Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
In their first football-related announcement in a while, the Vikings said today that they have waived defensive end Spencer Nealy and replaced him on their 90-man roster with tight end Mike Higgins.
Higgins, 26, played four total games for the Saints in 2011 and 2012, including one start. He has two career catches for one yard. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound tight end was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska-Omaha in 2011. The Saints cut him after last preseason.
Nealy, 24, spent time on the Vikings’ practice squad last year, but he was never elevated to their active roster during his first professional season. The defensive end was recently suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Higgins is expected to report to Mankato tomorrow along with the rest of the Vikings players.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer loves challenges. None will be bigger defensively than figuring out what to do at linebacker.
It’s a position that will see two different starters paired up with Chad Greenway. On paper, it’s the biggest “unknown” position group and probably the weakest at this point. There are a number of unproven linebackers in position to start with Greenway. Outside of the battle at quarterback, the situation at linebacker is the second biggest headline heading into training camp.
On the eve of training camp, we break down the current situation at linebacker (Here’s our defensive line preview from Tuesday, in case you missed it.)
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Vikings released linebacker Erin Henderson and opted not to bring back Marvin Mitchell. Both linebackers started in Week 1 last season alongside Greenway. In a weak crop of linebackers in both free agency and the draft, the Vikings didn’t make a big splash acquisition that could immediately fill a need.
They brought back Jasper Brinkley to one-year deal and also signed Dom DeCicco and Mike Zimmer. In the draft, the Vikings selected Anthony Barr with the ninth overall pick and took Brandon Watts in the seventh round.
The new faces blend with some unproven linebackers already on the roster, specifically Audie Cole, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. Zimmer and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer will attempt to make the most of pieces they have available, which will be a difficult task to sort out over the next few weeks.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Every job is open. Again, every job is open.
It’s difficult to even claim whether any linebacker has separated himself up to this point because they’ve been rotating constantly so the coaching staff can get a better feel for every player before training camp. We’ve seen even Greenway get some reps at middle linebacker and there’s a possibly he could be used at the position during the regular season.
It’s tough to see Barr start on Week 1 unless he makes a tremendous amount of progress over the next month that the Vikings would feel comfortable using him in any situation. At this point, Barr is a naturally gifted pass rusher with his size, speed and strength that could use more time understanding the position. Cole flashed his potential filling for Henderson at middle linebacker late last season. Brinkley has the tools that fit this defense as a run stopping linebacker, while Mauti and Hodges still remain as unknowns with potential.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Are Greenway’s best days behind him? He was ranked as the second to worst 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 players last season by Pro Football Focus. Though, it didn’t take a complicated formula to see that Greenway regressed last season. He played through a fractured wrist for the final portion of the season but looked a step slower. Greenway will turn 32 in January heading into the final year of his deal, with an unguaranteed base salary of $7 million. This year is a big opportunity to prove his worth either for the Vikings, or another team.
It was an offseason of change for the Vikings, from the coaching staff to the stadium in which they will play their home games in 2014. Of all the things that will be different this season, the defensive line is up there. The Vikings overhauled that group this spring, letting two fan favorites go in free agency, signing an emerging nose tackle and putting their faith in two young players.
After looking at the big guys on the other side of the line, let’s break down the D-line today.
WHERE THINGS STAND: Outside of Brian Robison, the defensive line looked, well, different this spring without a pair of longtime defensive cornerstones in Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. The Vikings allowed those two to leave in free agency, instead hitching their wagon to talented but unproven youngsters in Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen. Still, new head coach Mike Zimmer, who relied on a deep defensive line rotation in Cincinnati, said last month that he thinks the Vikings will have enough talent and depth along the defensive line. He couldn’t say definitively, though, because a few key contributors were either sidelined by injuries or ineligible to practice due to NFL rules. Griffen and free-agent signee Linval Joseph, a big nose tackle, were limited this spring, as was versatile backup defensive end Corey Wootton. And fellow end Scott Crichton was stuck at Oregon State until the mandatory minicamp. The return of those four to active duty will boost the defensive line in training camp, giving Zimmer’s coaching staff a lot to evaluate.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: The Vikings have four defensive ends who can probably be penciled onto the 53-man roster in Robison, Griffen, Crichton and Wootton. And Joseph and Floyd, one of their 2013 first-rounders, are expected to be the starting defensive tackles. But the battle to back those two up should be interesting. Veterans Fred Evans and Tom Johnson will compete with younger players in Kheeston Randall, Chase Baker and Shamar Stephen, a 2014 seventh-rounder.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can Floyd and Griffen live up to lofty expectations? Floyd had his moments in a rookie season that included 2.5 sacks, but he has yet to distinguish himself as a starter in the league and the coaching staff has said he too often is thinking instead of reacting on the practice field. Griffen had 17.5 sacks in four seasons as a part-time player, and after the team opted to pay big money to him instead of Allen, the pressure is on the 26-year-old to produce.
Every Monday during the offseason we’ll take four questions from Twitter for our weekly mailbag using the #VikingsST hashtag.
I’ve thought since the time Bridgewater played his last game at Louisville, he’d be a guy that could start Week 1. Seeing him person hasn’t changed that opinion. Will the Vikings do so is an entirely different conversation.
It’s very reasonable to expect Bridgewater to start at some point this season. He’s been nothing short of impressive since rookie minicamp. Bridgewater was well prepared at Louisville to become an NFL caliber quarterback with the ability to read defenses, go through progressions and look off safeties. It’s one thing to see this during minicamp and another when Bridgewater actually performs in pads. Whenever he does start, there will be an adjustment period. But he’s very mature for a 21-year-old and already on par with the other options at quarterback in terms of ability. If he starts early on this season, naturally the comparisons will be drawn to when Christian Ponder started 10 games his rookie season. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair to Bridgewater, who shouldn't be held back because of the way Ponder's career has played out.
Barr is more difficult to predict. There’s still some growth he has to make at understanding the position before the Vikings feel comfortable to start him. Barr only spent two seasons at linebacker at UCLA, but he did noticeably improve in that span. If he’s also a quick learner on this level then mid-season could be possible. But unless there’s a significant injury, I’d ease him in and allow him to develop. May seem contradicting, but unlike Bridgewater, Barr is still a raw talent and not as polished. He’ll be used in pass rushing situations because of his size and athleticism but even as bleak as the situation looks at linebacker at the moment, it’s best not to rush him into a starting role.
Outside of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s three game suspension, that can be reduced to two games at the team’s discretion, it won’t. And it shouldn’t.
The distraction will linger over the team at least through the start of training camp and possibly into the season depending on how this plays out in court. That’s something both sides said they hoped to avoid but failed to accomplish. There will be some players that could get asked about the investigation in training camp but that’s not an excuse for a bad performance in practice, preseason or regular season. Yes, the situation is getting nastier by the week but the players should focus on football. And they will.
Down the road, it could be a possibility but this is a 4-3 base defense at the moment. It’s what Zimmer has done for most of his career as a defensive coordinator, except for two seasons with the Cowboys under Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells. Zimmer said Parcells waited two years to get the proper personnel before switching over to the 3-4 defense, in which they drafted defense end Demarcus Ware and defensive tackle Marcus Spears.
A selection like Barr, who played in a 3-4 defense at UCLA, makes the transition down the road a possibility. Zimmer seems intrigued with the idea of having a defense that can play multiple fronts so don’t be surprised if there are pockets of a 3-4 front incorporated this year to throw teams off. Buut the Vikings have been a 4-3 base defense up to this point.
It’s a good thing the Vikings opted not to make them.
Uni Watch revealed sketches of prototype Vikings jerseys designed by Reebok in 2003. It included two sketches of a black alternate jersey and they're pretty bad.
Look, I like fashion. I’m probably into uniform designs more than I should be. I like crazy looks for some teams (like my alma mater, Arizona State) but others should stick to what they’re known for. The Vikings are one of those teams. Purple home jerseys and white road jerseys – nothing more, nothing less. It's iconic and looks good.
The Vikings didn't produce the black jerseys and did a great job updating their jerseys and logos with Nike last year, so they're 2-for-2 in my book.
Look good, play good. Eat good, die good.
Some familiar faces along the offensive line once again. With left guard Charlie Johnson re-signing in the offseason, all five starters will return this season. The unit has played together the past two seasons and missed three games between Johnson, tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, guard Brandon Fusco and center John Sullivan in that stretch
We finished last week previewing the running backs, and we continue our series with a look at the offensive line.
WHERE THINGS STAND: The returning offensive line starters combine for 28 years of experience. It’s a veteran group led by Sullivan, who ranked as the third best center in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus. The unit had a slight dip in pass protection but still remained the top 10 in pass blocking efficiency, which takes into account sacks, hits and hurries allowed. The offensive line ranked ninth in PBE at 79.1, where in 2012 it ranked seventh at 82.1. The productivity dropped the most in the run protection, which in some ways was expected following running back Adrian Peterson’s MVP season with 2,097 rushing yards. The offensive line carries a blend of youth, rookie guard David Yankey, second-year guard Jeff Baca and rookie tackle Antonio Richardson, and experience, center Joe Berger and guard Vladimir Ducasse, as backups. It’s a good unit and that should reflect in its play barring any major injuries.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Although every starter is returning, keep an eye on rookie guard David Yankey, who’ll compete with Johnson at left guard. Yankey missed most of OTAs due to school, but he already possesses great size listed at 6-6 and 315 pounds. He played in an aggressive offense at Stanford that will benefit Yankey as he makes the leap into the NFL despite missing a considerable amount of time. Johnson has been very durable in three seasons but the Vikings could use an upgrade at the position. We’d need to see Yankey more before making any claims of starting at some point this season, but it is a possibility.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Will Kalil return to form this season? He’s expected to be a full participant this week in training camp after recovering from minor left knee surgery. Whether that’s the reason for his subpar performance last season is unknown, but Kalil regressed from an impressive rookie season at left tackle. Defensive ends blew right by him with ease at times last year. Kalil’s quarterback hits allowed jumping from four to 12 and quarterback hurries from 20 to 33 last year. Kalil still has the ability to return back to the performance level of his rookie season, that’s not in question. Will he, on the other hand, is something he’ll have to answer in September.
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