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.
Yeah, so much for thinking the Cleveland Browns were tanking the season. The front office might have tried, but the coaches and players are in the process of upsetting the Vikings at the Metrodome.
If you're the Vikings, suddenly you know how Apollo Creed felt in Rocky I. The Browns our outplaying and outcoaching the Vikings. By a wide margin.
Score: Browns 24-17
The Good: The Vikings took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards en route to Adrian Peterson's pile-driving 2-yard touchdown run. The Vikings converted 3 of 3 third downs on the drive and it looked like the laugher we all expected was on. Especially after the Browns went three-and-out on their next possession. Heck, Christian Ponder even threw a 20-yard pass to Jarius Wright on third-and-five on the opening drive.
The Bad: The Vikings pass coverage suffered a blow when Chris Cook left in the first quarter with a groin injury. That put A.J. Jefferson on the field at right corner. Not good. Jefferson bit on a stop-and-go fake from Josh Gordon, who blew past Jefferson for a 47-yard touchdown to make it a 7-7 game. Gordon has four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Jordan Cameron has three catches, two of them touchdowns.
The Ugly: You can tell the Browns coaching staff didn't like this week's national storyline that the Browns were tanking the season. The Browns are going for broke on every call they make. They've executed a 37-yard fake field goal and an 11-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal. Holder Spencer Lanning simply stood up and threw right to Cameron for the touchdown before Jamarca Sanford could get over to cover. ... Ponder threw an interception into triple coverage and lost a fumble on a sack on the last play of the game. The Vikings were at the Browns' 10 at the time. ... And, finally, the coaching staff got flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing a challenge flag it wasn't permitted to throw when the Browns muffed a punt. There's some question as to whether the Vikings should have just lost a timeout rather than being penalized. The change in field position made the Vikings have to settle for a field goal.
What we learned: The Browns are a dangerous team when the world accuses them of tanking a season. Brian Hoyer also is a playmaker, at least in through two quarters of his second NFL start. He's made some outstanding throws and is outplaying Ponder.
What needs to happen in the second half: The Vikings pass rush needs to show up. Hoyer is getting too much time to throw.
Rhett Ellison, the tight end/fullback who would be Adrian Peterson's primary lead blocker at fullback with Jerome Felton serving the third and final game of his league suspension, didn't practice again today because of a knee hyperextension.
Coach Leslie Frazier hasn't ruled Ellison out, but said he will assume that until he sees whether Ellison will be able to practice on Friday.
If Ellison can't play on Sunday against the Browns, undrafted rookie Zach Line will see his reps increase significantly.
"Zack would be the guy," Frazier said. "He's done a good job the first two games. And his snaps will probably go up a little bit because of rhett's absence. But we got some other ways we can get things done."
Also limited in today's padded practice were: NT Fred Evans (shoulder), MLB Erin Henderson (heel), FS Harrison Smith (shoulder), C John Sullivan (knee) and DT Kevin Williams (knee).
Out for the Browns is, of course, QB Brandon Weeden (thumb) and LB Quentin Groves (ankle). Limited for the Browns in today's practice were: OL Shawn Lauvao (ankle) and DL Ahtyba Rubin (calf).
Unusual week for preparations:
Frazier spoke to reporters for the first time since the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Colts on Wednesday.
"That was a little different," Frazier said. "We were watching tape and [Richardson] definitely was one of the guys we were preparing for from a defensive standpoint and then all of a sudden he's not there. You got to be ready to adjust."
Of course, the Browns also announced on Wednesday that No. 3 QB Brian Hoyer would start for the injured Weeden. The Vikings had been preparing for No. 2 QB Jason Campbell.
"Without question, [the changes] definitely throws you a curveball," Frazier said. "You don't know how much watching the tape of what they've been doing the first two weeks will really matter. It creates some, you're not sure. You just have to have some rules about what you're doing because you're probably going to have to adjust as the game goes on. It might not be what you saw on tape."
Frazier and his coaches also began watching tape of former Broncos running back Willis McGahee, whom the Browns signed on Thursday.
"You look at the system and we'll go back and look at a little bit of what he did in Denver," Frazier said. "We're somewhat familiar with him but we still need to go back and look at what he did last season to get a feel for him. You still have to look at the system, but you know the system is going to change a little bit."
Asked what he saw on McGahee, Frazier said, "He's a good back. He's been a good back for a while."
So your opponent starts its Wednesday by promoting the No. 3 quarterback to starter and ends its Wednesday by trading its running back and best offensive player.
Whaddaya do on Thursday?
Defensive end Jared Allen, who is preparing for Browns QB Brian Hoyer and Browns RB to-be-determined, was asked that question earlier today.
"I’ve been trying to watch preseason tape of the quarterback and now I’m trying to throw darts at a board and see who the running back is going to be," Allen said. "If it’s going to be [Willis] McGahee [as speculation suggests], at least we can go back and watch some film on him. It is tough. It makes it tough to prepare. I think one thing coach has been adamant about, it doesn’t change the scheme. It doesn’t change the plays they’re going to run. It doesn’t change how they’re going to block them up front and it doesn’t change the fact that they’re an effective running football team."
This alleged power running game ranks 29th in the NFL. It averages 56.0 yards per game.
"They run a lot of downhill power game and they want to hit you in the mouth and that’s a fun type of football game," Allen said. "People hear Trent's gone and you hear all the talk about them kicking it in for the season. That’s not the case.
"This is a humbling league and if you don’t take every opponent serious, if you don’t think someone can come in – I was reminding the guys that we didn’t know who the Arizona running back was last year, I think he ran for like a buck, 50 – so this is how this league stays successful because guys get an opportunity to shine and we just got to make sure no one shines on us.”
Allen was referring to then-Cardinals back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who ran for 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.2) and caught four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown in a 21-14 loss at the Metrodome a year ago.
No other running back has carried the ball for the Browns in their first two games. Richardson had carried it 31 times for 105 yards (3.4). Bobby Rainey is the backup, while Chris Ogbonnaya is the first-team fullback.
Hey, they're actually going to have this draft thing. It's started and, believe it or not, they're picking players.
The Chiefs, as expected, took the safe route with a left tackle at the No. 1 overall pick. But in a surprise move (at least to those of us who are now 0-1 in mock drafts), they took Central Michigan's Eric Fisher instead of Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel.
Making the pick for the Chiefs was new GM John Dorsey. He's one of seven new GMs in the league this year. They'll be making eight of the top 14 picks, with the Jets' John Idzik making the ninth and 13th picks, assuming there are no trades, of course.
Fisher fills a need for the Chiefs and allows them to now trade disgruntled Branden Albert, their 2008 first-round draft pick.
Here's what new Chiefs coach Andy Reid said before about the comfort of taking a left tackle No. 1 overall:
“This is what I think: They’ve been fairly safe picks over the years. So if it comes down to equal here or there, and you have to choose, it might be a fairly safe pick. The percentages, with that position – you evaluate the success rate with all the positions, you’ll come back to the offensive line and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a fairly safe pick, offensive tackle.’ ”
We'll be back after periodically through the top portion of the draft.
The question with Greg Jennings has never been about ability. Over seven NFL seasons, Jennings has caught 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 TDs. He’s a versatile weapon who is adept at both stretching the field from the outside or keeping defenses honest as a smooth-moving slot guy.
He is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the kind of proven and consistent playmaker that the Vikings’ receiving corps needs. Yet when free agency neared, the questions about Jennings circled.
At this point -- with Jerome Simpson and his 97 career catches as the top dog in the receiving unit – the Vikings are in no position to be picky. And that’s why, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that Jennings will visit Winter Park on Thursday, the Vikings would be wise not to let him leave without a purple jersey and a rubber-stamped contract.
This visit should be a business interview, a way of unifying a vision and hammering out the finer print of the contract details. The Vikings have had since late Friday night to communicate at length with Jennings’ agent, Eugene Parker. You can bet Parker has an asking price, one that’s moved over the past several days. And you can bet Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman has a thought in mind for what he’d like to ultimately pay.
But as Spielman said Tuesday afternoon about the chaos and unpredictability of free agency, “This is a very fluid business.”
Indeed it is.
At this point, so many other free agent receivers are off the board. Mike Wallace is in Miami. Wes Welker has gone to Denver. Danny Amendola has landed in New England. Donnie Avery is a Chief. Brandon Gibson, reports say, has visits scheduled with the Jets, Dolphins and Titans.
The Vikings? They’ve always vowed to be patient in free agency, to make sure they find guys who fit their system, their character profile and their budget. But to this point, the Vikings have given out six contracts this week, all of them re-signings of players that were already on the roster.
The biggest move by far so far was Monday’s trade or Percy Harvin to Seattle, followed a day later by the surprise release of Antoine Winfield.
The Vikings have lost their top playmaker in the passing game and their linchpin leader on defense. In a pass-happy league, they’ve depleted their receiving corps and their secondary.
At some point, they need a splash to replenish the talent pool in a major way. And there’s no way they should allow themselves – nor had they ever planned to – to get to April’s draft with Simpson as their top receiver.
That’s why today’s reported visit with Jennings shouldn’t be a getting-to-know-you encounter. It should be a determined effort to provide third-year quarterback Christian Ponder a real weapon. Welker’s two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos was a huge power-shift move in the AFC, taking the league’s most prolific pass catcher over the past six years and moving him from one Super Bowl contender to another. But Welker’s contract may have also been a shifting of power in Jennings’ negotiating leverage. Sure, there have been the mammoth deals for receivers – six years, $67 million for Harvin; five years $65 million for Wallace; five years, $56 million for Dwayne Bowe.
But now, wouldn’t it make sense that Jennings’ price tag slides closer to that Welker ballpark. If so, the Vikings should be quietly celebrating. And they should be doing everything they can to make sure that Jennings is their guy.
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