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04-04-2003, 04:34 AM
Stone: Purple's patience pays off
George Stone

Published April 1, 2003 STON0401A

Now that the frenzy of free agency has all but wound to a halt, and some of the more excitable sports writers have had time to remove the knots from their underwear, I thought it would be a good time to review the latest lot of Purple prospects.

But before I get into the breakdown, I feel compelled to call attention to a common thread that runs through the better part of this year's free agent class: These players, by and large, WANT to play for the Vikings. This simple fact, my fellow fans, breeds a synergy within a squad that has caused a good number of NFL coaches to go gray trying to defeat.

Perhaps even more crucial than the players the team has acquired are the three key cogs they were able to retain. First, Lance Johnstone, who bagged opposing quarterbacks 12 1/2 times over the past two seasons. Second, Jim Kleinsasser, who, although moved to tight end in 2002, remains an invaluable blocker, and will still line up at fullback as down and distance dictate. And finally, one of the most unsung backs in the league, Moe Williams. Williams, who added eleven touchdowns to his career totals in 2002, attracted a good share of attention in the free agent marketplace, particularly from the Buffalo Bills. Fortunate for us, Williams opted to return to the Vikings. Said Williams after re-signing with the Purple, "I'm so happy we were able to work things out. I definitely wanted to stay here in Minnesota."

We're happy too, Moe.

Now let's have a look, in no particular order, at the Vikings' most noteworthy free agent acquisitions, starting with the defense.

The most notable get of the lot has to be 6-1,190 pound cornerback Denard Walker. How can that be, you ask, when by most calculations Walker was the Vikings' fifth choice for the position, after losing out on Dre' Bly, Dexter McCleon, ex-Viking Corey Fuller and Tory James? Again, the answer is simple: The man WANTS to play here.

The durable Walker, a no BS type of guy who has played in 90+ regular-season games, said he was impressed with the Vikings' honest approach, telling him up front of their expectations should he decide to become the team's newest cover guy. So impressed was Walker that, after visits to St. Louis, Cincinnati and Jacksonville, he instructed his agent to negotiate exclusively with the Vikings. Mike Tice, doing his best impression of a diplomat, said he has penciled in Walker as the Vikings' starting left corner. (Speaking for most fans, Mike, I think it would be okay if you were to replace those pencil marks with Purple ink. Hell, I'll even buy you the pen.)

Welcome to Minnesota, Mr. Walker.

Next in our gaggle of Viking gratefuls is linebacker Chris Claiborne. Picked ninth overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1999 draft, Claiborne fell out of favor in the Motor City last season by playing at 270 pounds, a mere 12 pounds over what team officials deemed to be his ideal weight. In addition, Claiborne has been hoping to leave the Detroit area ever since his father was murdered during Chris' rookie year.

During his four seasons with the Lions Claiborne amassed 284 solo tackles, 11 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 18 deflected passes, 6 interceptions for 63 total yards and a touchdown. Although he can play all three linebacker spots, Claiborne will likely start at the strong side backer position and switch to the middle in the nickel package. At just 24, Claiborne is expected to become the heir apparent to Greg Biekert's middle linebacker post. (By the way, reports have it that Claiborne has shed those pesky 12 pounds and will be playing at 258 this season.)

Here are some excerpts form Chris Claiborne's March 25th news conference held at Winter Park: "I'm extremely excited. I'm looking forward to using my skills to the fullest. There were other teams I was looking at, but here they'll allow me to do the things I do best, and I can add depth to the team. This team is not far off. Being here for me is something great."

When asked what it was about the Vikings that impressed him, Claiborne replied, "I think you look at how a team finishes the previous season. This team started slow but the guys stuck together. I like that, and I like coach Tice." (Sounds like team spirit to me.)

Add Henri Crockett and a healthy Raonall Smith to the mix and linebackers coach Brian Baker is faced with the type of problem most coaches don't lose a great deal of sleep over.

Greetings, Chris. May your days of sporting the Purple and Gold be long and prosperous.

Our final notable on defense, lineman Billy Lyon, was actually the first free agent to sign with the hometown's storied franchise. Although his career numbers aren't all that impressive, he can play all four positions on the line and is known for his tenacious capacity to make plays from wherever he lines up. So if you're willing to overlook the so-so stats we might be looking at a sleeper pickup here. But even as a spot player, Lyon could fill a key role in the interior line, the area in which he's most familiar.

Coming to the Vikings from the Packers--the NFL equivalent of a defection--Lyon should be dripping with adrenaline as his former quarterback barks out signals from across the line. And if Lyon does manage to get his mitts on the elusive Favre, well, as they say, all is fair ...

Welcome to Viking Land, Billy, where dinner and a movie isn't limited to a box of cheese-its and a rerun of the '62 title game.

Tack on to this fine group of players, new defensive coordinator George O'Leary, the return of the great Willie Shaw, and Mike Tice's confidence in drafting a player who will step in and provide some relief for the still ascending Chris Hovan, and you've got the formula for a vastly improved defensive unit going into the 2003 campaign.

That said, let's step across the line of scrimmage and have a look at how the other half might fare.

There can be little doubt in any fan's mind that the addition of right tackle Mike Rosenthal stole the offensive show. Starting all 16 games for the New York Giants last season, the 6-7, 315 pound Rosenthal, coupled with 6-8 Bryant Mckinnie, who weighs in at 340+ before breakfast, make for a dangerous duo. Toss in veterans Chris Liwienski, David Dixon and center Matt Birk, and Daunte Culpepper just might find himself adding a few gold watches to this year's Christmas list.

Rounding out this year's trip to the free agent market is Todd Bouman's replacement, Gus Frerotte. But before we talk about Gus, a word on Bouman's predicament seems in order. Whether or not Bouman's wade through the charity whirlpool will eventually land him in legal hot water is yet to be seen. But the situation does raise a couple of questions: In the high-profile world of the NFL, is a person guilty by simple association? Or was a plan to move Bouman in the works before the Arctic Blast bungle?

Okay, back to Gus. It's no secret that Mr. Frerotte was not the Vikings' first choice as Dante's backup. Nor was he their second or third choice. It was only after the team grew tired of playing the waiting game with Neil O'Donnell, and Shane Matthews signed with Tampa Bay, and Jeff George turned down the club's offer, claiming he had several teams interested in his services, (sure Jeff), that Gus became our guy. Personally, I was happy to see George take himself out of the running. Sure, he might have convinced coach Tice he'd be content in a backup role, but what if Dante were to go down and George was pressed into service for a start or two? Would he then be whistling the same tune? I'm glad we'll never know.

Frerotte, on the other hand, might just be the fit the Vikings have needed all along. As fans we all knew shortly after Dante Culpepper took the field in 1999 that he had all the tools to become one of the great ones. What he's been lacking the past few seasons is a mentor, (unless you want to count Cris Carter chewing on one ear while Randy Moss feasted on the other), and Frerotte seems like a good choice to fill the bill. Why? Because he accepts his role as a backup, has 62 career starts to his credit, and at just 31 he still has a lot of play left in him if needed. So even though Frerotte didn't top the list of would-be backups, what do you say we loyal fans give Gus the support he deserves, and hope he packed a warm jacket.

And yes, there's still the off chance that the Vikes will make yet another free agent move, possibly toward Miami receiver Oronde Gadsten. But with the current receiving core led by Randy Moss and D'Wayne Bates, and with rising star Kelly Campbell filling out the three wide set while the ever-durable Chris Walsh holds down the number four spot, it's more likely the Vikes will look to the lower rounds of the draft for a receiver rather than spend the money on Gadsten.

All told, it still looks like an 11-5, division winning season to me.

Catch you next week.

-- George Stone is a self-employed graphic designer and Twin Cities native. He can be reached at bookerg@bitstream.net.

04-04-2003, 12:38 PM