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 dog days of training camp have officially arrived here in Mankato.
With head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings nearly two weeks into training camp and just four days away from their first preseason game against the Raiders at TCF, you definitely get the sense that the players are ready to start smashing helmets with someone in a jersey of a different color.
That’s not to say that today’s practice was chippy. We have yet to see anything that could be remotely described as a skirmish or an altercation during Zimmer’s first training camp. Honestly, I’m a little bummed out I haven’t been able to write the word brouhaha. Well, until now, that is.
But after nine long days in the sun, you can feel that the anticipation for an actual game is building. Zimmer will be challenged to keep his players focused on the now, as monotonous as these summer practices can become once you flip the calendar to August, instead of looking ahead to Friday.
SETTING THE SCENE: At the start of practice, the sky was overcast and a little ominous with a stiff breeze. But the nasty weather held off, and soon the sky was blue. The temperature was in the high 70s. Zimmer had the Vikings practicing in full pads for the sixth time in their past seven practices.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK SMORGASBORD: After throwing a bunch of passes in team drills Saturday night, the quarterbacks weren’t asked to throw much in 11-on-11 situations today. Matt Cassel, who worked mostly with the ones, completed eight of his 10 attempts. Teddy Bridgewater completed eight of his nine attempts, including three of four in a stint with the first-team offense. And after he didn’t throw a single pass in team drills Saturday night, Christian Ponder got a chance to run a two-minute drill early in practice. He completed four of his seven attempts to third-stringers, but one of the incompletions was a drop and the other two were spikes to stop the clock. That was it for Ponder in 11-on-11 drills, though, as once again Cassel and Bridgewater hogged the huddle.
TEDDY CAN PUNT, TOO: Zimmer doesn’t fall into coachspeak as often as his peers, but he does talk a lot about situational football. During about every practice, he prepares his team for some rare and random occurrence. Today, he had quarterbacks practice pooch punts. Bridgewater can apparently punt a little bit, too. He booted both punts high into the sky. The latter of the two had a hang time of about four seconds. Jeff Locke need not worry about his job, but that was impressive.
CROCKER ISN’T EASED IN: The new guy, veteran safety Chris Crocker, wasn’t just limited to individual work and the occasional cameo during his first practice with the Vikings. Crocker was part of the safety rotation, usually with the second-team defense. Credit his familiarity with Zimmer and his defensive scheme for that. Crocker has played for Zimmer in each of the past seven seasons, and he said after practice that he wouldn’t have come out of semi-retirement for any other coach.
SPEAKING OF SAFETIES: With Crocker on the field and fellow safety Andrew Sendejo activated from the PUP list, the secondary was crowded with eight safeties, though Zimmer did let Harrison Smith take it easy, perhaps to get a better look at the other guys. Zimmer checked out a bunch of different combinations, and everyone from Jamarca Sanford and Kurt Coleman to Crocker and rookie Antone Exum got looks with the ones or twos. This camp competition gets murkier by the day.
TALKING ‘BOUT PUNTS: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who returned punts for the Panthers, got a chance to field a few of them today, though the only thing I would take away from that is that his hamstring is healthy enough for him to practice without limitations. No, the Vikings won’t need him if they keep Marcus Sherels, who broke a punt return for a long gain down the left sideline at the end of practice. The only one standing in his way was Locke, and I wouldn’t have liked his chances.
INJURY REPORT: Rookie left tackle Antonio Richardson left practice after his left leg got rolled up on a run play. Linebacker Brandon Watts (hamstring) and cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) returned to practice. Remaining sidelined were safety Robert Blanton (hamstring) and tight ends Chase Ford (foot) and AC Leonard (head). Ford is no longer in a walking boot -- a good sign.
Earlier this week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said that he and the coaching staff would huddle on Tuesday and come up with a plan to redistribute reps to the players. That plan apparently included giving Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr work with the starters.
Midway through practice, during an 11-on-11 drill, Bridgewater stepped into the huddle with the first-team offense and took five or six snaps. It was not his sharpest practice, though. He missed on a few throws, leading Zimmer to remark after practice that Bridgewater wasn’t as accurate as usual. Soon, Cassel was back on the field, but the crowd buzzed for a while after Bridgewater’s cameo.
Barr, meanwhile, spent most of the practice with the first team. He flashed a couple of times off the edge and on one play hurried Bridgewater. But Zimmer didn’t exactly give him a glowing review.
“The only time I noticed him, he was late on a blitz,” he said. “And I talked to him about it.”
SETTING THE SCENE: After a day off, the Vikings were back in pads. I’ve got to say, today was the nicest day so far. It was partially cloudy and pleasant, with temperatures in the 70s.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK BLURB: This was the dullest day for the quarterbacks since training camp began. Well, except for Christian Ponder, who threw an accurate five-yard dump-off to a running back on his only pass of the day in team drills. I was a little scatterbrained today so these numbers are unofficial, but I had Cassel at 7-for-11 during team drills and Bridgewater at 8-for-13. The quarterbacks particularly struggled in the blitz period.
SPEAKING OF THE BLITZ PERIOD: We got a brief look at some of the mayhem Zimmer intends to bring in obvious passing situations. Zimmer tinkered with three-man and four-man defensive lines in his sub packages. On one play, it was Barr and Brian Robison rushing from the edges. On another, it was Robison and Everson Griffen. We also saw Sharrif Floyd on the inside. Zimmer has weapons to work with. The defense certainly won the blitz period today, either forcing errant passes or check-downs to a running back or tight end short of the sticks.
BACK IN A FLASH: Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson practiced fully for the first time this summer and looked unhindered by the foot injury that sidelined him for the first few practices. It didn’t take long for him make his presence known. At the start of the team takeoff drill, a quick team activity before individual work, Patterson caught a pass from Cassel and turned upfield. That got him a nice ovation from the fans, who were happy to see him back.
PINNING THEM DEEP: With only three touchbacks in his rookie season, Jeff Locke didn’t misfire often when trying to pin opponents deep. Today, he fared well while booming punts from near midfield, dropping many inside the 10-yard line and a couple of them inside the 2-yard line, though confusion between Derek Cox and Jabari Price resulted in one that should have been downed bouncing into the end zone. That couldn’t have made Mike Priefer happy.
KID’S GOT QUICKS: It seems like every day rookie running back Jerick McKinnon grabs your attention with his athleticism. Today, that moment occurred when he caught a quick swing pass from Bridgewater as he sprinted to the right. Rookie corner Kendall James took a bad angle in pursuit, and McKinnon planted his right cleat into the ground and shot up the field into the secondary.
SUBBING IN AT SAFETY: Robert Blanton did not practice, giving Zimmer a chance to try other safeties such as Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Kurt Coleman with the first-team defense. Coleman made a couple of nice plays, including one where he raced to the sideline to jar the ball loose from the grasp of tight end Kyle Rudolph. This competition is wide open.
INJURY REPORT: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hamstring) returned to practice after being activated from the PUP list this morning, but he did not do much. Blanton and cornerback Josh Robinson also have hamstring injuries, Zimmer said. Rookie tight end AC Leonard left practice with a headache. For more on those injuries and other nuggets, read this post-practice blog.
After the defense appeared to win the day yesterday, the offense struck back this afternoon.
The passing offense was much crisper today, and you could count on two hands the number of passes that hit the grass in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. First-stringer Matt Cassel fared the best of the quarterback bunch, completing 17 of his 19 attempts, with one of those passes getting swatted down at the line. Sure, there was some dinking and dunking, but Cassel did complete a few difficult throws downfield against Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense.
While the players are still playing without pads on and there is no live tacking, this practice was conducted with a faster pace and a little more intensity than yesterday’s training camp kickoff.
SETTING THE SCENE: After a soggy morning walkthrough, the clouds headed for the hills, creating a picturesque afternoon in Mankato with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Players were in helmets and shells for the second straight day. The practice lasted just under two hours.
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK SMORGASBORD: Cassel wasn’t the only one who completed most of his passes. Bridgewater completed 10 of his 13 attempts during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills and Ponder missed on just two of his 10 throws, including one after he executed a nice pump fake but couldn’t quite connect with Kain Colter, who was unable to make a tricky twisting catch. Bridgewater made a couple of nice throws, including a perfectly-placed lob outside the numbers to wide receiver Adam Thielen for a big gain. Bridgewater overshot a few throws like that during the first two days of camp, but that completion garnered him a loud cheer from the bleachers.
SLIGHT END?: Pretty much every player will tell you this time of year that they are in the best shape of their life, but it is noteworthy that the team as a whole has slimmed down since Zimmer brought stricter standards to the team cafeteria. One of those players who has shed some weight is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who did it in the hopes it will help him get open more often in coordinator Norv Turner’s tight-end-friendly offense. Today, he certainly looked pretty good running routes, changing directions well for someone who is 6-foot-6. But will the weight loss affect his run blocking? We’ll find out soon. The pads get strapped on tomorrow.
ROCKY RHODES: It wasn’t the best day for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes. During one stretch, Rhodes, who mans the right sideline, was beat to the inside for a chunk play by wide receiver Greg Jennings, who ran a deep post route. Quarterbacks picked on him a couple of more times for completions along the sideline, leading to some extra coaching from Zimmer.
DAY OF THE SWING PASS: Of all those completed passes today, I’d estimate that at least a third of them went to Vikings running backs. Maybe even half. After practice, Zimmer praised Adrian Peterson’s route-running. Sure, Peterson didn’t have the best day catching the ball yesterday. But he caught one in the open field today and was off to the races. After watching that, you can understand why Zimmer and the coaches are so excited about his potential in the passing game.
EARLY RETURNS: With wide-out Cordarrelle Patterson sidelined, the Vikings got a closer look at a group of potential kick returners that included Colter, Thielen, Jarius Wright, Jerick McKinnon, Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels. I’d tell you who looked the best, but no one is allowed to touch these guys. For what it’s worth, coordinator Mike Priefer seemed to bark more praise toward McKinnon and Sherels.
INJURY REPORT: Zimmer said that Patterson (foot) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (hammy) are getting closer to practicing, though he would not offer a timetable. Patterson could be spotted on the far field jogging and doing straddle exercises without a limp. As for safety Andrew Sendejo (lower back and ankle), Zimmer was not as optimistic. Sendejo has been dealing with the back injury since last season, and Zimmer pointed out that he has yet to see him practice. The safety position is a crowded one, so Sendejo will lose more and more ground every day he sits out.
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.
DROPPING THE BALL: When it was time to practice punts, only Jarius Wright and Kain Colter went back to catch them, and Wright struggled at doing so. He let one Jeff Locke punt toward the left sideline drop in front of him and muffed another punt, which was recovered by the coverage team.
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 coach Leslie Frazier has listed running back Adrian Peterson as "questionable," meaning the guy we all assumed would miss Sunday's game against the Eagles, now has a 50-50 chance of playing.
Once again, we may find out that assuming the worst for Adrian Peterson isn't a wise thing to do.
Peterson practiced today for the first time this week. According to Frazier, Peterson planted and showed good burst off the right foot that he sprained early in the second quarter of last week's game at Baltimore.
"It was impressive when you consider the early diagnosis," Frazier said. "He's unique. Very unique. He's so different than everybody else when it comes to recovering from injuries. We've been in situations in the past where you thought he wouldn't make it and he made it. So it was always in the back of my mind the chance he would make it. He's amazing."
Frazier sounded optimistic, but was not willing to go beyond listing Peterson as questionable in part because he'll need to see how Peterson's foot responds tomorrow after going through today's workout. Frazier also indicated it could be a game-time decision on whehter to play Peterson.
Meanwhile, running back Toby Gerhart, who suffered a hamstring injury in last week's game, also returned to practice today for the first time this week. Frazier said Gerhart looked good, but was kept from testing the hamstring with the kind of cuts and burst he would typically use in a game.
Cornerback Chris Cook (knee) was a surprise addition to the injury report today. He was limited in practice and has been listed as questionable.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and right guard Brandon Fusco (knee) did not practice and were listed as doubtful. Marcus Sherels would start for Rhodes while Joe Berger would start for Fusco.
And, finally, tight end John Carlson still has not passed the NFL protocol for returning from the concussion he suffered last week. Rhett Ellison will get the start. Chase Ford also would be available.
Linebackers Larry Dean (knee) and Chad Greenway (wrist) are listed as probable.
In other news, barring an unlikely setback on Saturday, free safety Harrison Smith will be activated from injured reserve on Saturday and will have a role in Sunday's game. Smith has been on injured reserve the past eight weeks because of a turf toe injury. He returned to practice two weeks ago.
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