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.
A few days ago, I wrote about Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s comment that he wants a “physical presence” at fullback and his usage (or lack thereof) of fullbacks in 2013.
Today, we grabbed fullback Jerome Felton, who was a Pro Bowler in 2012, as he came off the field following the morning walkthrough. He was asked about fullbacks in Turner’s offense.
“He’s gone from using one a lot to not very much, so I think it just depends on the system and players -- if he has a fullback and what that fullback can do,” he said. “I’m confident in my ability and I think whenever we run two-back runs we’ll be successful, and that will help me get more reps.”
Felton’s situation is complicated by the fact that he is scheduled to make a little over $2.1 million this season (and $2.5 million in 2015, though that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves). If the Vikings choose to cut him and go with Zach Line or forgo a fullback, they could save $1.3 million.
“Obviously all that stuff factors into it,” Felton acknowledged. “But at the end of the day, you just control what you can control, and that’s me performing when I’m out there.”
Felton believes the question is whether Turner will use a fullback, not who should be that fullback.
“I’m confident myself,” he said. “If we’re going to use a fullback, I feel I’ll be that guy.”
The playground started to buzz as the four buses rolled up to Lucy Craft Laney School in North Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon. The students at the school had been working all morning to build a brand-new playground and were excited to see the Vikings show up to help finish the job.
New head coach Mike Zimmer led the Vikings off the first bus, and most of the players and many members of the personnel staff, including general manager Rick Spielman, participated in the team’s annual playground build. They grabbed shovels and wheelbarrows as soon as they stepped off the buses. At around 2:30 p.m., after a couple of hours of work, the job was done.
“It’s important to our players that we give back to Minnesota as much as they give to us, so it’s been really fun for us to get it,” Zimmer said, surveying the scene. “It has actually been fun for us to get away from practice a little bit and get out and kind of joke around with each other.”
Rap songs and dance music blared over the speakers as players and coaches worked alongside teachers, administrators and students of a wide range of ages. The hot sun beamed down, with an occasional cloud offering a moment of shade, but the players appeared to be having a blast.
“I just love the fact that everybody is here with the same goal, the same mindset, which is to help provide and enhance the playground and the culture here at the school so kids get to have fun and experience each other with a great playground,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said.
Among the players participating in the event was rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was tasked with painting checkerboards on some tabletops. Bridgewater was wearing a pair of work gloves, of course, but he took them off to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the kids.
“It’s very cool,” said Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the draft. “I look forward to being in Minnesota for many years. So to be out here after less than a month and to be able to make an impact, to impact this school … it’s just a great feeling to be able to leave our imprint here and I’m glad this school will have a playground that they’ll be able to play on for many, many years to come.”
Most of the Vikings organization arrived after Wednesday’s organized team activity workout, but some employees, including members of the media relations staff, arrived first thing in the morning to assist with the project. Zimmer, who mostly supervised at the playground build, said it was a good thing that the coaches and players got to spend some time together off the field.
“It’s more of a relaxed atmosphere,” Zimmer said. “It’s good. It’s good to be around them when you don’t have a whistle in your mouth and trying to be demanding on everything.”
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.
Vikings guard Josh Samuda suffered a gruesome ankle injury during today’s voluntary offseason workout. The 25-year-old broke his fibula and dislocated his right ankle, according to a league source. He could also have ligament damage.
He will undergo surgery Wednesday morning. Doctors will find out the full extent of the injury then.
Samuda was participating in a non-contact drill in which one player chased another in a tight circle. He twisted his ankle, collapsed on the turf and clutched his leg, obviously in a great deal of pain. After a few minutes, he was helped off the field and taken into the trainer's room.
The workout was open to the media, and an image of Samuda’s ankle quickly went viral.
Samuda signed a reserve/future contract with the Vikings in January. He played 16 games for the Miami Dolphins in 2012 after signing as a rookie free agent out of Massachusetts. He did not play in 2013 after the Dolphins waived him before the start of the season.
In other news, the Vikings signed tight end Allen Reisner, who played for them in 2011 and 2012.
Reisner, 25, spent his first two seasons with the Vikings after they signed him as a rookie free agent out of Iowa. He played 10 games over two seasons, making two catches for 28 yards. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed him off the Vikings' practice squad late in the 2012 season and he played five games for them in 2013, making three starts and catching five passes for 40 yards.
The Vikings also worked out Towson running back Terrance West today, according to a league source. West, 23, set the Div. I FCS single-season rushing record in 2013 with 2,519 yards.
Vikings free-agency tracker …
We’re tracking all things Purple, starting with what’s already happened and projecting what still needs to happen as the Vikings work their way through free agency. Here we go:
QB Matt Cassel: Agreed to terms on a two-year, $10 million deal on March 8. Signed the deal March 10.
What it means: The Vikings would have gone into free agency with their No. 1 need being a veteran quarterback to serve as their temporary bridge to the future. Cassel, who went 3-3 and played in all five of the Vikings’ wins a year ago, isn’t perfect, but he’s the best-case scenario in a weak quarterback market. Now, the Vikings can shift their QB focus to picking the right one in the draft.
DE Everson Griffen: Agreed to terms on a five-year, $42.5 million deal on March 8. Signed on March 10.
What it means: A starting right defensive end to replace Jared Allen would have been priority No. 2 heading into free agency. Signing the 26-year-old Griffen filled that need with a familiar player who’s been solid, is full of star potential and is heading into his prime seasons.
MLB Jasper Brinkley: Signed a one-year deal before the free-agency signing period began March 11.
What it means: The Vikings let Brinkley, a starter in 2012, walk away before the 2013 season. Then he failed in Arizona and was released after the season. So we’re not talking any guarantees here. He will compete with Audie Cole and Michael Mauti at middle linebacker with perhaps one of them being able to move over and compete with Gerald Hodges at the weak-side linebacker spot.
C-G Joe Berger: Signed a one-year deal March 11.
What it means: Berger might be the most underrated player on the team. He's primarily a center, and he’s been good enough to start there. But he also can be a serviceable starter and backup at both guard positions as well.
RB Matt Asiata: Exclusive rights free agent signed his one-year tender.
What it means: Asiata is a good No. 3 running back and special teams player. The Vikings still can use a change-of-pace back with pass-catching skills as their No. 2 back.
NT Fred Evans: The 30-year-old unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal on March 13.
What it means: Evan will continue to provide depth on the nose, which is something he's done with the Vikings since 2007. He's not a front-line talent, but is a wide body with experience. Makes too many silly encroachment penalties while lined up with his head right over the ball, but is a good player to have for depth and emergency situations.
WR Jerome Simpson: The acrobatic, but inconsistent veteran receiver signed a third consecutive one-year, "prove-it" deal with the Vikings on March 14.
What it means: Focusing just on football, it means the Vikings now have four experienced receivers to go along with tight end Kyle Rudolph. Are those four receivers written down in pen as the top four that will start the season? No. Beyond Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, anything can happen, depending on whether the Vikings come across something better between now and September. But Simpson gives new offensive coordinator Norv Turner a deep threat that can leap and pick passes out of the air. Of course, Simpson also is prone to disappearing for long stretches, dropping too many passes and getting in trouble off the field. His arrest for DWI last December could result in another league suspension to go with the three-game punishment he served when he joined the Vikings in 2012.
LG Charlie Johnson: Agreed to a two-year, $5 million deal on March 15.
What it means: Although he struggled last season and the Vikings were willing to lose him while they focused on higher priorities, Johnson has started 48 of 49 games since joining the Vikings in 2011, including all but one game at left guard the past two seasons. With Johnson's return, the starting line should remain intact for a third straight season. General Manager Rick Spielman said he's impressed by the progress of Jeff Baca, a sixth-round pick a year ago, and that the team will be looking to address the offensive line in the draft. But re-signing Johnson, 30, for about $2.5 million this season suggests the Vikings are willing to let Johnson handle the position while they groom a backup that could take his spot as early as 2015.
HELLO, NEW FACES
NT Linval Joseph: Agreed to a five-year, $31.5 million deal on March 11, the first day of the signing period.
What it means: Well, the Vikings didn’t have a starting-caliber nose tackle on the roster. They also haven’t had a true nose tackle in top form since Pat Williams’ last dominant season in 2009. Not coincidently, that was the last time the Vikings played shut-down run defense. Priority No. 1 defensively for new coach Mike Zimmer is shut-down run defense. Joseph is a 6-4, 328-pounder who’s only 25 and was a second-round pick in 2010.
CB Captain Munnerlyn: A competitive, hard-nosed, 5-8, 195-pounder, he signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal with $7 million guaranteed on March 13.
What it means: The Vikings finally have someone to replace Antoine Winfield, 12 months after making a calculated, financial-based mistake in releasing him and placing blind faith into Josh Robinson, a second-year pro who had never played inside over the slot in the nickel defense. Munnerlyn has three years of experience at starting outside and sliding inside when his former team, the Panthers, went to the nickel. He's also a 25-year-old rising star who made plays on a defense that ranked No. 2 in the league in yards and points allowed last season. In five seasons in Carolina, Munnerlyn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, returned five of seven career interceptions for touchdowns. The guy he replaces, Chris Cook, a second-round pick in 2010, is still looking for his first career pick. He signed with the 49ers on March 14.
CB Derek Cox: The 6-1, 180-pound Cox signed a one-year deal on March 13 and hopes he can reclaim what he had for four years in Jacksonville and lost last season in his only year with the Chargers.
What it means: Remains to be seen. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer proclaims himself to be "The Fixer." Well, if he can fix this guy, he might have three good corners in Xavier Rhodes, Munnerlyn and Cox. Cox had 12 interceptions in four seasons with the Jaguars after being drafted in the third round in 2009. He signed a big deal with the Chargers last year, but was benched three times and essentially given up on after a horrendous outing against the Chiefs in November. The Vikings have eight corners on the roster, but they'll be looking for more, probably in the draft.
DT Tom Johnson: At 6-3 and 290, the 29-year old signed a one-year contract worth $875,000 on March 20.
What it means: He's another cog in the middle of the defensive line. Settled in with the Saints the past three seasons after moving all over the world to play, but New Orlean's 3-4 didn't suit him. Will likely be at three-technique, although his experience at end could make him versatile. A bit old, but it's a low risk and Zimmer clearly wants to improve the interior line.
DL Corey Wootton: The 6-6, 270-pounder got a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, plus incentives, on March 21.
What it means: Wootton can play both tackle and end, but is likely to be more of the latter under Zimmer. He had a hip issue that hampered him in Chicago, where he played the past four years. Wootton started 15 games for the Bears last season, so he's not chopped liver. This is an intriguing signing, if he returns to full health.
OG Vlad Ducasse: The 6-5, 320 pound Ducasse visited Winter Park early in free agency, and agreed to a one-year deal Sunday.
What it means: A four-year veteran, it's possible Ducasse could be a guy who moves around the line, as he was a tackle in college. Another low-risk signing that means the Vikings won't have to draft many offensive linemen. As we wrote in December in a feature on Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, the Vikings got younger and cheaper on the defensive line during free agency.
1. Veteran quarterback (Re-signed Matt Cassel) 2. Starting right defensive end (Re-signed Everson Griffen) 3. Young, true run-stuffing nose tackle (Signed Linval Joseph) 4. Cornerback (Signed Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox) 5. Left guard (Re-signed Charlie Johnson and added Vlad Ducasse)
6. Linebacker: The roster includes only unproven prospects behind Chad Greenway. Unfortunately for the Vikings, there doesn’t appear to be any good fits in free agency based on skills or age. This need is something that will be addressed in the draft. The muddied picture also will begin to clear once the new coaching staff identifies Greenway’s role and how and where intriguing youngsters Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges fit.
Other needs: Change-of-pace backup running back and more competition at strong safety. Where things stand: The running back could come as a bargain deal late in free agency or late in the draft.
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