Preview: Vikings vs. Broncos
Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-1) vs. Denver Broncos (1-2).
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome.
TV: KARE (Channel 11).
Line: Vikings by 4½.
At stake: It's the final preseason game for both teams. The Vikings are expected to sit many starters altogether. The Broncos likely will play theirs about a quarter.
Vikings: C John Sullivan (calf), DT Jimmy Kennedy and CB Chris Cook (knee surgery) are out. WR Logan Payne didn't practice all week. SS Jamarca Sanford and TE Garrett Mills didn't practice on Tuesday. RB Toby Gerhart (knee) returned to practice on Tuesday. CB Cedric Griffin (knee reconstruction) remains on the active/physically unable to perform list. WR Sidney Rice (hip surgery) is on reserve/PUP and will miss at least the season's first six weeks.
Broncos: OLB Elvis Dumeril (torn pec) is out. LT Ryan Clady (torn patellar tendon) is expected to make his preseason debut. RBs Knowshon Moreno (hamstring) and Correll Buckhalter (back) also might play. LB Darrell Reid (knee), the former Gopher, is on PUP. WR Kenny McKinley (knee) is on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Along the line: Whether coach Brad Childress decides to give his starters a series or not, C Jon Cooper and RG Chris DeGeare likely will play extensively -- a final evaluation of the Vikings' options if Sullivan misses the opener. Cooper's size (6-foot-2, 291 pounds) is one factor working against him. He struggles at times to get movement in the run game, can be bullied by nose tackles and wouldn't even be a lock to make the team if Sullivan were healthy. Playing DeGeare (6-4, 325) at right guard and Anthony Herrera (6-2, 315) at center would give the Vikings a huge line. But Herrera showed in Saturday's exhibition win over Seattle he's not yet comfortable using his leverage off the ball, not to mention that he needs help with the line calls. If DeGeare continues to limit his mistakes, he might be the better bet.
Sheppard's time: On the same night CB Chris Cook seemed to lock up a starting job, the rookie tore a meniscus in his right knee and ended up having surgery. Now, it's up to veteran Lito Sheppard -- who entered camp as the starter in Griffin's place at right cornerback -- to show he's up to task once and for all. At 29, Sheppard no longer has the same deep speed, but his feet, quickness and instincts still are good enough to handle zone coverage. he hasn't been bad in the preseason -- he just hasn't been nearly as productive as Cook, nor does he bring the same physical presence in press coverage and run support. The Vikings' options are limited; Asher Allen is a much better fit covering the slot, and rookies Marcus Sherels and DeAndre Wright remain long shots to make the roster. No matter how Sheppard and Allen perform on Thursday night, the Vikings surely will be scanning the waiver wire for depth come Saturday.
Arms race: Some NFL scouts laughed at the idea of taking former Florida QB Tim Tebow in the first round, but the Broncos did it, packaging three picks to Baltimore to get him at No. 25 overall. No "project" quarterback ever has entered the league with more hype or expectations. Will Tebow live up to it all? For now, he's merely trying to secure the No. 2 job in Denver behind Kyle Orton. Former Cleveland QB Brady Quinn (18-for-35 passing, one interception, six sacks taken, 55.1 passer rating) hasn't inspired in the preseason, and Tebow (13-for-23, one TD pass, one interception, 77.6 rating) is expected to get a ton of work against the Vikings. Barring a cameo by Brett Favre, Tarvaris Jackson -- who remains the unquestioned No. 2 -- probably will start for the home team, with Sage Rosenfels taking over around halftime and rookie Joe Webb taking the fourth quarter. It's Rosenfels' last chance to set himself up for a trade to a team that needs an experienced backup -- Arizona? New York Giants? -- and Webb's last chance to prove he's too talented to risk losing on waivers.
Back to basics: Childress has begun referring to Gerhart and Albert Young as options "2 and 2A" at halfback, but should Young's roster spot really be considered secure? He's shown no burst in the preseason, in which he's averaged 1.2 yards on 13 carries and 5 yards on four catches. Young might be superior in pass protection, but starting HB Adrian Peterson took the bulk of third-down reps last week. Gerhart took 18 snaps to Young's five with the starters against Seattle and is the clear choice to carry the load if something happens to Peterson. With Darius Reynaud almost certain to make the team as return man, the question is this: what exactly does Young bring to the table the other backs don't? The answer isn't clear, and that makes it hard to believe the Vikings are fully committed to carrying four halfbacks when injuries and special-teams considerations likely will lead them to go heavy at receiver, linebacker, safety and offensive line. Oh, and maybe kicker, too.
Red-zone warrior: WR Javon Walker took an important step toward making the team with his tough touchdown catch against Seattle. He also showed his rust, with two catchable balls bouncing off his hands. Injuries have taken their toll on Walker, 31, who no longer is the downfield threat he was at the height of his career. What he is -- or can be -- now is a short-yardage and red-zone threat capable of using his size (6-3, 215), hands and savvy to make up for what he's lost physically. It takes more than one catch to prove that, so Walker needs to be productive in what amounts to the climax of his two-week audition against the Broncos. Failing that, the fifth receiver spot behind Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian, Greg Camarillo and Greg Lewis may end up going to someone who hits waivers by Saturday's 5 p.m. cutdown deadline. Payne's injury probably sapped the only in-house competition.