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Key backup spots still up for grabs at Vikings camp

MANKATO, Minn. -- Here's a clear sign that the Minnesota Vikings should be taken seriously as a contender this season: They don't have any starting spots up for grabs. However, one game into their preseason schedule, here are some positional battles at their Minnesota State University training camp worth noting:

1. Trio battling for third corner

The most competitive by far is the one for the third cornerback, who likely would trade places with Antoine Winfield in obvious passing situations when the Vikings' top corner moves to nickel.

For now, the leading candidate to fill the job is Charles Gordon because he occupied it at the end of last season. Gordon is holding his own so far, but he does have some serious competition.

The Vikings medical staff recently cleared Marcus McCauley to return to practice after being sidelined with a knee injury. McCauley had the No. 3 cornerback role as a rookie in 2007, after joining the Vikings as a third-round draft pick from Fresno State.

Benny Sapp, a free-agent newcomer from the Kansas City Chiefs, is getting a long look as well.

The Vikings need to get this right because they ranked 28th in the league against the pass last season. Newly-acquired starting safety Madieu Williams should help, along with the addition of pass-rushing terror Jared Allen. Yet, the Vikes must find a competent enough nickel corner to minimize the mismatches teams hope to find from three-receiver sets.

2. Bollinger vs. Booty for No. 3 QB

The Vikings are comfortable with veteran Gus Frerotte backing up starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Frerotte's savvy and smarts give the team a steady hand should Jackson be out of the lineup, as he was for four games last season with an injury.

What the Vikings don't know yet is which quarterback should fill the third spot.

They could stick with veteran Brooks Bollinger, who only a year ago was battling Jackson for the starting job. Yet, the Vikings' decision-makers clearly had questions about whether to keep Bollinger around. Otherwise, why would they have used a fifth-round draft pick on former USC standout John David Booty? Booty is extremely raw and learning Brad Childress' system isn't easy, even though Booty was familiar with it before he was selected.

This is an important decision for a team that sees itself making a postseason run. In case of injuries to the first two players on the depth chart, it needs to have at least a solid quarterback help keep the team on track. On that basis, Bollinger makes the most sense.

3. Who will replace special-teams dynamo?

The search is on for a replacement for linebacker Heath Farwell, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL during the preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

Although the fourth-year veteran almost never saw the field as a linebacker, the Vikings did not have a better player on their kick-coverage units. He was Minnesota's leader in special teams in tackles in each of the last two seasons.

Gordon and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu seem to have the right skill and, especially, the right attitude to emerge as the Vikings' best tackler on kick coverage. Last season, they were tied for second in special teams tackles with 15. Of course, that was 17 fewer than Farwell's team-leading total.

4. Finding a backup for McKinnie

The Vikings need to emerge from the preseason with a solid backup at left offensive tackle because he would very well enter the starting lineup as soon as the first game of the season.

Bryant McKinnie, the Vikings' starter at left tackle, faces a possible suspension by the NFL as a result of a fight outside a Miami nightclub last February.

One possibility is veteran Artis Hicks, who brings five years of experience to the position. Of course, Anthony Herrera bumped Hicks from the starting lineup in the middle of last season.

Other candidates are second-year man Chase Johnson and rookie Drew Radovich, but neither has done much to distinguish himself. Johnson still looks exceptionally raw.

5. Need for speed in return game

The punt-return job is extremely wide open.

The Vikings are serious about wanting more production from their offense. And one of the best ways they can get it is by giving their offense good field position.

**![]( Camp: MANKATO, Minn.
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Preseason games:
Aug. 8: Seahawks 34, Vikings 17
Aug. 16: at Baltimore, 7:30 p.m. ET
Aug. 23: Pittsburgh, 8 p.m. ET
Aug. 28: at Dallas, 8:00 p.m. ET**

That's why Childress is making the punt-return job as wide open as possible. He wants the sort of game-breaker that divisional rival Chicago has in Devin Hester. The coach is looking to put as much speed as he can into the role.

Three of the Vikings' most dangerous receivers -- newcomer Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Aundrae Allison -- are in the mix in practice.

Having Berrian, the team's No. 1 receiver and one of the top pickups in free agency, return kicks is risky. Wade offers a great deal of experience, yet he couldn't muster anything better than a measly 8.7 yards per return in 2007.

Allison would seem to make a pretty strong choice, considering his consistently impressive work at receiver in camp. He runs exceptional routes and is fluid in everything that he does on the field.

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