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WP: Mark Maske: Vikings Will Contend in Spite of Off-Field Issues


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Vikings Will Contend in Spite of Off-Field Issues

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer


From the sale of the franchise to ticket-scalping to "The Original Whizzinator," issues have abounded this offseason for the Minnesota Vikings, and it's easy to forget that they've done more to improve their team than anyone else in the NFL.

When they gather in Washington on Tuesday for two days of meetings, the league's team owners likely will approve the proposed sale of the Vikings from Red McCombs to a group headed by New Jersey real estate developer Zygmunt Wilf for approximately $625 million. It will be the culmination of a tumultuous process in which McCombs agreed in February to sell the franchise to the investment group when it was headed by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler, who was seeking to become the first black principal owner of an NFL club. But Fowler generated controversy almost immediately when errors were reported in biographical information that his publicist released, and persistent questions about whether he had the wealth to structure the deal to the league's satisfaction led Wilf, who originally was to be a minority investor in the group, to take over as the lead owner.

Around the League

The Post's Mark Maske takes a look at the offeasons of each of the NFL's 32 teams.

Today: Minnesota Vikings

Next: New England Patriots

Players Released

• CB Terrance Shaw

• CB Rhett Nelson

• RB Larry Ned

• WR Kenny Clark

• DE Kenny Mixon

• LB Mike Nattiel

• WR Blake Elliott

Free Agents Lost

• LB Chris Claiborne

• QB Gus Frerotte

• DT Chris Hovan

• S Brian Russell

• T Adam Haayer


• WR Randy Moss

Traded For

• LB Napoleon Harris

• LB Sam Cowart

Free Agents Re-Signed

• C Cory Withrow

• TE Jermaine Wiggins

• LB Keith Newman

Free Agents Added

• DT Pat Williams

• CB Fred Smoot

• S Darren Sharper

• WR Travis Taylor

• QB Brad Johnson

Vikings' Draft

• Round 1 (7th overall): Troy Williamson, WR, South Carolina

• Round 1 (18): Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin

• Round 2 (49): Marcus Johnson, T, Mississippi

• Round 3 (80): Dustin Fox, CB, Ohio State

• Round 4 (112): Ciatrick Fason, RB, Florida

• Round 6 (191): C.J. Mosley, DT, Missouri

• Round 7 (219): Adrian Ward, CB, UTEP

Draft Analysis: The Vikings drew raves in some places. Not here. They passed up a better player at No. 7, Mike Williams, to take speedy WR Troy Williamson. It's football, not a track meet. If they liked Williamson so much, they could have traded down at least five spots and still gotten him. DE Erasmus James, taken 18th, is a couple years removed from a hip injury once thought to be career-threatening. Their grade improved by getting T Marcus Johnson in the second round and RB Ciatrick Fason in the fourth round. Grade: C-

Wilf will inherit a team with a lame-duck coach. McCombs exercised the club's $1 million option in Coach Mike Tice's contract for next season even as the Vikings were in the midst last season of unraveling down the stretch for a second year in a row. Only the ridiculously forgiving nature of last season's NFC playoff chase enabled the Vikings to reach the postseason with a record of 8-8 -- that after a 5-1 beginning to the season -- and they crafted a first-round playoff victory at Green Bay in which wide receiver Randy Moss infamously pretended to moon the Lambeau Field fans as part of a touchdown celebration. The playoff euphoria was short-lived, however, as the Vikings went to Philadelphia the following week and gave a dud performance in losing to an Eagles team that was vulnerable after losing wideout Terrell Owens to an ankle injury and resting its other prominent players in the final stages of the regular season.

Tice, the league's lowest-paid head coach, likely will be fined by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his role in a scheme to sell Super Bowl tickets for a profit, which is prohibited by league policy. That ticket-scalping scandal generated headlines for several weeks this offseason but was practically forgotten by the time the league informed Vikings reserve tailback Onterrio Smith last week that he was facing a one-year suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The suspension is pending a possible appeal by Smith, and apparently is not related to last month's incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in which Smith was temporarily detained by security and police officers and was found to be carrying a device -- the Whizzinator -- designed to circumvent drug testing.

Despite all of that, though, the Vikings have built a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the still-weak NFC. They've remade their previously pitiable defense into a formidable unit, and they could have one of the league's better balanced clubs if Tice makes good on his pledge to be more committed to the running game on offense next season.

The Vikings set the tone for their offseason early on by agreeing to trade Moss to the Oakland Raiders for linebacker Napoleon Harris and two draft picks, including the seventh overall choice last month. Many people in the league believed that the Vikings could have gotten more for Moss, one of the league's most dominant players when he's healthy and in the right frame of mind. But he wasn't healthy or in the right frame of mind last season, and the Vikings simply had tired of his antics. Merely getting him out of their locker room, they believed, was addition by subtraction, and they got, in Harris, a former first-round draft selection who will be one of about a half-dozen new starters on defense.

The Vikings signed two of the top defensive free agents available this year when they landed defensive tackle Pat Williams, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, and pried cornerback Fred Smoot from the Washington Redskins and the other clubs pursuing him. They signed veteran safety Darren Sharper after the Packers released him in a salary-cap maneuver, and they traded a seventh-round draft pick to the New York Jets for linebacker Sam Cowart. They got Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James with the draft's 18th overall choice.

That more than makes up for the defensive losses that the Vikings suffered in free agency, with linebacker Chris Claiborne and defensive tackle Chris Hovan departing. Smoot will team with Antoine Winfield to give the club one of the league's better cornerback tandems. Williams is a run-stuffer for the middle of the defensive line. James was one of the top pass rushers available in the draft and almost certainly would have been a top-10 selection if not for concerns about an old hip injury. Sharper is a steadying force. The Minnesota defense, for a change, won't be what keeps the Vikings from getting where they want to go. They ranked 28th in the league in total defense last season.

Nate Burleson replaces Moss as quarterback Daunte Culpepper's top receiving option. The Vikings signed wideout Travis Taylor, a former first-round pick who never lived up to his considerable promise in Baltimore, as a free agent, and used the draft choice they got from the Raiders in the Moss trade on South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson. They passed up former USC standout Mike Williams, and could end up regretting that, but some draft observers are convinced that the Vikings did the right thing by opting for the faster receiver.

The Vikings also drafted Mississippi offensive tackle Marcus Johnson, a solid second-round value, and Florida tailback Ciatrick Fason, who could pay off as a fourth-round selection now that Smith is facing a year-long suspension. Smith was to back up Michael Bennett. But the Vikings have the depth at tailback to withstand losing Smith, with Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams and Fason. They lost one veteran backup quarterback, Gus Frerotte, in free agency but signed another, Brad Johnson.

The Vikings, more than any other team in the league, have managed to keep things interesting this offseason, with developments covering everything from good to bad to bizarre. If Culpepper stays healthy and the defensive upgrades pan out, the season could be just as interesting for them.

Around the League

The NFL is down to three prospective stadium sites for a Los Angeles franchise.

Officials in Carson, Calif., decided Sunday to drop out of the running after the city apparently had fallen behind the three other contenders -- the Coliseum, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Anaheim, Calif. The 157-acre site in Carson instead is to be used for a mall and housing.

The owners are scheduled to discuss the Los Angeles situation during this week's meeting in D.C. but might not pare the list of potential stadium sites any further. . . . .

The Chicago Bears released kicker Paul Edinger. Edinger missed nine of his 24 field-goal attempts last season and the Bears recently signed kicker Doug Brien after he was released by the Jets. Edinger could end up with Tennessee.

Patriots Re-Sign Brown

New England today re-signed wide receiver Troy Brown. Earlier in the offseason, the Patriots declined to pick up an option in the veteran's contract for next season, making him a free agent, but they remained interested all along in re-signing him. Brown, 33, had only 17 catches last season but was a valuable contributor to the Patriots' third Super Bowl title in four seasons by filling in at cornerback when the club's secondary was ravaged by injuries. ...

Miami signed free-agent defensive tackle Keith Traylor, who'd been released by New England, to a two-year contract today. Traylor gives the Dolphins an alternative if defensive tackle Tim Bowens retires because of back problems. Another Miami defensive tackle, Larry Chester, is returning from knee surgery. The Dolphins released linebacker Billy Strother. ... Denver signed free-agent guard Cameron Spikes, a former starter for Arizona.

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