SINCE WIDE receiver Bernard Berrian broke into the NFL five years ago, his quarterbacks have been Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn, Jeff Blake, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Brian Griese, Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte. Berrian started his career with the Bears, which explains the initial turbulence, before signing with the Vikings as a free agent in 2008. He quickly discovered that there was as much quarterback drama in Minnesota as there used to be in Chicago. "It does seem to follow me around," Berrian says. "Sometimes you think about what you could do if you had the same guy, but I try not to go there."
A burner who was born in Spain, raised in California and drafted in the third round out of Fresno State in 2004, Berrian's productivity is remarkable when considering who has been passing him the ball—he was second in the NFL last season with 20.1 yards per catch. Now he finally has a chance to show what he can do with a marquee passer. His Brett Favre may not be in Minnesota for more than a year, but with Berrian, tailback Adrian Peterson and a defense that ranked No. 1 last year against the run, the Vikings now have arguably the best roster, top to bottom, in the league—one good enough to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.
As Berrian stretches defenses, Favre's favorite target may become Percy Harvin, the first-round pick out of Florida. He'll run underneath, providing an intriguing outlet for Favre. The Vikings are going to use the rookie in as many ways as the Gators did en route to last season's national championship. Harvin figures to return kicks and punts, run reverses, catch bubble screens and possibly take some direct snaps. "It's not like he hasn't done a few different things in the past to touch the ball," says coach Brad Childress. "We're going to completely submerge him in this offense."
Says Harvin, "I'm going to be all over."
While the Vikings adapt to those changes on offense—new quarterback, new threats, much higher expectations—the defense is basically the same as the one that ranked sixth in yards allowed last season. One crucial difference is the return of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, a team leader who was playing at a Pro Bowl level when he tore ligaments in his toe in the fourth game of the year. Minnesota was only 18th against the pass last year, a figure that Henderson can't help but improve. If he hadn't been placed on injured reserve, ending his season, he believes he could have made it back for the first round of the playoffs, when the Vikings' defense finally caved at home against the Eagles. With Henderson on the field, the Vikes wonder if they could have advanced as far as Philly did, or beyond. "E.J. is a beast, he's an animal, and he's hungry," says cornerback Cedric Griffin. "Having him this year is going to make us a lot better."
Henderson arrived at training camp with a customized present for his teammates: white T-shirts showing purple defenders tackling a huge numeral 1. That stands for No. 1 in total defense, the spot owned last season by the Super Bowl--champion Steelers. The fact that the Steelers are coached by Mike Tomlin, Minnesota's former defensive coordinator, makes the competition more personal. "We're trying to make a run at him," Henderson says. "Number 1—that's what we're striving to be. That's our goal."
The Vikings used to daydream about winning the Super Bowl the way the 2000 Ravens did, by scoring a couple of touchdowns a game and stopping everybody cold. With Favre, their options grow, and so does their margin for error. They can pitch the ball to Peterson, hand it to Harvin and, assuming Favre's arm still allows, launch a few long ones to Berrian and let him run.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: BRAD CHILDRESS
24--24 in NFL, fourth season with Vikings
Phil LOADHOLT (R)
Healthy at last, big (6'4") fourth-year WR Sidney Rice (15 rec., 4 TDs) should emerge as one of Favre's favorite targets.
The two Williamses at tackle face possible four-game suspensions for violations of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
(R) Rookie: College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 10--6
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 5 > 25 > 17
DEFENSE 1 > 18 > 6
13 at Cleveland
20 at Detroit
27 SAN FRANCISCO
5 GREEN BAY (M)
11 at St. Louis
25 at Pittsburgh
1 at Green Bay
6 at Arizona
20 at Carolina
28 at Chicago (M)
3 N.Y. GIANTS
NFL Rank: 31
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .420
Games against playoff teams: 5
Brett Favre can afford to ease into his new job: Four of Minnesota's first five opponents ranked 25th or worse against the run in 2008, meaning the Adrian Peterson--led ground attack should be able to dominate. But the Vikings must keep the running game going and limit Favre's exposure in daunting back-to-back matchups against the Ravens and Steelers.
Cedric Griffin, Cornerback
OPPOSING TEAMS do not like to run against the Vikings' front four. They do not like to throw against Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield. That makes Cedric Griffin, the corner opposite Winfield, a very busy man. Griffin showed last season that he's capable of handling the workload. A second-round draft pick in 2006 out of Texas, where he was an integral part of the Longhorns' national championship team, Griffin saw limited action in '06 and was victimized often after moving into the starting lineup the following year. But his coverage skills improved noticeably last season, when he also made 85 tackles (third best on the team) and showed a willingness to come up from the secondary and butt helmets with running backs.
At 6 feet, 203 pounds, Griffin is one of a new breed of cornerback—rangy and physical, able to match up with supersized wide receivers. The Vikings believe he's built to last, signing him to a five-year, $28.5 million extension in the spring and then inking Winfield to a five-year, $36 million extension this summer to keep the pair intact. While Winfield, 32, is a finished product, Griffin is 26 and still has room to improve. He had only one interception last season, and Minnesota finished 18th in pass defense.
"We had some missed tackles, some balls go over our head," Griffin says. "Our defense isn't the best yet, but we're going to be the best."
PURPLE POWER Berrian should thrive now that he's paired with a premier QB.