficiency in 2008 with the weakening of the defensive line. Still, finding a backup safety is an easier proposition than is finding a bona fide starter at the position.
The Vikings have a similar option at defensive end, though the options there are more limited given the poor play of former first-round bust Erasmus James. Third-year pro Ray Edwards has shown promise as a defensive end, but he's also playing with one league suspension already in his hip pocket for steroid abuse. That doesn't make him a risk on the field, but it does make him a risk should he again fail a league test and it might make the Vikings consider whether to ink Edwards in as a fixture at end.
Darrion Scott is another player who has shown some promise, if more limited, at defensive end. Unfortunately, like Edwards, Scott, too, is in the NFL's doghouse. And, unlike Edwards, Scott's positive test for marijuana use means that Scott is just one toke and test away from being out of options with Minnesota.
That leaves just Brian Robison as an option to which the Vikings reasonably could turn for help from within at defensive end in 2008. As promising as Robison looked at the beginning of the 2007 season, it is clear that, even if he progresses in 2008, the Vikings will need to look outward for help at defensive end. And that's not a very savory option.
The unfortunate part of all of this for long-suffering Vikings' fans is that one screwball player and one unfortunate medical case have put the Vikings where some of us predicted they would be if and when head coach Brad Childress' five-year plan for the offense finally materialized--only two seasons sooner. Rather than having a capable offense to pair with a strong defense, the Vikings will be hoping to have a near-capable offense to pair with a suddenly hurting defense. And if players like Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams begin to sustain injuries, that five-year plan could turn quickly into another 45-year plan.
Up Next: Free Agency. Plus, Snyder webs.