Vikings spin a crowded QB carousel
Make no mistake, most attention and probably all the hype will be focused on the quarterback situation when new head coach Mike Zimmer leads theMinnesota Vikings in their first training camp practice July 25 at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Former starter Christian Ponder may have sunk to the bottom of a three-man depth chart that includes steady veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the May draft.
There was chatter about bringing Bridgewater along slowly, but that seemed to dissipate somewhat when Zimmer raved about the rookie's performance in OTAs and minicamp.
While that high level drama plays itself out, here are a few other items of importance the Vikings must mull in Mankato:
--Linebacker: If not the weakest position, it will be at least suspect unless or until first-round draft pick Anthony Barr proves himself. Even if Barr does contribute immediately, the unit is thin and so far there are more questions than obvious answers.
Nine-year veteran Chad Greenway is steady and healthy, but can he keep pace and do all of the things head coach Mike Zimmer will ask of him as a three-down player at age 31? Will Barr be able to transform freakish physical tools into a productive NFL linebacker? Can Jasper Brinkley play well enough to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker? And who among the several intriguing but unproven prospects -- Audie Cole, Michael Mauti andGerald Hodges, among others -- will step forward to provide reliable depth and/or push Brinkley and Barr?
PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE
--Everson Griffen, DE: Most eyes are on the team's quarterback position to see how long temporary starter Matt Cassel can hold off rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater. But Griffen has the biggest shoes to fill as he transitions from a physically gifted athlete with unlimited potential to Jared Allen's replacement as starting right defensive end.
Allen walked away from the Vikings without so much as an offer after six stellar seasons because the Vikings chose instead to invest in Griffen, who, at 26, is six years younger than Allen. Griffen, who has 17.5 career sacks and just one start over four seasons, was given a five-year, $42.5 million deal. If that's not enough pressure to produce, Allen and his 128.5 career sacks stayed within the NFC North when he signed with the rival Bears.
KEY POSITION BATTLE
Nickel cornerback: The starting cornerbacks are set, but in the pass-crazed NFC North, a reliable nickel corner to play alongside starters Xavier Rhodesand Captain Munnerlyn is vital.
Eight corners currently are competing for that nickel-back spot, which needs an upgrade if coach Mike Zimmer is to turn around the 31st-ranked pass defense. Third-year pro Josh Robinson, who was unimpressive when given the chance to be a starter last season, and free-agent acquisition Derek Cox, who slumped in his only season in San Diego a year ago, are the primary contenders. The dark horse is Shaun Prater, who showed good instincts after signing as a street free agent during last season. Rookies Kendall James and Jabari Price, both Day 3 selections, also are worth watching.
BEST LONGSHOT ROOKIE
--Brandon Watts, OLB, Georgia Tech, Round 7/223rd overall: At 6-foot, 225, Watts lacks ideal size, but possesses the kind of speed and coverage ability that will add depth at a position of weakness and help bolster one of the league's better special teams units.
With sideline-to-sideline speed and the knack of being able to shadow running backs and tight ends in man coverage, he should be a piece of the rebuilding project at linebacker. NFLDraftScout.com projected Watts as a seventh-round pick as the 23rd best outside linebacker in the draft.
--Minnesota Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson does not let a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a 29th birthday slow him down. So why would he worry about a bunch of sports writers speculating that an unfriendly salary cap figure may cause him to be released before the team opens its new stadium in 2016?
Because that is his own reality check.
Peterson talked with USA Today this week about the reality that comes with playing in the NFL, regardless of one's star status. He should know, since he watched the Vikings trade Percy Harvin and allowed Jared Allen to walk via free agency in back-to-back offseasons.
"If that's going younger or trying to save money, that's what it boils down to, no matter what type of talent you are," Peterson said. "It's really the unfortunate part of the business, but I'm blessed to still be around, and hopefully, it doesn't happen to me one day. If it does, then, oh well. I'll go on and do something different with my career."
Peterson is the only running back in the league with a salary-cap figure of at least $10 million. After next season, the Vikings could release him without taking on any dead money from a salary-cap figure that will have ballooned to $17 million.
Of course, what few people seem to realize is Peterson also could have his contract redone with a signing bonus that would maintain the compensation level while lowering the cap figure. So it's not exactly an either/or situation the Vikings face with Peterson in a year or two.
Assuming he maintains his career-long level of production, Peterson has a hard time picturing the Vikings releasing him.
"I think the organization would take a heavy hit -- for real -- more so from the fan base," Peterson told USA Today. "I don't think it would be like a LeBron (James) situation where they're burning my jersey, this, that and the other. They might be doing (the opposite) and not buying some season tickets."
After Thursday's final minicamp practice, Peterson was asked to react to another running back claiming to be the best running back in the league.
Chris Johnson used to be that running back. Now, it's LeSean McCoy.
"It really don't bother me," Peterson said. "Since I've been in the league, every year there's been a guy that's better than me. When I came in I had the same mentality. I'm the best, just try to put in the work and go out there and prove it.
"I understand where he's coming from. I play this game for one reason and that's to be the best, obviously to win a championship, but personally to be the best player. So I love his mentality.
"You are what you think, but you've got to put in the work as well. You think that you're the second-best, you're going to remain in that position. But he's going to have to work extremely hard to surpass me."
Peterson ran for 2,097 yards less than a year after suffering a torn ACL. So, yeah, he thinks he's kind of unique. And that goes for his approach to turning 30 next offseason.
"It's the same thing I thought when they say ACL, you'll never come back from it," Peterson said. "It is what is. It doesn't apply to me. I have a totally different mindset and mindframe, so I'll just stay in my lane and let everybody else say what they have to say. Because it's just the way it is.
"So I don't really get into it and try to prove anything to people. I just go out there and control what I can control and go out there and try to perform every year."
Asked what age applies to him, Peterson said, "Well, I was talking to (former quarterback Brett) Favre. Forty sounds a good number."
Peterson also was asked where he should rank when it comes to the NFL Network's Top 100.
"One," he said. "I feel like I'm the best. Peyton will be one, of course. But, yeah, one.
"I'd be one still. 1B."
Take a close look at Peterson this offseason and you'll see a guy who understands how well other great backs -- Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinsonto name two -- have performed in Norv Turner's offenses. Coming off groin surgery, Peterson looks as fit and trim as ever and is as eager as ever despite being upset initially by the firing of Leslie Frazier and most of his coaching staff after last season.
"He's an ultimate pro to me," said Turner, the team's offensive coordinator. "He's come in here and he understands that there's a change. I think he's taking the approach that we as coaches took. You do have to get out of your comfort zone a little bit. It's new, you have to put time in, and he's done all of those things. (Wednesday), he was outstanding and I think that's what happens."
It's also clear that Turner will at least try to use Peterson as a receiver out of the backfield more than any other coach has during Peterson's career. Others have tried as well, but Peterson never has looked comfortable catching the ball.
Turner said that's not what he has seen this offseason.
"He's got good hands," Turner said. "I think he's comfortable with the routes that we would ask him to run. I think he's intrigued by it, but you would have to ask him. I think he's doing really well with it. It's certainly not the lead part of what we're doing.
"We threw a screen to him that was as nicely set up as you could ask for and the linemen got out in front. If we can get him in space like that throughout a game, throughout the season it will help all of us."
--Vikings first-round draft pick Anthony Barr isn't a big fan of the NFL rule that prevents rookies from participating in any team activities other than the rookie minicamp until their class graduates from college.
"I was real bored," said Barr, the ninth overall draft pick who missed all of the team's organized team activities (OTAs) because UCLA is on the quarters system.
"It was the longest four weeks, really. But it was a good time for me to kind of decompress a little bit and get my mind right for this."
Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer flew out to Los Angeles to tutor the ninth overall draft pick in the team's new defense. But there's only so much book work and individual drills that a man can do before he needs to actually see how his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame will be put to good use.
Finally able to participate during this week's mandatory three-day minicamp, Barr's versatility was put into play immediately. He played strong-side linebacker in both the base and nickel packages.
He also did something he's never done since moving from running back to linebacker just two years ago: Put his hand in the dirt as a pass-rushing defensive end.
"Right now, we're kind of just working at different skill sets, different positions and where his skill sets go," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "So, systematically, we are flexible enough that we can take his skill set and put him in positions where hopefully it helps us, most advantageous, whether rushing the passer, whether it's dropping in coverage."
Barr's skills are vast, but his lack of experience caused coach Mike Zimmer to refer to him as a "fawn" on draft day. Well, the so-called fawn knew that if he was going to fall down this week, he was going to do it full bore.
"There's a little bit of a learning curve missing OTAs, but it kind of is what it is," Barr said. "I knew I was going to make mistakes.
"I just had to make sure I did those at full speed. Not many nerves, just a lot of excitement, and I'm just happy to be here."
--Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer says he is not worried about the soon-to-be-released independent investigation into charges that he used anti-gay remarks in team meetings and discriminated against former punter Chris Kluwe because of Kluwe's support of gay marriage rights.
"It's been one of those things where I come to work every morning and I'm excited about the direction of this football team," Priefer said Wednesday during Day 2 of the Vikings' three-day minicamp. "I really like our coaching staff and I'm excited about our new players and excited about the guys we retained and came back. So my focus has been totally on football."
In early January, Kluwe blasted Priefer, general manager Rick Spielman and former head coach Leslie Frazier in an article for Deadspin. Most of the venom was directed at Priefer, whom Kluwe called a bigot.
Kluwe, who was released before the 2013 season, also accused Priefer of using anti-gay remarks during the 2012 season and pushing for Kluwe's release because of Kluwe's highly-visible support of Minnesota's gay marriage rights. That caused the Vikings to launch an investigation headed by former Minnesota chief justice Eric Magnuson and former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Chris Madel.
Results of the investigation could come as early as this weekend, although they've been expected for a couple of months.
Priefer deflected questions about Kluwe's accusations on Wednesday, preferring to keep the focus on football. However, shortly after Kluwe's article appeared, Priefer did deny the charges. In a released statement, he said:
"I vehemently deny today's allegations made by Chris Kluwe. I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals. I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member.
"The primary reason I entered coaching was to affect people in a positive way. As a coach, I have always created an accepting environment for my players, including Chris, and have looked to support them both on and off the field.
"The comments today have not only attacked my character and insulted my professionalism, but they have also impacted my family. While my career focus is to be a great professional football coach, my number one priority has always been to be a protective husband and father to my wife and children.
"I will continue to work hard for the Minnesota Vikings, the Wilf family and all of our loyal fans."
--There is no area in which the team's new coaching regime didn't look to improve when it took over in January. And that includes what the players eat while at team headquarters or in next month's training camp.
For instance, the Vikings have removed bacon, fried items, mayonnaise and creamy-based sauces from their menu.
Coach Mike Zimmer said the approach is helping the team. He claims the team has lost a combined 170 pounds of fat and gained 70 pounds of muscle.
"It's a collective effort," Zimmer said. "The strength coaches and trainers brought it to my attention. So, heck, I think even (general manager) Rick (Spielman) said he's lost some weight.
"I think I've actually lost weight too, but I think that's from stress. I'm eating fish every day for lunch. That's a change for me too."
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Cassel. Backups - Teddy Bridgewater, Christian Ponder.
The assumption is the 32-year-old Cassel, an inconsistent 10-year journeyman, will begin the season as the starter and hold onto the job for one season or until his production is surpassed by the rookie Bridgewater's promise and progress. If Cassel maintains ball security - a big if, given his history - and the Vikings win early - an even bigger if considering their first five opponents - then Bridgewater can be groomed slowly out of the spotlight by offensive coordinator Norv Turner. If Cassel plays like he did while going 10-5 as a Pro Bowler in Kansas City in 2010, the Vikings have a delightful problem going forward in 2015. If Cassel is the turnover machine he was while going 1-7 in Kansas City in 2012, he'll be benched and the future will begin early with Bridgewater's promotion. Selecting Bridgewater with the 32nd overall draft pick - the Vikings' second pick of the first round - buys a comfortable level of patience, assuming Cassel isn't a drag on the offense. The good news is Ponder has been dispatched to No. 3, where he has more value as an experienced and mobile insurance policy than he does as trade bait. Of course, if injuries were to strike other teams, the Vikings certainly would listen to all trade offers for the guy who will be out of the picture after his contract expires at the end of the season. Bridgewater already looks more poised, more decisive and more accurate than Ponder has looked, even in practice, in three-plus years. Pre-draft concerns about Bridgewater's arm strength appear to be a non-issue because he's already shown he can make all the throws necessary in Turner's offense, and do it with accuracy, proper trajectory and pace. Although he's not the favorite to win the starting job for opening day, he did make enough offseason progress to push Cassel in training camp and the preseason.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, FB Zach Line.
Well, you know you have a special running back when a "down" year is rushing for 1,266 yards in 14 games, six of which were played with a groin injury that required offseason surgery. But that's the height of the bar Peterson has set for himself. He's healthy, lean and strong as ever, and he's got Norv Turner as his new offensive coordinator. Part of Turner's plan to unclog the line of scrimmage is to get Peterson more involved in the passing game. Look for more of his touches to come as receptions. He should surpass his career-high of 43 catches set in 2009. McKinnon, a rookie third-round draft pick from Georgia Southern, replaces Toby Gerhart as Peterson's primary backup. McKinnon will fill that role in a much different way as a smaller, shiftier third-down back that Turner likes to use. Asiata is a straight-ahead grinder with limited side-to-side moves. He also can take some of the pounding off of the now 29-year-old Peterson. Felton made the Pro Bowl two years ago and is as solid of a fullback as there is. But don't rule out Line just yet. The younger, cheaper second-year player is a favorite of the coaching staff and the front office. He came out of nowhere to make the team as an undrafted rookie a year ago. Only one fullback will be kept, although TE Rhett Ellison also can serve as a fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner, Chase Ford, AC Leonard.
Tight ends are among the weapons Turner has elevated to stardom in past seasons. Rudolph has always been in good shape, but he heads into his fourth training camp bigger and leaner than ever in part because he's excited about what Turner has meant to the careers of tight ends such as Jay Novacek and Antonio Gates. Rudolph is a large target with long arms, soft hands and deceptive speed, although he's not a burner. A broken foot in the eighth game last season derailed what could have become his most productive season and also contributed to the team's downfall. Ellison might be the hardest-working player on the team. He's limited as a receiver, but is a valuable blocker in space and at the point of attack. Reisner and Ford are former undrafted rookies who have shown soft hands and a knack for finding soft areas in a defense. Leonard, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee State, is an intriguing prospect in that he looks like a receiver in a 250-pound frame.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings. Backups - Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Rodney Smith, Adam Thielen, Kamar Jorden, Kain Colter, Donte Foster, Erik Lora.
Patterson should follow his All-Pro kickoff return season with a breakout offensive season under a coordinator who won't let his many talents rot away on the sideline. Jennings has a much better rapport with Cassel, a veteran he respects, so he's happy that the Ponder experiment is essentially over. Simpson returns on a third consecutive one-year, prove-it deal. If he can ever stay out of trouble off the field, he'd be a dependable asset as a leaper who can stretch the field. Wright is the most underrated player on the team. He's built for the slot, but has deceptive speed and a standout double move that's sneaky. The fifth receiver last year was former quarterback Joe Webb, who left via free agency. The bar isn't high. Smith looks the part, but drops too many passes. Thielen, a practice-squad player as a rookie last year, made greater strides than any other Viking during the offseason. He's a hard worker with speed, good hands and improving body control down the field.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - C Joe Berger, LG Vladimir Ducasse, RG Jeff Baca, LG David Yankey, LT Kevin Murphy, T Pierce Burton, T Matt Hall, C Zac Kerin, G/T Mike Remmers, LT Antonio Richardson, G Austin Wentworth.
Kalil, the fourth overall pick in 2012, took a step back as a second-year player. He's also coming off knee surgery that sidelined him throughout most of the offseason work. He needs to play with more desire and consistently after a season that saw him whiff too often. Johnson likely will retain his starting job, but it won't be handed to him after a poor season. Same goes with Fusco, although he played better than Johnson did a year ago. The Vikings signed Ducasse in free agency and drafted Yankey in the fifth round. They've also spent a year grooming Baca, a sixth-round pick last year, so they're looking for more options at guard. And the team retained offensive line coach Jeff Davidson from Leslie Frazier's staff, so there is continuity there. Sullivan also struggled last season, particularly with blitz and stunt packages. Loadholt is improving his consistency and is in the prime of his career at 28. Berger is a quality backup who can play all three interior positions at a temporary starting level. Murphy is Kalil's primary backup, but the Vikings are intrigued by undrafted rookie Richardson, a mountain of a man who would have been drafted relatively high if not for a history of knee injuries.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Brian Robison, NT Linval Joseph, UT Sharrif Floyd, RDE Everson Griffen. Backups - LE Scott Crichton, NT Fred Evans, UT Tom Johnson, RE Corey Wootten, NT Chase Baker, E Rakim Cox, NT Kheeston Randall, E Spencer Nealy, T Shamar Stephen, E Justin Trattou.
The Vikings certainly got younger up front. But let's not assume they'll be better. Not when two of the three departing starters are named Jared Allen andKevin Williams. Robison is the only returning starter. He's 31, but still in his prime and getting better. He actually played better than Allen did last season. Joseph is the first legitimate nose tackle the Vikings have had since Pat Williams in 2010. If Joseph recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, as the team says he will in time for training camp, then he's a major upgrade over Letroy Guion. Floyd starts out as the starting under tackle, the spot Williams handled superbly for many years. Floyd did very little to get excited about as a rookie first-round pick a year ago. The pressure is on him to display the quickness that made the Vikings jump on him when he fell to No. 23 in the draft a year ago. If he can't cut it, look for the Vikings to turn to former Saint Johnson. The pressure also is on the 26-year-old Griffen, maybe more than any other Viking. He was handed a big contract while Allen was allowed to walk away without any negotiations. Griffen is a freakish athlete who has excelled as a multi-dimensional pass rusher. But can he produce the consistent sack totals that Allen did year after year? The most intriguing under-the-radar player is Stephen. The Vikings were thrilled to get a player with that kind of size (6-foot-5, 310) and quickness in the seventh round of this year's draft.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Chad Greenway, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Anthony Barr. Backups - WLB Brandon Watts, WLB Larry Dean, SLBGerald Hodges, SLB Audie Cole, MLB Michael Mauti, MLB Mike Zimmer, MLB Dom DeCicco.
By far the most unsettled and intriguing area to watch in training camp. Barr, the ninth overall draft pick this year, will start and be a major weapon in coach Mike Zimmer's attempt to revive the worst scoring defense in the league a year ago. But what will his exact role(s) be? Barr has the length and speed to run with fast tight ends down the seam. But he also has the agility and instincts to rush the passer. He'll most likely play strong-side linebacker, which is the primary rush linebacker position in Zimmer's defense. Greenway's role also will be interesting to watch unfold. After eight seasons in the same Cover 2-oriented, read-and-react defense, Greenway is playing in an aggressive scheme for the first time. The defense will be more flexible with schemes based on opponents and individual matchups. Greenway likely will be the weak-side linebacker, but could shift inside to the middle if Brinkley doesn't impress. Brinkley, who started in the middle for the Vikings in 2012, returns after spending last season in Arizona. He's a two-down run stopper who is extremely limited when it comes to pass coverages. The backup battles will be interesting as well because there are some intriguing prospects who could become starters quickly. Cole is a tall, rangy, fast player who surprised everybody when thrust into the starting middle linebacker job later in the 2013 season. Mauti is an overachiever whose knees are finally healthy. Hodges has speed but needs more polish. Watts, a seventh-round pick this year, also has the kind of sideline-to-sideline speed the Vikings have lacked at linebacker in recent years.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Captain Munnerlyn, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups - S Brandon Bishop, SRobert Blanton, SS Kurt Coleman, CB Derek Cox, CB Kip Edwards, S Antone Exum, CB Kendall James, CB Shaun Prater, CB Jabari Price, FS Mistral Raymond, CB Josh Robinson, SS Andrew Sendejo, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Robert Steeples.
Munnerlyn was a vital free-agent pickup. It allowed the Vikings to draft a linebacker (Barr) rather than be forced to take a corner (Justin Gilbert) they didn't think was worthy of the top 10. Munnerlyn also gives the Vikings a 26 year old who is a tremendous upgrade over Chris Cook in terms of talent, instincts and reliability. And, finally, Munnerlyn also fills the huge void created when Antoine Winfield was released for salary-cap purposes in the spring of 2013. Like Winfield, Munnerlyn is able to slide into the slot in nickel coverages. Robinson tried to do that last season and failed miserably in his first attempt at playing the slot. Although Munnerlyn upgrades the secondary, the Vikings still need a third corner to step forward. Rhodes is a star-in-the-making if he can stay healthy. But the No. 3 corner position is up for grabs among veterans who have struggled recently (Robinson and Cox in San Diego) or rookies who were Day 3 draft selections (Price and James). At safety, Smith also is a future star if he can stay healthy. A broken foot cost him most of last season and played a huge role in the team's defensive collapse. At strong safety, the Vikings want an upgrade but might have to settle for Sanford, a career overachiever with a knack for beating out players with better pedigree. Coleman and Sendejo will push Sanford the hardest. Coleman was a quiet free-agent pickup from Philadelphia. Sendejo, mainly a special teams player, turned a lot of heads as a big hitter when Smith went down last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, LS Cullen Loeffler, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, PR Marcus Sherels.
Walsh missed four of 30 field-goal attempts last season and it was considered a down year. That's how high the strong-legged second-year player set the bar during his All-Pro rookie season. After making an NFL-record 10 of 10 field goals of at least 50 yards as a rookie, Walsh went 2 of 5 from that distance last season. It's too early, however, to worry about Walsh. He'll be fine. Plus, he's one of the best in the league when it comes to kickoffs. Locke was inconsistent as a rookie, but has the leg strength and focus to progress under special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Loeffler, the team's elder statesman, has been around since 2004 because he's as steady as they come. Patterson is coming off an All-Pro rookie season. As Patterson's role in the offense expands, the Vikings will look to take some of the kickoff return duties off his plate. One option is Sherels. Never a lock to make the team, the overachieving Sherels usually proves too hard to cut. He barely survived as a backup corner/punt returner a year ago. Then he set a franchise record for punt-return average (15.2) and held his own at corner when injured bodies began to fall all around him. End of Part 1 - more to follow