So what did Minnesota do this offseason to address their team's weaknesses? Did they break up a strong unit?
Minnesota. I always like Minnesota's offseasons. They always seem to improve their team by drafting a promissing player in the first round but few of their other picks ever work out. RBs Moe Williams, Doug Chapman, and Ontario Smith have had some success over the last couple of years and they were all mid-round selections, but Minnesota's offense has been very kind to their running backs over the last decade and all of them have taken a back seat when star 1st round running backs Robert Smith or Michael Bennett have been starting. The only three current exceptions remaining on the roster from their poor post-1st round draft selections are C Matt Birk, TE Jimmy Kleinsasser, and LB Nick Rogers (and Rogers is in danger of losing his starting job). Minnesota has a pretty poor record of bringing in impact free agents either, with only ex-QB Randall Cunningham coming to my mind as a great signing. Their organizational inability to build depth around their usually excellent first picks has probably been the main cause for why Minnesota looks better on paper than in performance.
Minnesota has arguably the best offense (statistically) in the NFL. I placed the qualifier "statistically" on the assessment of their offense, because it seems to go through stretches where it can't be stopped (6-0 start last season) then stretches where it can't seem to get anything going (0-4 after 6-0 start). The biggest weakness it has had is replacing ex-WR Cris Carter as the receiver opposite WR Randy Moss. 2nd year WR Nate Burleson might take the step forward to fill this position, but he faded as the 2003 season went on. WR Marcus Robinson was signed as a free agent, but Robinson was given up for dead before he was reborn with a 4 touchdown domination of Seattle in week 12 last season. Robinson finished the 2003 season strong, but that was his first sign of life since his serious 2000 knee injury derailed his promissing career.
Minnesota's run defense was an interesting beast in 2003. Footballoutsiders.com rated it slightly above average (17th overall) but it was torched on big runs (only Kansas City was worse at giving up big runs). DT Fred Robbins left for big money in New York (Giants) and MLB Greg Biekert retired. Up the middle DT Chris Hovan remains, maybe ex-Packer DT Steve Martin can help, or maybe DE Kevin Williams moves over to tackle to help replace Robbins. MLB E.J. Henderson was projected as a 1st round pick last year, but Minnesota grabbed him in the 2nd round and are now hoping he can improve the run defense. Rookie linebacker Dontarrious Thomas was picked in the 2nd round this April, he has a lot of speed, and he could take a starting job away from weakside linebacker Rogers, which could improve the run defense. This year's first round pick DE Kenechi Udeze has pass rush ability and can play the run too. If Thomas and Udeze win starting jobs, then Minnesota will rely on four players 23 years old or younger (Udeze, Williams, Henderson, and Thomas) to anchor their run defense. Overall, it isn't clear whether this unit will be improved in 2004 and might have to wait until 2005 to see substantial improvement.
Minnesota had an average number of sacks in 2003 but were above average in sacks per pass attempt according to footballoutsiders.com. This unit can only improve with the top 2 sack men from last year returning (DE Lance Johnstone and Williams) and the addition of Udeze. Minnesota was 2nd in the NFL in interceptions (28) but footballoutsiders.com ranked the unit below average (17th) and their season was defined by the last second collapse by the secondary at Arizona in week 17. Gone is CB Denard Walker, in is CB Antonie Winfield. Winfield was highly regarded but he is short (5'9") and he reminds me of former Chicago CB Thomas Jones, another highly regarded Buffalo free agent but Jones flopped in Chicago after signing as a free agent. Winfield and Jones had one thing in common (other than starting their careers in Buffalo); they were regarded as exceptional in coverage although they recorded few interceptions. Winfield only has 6 interceptions for his career (58 starts in 72 games). Teams might have been avoiding Winfield, but that seems unlikely because Buffalo CB Nate Clements started opposite Winfield and he played like a number one cornerback (12 INTs and 40 pass defenses in 43 career games started and 48 games). The pass rush should be improved, but it is unclear whether Winfield can single-handedly improve the pass defense.
Minnesota's special teams were one of the worst in the NFL last season, ranked 31st overall according to footballoutsiders.com. They seemed to play pretty well against the Packers last season, so they must have sucked the rest of the season. No kicks were returned for touchdowns and K Aaron Elling made an unremarkable 72% of his field goals attempts. P Eddie Johnson was 2nd worst in the league in net punt average and 4th worst at kicks inside the 20 yard line, so P Darren Bennett was brought in to challenge Johnson. Bennett did very well in San Diego last season, 5th best at kicks inside the 20 yard line and while only 16th in net punt average. Bennett will probably win the punting job and he would be likely to improve the unit.