The Vikings train at Minnesota State University in Mankato, where on Tuesday morning fans filled two bleacher sections and lined up three-deep along a fence to watch the players work out in shoulder pads and helmets. The temperature was mild because of clouds and a nice breeze.
Considering the alternative in these parts, where heat and humidity can make practices tough, the Vikings may as well have been in La Jolla. The setup is great for the fans because most of the players use bicycles to get around. Each player is issued a bike at the start of camp, and fans can see them wheeling from the locker room to the dorms to the cafeteria. Autograph seekers hang out behind barriers outside the locker room before and after practice, but a better way to get signatures is to hang out down the block at Chipotle Mexican Grill. A lineman or two is almost guaranteed to visit on most days.
1. All eyes are on second-year starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The team will go only as far as he takes it. Jackson is the only major question mark on a club that didn't need a lot of upgrades even before trading for defensive end Jared Allen, who led the league in sacks last season, and signing free-agent wide receiver Bernard Berrian and free-agent safety Madieu Williams. Teammates and coaches contend Jackson is improving each day, even as speculation swirls around Minnesota making a play for Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre.
"The guy has kind of a Tiger Woods mentality: He worries about things he can control, not things he can't," says quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers. "He's really good with that kind of thing. He really competes against himself every day. He's very professional. You'll never see any kind of outward emotion from him. He knows the world of pro football and the hard, cold facts of what goes on. But he's concerned about what Tarvaris Jackson does."
Says Jackson, who completed 58 percent of his passes last year for 1,911 yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions: "I just come out here and work every day, and whatever happens, happens. I just try to do my part and work hard each day and come out here and get better. I feel like I'm getting a lot better. I'm still making some mistakes [and] want to kill myself sometimes. Really, I'm just mad at myself because there are decisions and plays I know I should make that I didn't. The plays that are there, I make them more than I did last year. I've just got to continue to get better."
Rogers says Jackson has improved "in every facet -- fundamentals, footwork, releasing the ball, body position, a greater technical understanding of football." But he adds that "all of that doesn't mean anything until you win some games."
2. The defense could be REALLY scary. The big problem area last year was pass coverage and getting off the field on third down. Allen, an All-Pro who is in the prime of his career entering his fifth season, paced all players with 15.5 sacks last season and is second in the league with 43 sacks since 2004, trailing only Jason Taylor. Allen says he has never played with interior linemen as talented as Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, adding that the sky is the limit for what the defense can accomplish.
Williams will team with Darren Sharper to form a safety duo that should allow defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to rest a little easier. The pass defense allowed 47 completions of 20 or more yards last year, tying for eighth most in the league. The Vikings also allowed a league-high 222 completions for first downs, although that stat is somewhat deceiving considering teams often abandoned the run because the Vikings were so stout on the ground.
3. It's easy to understand why running back Adrian Peterson was so successful last season -- beyond his God-given abilities -- when you watch him practice. The second-year RB goes hard every play, often carrying the ball to the end zone if it's 50 yards away. Peterson set a number of team and league records last season, including most yards rushing (296) in a game, and he says his personal goals are loftier this season. If you're wondering, yes, he is thinking about 2,000 yards. He says he has reminders about his goals all around his house and that he studies them to remind him of where he wants to go.
Allen, Berrian and Williams all are expected to start. We spoke about Allen and Williams earlier. The Vikings believe Berrian will be the deep threat that was lacking last season. They also expect him to have better hands than the likes of the departed Troy Williamson, who struggled to hold onto the ball. Berrian has surprised some teammates with his playmaking ability in the red zone. Says Jackson: "He can go get the football. If you give him a chance to make a play he's going to make a play. He's more than just a deep-ball guy."
The thing that jumps out at you is the opener, a Monday night matchup at Green Bay, because there is an outside possibility it could be Favre taking snaps for the Vikings in Lambeau Field. How weird would that be? Overall, the first month is brutal because three of the Vikings' first four games are against clubs that went to the playoffs last season, with two of them on the road. They play Green Bay (Sept. 8) and Tennessee (Sept. 28) away and get Indianapolis (Sept. 14) at home. The schedule appears favorable down the stretch, when four of their final five games will be against teams that failed to post winning records last year: Chicago, Detroit, Arizona and Atlanta.
The Vikings definitely have one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the league, and it's a pleasure watching them work against each other. Granted, the players do so in a smart manner, staying on their feet and not giving that little extra oomph if they have the advantage over a counterpart. But when you can watch guard Steve Hutchinson work against Pat or Kevin Williams, or tackle Bryant McKinnie against Allen, it's fun. "I get to go against some of the best in the business each day, which only makes us better," says Allen. "So when we get in the games we should dominate."
• There is a connotation that goes with being called a deep-threat receiver. Often people take that to mean that the player is soft. The Vikings say that label doesn't apply to Berrian.
"He's a tough ass, that's what I like about him," says Childress. "He's slightly built as you look at him, but he's a tough-minded guy. Whether that comes from his parents' service background or the fact that he's the middle of three boys, I don't know. He's tough. He'll block you, which is required of our wideouts. He's not a diva. He's a tough guy and a smart guy."
• Childress doesn't hide this being the best team he has gone to camp with in his three years as coach. But unlike some of his players, he's not willing to say the team has to win this year. He is preaching efficiency and consistency. "I think this is a good team too, but I know there are 32 teams that start off down this road every year and hope springs eternal," he says. "The great thing about this league is that you've got to show it week in and week out. You have to be consistent. We harp about that all the time."
• Pat and Kevin Williams (no relation) are arguably the top defensive tackle tandem in the league, and Kevin says one of the reasons is the two compete against each other on every play. He says Pat is a talker who won't let you forget it if he has more tackles than you. Therefore the only way to silence him is to keep pace.
• Cornerback Cedric Griffin might be the most improved starter. The third-year pro struggled to finish pass plays last year in his first season as a fulltime starter. He would be in position or around the ball, but finished the year with only 14 pass breakups and no interceptions. In camp this season he looks a lot more comfortable and is making plays on the ball. That's a good thing, because with standout Antoine Winfield on the other side at cornerback, the former second-round pick is going to see a lot of footballs.
• Free safety Darren Sharper played eight seasons with Favre in Green Bay, which means that he has been asked about the Packers standout repeatedly in recent weeks. "I've been asked about him more now than I was when I played with him," he says. "It's crazy."