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.
Mike Zimmer has promised that the Vikings would be fast and physical, but they eased into training camp this afternoon. There will be no live contact in the first couple of days of camp, so Zimmer said earlier that those practices will have more of an OTA feel. He ended up being right.
Practice started with position drills followed by some 1-on-1 work. After that, Zimmer sprinkled in some 11-on-11 team drills and a brief blitz period. There was also a lot of special teams work.
Usually at the start of training camp, the defense gets the better of the offense as the offense finds its rhythm. Today, the defense had its moments, contesting passes as Zimmer has said he hoped to see, so they’d probably get the slight edge, partially due to several errant passes from the offense.
SETTING THE SCENE: Practice was outdoors. The practice lasted around two hours. Players were in helmets and shells. The weather here was overcast and the temperature was reasonable.
BATTLE OF THE ‘BACKERS: Top pick Anthony Barr, who missed most of the spring due to an NFL rule that kept him at UCLA, started his first NFL training camp with the second-team defense. Running with the first team were Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole. It will probably only be a matter of time until Barr is with the starters, but Zimmer is going to make him earn it.
SIMPSON SIZZLES: Wide receiver Jerome Simpson had a pretty solid first day, despite one bobbled pass that nearly led to an interception in team drills. In individual drills -- yes, I know, they are just 1-on-1s -- Simpson once ran a crisp deep out route, slamming on the brakes to leave his defender in the dust before making a nice, lunging grab near the sideline. On another play, he got behind the defense but Teddy Bridgewater barely overshot him. Simpson brings that vertical dimension to Norv Turner’s vertical offense, and could thrive if he can become more consistent.
LET’S TALK QUARTERBACKS: OK, maybe I should have gotten to the quarterbacks sooner, but there wasn’t a whole lot to report from this afternoon. Matt Cassel, who was throwing to the starters, completed six of his 10 attempts in team drills, though a couple of those incompletions were the result of blatant drops. Bridgewater, who was with the second-stringers, was 5-for-8. Christian Ponder was just 1-for-2, and he threw a few errant passes during individual drills.
CORDARRELLE A NO-GO: Second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson wore a bucket hat instead of a helmet today. Patterson was held out of practice after injuring his foot. The team says that he is day-to-day and no, Patterson wasn’t the guy who failed the conditioning test yesterday.
SAFETY DANCE: Robert Blanton continued to line up next to Harrison Smith with the starting defense, but I can report that 2012 and 2013 starter Jamarca Sanford has returned from injury.
NOT CATCHING ON: The Vikings have said they hope to get Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game, but this afternoon his terrifyingly-strong hands failed him on a few occasions.
INJURY REPORT: Beyond Patterson and the PUP guys -- CB Captain Munnerlyn (strained hammy), S Andrew Sendejo (lower back and ankle) and TE Chase Ford (foot) -- everyone else practiced.
Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was held out of practice today for precautionary reasons and has been listed by the team as day to day with a foot injury. A source called it a "minor" issue.
Because of the injury, Patterson didn't take his conditioning test when players reported to camp on Thursday. The first practice of camp was today. The team will won't be allowed to put full pads on and begin hitting until Sunday.
Mike Zimmer tried to curb his enthusiasm this morning, having just seen Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph in a walkthrough setting only. But Zimmer couldn’t help but gush about the big guy.
“He came in in tremendous-looking physical shape,” the Vikings head coach said. “He weighed 317, benches 500 pounds. And watching him out there in the walkthrough -- which doesn’t mean anything -- he looked like how a nose tackle is supposed to look. … I have high, high expectations of him, but they’re reserved a little bit because I’ve [only] seen him do a walkthrough.”
For the first time since joining the Vikings as a free agent in March, Joseph was on the practice field without restrictions. He had offseason surgery on his right shoulder after his 2013 season with the Giants ended and was only able to participate on a limited basis during spring workouts.
But now that doctors have cleared him for the team’s first camp practice here at Minnesota State Mankato this afternoon, Joseph is fired up -- in a subdued manner -- and ready to roll.
“I feel good coming in,” the 25-year-old said. “I battled back from my injury and I’m just ready to go and help this team win games and take us to the promised land.”
Joseph admitted it was frustrating this spring standing off to the side while watching his new teammates practice. He tried to make the most of it by taking mental reps to learn the plays, but there is no substitute for lining up against center John Sullivan and learning the playbook while butting helmets. He will get to do that today and start to acclimate himself in Zimmer’s defense.
“I’m going to do whatever they want me to do,” Joseph said. “My job right now is to stop the run and make plays and try to get sacks -- do it all.”
Zimmer said the nose tackle position is critical in his defense, which explains why he was about as giddy as Mike Zimmer can probably get during a long news conference after a walkthrough.
In Cincinnati, Zimmer had unheralded nose tackle Domata Peko to eat up double teams and allow linebackers like Vontaze Burfict to roam and make plays. The Vikings paid Joseph big bucks this spring so that he can be that guy for Zimmer here in Minnesota.
“That helps the middle linebackers not get blocked very much,” Zimmer said. “So they do a lot of dirty work that a lot of people don’t see, but it helps to give the linebackers an opportunity to stay healthy and make tackles.”
The Vikings just finished their morning walkthrough and coach Mike Zimmer chatted with us for more than 18 minutes afterward before grabbing lunch and preparing for this afternoon’s practice. He covered a lot of ground, including ground covered yesterday, but there were some newsy nuggets.
For starters, the Vikings made some roster moves. They waived veteran wide receiver Josh Cooper, who had joined the team in June, and undrafted rookie tackle Matt Hall. Replacing them on the 90-man roster are second-year wide receivers Ty Walker and Andy Cruse. Walker has spent time with the Packers and Seahawks and Cruse was previously with the Texans.
The Vikings also placed three players on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is the headliner. He is dealing with a hamstring injury, and while Zimmer indicated that it isn’t serious -- “I doubt it will be very long,” he said -- those injuries can be tricky for cornerbacks. Also on the PUP list are safety Andrew Sendejo (lower back and ankle) and tight end Chase Ford (foot). Those three cannot do anything on the practice field until they are cleared by doctors and removed from the list.
Zimmer said that only one player failed yesterday’s conditioning test and hinted that that man won’t be allowed to practice, but he wouldn’t say who. We’ll try to get an answer for you this afternoon.
As for the decision on whether to bring in an external interim special teams coach while special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is suspended, Zimmer said he hasn’t made it yet and that he will let us know soon. And then we will let you know ASAP. Priefer is allowed to coach during camp and this morning was doing his usual thing with assistant Ryan Ficken at the end of the walkthrough.
A couple of Zimmer quotes stood out to me on the 18-plus minutes of audio tape.
The first was on Adam Thielen, the former Minnesota State Mankato standout who is obviously still a popular guy down here in Mankato. Zimmer said he has improved tremendously.
“Adam’s actually doing a terrific job,” Zimmer said. “He might have been our most improved guy in OTAs. He’s a great kid, first of all. Works his read end off. Runs routes real hard. Catches the ball good. He’s got an opportunity to make this football team.”
The second was Zimmer talking about how training camp will be different now that he has to worry about coaching and evaluating a whole 90-man roster, not just the defensive guys.
“I like to evaluate the players. The only difficult thing for me as opposed to being the defensive coordinator, I was evaluating 45 guys, I guess it was. Now I’m evaluating 90. I have to pay a little bit more attention to certain positions -- the left guard or the center or the right guard. You see the tackles all the time because you’re watching them going against the [defensive ends]. Receivers, I see all the time. So it’s just more volume, I guess, for me, trying to get that done. But I’ve got a list of things on my board that I’m going to make sure I do every single day, [and one of those things] is trying to evaluate all the players, trying to figure out how they can help us win football games and what their role can be. I try to remind myself every day to do that.”
Oh, and Zimmer said it wasn't him who pulled the fire alarm at Sears Hall around 1:30 a.m. this morning, sending shirtless Vikings scurring out of the building. "Now that I think about it, I wish it was," he said. "I'll have to use that next year."
OK, I’m going to finish my burrito now. More to come in a little bit. Practice starts at 3 p.m.
After a few weeks away on vacation, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will return back to his comfort zone – the practice field.
The walkthrough and practice on Friday will be Zimmer’s first as a head coach, where he will be assessing players and himself.
“It’s what I love to do,” Zimmer said on Thursday as players reported to Mankato. “I love to teach. I love to coach. Once I get out there I won’t have any time to think about anything else. I’ll be going full speed.”
Zimmer has already set an aggressive tone during the minicamps and OTAs to give the team a better understanding of how training camp will run, but he said it’s a fine line on how hard he can push the players without beating them up. Friday’s afternoon practice will be the first one this offseason with pads.
“We’re going to try and be smart about it,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have contact because that’s football. But as far as live contact, we’ll have some early in camp and then we’ll see where we’re at. I believe to be a good defensive team you’ve got to be a good tackling team so we’re going to have to work on that.”
One of the biggest challenges for Zimmer when he became a head coach was scheduling the offseason. He said he has texted Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who worked with Zimmer for the past six years, for advice and how to construct practices at training camp. Zimmer said he wanted to focus on situations, which he learned from Parcells when he served as the Cowboys defensive coordinator from 2003-06. Zimmer also took input from offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has head coaching experience with the Chargers, Redskins and the Raiders.
“I think over time you get a chance to say, ‘Well, I’d do this a lot different,’” Zimmer said. “We may change things as I continue to look at the football team, where we’re at and where we might need to adjust the camp. I think that’s a part of coaching and teaching is adjusting to the players you have.”
The environment will be different for the players, and even fans watching, at training camp with Zimmer at the helm. Players have already noticed the change on their first day in Mankato. Unlike last season, every player went through a conditioning test consisting of timed runs.
Whether the aggressive atmosphere is for better or for worse remains to be seen, but running back Adrian Peterson has been impressed with Zimmer and the coaching staff so far.
“To be honest with you, [they’re] ahead of the curve,” Peterson said comparing to previous coaching staffs he’s had with the Vikings. “That’s comes from just having guys that are buying into to what they are presenting to us and having great coaches surrounding us as well. Just the atmosphere, there’s a lot more energy in the air, in the building there’s a lot more energy from the players.”
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