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 breaks 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.
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.
Quick wrapup from the Metrodome, where the Vikings beat the Titans 24-23. Crowd was announced at 62,603, I'd say seats were 9-17ths occupied.
No Vikings starters played, but it was an entertaining game. Both teams punted once each, and it moved right along.
The only delay came when Vikings guard Seth Olsen was down for about 10 minutes after taking a knee to his helmet while blocking. He was strapped to a board and went off on a stretcher after being basically motionless. The Vikings announced a neck injury. Olsen was OK in the locker room afterward, going through his normal routine, but couldn't speak to the media because of the NFL's concussion protocol.
Other injuries: Bobby Felder, maybe in a battle for the reserve cornerback and No. 1 punt return spot with Marcus Sherels, left on the final play of the third quarter because of a right ankle spain. And defensive end D'Aundre Reed also sprained an ankle.
Sherels had a 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception after missing Sunday's loss at San Francisco because of his father's funeral. Quite a comeback and quite a statement in his battle to make the team. Chip is writing about Sherels for the paper.
Coach Leslie Frazier said cuts will be discussed tomorrow and revealed Saturday. The team must get from 75 to 53 by 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Matt Asiata carried eight times for 32 yards and a 1-yard TD on the Vikings' opening offensive series. He was replaced by Joe Banyard, who carried 13 times for 62 yards and scored on an 11-yard pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson. MBT was 19-for-26 for 187 yards and the TD, and had one picked.
Blair Walsh missed from 45 but made from 25 in the fourth quarter. The second, with 1:38 left, decided the game.
Desmond Bishop had a nice game at linebacker with seven tackles, two for loss.
Lots of hopeful faces in the locker room, but more than a few looks of resignation from the 30 or so players how have to worry about their jobs.
Banyard, a bubble guy, said if he makes the team "I might cry. I really might cry. I will definitely have to thank the good Lord, and then I'll just cry because I know this is where I want to be."
Joe Webb, the converted QB trying to make the team as a WR, said "I am going to get a peace of mind, and hopefully the coaches will make the right decision."
Former Minnesota State (Mankato) standout receiver Adam Thielen, a long shot to make the roster: "It has been awesome. I couldn't have asked for a better situation. It has been a blast just being here."
The Vikings, who have their final preseason game against Tennessee tonight at 7 at the Metrodome, will have to cut their roster to 53 by 5 p.m. on Saturday.
The eight-man practice squad can be formed from eligible players after those players clear waivers. In general, practice squad-eligible players haven’t been active for more than eight NFL games and can’t be on the practice squad for more than two years. So, yeah, the Vikings can’t stash Joe Webb on that practice squad, folks.
Here is the Vikings’ unofficial depth chart. Feel free to make yourself part of the team’s staff and figure out which 22 players you can whack to get to 53. Keep in mind you will have the practice squad, which means there are 61 guys around, but it’s often hard for teams to sneak rookies through waivers, so be careful about your cuts.
VIKINGS DEPTH CHART
WR: Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson*, Joe Webb, Rodney Smith*
LT: Matt Kalil, Kevin Murphy, DeMarcus Love
LG: Charlie Johnson, Jeff Baca*
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger
RG: Brandon Fusco, Seth Olsen, Travis Bond*
RT: Phil Loadholt, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Colin Anderson*
WR: Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Stephen Burton, Adam Thielen*
QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
FB: Jerome Felton, Zach Line*
HB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard
LE: Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, D'Aundre Reed
NT: Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Anthony McCloud*
UT: Kevin Williams, Sharrif Floyd*, Everett Dawkins*, Spencer Nealy*
RE: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, George Johnson, Collins Ukwu*
SLB: Chad Greenway, Larry Dean
MLB: Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti*
WLB: Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop, Tyrone McKenzie, Gerald Hodges*
LCB: Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes*, Marcus Sherels
RCB: Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson, Brandon Burton, Bobby Felder
SS: Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, Darius Eubanks*
FS: Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Brandan Bishop*
SPECIAL TEAMS (3)
P: Jeff Locke*
K: Blair Walsh
LS: Cullen Loeffler
KEEP IN MIND: RETURN DEPTH CHART
KR: Cordarrelle Patterson*, Marcus Sherels, Stephen Burton, A.J. Jefferson
PR: Marcus Sherels, Bobby Felder, Jarius Wright, Stephen Burton
Note: DT Christian Ballard (Active/Left Squad) does not count on the current roster; Felton will start the season with a three-game suspension and will not count against the 53-man roster.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier talked to NFL officials about the low hit that injured veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams and said the league agreed that Joe Looney's actions were unnecessary and dangerous.
“I have talked to the league about it; they concur,” Frazier said. “It's not the type of play they want in the game for player safety reasons. There's a big emphasis regarding player safety and that play really endangers our players' safety. It's not something that the league wants. It's not something that any of us want as we are trying to make the game safer for our players.”
Looney, a 49ers backup lineman, hit Williams in the knees away from the play when he wasn't looking. Williams escaped ligament damage, but he suffered a hyperextended knee, a significant bone contusion and a posterior capsular strain.
Looney told reporters in San Francisco that he didn’t intend to injure Williams and was just trying to finish his block. Vikings players weren’t buying it.
“I think the hit was uncalled for,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Really quite ridiculous. It’s something we specifically talked about in our meetings with the league, with the refs, before the preseason games started. It was just unnecessary. He wasn't going to make the play. He wasn’t going to be a part of the play.
“You can say what you want, you didn't mean to hurt him, didn't mean to, but the reality is you did that, and you didn't have to. And now you have a guy who's been one of the best at his position for a long time dealing with an injury he shouldn't have to deal with. I think the reality is, if the roles were reversed, and the defensive guy was going into a quarterback or a receiver, or a high-profile player, you tell me what would happen.”
Frazier reiterated that the team hopes Williams will be available to play in the season opener Sept. 8.
With Williams sidelined, depth at defensive tackle has become a concern. Frazier said rookie Sharrif Floyd (knee) was expected to do some work in practice Tuesday but will not play in the final preseason game Thursday night. Christian Ballard remains on the active/left team list. Frazier did not give a timetable for his return.
Frazier said the team knew Jerome Felton’s three-game suspension was always a possibility when they re-signed the Pro Bowl fullback this offseason. Felton’s suspension is the result of his DUI charge last year, which was later reduced to careless driving.
“You always knew that there was potential,” Frazier said. “You didn’t know if it would happen. His incident was some time ago. But it was always looming that this could possibly happen.”
In Felton’s absence, Frazier said the team will look to tight end/fullback Rhett Ellison and possibly rookie Zach Line to fill the void.
On Ellison, Frazier said: “He’s one of the hardest working players on our team. It’s hard to outwork Rhett. He comes prepared every single day. Seeing his work ethic his rookie year, I was so impressed. You just don’t see very many rookies with his maturity and just understanding the time that you have to put in to be good at your craft. He has not let up from his rookie season. I don’t think we can overwork him. He’ll be ready when we line up against Detroit. But yes, we could add more to his plate and we probably will have to now.”
** Frazier said cornerback Chris Cook is OK after leaving the game because of a groin injury.
** Linebacker Erin Henderson is still bothered by a heel injury.
** Safety Mistral Raymond suffered an AC joint sprain of his shoulder and is doubtful for Thursday night.
** Wideout Greg Childs was placed on the Reserve/Physically Unable To Perform list. He has been on the PUP list since camp started while trying to recover from surgery on both knees. The move means he won't be eligible to play through the first six weeks of the season.
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