Most Viking fans, I think, have reasonably high hopes for the team in 2009. But for the Vikings to meet those expectations, they'll need key contributions from a number of players. Some of these players are easy enough to point out – like Jared Allen and Adrian Peterson. But there are other players – lesser known players – who need to play well for the Vikings to be more than Wild Card fodder in January.
Today, I'm listing three offensive players who will play key roles in the Vikings success (or failure) in 2009 besides the usual suspects.
Sidney Rice: In Rice’s 2007 rookie season he caught 31 passes for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns. He did this even though the Vikes didn’t throw much and when they did it was Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger doing the throwing. Rice showed good hands, good leaping ability and an ability to occasionally get open deep. Rice says a knee injury was to blame for his disappointing 2008 (just 15 catches). I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one and say my impression in 2007 that Rice could be a good one is still valid in 2009.
If Rice can deliver on his promise, he bumps Bobby Wade to the number three (or number four, depending on how Percy Harvin does) wide receiver spot and gives the Vikings a red zone receiving threat next to Bernard Berrian. (Wade has just seven touchdown catches in six NFL seasons.) This is the kind of incremental improvement the Vikes need from each position to repeat as division champions and go deeper in the playoffs. Not many people are focusing on the impact an improved Sidney Rice could have on the Vikings offence in 2009. I think they should.
Visanthe Shiancoe: I can't imagine that after watching Shiancoe drop (another) easy touchdown pass in the first quarter of game two in 2008, there were any Viking fans who thought he would develop into a receiving threat. But that is what happened (2008 stats: 42 catches, 596 yards and seven touchdowns.) Football Outsiders even had him rated as the second-best tight end last year, ahead of guys like Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark and Chris Cooley.
I'm not expecting Shiancoe to top his numbers from '08. I don’t think he even has to (though it’s be nice if he did.) But he can’t return to his 2007 form, when he was a butterfingered liability. If he can play at the standard he established last season, he gives the Vikings another receiving threat, another guy opposing defences have to account for and another guy who can score touchdowns, which is the name of this game.
John Sullivan: When announcers and writers talked or wrote about the Vikings the previous three seasons, they often mentioned the offensive line and what a strength it was. But that was when the line included left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Steve Hutchinson and center Matt Birk. Well, McKinnie has never gone to a Pro Bowl and Birk’s gone – replaced by second-year player Sullivan.
Here's another thing those announcers and writers never mentioned. During the Brad Childress administration, the Vikings offensive line has never been as good as advertised. It's often struggled to pass block and open up even the smallest of holes for Peterson and Chester Taylor. And that was with Birk on the roster. So how confident can we be that the Vikes offensive line will be better than it was last year with a green sophomore, Sullivan, taking over for Birk and a green rookie, Phil Loadholt, expected to start at right tackle?
The answer is we can’t. But the Vikings need to be right about Sullivan. On the Vikings current depth chart, two undrafted rookie free agents are the backups behind Sullivan. So if he struggles to make the right calls at the line of scrimmage and can’t keep opposing defensive tackles at bay, the Vikings offence could be in big trouble – unable to run consistently and unable to keep pass rushers off our quarterbacks. That could force the Vikes into moving Ryan Cook over to center (can't see that working out) or making a midseason deal for another Melvin Fowler type.