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.
It didn’t take Cam Cameron long to decide that he had a special talent in Zach Mettenberger.
It was the second scrimmage of spring football down in Baton Rouge last March. Cameron had just joined Les Miles’ coaching staff at LSU after a five-year stint with the Baltimore Ravens and was getting one of his first intimate looks at the weapons he would have at his disposal in his first season as offensive coordinator. Mettenberger made a strong impression, rifling touchdown after touchdown in the scrimmage.
“You could really see the arm talent. He’s a big, imposing guy,” Cameron said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He might have thrown double-digit touchdowns. That was the first of those moments. … I remember telling Les, ‘This guy’s a winner. We’re going to win with this guy.’ And it turned out that way.”
A year later, Cameron is marveling at Mettenberger again, though the circumstances are much different. The 22-year-old will participate in quarterback drills at LSU’s pro day today, a little over three months after he had surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament he shredded in his left knee.
The Vikings are one of a handful of a quarterback-needy NFL teams that are eager to see where Mettenberger stands in his recovery and to get a closer look at Mettenberger’s powerful right arm.
“He’s come as far in a short period as any guy I’ve ever seen. He just had an ACL injury and he is going to have a full workout tomorrow. He is 85 or 90 percent and he’s throwing the ball extremely well,” said Cameron, who will lead Mettenberger’s workout today. “But [the injury] was tough on him.”
When Mettenberger suffered the injury in a win over Arkansas on Nov. 29, he was wrapping up a breakout senior season in which he completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns. He averaged 10.4 yards per attempt and his 171.4 passer rating ranked fourth in the country, trailing Florida State's Jameis Winston, Baylor's Bryce Petty and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
Mettenberger didn’t sulk after suffering the devastating knee injury. Cameron said he was heavily involved in the preparation for the Outback Bowl and helped tutor freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings before LSU’s win over Iowa. He then had surgery on Jan. 2 and started to attack his rehab.
Despite the injury and concerns about his elongated delivery, lack of mobility and decision-making, Mettenberger is viewed as a second-day prospect by many draft analysts because of his prototypical size -- he is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds -- and his arm strength. And if he has a good workout today on that rebuilt left knee, he could come of the board between Minnesota’s eighth and 40th overall picks.
The Vikings have legitimate interest in Mettenberger, according to two league sources, and general manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- who had Cameron on his Washington Redskins staff two decades ago and helped shape some of Cameron's offensive philosophies -- will meet with Mettenberger privately after his pro day, something they have done with other top quarterback prospects.
At some point, they will surely ask Mettenberger about the circumstances that led him to LSU.
Before his freshman season started at Georgia, Mettenberger was dismissed from the program after an incident at a bar in which he was charged with underage possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct and misdemeanor sexual battery, amongst other charges. The alcohol-related charges would be dismissed, but Mettenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery. He spent the 2010 season at Butler Community College in Kansas before transferring to LSU for the 2011 season.
“He’s had some adversity in his life, which is a good thing,” Cameron said. “No one wants to go through an ACL, but he’s kind of wired to attack things that are difficult. He hasn’t had it easy growing up. He had some adversity at Georgia. I think all of those things have helped him mature.”
Last year, Cameron compared Mettenberger to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2012 (after Cameron was replaced by Jim Caldwell late in the regular season). On Tuesday, Cameron said that Mettenberger’s arm strength still reminds him of Flacco. He added that Mettenberger has toughness like Jim Harbaugh. He said his work ethic and competitiveness reminds him of Drew Brees. And he noted that Mettenberger has big hands like Antwaan Randle El.
“He’s weather-proof,” he said. “Teams in the AFC and NFC North are really going to like his guy.”
Obviously, Cameron is a bit biased -- if you couldn't tell by the big names that he just dropped -- but he believes Mettenberger is worthy of a high draft pick.
“He’s a guy you can win a championship with. And that’s all that matters,” Cameron said. “Is he better than a lot of guys who have gone in the first round? Absolutely. Does that mean he’s a first-round draft pick? Depends on how a team views him.”
We won’t know just how favorably the Vikings view him until next month’s NFL draft.
Jared Allen said he doesn't hold any hard feelings against the Vikings and thinks the Bears are closer to a Super Bowl than people think during his introductory press conference on Monday.
Allen signed a four-year deal worth up to $32 million with the Bears this offseason. He said he still respects the Vikings organization for allowing him to play through the entire six-year, $73.26 million deal he signed in 2008. Allen, who turns 32 on Thursday, said there were certain things the Vikings lacked that he was looking for this offseason.
“I don’t wish any ill-will against them, but I’m excited to be a Chicago Bear, I’m excited to play against them, I’m excited to still be in this division,” Allen said. “It was time to move on. They got a direction they’re going, and we’ve got a direction we’re going.
“I wish them all the luck except to not have it against us. They’re another competitor now. They’re another team and that’s what it’s about.”
Allen turned down an opportunity to play with the Seahawks, fresh off their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, to join the Bears. When asked about his decision and whether Chicago is close to winning a Super Bowl, Allen said, “Absolutely this team is closer than people think. Don’t get me wrong, Seattle is a great team and they have great parts. They’re also in a crazy good division where the Niners aren’t no joke out there either. But the Bears, I don’t know statistically what it is but just playing against them, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are two of the top receivers you’re going to play against at that size. I know what it takes to prepare for this offense, and it [stinks].”
Allen also downplayed reports that he would retire if he didn’t find a suitable offer. He said money wasn't a major factor in his decision.
“It was never my intent but my point was that if I was going to throw my cleats and pads on for a team that had no chance,” Allen said. “They’re rebuilding at this point in your career and you’re laying it all out there because I still feel like I’m the best at what I do. If not the (best), one of.
“There’s always a threshold that I had to excess and say, ‘Is it worth going below this?’ But that was kind of my process going through. It was never, ‘Oh, if I don’t get X amount of dollars, I’m walking away.’ That was never the case.”
Stumbled across a website headline asking the question "Is a free agent familiar to coach Mike Zimmer a good fit for Vikings?"
Experience tells me, "Um, duh."
Best example I can think of: Early 1990s, Cleveland Browns. A fella named Belichick showed up in Berea, Ohio with a system in mind and ideas for how to begin implementing it. He wasn't the eccentric genius he is today. In fact, he wasn't even 40 years old and he had never been a head coach before.
Even with his two Super Bowl rings as Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator with the Giants, the leftover players didn't care for this cold-hearted, mumbling, monotone man who would walk by them in the hallway and not even make eye contact. Two players -- Michael Dean Perry and Reggie Langhorne -- even walked off the practice field after clashes with Belichick.
It wasn't long before Belichick turned to the east and began Pied Pipering a line of former Giants to Cleveland. Joe Morris, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, Everson Walls, Mark Bavaro were among the loyal Belichickians who arrrived with some gas still left in the tanks. We used to ask Belichick when LT's -- the original LT (Lawrence Taylor) -- flight would arrive.
Even Phil Simms was so close to signing that the Browns actually called a press conference to introduce him. With reporters and TV cameras waiting in the interview room, last-minute talks broke down. After a lengthy delay, an introductory presser suddenly became a hurry-to-the-parking-lot-to-ask-Phil-what-the-heck-happened news scramble.
That's the long way of saying, yes, Zimmer will have interest in "his guys" from Cincinnati. It's only natural. No, his guys didn't win a couple of Super Bowls like Belichick's guys did over 20 years ago. But the Bengals sure have known how to play some solid defense under Zimmer.
Here are the Bengals to keep an eye on:
DE Michael Johnson: The unrestricted free agent who makes the most sense for the Vikings. He's 27, 6-7, 260 and has the skills to rush the passer but the dedication to play the run even if doing so results in fewer sacks. That last part ain't easy for right defensive ends to swallow. Jared Allen isn't coming back, folks. He'll be 32 and there are better teams who need pass rushers and will pay dearly for them. And, frankly, he doesn't fit the Vikings' new defense. In Zimmer's seven seasons as Bengals defensive coordinator, only two players -- DT Geno Atkins and Johnson -- have had double-digit sack seasons. Johnson had 11 1/2 in 2012. He had 3 1/2 last year, but, according to ESPN, he tied for first on the team in pass disruptions. And the Bengals were fourth as a team in that category.
MLB Vincent Rey: Remember him? His pick-six against Matt Cassel in Week 16 gave the Bengals a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, sparked the onslaught and essentially was the final boot the backside of Leslie Frazier's career as Vikings coach. Rey is a 26-year-old restricted free agent. But the Bengals put the lowest tender -- $1.431 million -- on him. That means the compensation is a pick in the round he was drafted. And since he was undrafted, there is no compensation in terms of draft picks. The Vikings need playmakers at linebacker. Rey knowing the defense would be a big advantage.
Other Bengals to watch: S Taylor Mays, 26; CB Brandon Ghee, 26; S Chris Crocker, 33. Yes, Crocker is an old player. But he's a big-time Zim guy. He came out of retirement the past two years when Zimmer needed help at the position. "I did it because I still felt I could play and because of Mike Zimmer," Crocker said during a phone interview shortly after Zimmer was hired by the Vikings. Asked if he'd be willing to come back a third time, Crocker laughed. "We'll see," he said. Crocker doesn't fit what the Vikings typically look for in free agency. But, hey, he's tight with the head coach and he believes in the system.
Zimmer's thoughts: Zimmer was asked by reporters on Thursday about how hard he'd be chasing after his Cincy guys. He said: "It always helps because of the communication, but it’s not relative. I had no one in Cincinnati [his first year]. Matter of fact, I was the only new coach I think when I went there on defense. I had no players that came with me at that time. It’d be nice, but it’s not imperative."
The Vikings made eight selections in the 2010 NFL Draft following a 12-4 season that ended a win away from a spot in Super Bowl XLIV. Only four of those players selected were on the roster last season and all will be free agents this season.
The team has since gone 24-39-1 with more coaching changes, two, than playoff games, one.
The Vikings didn’t operate with a general manager at the time but general manager Rick Spielman was Vice President of player personnel and handled the draft, but former head coach Brad Childress had final veto power on all personnel moves. Spielman didn't have the final say as he does now.
“Different philosophy back then,” Spielman said. “It was a different structure back then. Some haven’t panned and some have, but I think what we’ve done since then is go back and assess and analyze and I know exactly what went wrong with the ones that didn’t make it and what went right with ‘em. But we’ve used that as we’ve gone forward especially over the last two draft classes. Basically that’s my total responsibility now."
Well, a lot didn’t pan out. When asked about the philosophy in the draft, Spielman repeated, “I’ll just leave it at that it was a different philosophy.”
It’s a big reason why the Vikings have struggled to remain consistent and now have an emphasis to build through the draft. Here’s a look at who they picked and some notable players they missed in each round.
The Vikings traded their 30th overall selection to the Lions for a second (34th) and seventh (214th) pick. They also swapped fourth round selections.
The Lions drafted Cal running back Jahvid Best, who retired due to his concussion history.
Noteworthy players after selection: OT Rodger Saffold to the Rams (33rd overall pick; second round)
With the second pick in the second round acquired from Detroit, the Vikings selected Virginia cornerback Chris Cook. The team needed a cornerback and Cook had the size and athleticism listed at 6-2 and 212 pounds at the time, but he turned out to be a bust.
Cook hits free agency without an interception in four seasons with the Vikings. He missed the final 10 games in 2011 due to an ongoing domestic assault arrest that was he was later found not guilty. He was cleared on gun charges that same year prior to the arrest.
On the field, Cook couldn’t stay healthy. He played 12 games last season, a career-high, but he wasn’t productive. He was ejected in Week 13 against the Bears after making contact with an official after allowing a 46-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who previously had an 80-touchdown against Cook and set the franchise record with 249 receiving yards.
Noteworthy players after selection: S T.J. Ward to the Browns (38th overall); TE Rob Gronkowski to the Patriots (42nd overall); LB Daryl Washington to the Cardinals (47th overall)
The Vikings traded up to the 51st overall pick, swapping second round picks with the Texans and giving their third round pick, to select Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.
He served as Adrian Peterson’s backup and had his most productive season when Peterson tore his ACL in 2011. Gerhart has a career-high 109 carries for 531 yards.
Both Cook and Gerhart are free agents this offseason and it doesn’t appear that either will return. Gerhart wasn’t a bust however and will draw some interest from other teams as a possible starting running back.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Carlos Dunlap to the Bengals (54th overall); LB Sean Lee to the Cowboys (55th overall);
The Vikings didn’t have a third round pick due to the Gerhart trade.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Brandon LaFell to the Panthers (78th overall); WR Eric Decker to the Broncos (87th overall); LB NaVorro Bowman to the 49ers (91st overall); TE Jimmy Graham to the Saints (95th overall)
After swapping fourth round selections with the Lions, the Vikings drafted USC defensive end Everson Griffen with the 100th overall selection.
He was considered to be a first round pick but there were questions about his effort and off the field issues. Following his rookie season, Griffen was arrested twice in three days for public intoxications and driving with an invalid driver’s license.
Griffen made just one start in four seasons behind defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen. He’s so versatile that the Vikings used him at all four positions on the defensive line during his tenure.
Griffen and Gerhart were clearly the two best players the Vikings selected in the draft but both were primarily backups over the last four years. Though Griffen has expressed interest to return, the Vikings will have a difficult time bringing him back. There aren’t many good 4-3 defensive ends in the draft and free agency.
Noteworthy players after selection: CB Alterraun Verner to the Titans (104th overall); TE Aaron Hernandez to the Patriots (113th overall); TE Dennis Pitta to the Ravens (114th overall); DT Geno Atkins to the Bengals (120th overall): S Kam Chancellor to the Seahawks (133rd overall; fifth round); WR Riley Cooper to the Eagles (159th overall; fifth round)
With the 161st overall selection, the Vikings drafted Wake Forest offensive tackle Chris DeGeare. He was wavied and signed to the practice squad in 2011 and released right before the start of the 2012 season. He spent that season on the Titans’ practice squad.
DeGeare has signed a reserve/future contract with the Giants in January.
The Vikings also had a compensatory pick and selected Gophers linebacker Nathan Triplett with the 167th overall pick. He was cut in preseason and spent three seasons with four teams after the Vikings. He wasn’t signed with a team last season.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Greg Hardy to the Panthers (175t5th overall; sixth round); RB James Starks to the Packers (193 overall; sixth round); WR Antonio Brown to the Steelers (195th overall; sixth round); WR Trindon Holliday to the Texans (197th overall; sixth round)
With the 199th overall pick, the Vikings selected UAB quarterback Joe Webb. The team got good value for Webb, who served as a wide receiver, running back, quarterback and special teams.
However, his tenure with the Vikings will be remembered for his performance in the franchise’s last playoff game. He was the starting quarterback in the 2012 NFC Wild Card matchup against the Packers due to a deep tricep bruise quarterback Christian Ponder suffered in the final regular season game against Green Bay.
Webb became the fourth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start a postseason game after not starting in the regular season. He went 11 of 30 for 180 yards with an interception and a fumble in the 24-10 loss.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Marc Mariani to the Titans (222nd overall; seventh round); DE George Selvie to the Rams (226th overall; seventh round)
The Vikings selected Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler Jr. with the 214th overall pick and Rutgers linebacker Ryan D’Imperio with the 237th overall selection. Shuler Jr. was cut twice by the Vikings in 2010 and 2012. He spent last season on the Falcons practice squad.
D’Imperio switched from linebacker to fullback was cut in 2012 by the Vikings. He retired before the start of last season after signing with the Giants.
NEW YORK – A sturdy list of first-year eligible candidates, a backlog of holdovers who have been waiting to get in and a 9-10 postseason record all were factors in keeping former Buccaneers and Colts head coach Tony Dungy from even making the first cut of modern-era finalists during a record-long voting session for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2014.
During an 8 hour, 59 minute session, the 46-member selection committee chose the maximum number of seven that’s allowed. They are: Senior Committee candidates Ray Guy, who is the first punter to make the Hall of Fame, and former Falcons and Eagles defensive end Claude Humphrey, and five modern-era candidates that included former Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks, Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, Bills receiver Andre Reed, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and Cardinals and Rams cornerback/safety Aeneas Williams.
Brooks and Jones were in their first year of eligibility. Strahan was in his second year of eligibility, while Reed finally broke free from the receiver logjam in his ninth year of eligibility and eighth year as a finalist.
Reed’s selection probably cost former Colts receiver Marvin Harrison a spot in his first year of eligibility. Some had expected him to be a shoe-in because of his 1,102 catches for 14,580 yards and 128 touchdowns. But if there’s anything that the committee learned from Cris Carter’s long wait before getting in last season it’s that nothing is a guarantee when it comes to the discussions about receivers.
Dungy, the former Gophers quarterback who also served as Vikings defensive coordinator from 1992 to ’95, was an intriguing candidate in his first year of eligibility. But he was eliminated when the 46-member selection committee had to cut the list of 15 modern-era finalists to 10. Also missing the first cut were former Bucs and Broncos safety John Lynch, Raiders receiver Tim Brown, former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., and 25-year veteran kicker Morten Anderson, the NFL’s career-leading scorer who was a Viking in 2004.
Although Dungy turned around a moribund Bucs franchise before going to Indianapolis and becoming the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl, his teams also went one-and-done in six of Dungy’s 11 playoff seasons. Four of those came with the Colts, including three in which the Colts won 14, 13 and 12 regular season games.
Those missing the cut from 10 to five were former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, 160-sack linebacker Kevin Greene, Cowboys and 49ers defensive end Charles Haley, Chiefs guard Will Shields, and Colts receiver Marvin Harrison, who some believed was among the locks in his first year of eligibility.
The selection of Guy will make former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe happy. Kluwe gained attention for criticizing the selection committee and the process two years ago. He argued that Guy should be in the Hall of Fame and then was fined by the league when he took a piece of paper, wrote “Ray Guy HOF” on it and put it over the Hall of Fame logo on his Vikings jersey during a nationally-televised Thursday night game in 2012.
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