Well fans, by late Sunday afternoon we will have a pretty good idea whether the Vikes have actually upgraded themselves in a major way, as indicated by the first team's play vs. Oakland and St. Louis, or remain the same old bunch of schlubs plus some new faces.
There were things on offense you have to like. Daunte Culpepper seems to have learned to take better care of the ball, and has passed with reasonable accuracy. He is getting better protection and whoever runs the ball is benefiting from a superior offensive line that can only get better as it plays together. Right now, Dave Dixon is the weakest link there, and he could probably start for half the teams in the league.
It appears that the rookie wideout, Nate Burleson is a real find, who should take some of the pressure off Randy Moss to be a possession receiver, a situation which arose with the departure of Chris Carter last year. The depth behind those two, and D'Wayne Bates looks far better than last year. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Bates drop from his top three spot.
The only question mark, of course, is how far off the the Vikes running game will be with the loss of Michael Bennett. I'm betting that the offensive line is good enough to block for 100 to 150 yards for the committee or whomever. It takes about 20 points to win a game in the NFL, on average, and I think the Vikes should produce a number significantly higher than that, barring a Culpepper relapse to the miscues of last season.
The defense is an entirely different matter. We have seen very little from the off-season acquisitions to the defensive backfield but owies and booboos. I would not bet even money that we are significantly improved at cornerback over last year, and I have a bad feeling that neither Denard Walker nor Ken Irvin will play much for the ‘03 Vikes. We'll see.
Another big question mark will be the pass rush. Can Kevin Williams make a big difference, providing pressure of his own and reducing some of the double teaming of Chris Hovan? He has looked good, but nothing has been proven for real. Bringing Chris Claiborne in should provide an upgrade at linebacker, while either or both E.J. Henderson and Raonall Smith, (if he can stay healthy), could develop into quality NFL starters. That, however, also remains to be seen.
Watching the last exhibition game against the Cardinals provided a glimpse, in the first half, of the Vikes we'd like to see this year, and later, those same guys that set the tone for last year's season by blowing a big fourth quarter lead in the opener against the Bears.
It will be interesting to see which group shows up at Lambeau Field next Sunday. Don't bet money you can't afford to lose.