Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The Vikings are asking a lot from Greg Jennings in the early stages of his tenure here. In addition to the consistent productivity that will be expected when the regular season starts and the stakes rise, the Vikings are also banking heavily on Jennings’ leadership, hoping his professionalism and enthusiasm will prove infectious to those around him, most notably quarterback Christian Ponder and a pack of young receivers that includes Jarius Wright, Joe Webb and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson.
Since signing a five-year free agent contract with the Vikings in March, Jennings has been nothing but positive about his initiation into the organization and reiterated before Wednesday’s mini-camp practice that his enthusiasm about what’s ahead continues to grow.
“I love it. I’m still very excited about the opportunities that are ahead,” Jennings told Access Vikings. “There’s definitely still some chemistry that needs to be developed. Trust with the unfamiliar territory of Christian seeing me, me seeing him, that will take some time. But it’s already starting to show itself.”
Jennings has been clear that his exit from Green Bay came at the right time and that in Minnesota he’s found a terrific fit and a perfect new beginning.
Still, it’s hard for him to narrow down the biggest reason for why he’s feeling so much more refreshed and inspired.
“It may sound strange but every part of this is what makes it so energizing,” he said. “I can’t single out just one thing and say, ‘Aw man, this is what makes this situation better.’ It’s the sum of all parts. It’s collectively the things I walked into. The coaching staff is God-fearing. The relationships I was able to develop here right off the jump. Just everything.
“It’s been a combination of a variety of things. And if it were one thing that stood out above the rest, it was Coach Frazier. Coach Frazier.”
In Frazier, Jennings has found a vision for championship football that he believes in and wants to subscribe to.
“I’m so impressed with his mindset in trying to impact and change the culture,” Jennings said. “That’s huge. Huge. … His vision just needs a following. And not everyone is going to be willing to buy in. But if you can get the core guys to buy in, everyone else will naturally follow suit.
Jennings also spoke with reporters following Wednesday’s practice and discussed his continued adaptation to his new offense and his new teammates.
Here are a few more poignant thoughts from the 29-year old receiver as the Vikings’ offseason preparations draw to a close.
On what he likes about rookie Cordarrelle Patterson and his continued growth …
“The progression, the way he’s made the progression. He’s made it easy. You get a young guy who’s willing to work, who’s willing to [be a] sponge, but they work at their craft, they make it so much easier. For me as an older guy, a vet that’s been through it, you see a guy like that who’s working and working hard to get better week in and week out and seeing him make those jumps, it makes you feel good. But at the same time, it’s like, OK, I’ve got to add some of what he’s doing in my game. I’ve got to sponge off what he has, too. It’s been a give and take relationship.”
On what from Patterson’s skill set he’d like to borrow for his own game …
“Number one: his speed. [I’m like] ‘Can you share some of that, please?’ His ability to go up and get the ball, his physicality at the line of scrimmage. Different things. I told him, the one thing I noticed in his route running that he has is he has that definitive step at the top. I remember coming in with that definitive step. And that kind of gets washed out because everything they teach you at this level, they want everything to look the same. So that definitive step starts to fade away. But that’s what creates that separation. I just told him, ‘Do not lose that.’ Because the more I see him do that, the more I remember when I used to do that and create even more separation, and I’m starting to creep that back in. … There’s nothing wrong with it. Sometimes you can use it too much. You can overuse it, but I love it. Most coaches tell you, ‘We don’t need all that extra.’ But sometimes what makes a player what he is are the things that we try to take away. It comes natural. That’s a gift, you can’t really teach that. And he has it.”
On playing with Christian Ponder …
“I love him. I love his personality, I love his demeanor on the field. The one thing we talk about, and I’ve shared with him more than anything, is the trust factor. Because he has everything he needs. The skill set? He has it. It’s just about trusting the other guy. It’s just about trusting that we’re going to be where he’s knowing that we should be. And us trusting that he’s going to have the ball where we know it should be. That’s the one thing that kind of takes that split second off our timing. Other than that, once we develop that trust, and that comfort, the sky’s the limit.”
The Vikings are still considering their options at middle linebacker, and will get a visit Tuesday from a familiar face.
The Green Bay Packers released inside linebacker Desmond Bishop on Monday, and he told ESPN Wisconsin he would visit the Vikings Tuesday.
Bishop, 28, missed last season because of a ruptured hamstring suffered in preseason.
The Vikings have given indications that Erin Henderson will move to middle linebacker this season after last year's starter, Jasper Brinkley, went to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency.
Bishop, who was taken in the sixth round out of Cal by the Packers in 2007, is now an unrestricted free agent.
He did not participate in the Packers' organized team activities or mini-camp this spring, but told ESPN Wisconsin that he was healthy.
The NFL.com story on Bishop is here.
The Vikings have a three-day mini-camp beginning Tuesday, so Bishop will get a good look at the team in action.
Mike Priefer had a lot to be proud of in 2012. For starters, the Vikings’ special teams coordinator refined Blair Walsh’s technique and helped turn the rookie kicker into an instant Pro Bowler.
On top of that, under Priefer’s direction, the Vikings had a pair of solid coverage units, ranking ninth in the NFL against punt returns (8.3 yards per return) and seventh in total kickoff return yards allowed (795). At one stretch, opponents went 10 consecutive games without returning a kickoff past the 25.
Now heading into 2013, Priefer has a supply of new weapons to experiment with. And as always, he is overflowing with enthusiasm as he pieces things together and prepares for this week's three-day mini-camp at Winter Park.
Recently, we had the opportunity to pick Priefer’s brain on several new additions to his unit.
What’s so special?: The Vikings feel Patterson can quickly become a barrel of dynamite on kickoff returns, which was a significant factor in their decision to trade back into the first round of the draft to nab him. And it’s no surprise that both General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier have emphasized that Patterson’s biggest 2013 contributions will likely come as a return man.
So what stands out about the 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver? Said Priefer: “Size. Strength. Speed. The ability to change direction. For a man that big to be able to change direction like he does is pretty special and unique.”
Priefer saw only two elite return men in this year’s draft: Patterson and Tavon Austin, who’s now with St. Louis. Now it’s the coordinator’s job to groom Patterson as the Vikings’ big weapon.
“Kickoff return-wise, he has all the abilities and tools right now to be a factor,” Priefer said. “A major factor.”
You should know: While Patterson is probably the front-runner to be the opening day kick returner, the Vikings are taking a wait-and-see approach on punts. At rookie mini-camp in May, Patterson showed enough deficiencies to give the coaches pause. Most notably, Priefer has identified fundamental flaws in how Patterson uses his hands and positions his elbows as he fields punts.
Those areas will take on even greater focus in training camp, when (presumably) the team will have greater opportunity to be outdoors than it had during OTAs.
“We just have to break the bad habits,” Priefer said. “Like anything else in football, you start by breaking the bad habits and then building up new good habits to supply a good foundation.”
Extra point: In nine games last season, Percy Harvin averaged 35.9 yards per kickoff return and opened a Week 4 win in Detroit with a 105-yard score. Priefer sees similarities in Harvin’s ability to change direction at top speed and Patterson’s. But he doesn’t want the comparisons getting too big.
“It’s going to be incredibly difficult to replace a guy like Percy to be quite honest with you,” Priefer said. “And so I think it would be unfair for me or anybody else in our organization to come out and say, ‘OK Cordarrelle, you’re going to replace Percy Harvin.’ That’s not fair to him. But I am excited about his ability and the direction we’re going.”
What’s so special?: Locke’s leg strength is solid. But the rookie punter’s quest to learn is off the charts. And that’s an instant way to win the always-exuberant Priefer over. During the pre-draft process, Priefer and Locke first met at the Senior Bowl in January, then spent significant time together a month later at the combine and built even more camaraderie during a one-on-one on-campus visit and workout at UCLA in March.
“I always talk a lot about understanding your craft and having the ability to talk intelligently about it and make changes and make corrections,” Priefer said. “Jeff has all that. He has all the intangibles I was looking for.”
You should know: Priefer spent significant time picking the brain of UCLA special teams coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, who spent 10 years with the 49ers as a special teams contributor and was a special teams assistant with the Seahawks for two years. UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr., a former head coach with the Seahawks and Falcons was also a valuable sounding board in the evaluation of Locke. Then, Priefer zoned in on Locke’s approach, interested in part in seeing “how he rebounds from those punts that are less than perfect.”
He came away impressed with Locke’s attitude, leadership and hunger to get better.
“He has an NFL-ready mental approach to the game,” Priefer said. “He’s already a pro in that regard. We have to wait and see what he delivers as a punter.”
Extra point: Why, after eight solid seasons, was it time to let Chris Kluwe go? Priefer said he had met with Kluwe in both the 2011 and 2012 offseasons calling for greater consistency and productivity. At the end of last season, the special teams coach didn’t feel Kluwe had met the demands.
“We didn’t get the results we wanted. So we made a change,” Priefer said. “Nothing against Chris personally. That’s the NFL. You’re measured on productivity. If I don’t do my job there, I’m going to lose it. And in order for me to do my job better, I felt we needed an upgrade at that position.”
Priefer also felt an urge to plan ahead with the 2014 and 2015 seasons removing eight indoor contests from the Vikings’ schedule as they move home games to TCF Bank at the University of Minnesota.
“There has been a portrayal in the media that Chris and I were enemies,” Priefer said. “In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. I respect the guy. I think he’s done great things in this league. And I respect him for his views and opinions just as he think he respects me for mine. We just needed a change.”
What’s so special?: Webb’s freakish athleticism has always had the attention of Vikings’ coaches and teammates. Now that Webb is out of the quarterbacks' room and attempting a transition to receiver, Priefer is downright giddy to have access to the eager 6-foot-4, 220-pound playmaker.
“You look at his skill set and you say, ‘Ya know what? We can do some things with this guy,’” Priefer said. “So for me, I get fired up about having a guy like him playing special teams.”
You should know: So just how will Priefer utilize Webb?
“You take an athlete like Joe,” the coordinator said, “and my creative juices start flowing immediately.”
Webb might be an option as a kick returner. There are also thoughts of trying him on the edge on the field goal block unit and he could be deployed as a punt team gunner. To which Priefer notes: “We joke around about whether he’ll ever make a tackle when that opportunity comes.”
Priefer thinks Webb would, impressed with his size and strength. But he also knows there’s a place for receiver gunners who are skilled at getting upfield to force fair catches.
“Some of them don’t ever make a tackle,” Priefer said. “But they’re so good at what they do that if the punt is where you want it and it has good hang time and you don’t outkick the coverage, that gunner is standing there a few feet from that returner and now there’s no choice.”
Extra point: Finding a niche on special teams may be a pre-requisite for Webb to stick on the 53-man roster. After all, the Vikings are only likely to keep five, possibly six receivers around. And with Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright in the mix, Webb may have to fend off the second tier of receivers, a group that includes Stephen Burton, Greg Childs, Chris Summers and Rodney Smith.
In a push to heighten safety, the NFL and the Vikings have announced new provisions on what can and cannot be brought into stadiums on game day. The Vikings are also looking to find new ways to speed up and smooth over the process of fan entry into Mall of America Field.
This afternoon, the organization issued a release on both issues. Here's an excerpt from that bulletin:
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