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.
One area where the Vikings need to get much better, on both sides of the ball, is on third down.
Of course, it is easy to look at where the Vikings ranked defensively and point to that as the bigger issue, but the offense’s inability to convert on third down was also very costly a season ago.
You can probably spread the blame throughout the offense from the pass protectors to the guys running the routes. But in the end, there is a reason why the quarterbacks make the big bucks. And on third down last season, the Vikings quarterbacks ranked among the NFL’s least efficient.
According to Pro Football Focus, only former Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, now with the Seahawks, fared worse than Matt Cassel on third down. Christian Ponder was not much better.
On the 80 dropbacks that PFF charted, Cassel completed just 37 of his 70 attempts for 536 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. His accuracy percentage -- completion percentage taking drops into consideration -- on third down was near the bottom of the league at just 62.9 percent, lower than quarterbacks such as Josh Freeman, Thaddeus Lewis and Brandon Weeden.
Interestingly, it was the shorter conversions that gave Cassel the most trouble. He ranked near the bottom of the league on both 3rd-and-medium and 3rd-and-short. When it came to the latter, Cassel completed just one of his 10 attempts with a NFL passer rating of zero point zero.
As for Ponder, he completed 41 of his 66 third-down attempts for 443 yards and his accuracy percentage was a little higher than Cassel's at 66.7 percent. He threw three interceptions on the down, though, with no touchdowns. Ponder also took 12 sacks, a lot on only 92 dropbacks.
The Vikings converted 36.4 percent their third downs, last in the NFC North and 19th in the NFL.
With seven career interceptions in five seasons, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn leads Chris Cook, his predecessor as a Vikings starter, by, well, seven career interceptions.
While seven picks in 77 regular season games doesn't qualify Munnerlyn as the next Deion, the five returns for touchdowns do tend to jump off the screen. Among active NFL players, he's fifth in career interception returns for touchdowns and 15th in career non-offensive touchdowns.
If that's not enough, consider this: In his past 28 games, Munnerlyn has four interceptions, all of which have been returned for touchdowns.
"I think it's my punt return skills coming into play," Munnerlyn said last week when we talked to him for Sunday's story. "That’s something I pride myself on. It seems like every time I get the ball, I end up in the end zone. Me being a punt returner, all I see are offensive lineman out there when I intercept the ball. I figure, `Man, if I get past these receivers, there’s no offensive lineman who is going to tackle me.'"
In his career, Munnerlyn has intercepted Carson Palmer (Bengals), Jake Delhomme (Browns), Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks), Russell Wilson (Seahawks), Josh Freeman (Buccaneers), Sam Bradford (Rams) and Geno Smith (Jets). He's had touchdown returns of 74 yards (Freeman), 45 yards (Bradford), 41 yards (Smith), 37 yards (Delhomme) and 31 yards (Wilson).
But as a punt returner, he's never scored a touchdown in 75 returns. His longest return is a 37-yarder and his average is 9.0.
Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick in 2009, returned punts in 2009 (9.0 average), 2010 (10.9) and 2012 (5.1). He also has four career kickoff returns for a 29.8-yard average, but hasn't returned on since 2012.
When Munnerlyn became a starter in 2011, the Panthers turned to Armanti Edwards as a punt returner. He finished last in the league with a 5.5-yard average.
The Panthers gave the job back to Munnerlyn in 2012. In 14 returns, he averaged 5.1 yards. The Panthers decided it was time to go get Ted Ginn, who averaged 12.2 yards last season.
On paper, it would seem that Munnerlyn wouldn't be a punt returner candidate in Minnesota. After all, Marcus Sherels finished second in the league last season with a franchise-record 15.2-yard average.
But Sherels is one of those NFL players who is perpetually scrapping to save his spot on the roster. He's undersized, doesn't have great speed and is overmatched when forced to play cornerback. But he's also very good at being durable, reliable and just good enough to force coaches to keep him.
For now, Sherels is the No. 1 punt returner. Munnerlyn, however, has been fielding punts as well just in case.
Asked if he thinks he'll be able to put those return skills to work as a punt returner, the 26-year-old Munnerlyn sounded like he'd prefer that Sherels keep the job.
"Oooh, I don't know about returning punts [this year]," he said. "That was back in my younger days. This is my sixth year. I don't know if the body can hold up and take all those hits."
Here are some other leftovers from our chat with Munnerlyn:
On the key to playing corner in the slot: "You got to have patience in the slot. Everything moves so fast, but you have to be smart, have the leverage that your coach wants you to play. And you have to be a great tackler because those guys catch those five-yard routes and if you’re not a good tackler, they can turn those five-yard routes into 10, 15 yards. I figure you just have to have want-to. The want-to to make plays. Being on the outside, you have a little room for error. If you slip here or there, you can catch up. in the slot, if you slip and the quarterback sees it and he can make that throw quick and you’re done."
On whether the NFC North or NFC South has the better receivers: "I think the NFC North has the biggest receivers. Hands-down. But both of divisions are stacked with receivers. But I have to go with the NFC North. They got Megatron. They signed Golden Tate [Detroit]. They got Brandon Marshall and my former college teammate, Alshon Jeffery in Chicago."
On whether the NFC North has a tight end that compares to Jimmy Graham: "I don’t think so. I can’t think of a tight end off the top of my head who’s on his level right now. He’s a beast, he’s tough and he likes to talk. But he backs it up."
On the best receiver in the game today: "It's Megatron [Calvin Johnson]. He’s a big body. With those guys, I feel I have to get up and press those guys because if I just play off, it’s going to be just pitch and catch because of their body frame and stuff like that. Being a smaller corner, I have to get up and press and knock their timing off."
On how he was used against Atlanta's receivers: "I didn't shadow anybody because I played in the slot in passing situations. Most of the time, I followed Julio Jones, but then on third down, we put our other corner on him and I slid inside and usually faced Harry [Douglas] or Roddy [White]."
On how he was used against New Orleans: "Same thing. I always on [Marques] Colston most of the time. I thank the coaches for that now because it helped me out playing taller receivers. I'm going to need that playing in the NFC North. He always was the slot guy. And my coaches would put me against Jimmy Graham, too. They told me to get in his face, press him and try to knock off his timing off so Drew Brees couldn't find him."
A former Gopher, two former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and a Bird Island, Mn., native who went to Northern State in Aberdeen, South Dakota are among the hopefuls the Vikings have invited to this week's three-day rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis.
Roland Johnson, a 6-1, 286-pound tackle for the Gophers, will try to turn heads at what has become a well-populated position since free agency began. Meanwhile, Minnesota-Duluth is sending its starting tight end, Jeremy Reierson, and a free safety, Jason Carlson, who was a transfer from Iowa State.
On the offensive line, Jon Caspers, the Bird Island native, comes in at just under 6-5 and about 305 pounds. He played left tackle at Northern State.
Also in for a tryout is Randall Carroll, a 5-10 cornerback from Sul Ross State in Texas.
The three-day camp started today and runs through Saturday.
Although the players invited to try out obviously are long shots, they do have a shot. This is how Marcus Sherels' career began in 2010. He made the team and has stayed on the team despite yearly attempts to find someone better. Last year, he set a franchise record with a 15.2-yard average per punt return.
We came up with nine reasons that could explain why Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway sounded so excited about his team’s decision to play a more aggressive style of defense in 2014.
Each involves where the Vikings’ defense ranked defensively a year ago. Here goes:
With those stats in mind, we talked to Greenway after one of the minicamp practices earlier this month. He’s the perfect player to offer perspective since he arrived as a first-round draft pick in 2006, the same year then-new head coach Brad Childress hired Mike Tomlin to implement the Cover 2-based defensive scheme. The Vikings essentially ran that same read-and-react system for eight seasons – coming within a Brett Favre pick of reaching the Super Bowl during the 2009 season -- until it was KO’d when a 5-10-1 season cost Leslie Frazier his job and ushered in Mike Zimmer’s high-pressure, multiple-look defense.
Greenway spoke before the Vikings used seven of their 10 draft picks, including the ninth overall selection on UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. The terminology in the Cover 2 and Zimmer’s defense is different, but the bottom line is Greenway and Barr should end up starting together at the outside linebacker positions in the base. Look for Greenway to move to the middle in the nickel, which would be a new role for him, although he has played the middle in the dime. He also wouldn’t have deep middle responsibilities as much, if at all, in Zimmer’s defense.
Here are the highlights of our conversation with Greenway:
Q: If you boil it down, is it safe to say this defense plays `forward’ while the previous defense often played `backward’ in a read-and-react mode?
CG: “That’s probably a good way of putting it. We’re not just sitting back and letting people throw darts at us. We’re matching up people. We’re playing a downhill, aggressive defense.”
Q: As a player, do you like that approach more?
CG: “We’re certainly not going to sit back on our heels and let people mess with us.”
Q: You were the strong-side guy in the previous defense. What will your role be in the new defense? (Zimmer has since explained that Greenway’s previous role would equate to what his defensive terminology calls the weak-side backer)
CG: “The names are different. We’re going to be doing some different things we haven’t seen before around here since I’ve been here. But we’ll talk about that later. Just wait. You’ll see.”
The Vikings selected eight offensive linemen in the first six years with Rick Spielman orchestrating their draft preparations. That number could increase next week as Spielman continues an attempt to bolster the team’s interior line positions with depth and more competition.
Spielman, who enters his third draft as general manager with final say, satisfactorily secured the edges via the draft by taking right tackle Phil Loadholt in the second round in 2009 and left tackle Matt Kalil fourth overall in 2012. Both are young, well-compensated for several more years and provide strong anchors around which to build. Consistency is all that’s needed now.
Center John Sullivan was a tremendous draft-day bargain, coming as a sixth-round draft pick in what was believed to be just a throwaway part of the Jared Allen trade in 2008. Sullivan isn’t in danger of losing his starting job, but he has to prove that past leg injuries and an off year in 2013 aren’t something to worry about.
Right guard Brandon Fusco was a sixth-rounder in 2011. He became a starter in 2012 and nearly got benched because of inconsistent play. He was better in 2013, but still needs to work on consistency while proving he’s a long-term answer.
That leaves left guard as the only starting position that hasn’t been filled through the draft. Charlie Johnson was signed as a free agent in 2011. After struggling as the starter at left tackle that first year, he slid inside to his more natural left guard spot and played better in 2012.
But after a big step back in 2013, the Vikings were content to let him shop his services in free agency before bringing him back on a modest two-year deal. Their indifference as to whether he might leave indicates Johnson may still have to fight for his job with Jeff Baca, a sixth-round draft pick a year ago, or possibly a 2014 draft pick.
On paper, it would appear the Vikings’ offensive line is set. Johnson, who turns 30 on Friday, is the oldest player on a unit that has been together since Week 1 in 2012. But despite their continuity, the line regressed as a unit in 2013. New blood, particularly at guard, might be in order.
And that new blood is something Spielman is always mindful of when it comes to offensive linemen and the draft. Only once, in 2007, his first year running the Vikings’ draft, did he not take an offensive lineman.
Here’s a look at how he’s done in that regard:
Hits: Kalil, Loadholt, Sullivan, Fusco (shaky, but we’ll make him a hit considering he was a sixth-rounder).
Misses: G Chris DeGeare, fifth round, 2010; DeMarcus Love, sixth round, 2011.
To be determined: Baca.
Incomplete: Travis Bond, seventh round, 2013. He was signed off the team’s practice squad by Carolina during his rookie season.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco, Loadholt.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT: Baca. He looked raw as a sixth-round pick a year ago. Most of his rookie development at guard unfolded during closed practices, so we won't be able to judge him until training camp and the preseason. If he truly made progress, as the team has said, he may challenge Johnson at left guard.
LEVEL OF NEED: Moderate. There are bigger needs, particularly on defense. That’s why the Vikings re-signed Johnson. They weren’t enamored with his 2013 season, but considered him good enough to bring back so they weren’t forced to reach for a guard in the
FIVE PROSPECTS TO REMEMBER: LSU redshirt-sophomore guard Trai Turner, Furman guard Dakota Dozier, Ohio State center Corey Linsley, Wisconsin guard Ryan Groy and former University of Miami and Cretin-Derham Hall tackle Seantrel Henderson. Henderson, once a top prospect, has taken a hard fall through the years and has admitted that marijuana use led to multiple suspensions at Miami. But he’s still 6-8, 345 pounds. Someone will think they can fix him.
OUR BEST GUESS: The Vikings will take a guard, but no higher than the fourth round, unless they trade down from the No. 8 overall position and pick up another third-rounder.
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