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We hit up Pro Football Weekly Vikings correspondent Tom Pelissero for answers to five burning questions on the team heading into Week One:
1. Is the prognosis for the offensive line as bad as some are making it out to be?
Pelissero: That depends in large part on how new OLT Charlie Johnson fares. His predecessor, Bryant McKinnie, often was knocked for playing too high and lazy and lacking upper-body strength. But McKinnie was an above-average player at a core position for a long time and has the dominant physical traits scouts look for. Johnson doesn't. If the Vikings have to give Johnson a lot of help in pass protection, that only will increase the pressure on OLG Steve Hutchinson, who is in decline at age 33. C John Sullivan and ORT Phil Loadholt look improved. It's too soon to get a good read on ORG Anthony Herrera's recovery from knee reconstruction.
2. What defensive player must make the biggest improvement this season?
Pelissero: There are a half-dozen names that would fit here, from All-Pros who underachieved last season (Jared Allen, Kevin Williams) to first-time starters (Brian Robison, Erin Henderson, Jamarca Sanford). But let's go with No. 3 CB Chris Cook, a second-round draft pick last season whose rookie season went off the rails because of two knee surgeries to repair meniscus tears. Cook has the length and zone skills to beat up receivers at the line and sink in cover-2. He's not particularly physical for someone who is 6-2 and 212 pounds, though. He needs to tackle better and be more sound in his technique. The Vikings move veteran Antoine Winfield into the slot in nickel, so Cook will be playing left cornerback on roughly half the snaps — if all goes well.
3. With Sidney Rice gone, do the Vikings have the skill-position ingredients to have a successful passing attack?
Pelissero: The Vikings don't have another fully dimensional receiving threat such as Rice. One of the big questions surrounding the offense is whether Bernard Berrian and, to a lesser extent, Michael Jenkins can provide a vertical element and balance the perimeter opposite dynamic slot man Percy Harvin. There were flashes in the preseason — for example, Berrian's 49-yard touchdown catch on a corner-post route against Dallas — but it's a work in progress. Adding rookie second-round pick Kyle Rudolph as a backside pass-catching tight end will help.
4. How will the return jobs be handled early in the season?
Pelissero: Harvin is lobbying hard to handle kick returns, and the smart money says he'll end up splitting those duties with third-down back Lorenzo Booker. Coach Leslie Frazier understandably is concerned about wearing out his top receiver and exposing Harvin to injury risk, particularly with the new kickoff rules making returns a trickier proposition. CB Marcus Sherels beat out Jaymar Johnson for the punt-return job in the preseason.
5. How long of a leash will Jamarca Sanford have now that he won the SS job?
Pelissero: As long as Sanford tackles well — something Madieu Williams did not, contributing to his release in July — he should play a lot. Coverage isn't a strength for Sanford, though, so it's worth wondering if former second-round draft pick Tyrell Johnson could rotate in on a situational basis. There is still support for Johnson within the building, despite his failure to win the starting job two years in a row.