Depth is the most important aspect of a championship team. The NFL season is long and unpredictable—the team more able to play at a high level despite injuries or fatigue is the one able to win in February. The New York Giants, with their stellar defensive line rotation and formidable stable of four (four!) tailbacks who contributed over the season beat down the fatigued Patriots offensive line and thirty-something year-old linebacking corps. There’s been much bally-hoo over the success of the 2007 New York draft, which netted eight rookie contributors to the Super Bowl champions. Clearly, it takes much more than a fantastic group of 22 starters to win championships.
The Vikings are a deep team. Second-line players contribute in sub-package situations—in nickle and dime defenses, in goal-line packages, 4- and 5-wide-receiver sets—on special-teams units, and as full-on replacements due to injury. Here’s a look at some of the reserves most likely to see the field for the Minnesota offense this season:
QB: I don’t buy the argument that John David Booty will see action this year, much less be starting by December. If we see the rookie from USC starting against the patsy schedule of the Lions, Cardinals, Falcons, and Giants (who may or not be playing for anything during the last week of the year), it won’t be because the Vikes or Jackson have struggled, but that something has gone terribly awry with the health of both T-Jack and Ferrotte. That said, Ferrotte is a definite upgrade from both Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcombe, who went a combined 0-4 as starters last season. Though he’s spent a career on the move between several organizations, we should expect Ferrotte to perform admirably in spot-duty and as a mentor for our young quarterback.
RB: “The President” Chester Taylor is the best backup in the league, hands down. A recent piece at ESPN.com lists him as the 26th best running back in the league, over quite a few starters. What second-stringer is better? Marion Barber III, who was offictially a change-of-pace back to with the Cowboys last year, will now start with Jones’ move to Seattle. Former San Diego backup Michael Turner has signed a lucrative deal with the Falcons to start in Atlanta rather than play second-fiddle to LaDanian Tomlinson. Chester Taylor could start on half the teams in this league. He did start for the Purple in 2006, and he rushed for over 1,300 yards. He would still be the starter if not for the Purple Jesus, the offensive rookie of the year. Maurice Hicks was brought in this offseason to replace fan-favourite Mewelde Moore, who joined the Steelers.
FB/TE: I’ve put these position groups together because there is significant crossover in personnel with the Vikings—particularly beyond prsumed starters Thomas Tapeh and Visanthe Shiancoe. Versatility is key here. Garrett Mills, in particular, is one heckuva versatile player. In college, he lined up at everything from his listed position at tight end, to H-back (a position just behind the line, and very prevalent in Childress’s scheme), to a three-point fullback position, to the slot, and even (get this!) at tailback. In 2005, he set an NCAA record for receiving yards by a tight end, but wasn’t considered for the John Mackey award (for the best tight end) apparently because he didn’t line up often enough as a traditional in-line end. He was a fourth round pick by New England in the 2006 draft, was put on injured-reserve his rookie year (and often enough, players on IR with New England allegedly practice illegally), was waived shortly before this past season, but was snatched up by Brad The Red-Hot Childress Pepper before he made it to the Patriots practice squad. He has only two career NFL receptions, both against Denver in the 2007 season finale. At this point, he’s all potential—but watch out, Visanthe Schaincoe. Jeff Dugan and long-standing vet Jimmy Kleinsasser are two of the better reasons why the Vikings have been a stellar running team and poor passing team as of late. Both have seen time as in-line blockers and oversized fullbacks—and they’re maulers!—but neither pose much of a threat to catch or carry the ball. A football team will always have uses for guys like that to block in goal-line situations and on various kicking units. Nafui Tahi served as an all-purpose backup in the backfield last year, and will likely make the team to do the very same thing this year.
WR: Bobby Wade, Robert Ferguson, Aundrae Allison and Jaymar Johnson all figure to have an impact on the 2008 Vikings—if Childress can find room for 6 wide-outs on his 53-man roster. Imagine that! the Vikings with a surplus of useful receivers! Seriously. Bobby Wade won’t be competing for a roster-spot, but instead will see a lot of time in the slot when the Vikings hit the field in multiple-receiver sets. Look for this to happen quite a lot in an effort to spread out defenses and open up room for Peterson and Taylor. Second-year player Aundrae Allison and rookie Jaymar Johnson (both of whom have wonderfully alliterative names, don’t you think?) will compete for return duites with third-string HB and return specialist Maurice Hicks. Allison has demonstrated a real knack for returning kicks, as he set an all-time record for the longest play by a Viking with a 104-yard return against Detroit. Both Allison and Johnson are very quick, smallish receivers from lesser-known college programs who need some time to fill Bobby Wade’s shoes. Robert Feruguson has nurtured a reputation as one of the meanest downfield blockers in the game while springing Vikings backs for huge gains last year. He’s big,and he’s got strong hands—but slow feet. I hope Chilly finds a way to keep these four guys seeing time behind Berrian and Rice.
OL: A few pundits out there seem to believe that the starting five Vikings lineman make up the best line in the NFL. They created enough room for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor to average an impressive 5.6 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively, last year. After those starting five, however, I believe there’s a lack of depth. I’m not sure how many back-up linemen the Vikes will carry, but I hope that they don’t see too much time. Artis Hicks started a few games last year at right guard before losing his spot to Anthony Herrera, who’s done a fantastic job. Grant’s Tomb speculates that Hicks may see some time at left tackle—of all places after right guard!—if Bryant McKinnie gets a suspension for his numerous off-field incidents. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The Pionner Press, on the other hand, speculates that Chase Johnson, a second-year UFA out of Wyoming could be the man to step up and fill that (make those) hole(s). Johnson is a gargantuan human being: 6’8” and 330 lbs. At this point, it’s mostly speculation that he’ll have the athletic ability and mental wherewithal to play the most pivotal position on the offensive line. Another Johnson, Marcus Johnson, backs up the right tackle spot behind Ryan Cook. This Johnson, a second-rounder in the 2005 draft, is also the only member of that class still with the team. He’s been given every opportunity to compete with Cook for the spot, and remains the back up; that Cook is easily the weak-link on the starting line doesn’t speak well for Marcus Johnson. In the phonebooth—at center—2007 UFA Dan Mozes, a standout at West Virginia, has been taking reps with the first team during Matt Birk’s absence: no word in the press on how he’s been doing. John Sullivan, formerly of Notre Dame, was drafted in the sixth round this April to compete with Mozes to replace Birk.
The Minnesota offense suddenly looks really deep. Three years into a massive roster overhaul by Childress and Spielman, the Vikings are no longer asking who’s going to start, but who’s going to get cut. There’s a real influx of young, new talent in Winter Park these days, and that should overflow into less drop-off late in the season due to injury and fatigue.
Next week: defensive depth.