One reason I believe the Vikings will be much improved this year is that they should have all their recent first-round draft choices available.
In Saturday night's preseason game at Seattle, Vikings coach Brad Childress sent all the recent top picks on the field: 2005 first-rounders Troy Williamson and Erasmus James, 2006 first-round selection Chad Greenway and 2007 top pick Adrian Peterson.
After starting the final nine games in 2005, James tore up his knee in the second game of the 2006 season and has had his knee operated on twice. The defensive end didn't take part in minicamps this year and began this year's training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, with his first action of 2007 coming in the 30-13 loss to the Seahawks. James' pass rushing ability will help the team.
Greenway has earned a starting linebacker job, one year after suffering a knee injury in the Vikings' preseason opener that cost him his rookie season. He has played well in the 2007 preseason.
And you could add 2006 second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson to this group. Jackson, now the starting quarterback, had knee surgery last September that kept him sidelined for a few weeks and slowed his progress.
Peterson, who ran 10 times for 41 yards Saturday night, is being touted as a second Chuck Foreman, and his 43-yard run last week against the Jets is a good example of what scouts expect him to be able to do.
Williamson wasn't necessarily injured his first two seasons, but he caught a total of only 24 passes in 2005 and 37 in '06. Now, after getting his eyes checked over the offseason, he appears to be a much-improved wide receiver and could be headed for a banner season.
So, Childress should be a better coach this year, because all coaches have more success when they have better players.
Having these five players healthy and on the field should make the Vikings a better football team this season, better than most experts predict.
Another good back
One position the Gophers football team always was strong at under former coach Glen Mason was running back, with ex-Gophers Marion Barber III, Laurence Maroney and Thomas Tapeh all doing well in the NFL.
Amir Pinnix, a senior this year, is another Mason recruit who proved how good he is when he rushed for a team-high 1,272 yards last year, giving the Gophers at least one 1,000-yard rusher for the eighth season in a row.
Now the Gophers have another top back in freshman Duane Bennett. New coach Tim Brewster said Bennett's running style reminds him somewhat of another running back who wore No. 22, all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith.
"He's got a little bit of that look to him, and I'm just really, really excited about Duane at this particular point," Brewster said of Bennett, who joins the Gophers from Fairview Heights, Ill. "The thing that's got me most excited is his intelligence. He's a very smart young kid who does a great job of pass protection and pickup."
Bennett caught the attention of his Gophers teammates during summer workouts and hasn't done anything wrong to change their minds about how good they think he is.
Aron Kahn, a spokesman for the groups who own the land where the new Twins stadium is to be built, reports that the owners intend to provide Hennepin County with a settlement offer early this week in the hope that an agreement can be reached on the price of the land, thus avoiding a protracted legal dispute.
Brewster has a lot of respect for the Gophers' opening opponent, Bowling Green, despite the Falcons' 4-8 record last year.