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Sans Favre, Vikings quietly building for another playoff run

Jim Brown / US Presswire
Donovan McNabb brings a winning pedigree to a squad hoping for another shot at glory.

Steve Wyche recently visited Vikings camp in Mankato, Minn. Here's what he saw.

Observation deck

1. First the good news. The Vikings have a big enough core of veteran players who are experienced in winning and approach things the right way. Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson, Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway and others know how to prepare and are working as hard as ever. Adding quarterback Donovan McNabb and other veterans like tackle Charlie Johnson and wide receiver Michael Jenkins shows that the organization is trying to stay competitive. Coach Leslie Frazier believes that there is enough talent to get to the playoffs.

"You've got to get them to believe that we can do it," Frazier said. "It can't be me talking about it. We've got to experience some success early on. It's important that we have some early success. I do believe as the year goes on we're going to get better, but this game is as much mental as physical."

Quarterbacks to watch
Elliot Harrison writes that a number of quarterbacks face an interesting test this week, including Christian Ponder, who will play with the second stringers on Saturday. More ...

Translation: If the team starts out hot, players will understand the blueprint. If it struggles, players could think that a full-blown rebuilding process could be under way soon.

2. Now the (maybe) not-so-good news. The Vikings look suspect at some key positions, and those uncertainties are large enough to overshadow strengths. Winfield is one of the toughest and more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. At 34, he is without question the best player in the secondary. Second-year cornerback Chris Cook is still trying to figure things out, and the back end has been a concern for years. The once-fearsome front four now features Remi Ayodele at nose tackle instead of Pat Williams and Brian Robison at defensive end instead of Ray Edwards. Change might have been needed, but a lot will be expected of these two players.

"When you lose a guy like Pat, specifically, it makes it tough because he's been good at the position for a long time," Greenway said. "It's going to be very similar to what we've done in the past. We're going to try to get back to that No. 1 spot in rush defense. That's our goal."

Along the offensive line, Johnson, who was with the Colts, takes over for Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. He's a tough veteran, but there doesn't seem to be an outpouring of faith that he can hold that spot down for years. Instead, he seems like more of a Band-Aid, like the Vikings have at a few other positions.

The Vikings also are getting backup defensive tackle Letroy Guion a lot of work in case starter Kevin Williams finally has to serve the four-game suspension related to the Starcaps diuretic case.

3. A refreshing change. It has been pretty uniform conversation with people throughout the organization who say it's night and day not having the circus in town that accompanied retired quarterback Brett Favre. Players, coaches and team employees spoke highly of Favre, how he conducted himself and how much he respected his teammates and the organization -- and vice versa. However, the constant media surveillance and attention he drew was taxing. To say there is a far more relaxed vibe at the team compound is an understatement. Frazier's calm demeanor and steady coaching style also play into the atmosphere.

4. After Harvin, who is next? There's no question that wide receiver Percy Harvin is a big-play threat. He'll play mainly in the slot, but will be used on the outside at times. Bernard Berrian, who didn't register much the past two seasons, is working at the main wide receiver spot with newcomer Michael Jenkins as the third wideout. Other than Harvin, do you see anyone commanding a double-team? Once again, Peterson will see four million defenders in the box -- and he'll still get his yards.

5. Getting it together. McNabb said that the offense "is still a work in progress." Part of that is because so many key players are out or just returning from injuries. Guard Anthony Herrera returned to contact practice this week after recovering from major knee and triceps surgeries. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has been out with a hamstring injury, and Harvin has been held out of practice and could be kept out of the second preseason game at Seattle with sore ribs. That hasn't helped a lot of moving parts gain continuity.

"Communication-wise, the chemistry is flowing where we need it to be," McNabb said. "Then again, it's just the beginning."

6. Toby's ascension. It looks very much like backup tailback Toby Gerhart has worked on his footwork. He seems far more nimble than he did at this point last season, and as a result looks to be more of a  threat on cut-backs and running off-tackle. If the Vikings want to preserve Peterson, Gerhart could get action early in the season.

New guys watch

» Christian Ponder. The first-round draft pick is taking third-team reps behind McNabb and Joe Webb, but he's also getting a lot of work on the side with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Ponder didn't look lost in team drills and seems to be on a good track, but the coaching staff isn't trying to rush him.

"Christian understands where we are and what we're trying to get done," Frazier said. "There was no offseason. He's been great. He's got the right approach, the right attitude. He's handled it extremely well and in the long-term he'll benefit from this situation and so will our organization.

» Kyle Rudolph. The second-round pick is going to be a big part of the Vikings' offense. Minnesota is going to use a steady diet of two tight end sets, and Rudolph and Shiancoe will be on the field a lot together. Rudolph's blocking is adequate, but needs to be improved, Frazier said. But Rudolph is a serious threat in the passing game, something the Vikings need.

Overheard

"It's almost a sense of relief to have that stuff in our past. Clearly a team can't, an organization can't, go through something like that two years in a row. We had so much going on with the media and Brett. Coach (Brad) Childress and his situation. The stadium (collapsing). Games getting delayed. Randy Moss. You can put that in a decade of most organizations. We went through that in a year. The fact that we were 6-10 was probably a good thing."
-- Greenway on last season's calamity.

Prediction

A lot of things will have to go right early for the Vikings to threaten in the NFC North. McNabb also is going to have to rebound. If Minnesota reaches the midseason point and is below .500, the franchise is going to have to make a decision to make a playoff push behind McNabb as the starter or turn to Ponder.

The ramifications of going the later route could be ugly, as veterans could assume that rebuilding is in order and they'll be out the door next. But I don't think that would happen because this is a very high-character locker room. The players also respect Frazier too much. The Vikings are in an awkward transition where there is enough talent to be good, but not enough of that talent to overcome a few injuries or bad decisions.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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