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.
As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.
The Vikings have yet to exercise quarterback Christian Ponder’s fifth-year option for the 2015 season, according to the NFL Players Association’s records. The deadline to do so for 2011 first round picks is on May 3.
Some teams have already done so: The Texans picked up defensive end J.J. Watt option, the Chargers exercised defensive lineman Corey Liuget’s option, the Jets picked up defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson’s option and the Ravens did the same with cornerback Jimmy Smith. The Cowboys will reportedly pick up offensive tackle Tyron Smith’s option as well.
The 2011 draft is the first class to go through the fifth-year option process since the new collective bargaining agreement. The top ten picks have their salaries decided by the average top ten highest salaries for players at the same position the previous year.
In Ponder’s case, he falls in the next category as the 12th overall pick. The same formula is used for picks 11-32 except it’s the average of the third through 25th highest salaries last year.
Watt, who was selected just before Ponder, will receive $6.96 million in 2015 based on the third through 25th highest defensive end salaries.
Of course for quarterbacks, that number will be larger. Crunching the numbers, it’ll cost the Vikings around $10 million when looking at the quarterback salaries from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (third) down to Cardinals backup quarterback Drew Stanton (25th). It isn’t fully guaranteed however unless Ponder is on the roster on the first day of the league year. However, it is guaranteed if Ponder gets injured.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman declined to discuss the possibility of fifth-year option for Ponder at the NFL Combine in February. When asked if there’s a reason would not option a player just to retain his rights, Spielman said, “Those are things that we’ll discuss internally.”
It'd be surprising if it happens given Ponder's production and there doesn't seem to be much value in excercising the fifth-year option. At $10 million, it'd be difficult to trade Ponder. Outside of that, the only other option would be to cut him before the 2015 NFL calendar begins.
The Vikings will look to draft a rookie quarterback in the draft and signed Matt Cassel to a two-year deal in the offseason. Ponder seems to be the odd man out in the team's future plans.
The Vikings have released the dates and times of their four preseason games, in case you were holding your breath for the official times. Their preseason opponents were announced last week.
Game 1: Vikings vs. Raiders, Friday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m.
Game 2: Vikings vs. Cardinals, Saturday, Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Vikings @ Chiefs, Saturday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m.
Game 4: Vikings @ Titans, Thursday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.
The NFL has not announced when the regular-season schedule will be released (and whatever you do you, DO NOT pester them about the release date). But Pro Football Talk says the league is shooting for a Tuesday release. Here is a quick look at who the Vikings will be playing in 2014.
New mock draft, new quarterback.
Previously ESPN’s Mel Kiper had the Vikings taking Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel with the eighth pick, now it’s Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles in his latest mock draft on Thursday.
Bortles was projected to go fourth to the Browns in his previous mock draft (now it’s Manziel). Bortles is raw can’t start on Week 1. That shouldn’t be a problem for the Vikings after resigning Matt Cassel. He possesses the size of a prototypical quarterback, 6-5 and 232 pounds, and has the highest ceiling out of the top three quarterbacks (Manziel and Lousiville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater).
There hasn’t been a quarterback that’s been regarded top quarterback in the draft, and it will probably become the most fascinating thing to watch in three weeks on Day 1.
Also noteworthy: Bridgewater, Kiper’s top player on his Big Board, falls out of the first round. He has the Texans drafting Bridgewater with the 33rd overall pick. Even with all the nonsense about Bridgewater being published, it’s very hard to believe someone that talented doesn’t get drafted in the first round.
In his prime, Antoine Winfield, who last played for the Vikings and in the NFL in 2012, was one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks at covering shifty slot receivers. If he got beat, he usually wrapped them up and limited the damage. He was a good blitzer and excellent run defender, too.
Last season, though, the Vikings did not have a reliable defensive back who could consistently stick with slot receivers. Three Vikings played more than 50 snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. They were, in order of most snaps played, Josh Robinson (212), Robert Blanton (201) and Marcus Sherels (119). Sherels and Robinson allowed the most yards per coverage snap among slot defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. Blanton was the best of that bunch, but quarterbacks still had a 121.0 passer rating when targeting him while he covered slot receivers.
Enter Captain Munnerlyn, who was solid when operating in the slot for the Carolina Panthers.
While it wasn’t exactly Munnerlyn Island, he allowed just 1.09 yards per snap in coverage the past two years, a number that would rank among the top 12 qualifying corners in 2013, per PFF. He also surrendered just one reception for every nine coverage snaps, which was respectable. He was beaten for just one touchdown in 803 snaps in the slot while picking off a pair of passes.
“When I’m on the field, I’m the big difference. I can make a whole lot of plays in this defense,” Munnerlyn, who with 3.5 sacks last season was also an effective blitzer, said Tuesday at Winter Park. “Start outside and then slide in to play the nickel back. That’s what I’m going to do. Start outside and slide into the nickel back. Make plays. Bring the physical toughness to this secondary and go out there and get my hands on some balls and take them to the house.”
Munnerlyn has seven career interceptions. He returned five of those picks for a touchdown.
While Munnerlyn again acknowledged that he would start on the outside and move inside in sub packages, he said he isn’t sure which sideline he will defend in the base defense. Xavier Rhodes usually lined up as the left cornerback as a rookie. Munnerlyn was on the left a lot, too.
“We haven’t talked about what side. Doesn’t matter,” said Munnerlyn, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract last month. “I played both in Carolina before. So it doesn’t matter.”
And given how often offenses use three or more wide receivers -- it was on more than half of the snaps across the NFL in 2013 -- Munnerlyn will be lining up in the slot a lot of the time anyway.
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