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.
The Vikings were able to go through the first couple of days of training camp without the injury bug biting them. But that little bugger has reared its ugly head during the past two practices, and it has had a craving for the hamstrings of Vikings defensive backs in particular.
Safety Robert Blanton, who had been working with the first-team defense, sat out today’s practice after injuring a hamstring during Monday night’s practice. Then, this afternoon, cornerback Josh Robinson hurt a hamstring and left practice. He came back but did not resume practicing.
Coach Mike Zimmer hinted that Blanton’s injury is the more concerning of the two.
“[Robinson’s] got a tight hammy,” he said. “I don’t think it will be very long. It just got tight. It was more preventative. I told [athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] to [hold him out today.]”
Rookie tight end A.C. Leonard also left practice. Zimmer said he was dealing with a headache.
As for safety Andrew Sendejo, who is on the PUP list because of lower back and hamstring injuries, Zimmer expects him to be activated and start practicing with the team early next week.
There was some good injury news. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had full participation and seemed to get through the practice without issue. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn also suited up, but was limited to just a little bit of individual work. He said after practice that he expects his participation to ramp up tomorrow and that he hopes to be a full-go by next week.
“You don’t want to get yourself reinjured, but it feels great to be back on the field,” he said.
In non-injury news, Zimmer indicated that the Chad Greenway experiment at middle linebacker is all but over. The Vikings are keeping him at outside linebacker for now so that they can evaluate others at the position. I guess Greenway could always be a fall-back option at the Mike, but you have to figure if the coaches liked what they had seen from him in the middle, they would have kept him there. Jasper Brinkley got most of the first-team reps between Greenway and top pick Anthony Barr, who was getting his first extensive look with the ones since he was drafted.
I guess I should mention that a certain other first-rounder got some first-team reps, too. Bridgewater got at least five reps with the ones before veteran Matt Cassel was inserted back with the first team. So #HowDidTeddyLook? Zimmer said Bridgewater was a little shaky.
“Ahhhh, he didn’t look quite as accurate as he had throughout the whole camp,” Zimmer said.
Throughout the offseason workouts and minicamp practices we were allowed to attend, new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer often drifted toward his defensive backs to quickly chew them out or coach them up. Zimmer got his start in the NFL as a defensive backs coach with the Cowboys, so this is nothing new. But his notable focus on the secondary is also necessitated by the fact that the Vikings ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense last season. He will have a few key decisions to make on the back end down in Mankato, with two of his five starters still unsettled.
In the final installment of our “Going Camping” series, let’s take a look at the Vikings secondary.
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Vikings gave Zimmer some quality young defensive backs to work with. Free safety Harrison Smith had a frustrating 2013 season, but the talent is there. Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 first-round pick, made steady progress throughout his rookie season and is seen by some in the national media as a future star. The Vikings also signed former Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who will play on the outside in the base defense and move inside in the nickel (given the way NFL offenses operate today, he will be in the slot a lot). But the rest of the secondary is uncertain. The battle at strong safety appears to be wide open, especially since incumbent starter Jamarca Sanford was sidelined throughout the spring. With Sanford and Andrew Sendejo sitting out, Robert Blanton and Kurt Coleman were given an opportunity to impress Zimmer, as was sixth-round pick Antone Exum. The Vikings must also choose their third cornerback -- which is basically a starting position in today’s NFL -- among Josh Robinson, Derek Cox and Marcus Sherels, along with rookies Jabari Price and Kendall James.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Whoever wins the safety battle will be expected to play more snaps, but one could argue the third cornerback will be more critical to the defense. The Vikings appear to be in good shape with Rhodes lined up on the left and Munnerlyn in the slot. But opponents will look to attack the weakest link, so another cornerback needs to step up. Robinson and Cox, who both disappointed in 2013 (Cox played for the Chargers), are the most likely candidates.
THE BURNING QUESTION: How good can Rhodes be in his second season? It’s easy to assume that he will continue to ascend, especially after he had a strong spring, but the development of young cornerbacks isn’t always linear. Especially when that young cornerback has to match up against wide receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson.
Monday, we took a glimpse at how new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner might affect the career path of Kyle Rudolph, a quality young player with the skillset to reach the next level in Turner's tight end-friendly offense.
Turner, of course, also has a well-documented history of being running back-friendly and quarterback-friendly. And, come to think of it, some of his receivers -- from Michael Irvin in the early 1990s to Josh Gordon last season -- probably would suggest ole Norv's system was quite friendly to their careers as well.
Turner will have some star power to work with in Rudolph, Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings. At quarterback, he'll at least have a veteran in Matt Cassel, and could be handed a hot-shot rookie depending on how next month's draft falls together.
Defensively, the Vikings have added or retained many intriguing pieces this offseason. But none would be considered a big-name player along the lines of what the Vikings have on offense.
So today, we'll take a look at how the coaching staff might impact a defensive unit that's not nearly as star-studded as its offensive counterpart.
Although George Edwards is the defensive coordinator, head coach Mike Zimmer's universally-touted status as NFL defensive guru means he will own the defensive results -- good, bad, ugly or 2013-esque -- whether he likes it or not. Defensively, the primary hope for the franchise resides not as much in the new players who were acquired as the new head coach who was hired.
Good luck, Mike. You may need it.
The Vikings ranked 31st in yards allowed per game (397.6), last in scoring defense (30.0) and 20th in takeaways (20) in 2013. Meanwhile, the Bengals, with Zimmer as defensive coordinator, ranked third in yards per game (305.5), fifth in scoring defense (19.1) and third in takeaways (31).
Although Zimmer is staring up at his next mountain, it's no more daunting than what he was looking at in the spring of 2008 when Marvin Lewis hired him in Cincinnati. Here's a look at the Bengals under Lewis before and after Zimmer was hired:
2003 to 2007 (Five seasons): Ranked 27th or worse in yards allowed in four of Lewis' first five seasons. In 2007, Cincinnati ranked 27th in yards allowed (348.8) and 24th in scoring defense (24.1). They also ranked third in takeaways (35).
2008 to 2013 (Six seasons): In Zimmer's first season, the Bengals improved 15 spots to 12th in yards allowed (325.5) and 12 spots in scoring defense (22.8). They did drop 14 spots in takeaways (24). In 2011, 2012 and last season, the Bengals ranked in the top 10 in both yards allowed and scoring defense. In the past two seasons they ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed, scoring defense and takeaways.
Most impressive stat: In the 18 seasons right before Zimmer was hired, the Bengals had one season in which they ranked in the top 10 in defense. In Zimmer's six seasons, they ranked in the top 10 four times.
Second most impressive stat: This might be even more encouraging to Vikings fans considering the defense currently lacks an All-Pro caliber player (although that could change soon, especially if free safety Harrison Smith stays healthy and continues to emerge). In Zimmer's six seasons in Cincinnati, he had only one player (tackle Geno Atkins in 2012) make first-team Associated Press All-Pro. In 2003, when Zimmer was coordinating a Cowboys defense that ranked No. 1 in the league, he had one AP All-Pro first-teamer (safety Roy Williams). That same year, five other teams had multiple first-team AP All-Pro defenders. Baltimore and New England had three apiece.
Defensive lineman Corey Wootton, who was with the Bears the past four years, agreed to a one-year contract with the Vikings on Thursday.
Both Wootton (@coreywootton) and his agent, Mike McCartney, tweeted that Wootton would be coming to Minnesota. Fox Sports reported the deal was worth $1.5 million with incentives worth another $500,000.
Wootton, 6-6 and 270 pounds, started 15 games last season with one sack. The 26-year-old had arthroscopic hip surgery following the season.
Wootton, a fourth round pick out of Northwestern in 2010, was the Bear who sacked Brett Favre, giving Favre a concussion at TCF Bank Stadium in a 2010 game that marked his final NFL appearance. The sack was Wootton's first in the NFL.
The Vikings announced they have signed former New Orleans defensive lineman Tom Johnson, who had an early morning physical at Winter Park.
Johnson, 29, gets a one-year contract worth $845,000 plus incentives, an NFL source confirmed.
Johnson, a 6-3, 290-pounder, played end in the Saints’ 3-4 scheme, but probably would back up Sharrif Floyd at the three-technique tackle position, although the team also is short-handed on experience at end with former backup Everson Griffen stepping in for departing starter Jared Allen.
After going undrafted in 2005 out of Southern Miss, the Colts signed Johnson, but cut him in training camp. He was out of football in 2005 before re-signing with the Colts in May of 2006. Indianapolis assigned him to the Cologne Centurions of the now-defunct NFL Europe.
Johnson spent 2008 with two Arena League teams, the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Philadelphia Soul. He moved on to the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders in 2009 and 2010.
Johnson has been with the Saints since 2011. He has played 40 games with no starts and has five sacks and 86 tackles in the regular season, and was in four playoff games as well.
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