For better or worse, Vikings are different

BY foxsports • August 23, 2012

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — In four years with the Minnesota Vikings, defensive end Jared Allen has seen a lot of turnover in the locker room.

Friends and teammates have moved on and in many cases have been moved on from. When the Vikings returned to Winter Park this week after leaving training camp in Mankato, Minn., the reminders were everywhere of the changes undergone this offseason. Along one wall of the locker room, veteran linebacker E.J. Henderson's locker has been taken. Another wall, another new teammate in guard Steve Hutchinson's locker. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser, kicker Ryan Longwell, guard Anthony Herrera, cornerback Cedric Griffin -- all fixtures for years -- are gone.

"It's extremely different," said Allen, 30. "There's some cornerstones of our team that are gone. That's what this league is. You see a lot. I saw it in KC when I was there. I'm seeing it here now. One day, I'll probably be that guy that people are talking, ‘Hey, where'd he go?' "

Minnesota will likely be one of the younger teams in the NFL this season after being a veteran-laden team for years. On the current 90-man roster, 53 players are entering their first or second seasons in the NFL. All the new faces have changed the feeling around the Vikings, and it's evident during practice. In some ways, the team is starting from the ground up.

"It's a different vibe because things that we think should be pretty simple, you forget guys have to learn it," Allen said. "We all are on a learning curve because of the fact that we have a couple new coaches, there's tweaks here and there, everybody's trying to feel each other out."

Changes are expected for a team coming off a 3-13 season that tied a franchise-worst record, and this transition was coming anyway with general manager Rick Spielman assuming full control over the roster at the end of last season. Spielman long had wanted to get the Vikings more in line with winning teams that build through the draft and develop talent, and as many as 18 players selected in 2011 and 2012 could make the final 53-man roster.

The veterans understand the process.

"Every year you come in and you're going to have new faces and guys you're used to seeing are gone," sixth-year defensive end Brian Robison said. "It's kind of almost a shuffle board-type business. So to come in and see the news faces, you get to know them and know their attitudes, things like that, and you just try to go out there and build that camaraderie and make sure that we bring them along."

But waiting for the young players to hold their own can be difficult for the veteran stars. Allen is trying to stay patient and just wants to see continuing improvement with the regular season two weeks away.

"At some point, I don't want to say your patience runs out, but the learning curve has to pick up and they need to catch up to where we're at because it's not our job to drop down because you're young," Allen said. "I'm a firm believer in there's no such thing as a young player. You're in the NFL, you're getting paid to do your job, and our job is up here at a high level, and that's where we need to be and everyone has to get there."

As the Vikings get younger, they believe they have strong leadership in place to bring the less experienced players along. Allen, Robison, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Antoine Winfield set the tone for the defense. The offense has center John Sullivan, wide receiver Percy Harvin and running back Adrian Peterson.

Linebacker Erin Henderson is entering his fourth season but just his second as a starter. He wasn't sure he would be around to see the changes in the locker room. Henderson was an unrestricted free agent who didn't return to Minnesota until exhausting other options in free agency. Now he sees one of the most important changes.

"I think the biggest thing I notice that's been different this camp from camps in the past is that there's opportunities open for other people," Henderson said. "Coming in before, you pretty much knew who was going to be on the starting defense, who was going to be on the starting offense, who was going to make the 53-man roster and who wasn't. I think this year it's kind of open. Things are up in the air. Coaches are giving different guys opportunities and different looks than they might not have gotten before. And I think it's forcing people to play to their maximum potential and bring their best effort day in and day out."

The increased competition could end up leading to the biggest change of all after two down seasons: winning. Nothing would add more energy to the atmosphere at Winter Park than that.


Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.


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