I wrote a review of Minnesota's offseason for vikesgeek.com, so I thought I would post it here too.
Minnesota had one big problem in 2004; defense. Footballoutsiders.com ranked the pass defense 29th overall and the run defense 32nd overall, however, Minnesota made some big changes to improve this sorry defense.
Coaching: The biggest improvement might be on the sidelines, with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. Cottrell was the defensive coordinator for the Jets during the last 6 seasons, but he didn't exactly coordinate a world beating defense in 2002 (according to footballoutsiders.com they were 27th overall), or in 2003 (30th overall), or in 2004 (19th overall). Cottrell might not seem like an obvious improvement based on his track record with the Jets, but as Tice pointed out to his team last season, there are a lot of high draft choices underperforming on defense. A change in defensive philosophy is essential for improvement in 2005.
Defensive Line: An obvious improvement was the signing of Pat Williams. Minnesota probably paid too much for a nose tackle on the wrong side of 30, but Williams was in the middle of a Buffalo run defense that was fantastic in 2004 (2nd overall according to footballoutsiders.com). Chris Hovan seemed to disappoint everyone in Minnesota, he will try to salvage his career in Tampa Bay in 2005, and signing Williams is a major improvement over Hovan. I don't understand why Minnesota drafted Erasmus James. I watched almost every Wisconsin game in 2004. Sometime James was awesome and carried Wisconsin, such as he did against Michigan State and at Purdue. But James missed all of 2003 with an injury and after he got hurt in the 2004 game at Purdue, he wasn't the same player for the rest of the season. The biggest problem with James is that Minnesota already has a nearly identical player in Lance Johnstone. James shouldn't replace Johnstone or Kenechi Udeze on passing downs, however, James does add depth and could push Udeze and might be an eventual replacement for Johnstone. A defensive line with this much talent, including the best defensive lineman in the NFL, Kevin Williams, should be improved in 2005.
Linebackers: This group had to disappoint everyone in Minnesota in 2004. E.J. Henderson put up some solid numbers, but Chris Claiborne was a non-factor for most of 2004 and Minnesota had to be disappointed in the progress of Dontarrious Thomas. The Packers were very high on Thomas, but Minnesota's coaches appeared to lose faith in Thomas and I don't remember Thomas being a factor in any of the games against the Packers. Minnesota added Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris into the mix, but I don't like either of those moves. Cowart will likely push Henderson outside, but Henderson hasn't proven to be very good in pass coverage, although this could improve the run defense. Harris is the other outside linebacker, but he isn't very good in coverage either. Harris is especially a concern; he is a talented player who took a step back in 2004 due in part to injuries, but he also contributed to an awful Oakland defense. Cowart was once a Pro Bowl linebacker, but he hasn't been the same since tearing his achilles tendon a couple of seasons ago, and he will probably never get his speed back. A big reason Cottrell's Jets defense took a big step forward in 2004 was the addition of fantastic rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma, but Minnesota doesn't have anyone on its roster that has ever played as well as Vilma did in 2004. This unit will disappoint again for Minnesota in 2005.
Secondary: I will continue to verbally kick Packers GM Ted Thompson at every opportunity for letting FS Darren Sharper leave the Packers. He is a big play maker and if anyone available this offseason will have an impact ala New England's safety Rodney Harrison, it is Sharper. In 2004, Sharper had his lowest interception total (4) since 1999, but he played some of the season hurt and he returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns. Plus, if your worst interception total in five seasons is four, then you are doing something right. He played a step slower last season, but he blamed it on former Packer defensive coordinator Bob Slovik's request for him to bulk up last offseason so he could play closer to the line of scrimmage. Still, he is a great signing for Minnesota. Fred Smoot wasn't as good of a signing, but he is a quality starter and it will make a big difference to move Brian Williams to 3rd cornerback and remove all memory of Terrance Shaw from the roster. There are some areas of concern with the cornerbacks; both Antoine Winfield and Smoot are smaller cornerbacks, and neither player has produced a lot of pass defenses or interceptions in their careers. However, when considering the disaster Minnesota's starting cornerbacks had been before Antoine Winfield and Smoot were signed over the last two offseasons, this is a big improvement for Minnesota. One last thing, Minnesota also drafted Dustin Fox from Ohio State, who played cornerback in college and probably would have been more highly regarded if the 2005 draft hadn't been so deep with good cornerbacks. It wouldn't be surprising to see Fox play a role later in 2005.
Offense: How does Minnesota replace Randy Moss? I've taken comfort in the fact that no matter how much Minnesota improves their defense, their offense took a hit by the loss of Randy Moss. Maybe. If you look at footballoutsiders.com, you'll see that over the past few seasons, Moss doesn't rate as the highest receiver each season. Actually, Nate Burleson had a higher rank than Moss in 2004. But Moss always scores a lot of touchdowns, and that is never easy to replace. For comparison, Brett Favre always ranks low with footballoutsiders.com, but Favre always is among the leaders in touchdown passes. For all of Favre's faults, he consistently finds the end zone each season, which is a rare talent that can't be underappreciated. The same things can be said about Moss. Even with all the injuries in 2004, he still caught 13 touchdown passes, and his loss can't be underappreciated, despite all the other baggage he brings to a team. Can Troy Williamson replace Randy Moss? I pulled up the DPAR from footballoutsiders.com on the last three players to be the second wide receiver drafted; Roy Williams 4.5 (-3.3), Andre Johnson 18.4 (0.2), and Ashley Lelie 25.4 (8.2). The numbers in paranthesis is their team's DVOA for 2004. Williams caught 8 touchdowns, Johnson caught 6, and Lelie caught 7. None of these players played as well as Moss, especially if you are comparing by touchdown receptions, but all three played on inferior overall offenses than Minnesota. If Williamson can be compared a year or three from now to those three receivers in Minnesota's top offense, then he will be a good one, but not quite an equal replacement for Moss. Maybe Moss won't be missed at all if the reason Moss was so good was because Daunte Culpepper is the best quarterback in the NFL (sorry Peyton). It will be interesting to see if the offense doesn't miss a beat without Moss in 2005.
Special Teams: Wasn't anyone in Minnesota concerned last season that the special teams was awful in 2004? Footballoutsiders.com ranked it 28th last season. Special teams can be a fluke from one season to the next, but this unit has been awful for years, and 2004's 28th place finish was actually the highest team finish since they finished 25th in 2001. Morten Anderson was let go to collect social security, but in his wake remain Aaron Elling and Jose "Fed Ex" Cortez. Former Packer Travis Dorsch is hanging around too, but it would be a shock if Dorsch becomes their kicker. Former Viking Doug Brien is sending his resume around the NFL, just in case Minnesota wants their former goat to return to Minnesota. Darren Bennett will continue punting in 2005, but he looked awful in 2004 when he played against the Packers. Minnesota didn't need to draft Mike Nugent to improve this unit, but doing nothing to improve it should disappoint many fans come the regular season. How do these moves compare against the rest of the NFC North? I think no team improved as much this offseason as Minnesota. The Packers had serious cap problems and had to let three starters leave; Sharper, Mike Wahle, and Marco Rivera. The Packers would have probably preferred keeping all three players. The Packers are replacing those three starters with a collection of players; Matt O'Dwyer and Adrian Klemm on offense, and Earl Little and Arturo Freeman at safety, who are all playing for the veteran's minimum salary, except Klemm who was paid $1.5 million. It would be a surprise if O'Dwyer, Klemm, Little and Freeman outplay Sharper, Wahle and Rivera in 2005. The Packers added little in the draft that will help in 2005. Aaron Rodgers will probably take over in 2006 and defensive back Nick Collins should take at least a season to adjust after playing small college ball, however, wide receiver Terrence Murphy looks impressive and could help very soon. I don't understand what Jerry Angelo and Matt Millen are doing in Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Chicago drafted another running back while barely improving an awful offensive line by spending big bucks on average tackle Fred Miller, who was cut by Tennessee this offseason. Then they added a rookie quarterback, Kyle Orton, to add to their collection of unproven young quarterbacks, while not helping the defense at all. Detroit drafted another wide receiver, but are still stuck playing Joey Harrington at quarterback/piano, or maybe Jeff Garcia, while failing to address holes at right tackle or safety. The NFC North should remain a battle between Minnesota and Green Bay in 2005, while Chicago and Detroit still try to figure it all out.