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Updated: September 8th, 2011 9:30pm
Pelissero: Tough to peg 'average' Vikings anywhere but last in North

Pelissero: Tough to peg 'average' Vikings anywhere but last in North

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Leslie Frazier has spent the past six weeks selling players on the idea this is a new era for the Minnesota Vikings.

The way players speak about Frazier and the direction of the franchise indicate they're buying in, too.

But good vibes won't get Frazier's crew too far on Sunday at San Diego, where they'll have their first confrontation with the reality of what looks like a rebuilding season.

The Vikings finished dead last in the NFC North Division in 2010. And the feeling around the league is they're the prohibitive favorite to finish dead last again in 2011.

"Just so many unknowns," a longtime personnel man for another NFC team said. "They lost some people on defense. I'm not sure what they really added to the mix.

"Last year, they had an old quarterback (Brett Favre). This year, they have an old quarterback (Donovan McNabb). They're probably worse at receiver with (Michael) Jenkins for (Sidney) Rice. (Left tackle Bryant) McKinnie's gone -- not that he was the answer, but the guy who they replaced him with (Charlie Johnson) isn't either. Just a lot of question marks, moreso than the other teams have."

In a series of phone conversations with 1500ESPN.com on Wednesday and Thursday, five veteran scouts -- three from the NFC, two from the AFC, four with director titles or higher -- were asked to rank the North's teams one through four.

To no surprise, the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers received all five first-place votes. The Chicago Bears, who won the North last season and lost to the Packers in the NFC championship game, received four second-place votes to one for the rising Detroit Lions.

All five scouts put the Vikings on the bottom, for many of the same reasons 1500ESPN.com's preseason survey last year had Green Bay passing the two-time defending champions as the division's best team.

"You say, 'Well, they're going to be able to run the ball. They have Adrian Peterson,'" an NFC executive said. "Well, yeah, but the offensive line has to play better. They've got to play together. I love (left guard Steve Hutchinson), but he's a descending player. It's not like he's going to go out there and just frickin' compensate for guys on either side of him anymore."

One of those guys is Johnson, who has shown marked improvement since the start of training camp. But Johnson lacks the dominant physical traits many teams look for at the line's most challenging position.

"He's not real strong or explosive, but he's got good feet, good balance," an AFC executive said. "I would always want something a little bit more special at left tackle. I'd want a better player."

The Vikings used a second-round draft pick on tight end Kyle Rudolph, providing another weapon to go with veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and dynamic slot man Percy Harvin in the passing game.

But it remains to be seen if Bernard Berrian, a vertical-speed receiver who is in decline at age 30, and Jenkins can do enough to balance the perimeter group with Rice gone to Seattle.

"Neither guy necessarily poses a mismatch threat to a defensive coordinator," an AFC personnel director said. "I think they're both complementary players to the true starter on the other side."

On defense, the Vikings replaced four starters -- left end Ray Edwards, nose tackle Pat Williams, weakside linebacker Ben Leber and free safety Madieu Williams -- and will open the season without another as undertackle Kevin Williams serves a two-game suspension.

A secondary plagued by injuries and inconsistency last season received addition only by subtraction, in the form of Williams' release and Jamarca Sanford's promotion to the starting lineup. Two cornerbacks, starter Cedric Griffin and nickel sub Chris Cook, are coming off multiple knee injuries.

"Griffin's back now, so that'll help," the NFC personnel man said. "I think Sanford's better than Madieu Williams, but coverage is still not his strength either."

All of which is without mentioning the most important position, where McNabb is on a one-year contract -- and several scouts said they were impressed enough in the preseason with No. 12 overall draft pick Christian Ponder to wonder if he'll be playing by midseason.

"It starts at quarterback," an NFC scout said. "I'm sure a lot of people are concerned -- how much does Donovan have left? Where is the stability at that position? Because obviously, if things don't go right, there's going to be all sorts of pressure to play Ponder."

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has done a masterful job so far on gearing the scheme to McNabb's strengths, but defenses weren't scheming heavily to take those strengths away in the preseason either.

It's understandable the 34-year-old's lost season in Washington is a difficult memory for scouts to shake, especially those who long have questioned McNabb's acumen as a pocket passer.

"If they get him moving and throwing the ball and that sort of stuff and then running wide, getting the running back going, I think he'll be effective," the NFC executive said. "He'll do some real nice things throwing the ball to that tight end (Shiancoe), getting it to Jenkins, getting the ball downfield. I could just see him playing like maybe half the season and then it being Ponder time."

None of this is to say the Vikings will be a bad team, per se. The scouts polled here pegged them to win six to eight games, with the quality of the division as a whole contributing to their predicted finish in the cellar.

"It's one of those things where if they win a couple early and start believing a little bit, you never know what can happen," the NFC personnel man said. "They don't look so horrible where it's just like they're playing for (likely No. 1 pick) Andrew Luck. They just kind of look average."

And average might be a tough pill to swallow for veterans in a rebuilding program that nonetheless has high expectations, despite the low returns so many are predicting.

"Who gives a (expletive), you know what I'm saying?" Shiancoe said. "You've got to go out there and play. Some teams that are predicted to go this and that before the season, and by the end of the season, they look like hot garbage.

"We're just trying to prepare and make sure the Vikings are OK to deal with all these defenders and all these other teams. We're just focusing on us."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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