Gotta like the Vikes

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:45 AM ET

Barring unlikely blockbuster deals involving disgruntled franchise running backs Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander, much of the meaningful off-season front office work is done.

Now it's up to the players to pick up on the practice field where their dedicated bosses left off in the boardroom.

Most NFL teams kicked this month off with weekend minicamps -- a chance to watch how 2005 draft picks and free-agent signings mesh with veterans -- and some are sporting radically new looks.

Minnesota's executives didn't hibernate this winter.

Instead, the Vikings kicked off the free-agent period by trading star receiver Randy Moss to the Raiders and using their abundant salary cap space to focus on improving its 28th-ranked defence.

They added five new starters by acquiring linebackers Napoleon Harris -- part of the Moss deal -- and Sam Cowart in early trades, then signing defensive tackle Pat Williams away from the Buffalo Bills and shutdown cornerback Fred Smoot away from the Washington Redskins before picking up former Green Bay Packers safety Darren Sharper.

The loss of a top-tier receiver like Moss will hurt the offence a little but scoring points wasn't a problem for the Vikings last season.

Stopping others from scoring was.

This year, Minnesota will boast arguably the best corner duo in the league with Smoot and Antoine Winfield, making it difficult for any team to throw deep. As a result, safeties Sharper and Corey Chavous will have more opportunities to blitz or focus on stopping the run.

Their pass rush also got a boost during the draft when the Vikings selected defensive end Erasmus James with their second first-round pick. If the former Wisconsin star can stay healthy, one of the only knocks against the speedy quarterback-hunter during his college career, Minnesota's defensive unit will make most opponents cringe on Sundays.

With 6-ft. 3-in. Williams joining Pro Bowler Kevin Williams on the inside and James teaming with Kenechi Udeze on the outside, Minnesota's front four will be a threat on every down.

Drafting speedy South Carolina receiver Troy Williamson with the No. 7 pick was a great move, too.

Add in third-rounder Marcus Johnson, a 6-ft. 6-in. o-tackle from Mississippi, and the Vikings' 2005 draft has to be considered one of the three best this year.

In that department, top spot goes to Arizona.

The benchmark for any draft, at least in the first year or two, is how many picks can start immediately.

Six Cardinals drafted in the first five rounds may get that chance.

Antrel Rolle, taken eighth overall, is already their best cornerback and may prove to be one of the best in the league.

When attempts to trade for Bills running back Travis Henry failed, coach Dennis Green nabbed Cal's J.J. Arrington in the second round. Arrington, the only 2,000-yard rusher in the NCAA last season, is about the same size as Henry but has more impressive agility.

Third-rounders Eric Green, a cornerback, and linebacker Darryl Blackstock also should see early action. Guard Elton Brown (fourth round) and inside linebacker Lance Mitchell (fifth round) will compete for starting jobs in camp.

Arizona is a team on the rise this season, while the Vikings will be one of the favourites to win it all.


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