EDEN PRAIRIE -- Brian Baker, Minnesota's linebackers coach, supervised Chris Claiborne before. It hasn't taken Baker long to notice a difference this week as the two have reunited.
When both were in Detroit -- Baker the teacher and Claiborne the neophyte -- lessons weren't disseminated that easily.
"When I was with him when he was a young player," Baker said, "he didn't have a lot of focus. He just had a lot of ability."
After four years of unfulfilled potential with the Lions, Claiborne signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Vikings in March.
Following only a handful of mini-camp practices this week, Baker has discovered a wiser, more mature player.
"That's the difference between 20 and 24," said Claiborne, referring to his age when Detroit drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 1999 and how old he is now.
"I have a lot to prove, and people know that. I'm confident in myself."
Claiborne's weight was sometimes a problem for him in Detroit, but he showed up this weekend at 256 pounds.
"Claiborne's a stud, man," coach Mike Tice said Sunday. "He's a legit blue-chip player. He's in great shape. He moves extremely well."
Just as apparent to Tice this weekend was Claiborne's maturity.
"He's a very good leader," Tice said. "I just think the fit with him and us is a really good thing."
With Raonall Smith -- who missed his rookie year with a shoulder injury -- nipping at Henri Crockett on the weak side, veteran Greg Biekert in the middle and Claiborne and second-year man Nick Rogers on the strong side, the Vikings suddenly have plenty of depth at the position.
"We must have been just awful last year, because everyone leads off with the same question: 'Oh, you've got to be excited about finally having some guys?"' Baker quipped.
"Last year, I was kind of hoping that we weren't going to be the reason we lose. This year, I'm excited about anticipating that we're going to win some games because of our linebackers."
STRONG LEGS: Eddie Johnson, the punter from Idaho State taken in the sixth round of last month's draft, had an impressive mini-camp.
"You can feel that he's in shape," Tice said. He has just got exceptional leg strength. You can hear the ball come off his foot. It sounds like a shotgun blast each time."
Rookie kicker Aaron Elling -- a native of Waconia -- has also caught the eye of the coaches. Released by Seattle after the 2002 preseason, Elling signed with the Vikings as a free agent in March.
"He's got a strong leg, too," Tice said. "They both have a little bit of an attitude. Which is good -- I've never been around kickers with attitude. I'm excited to see how it pans out."
Nick Murphy, currently in NFL Europe, is Johnson's main competition for the punting job. Elling will likely be up against Todd France and Hayden Epstein -- who's recovering from a knee injury -- for the placekicking job.
The Vikings have chosen, thus far, not to re-sign punter Kyle Richardson and veteran kicker Gary Anderson.
EXTRA POINTS: Tice canceled Sunday's afternoon practice because of the rain and his concern of too much time on the artificial turf at Winter Park's indoor facility. ... DL Willie Howard still isn't able to practice. He suffered a catastrophic injury to his right leg in a game against Tennessee in December 2001. ... RB Michael Bennett's surgically repaired foot isn't giving the Vikings any concern -- though they're cautiously bringing him back to speed. Bennett wasn't practicing this weekend, instead riding a stationary bike, but Tice said he's ready to start jogging. Both Howard and Bennett are expected to be ready for training camp July 25.
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