Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The Vikings will hold their 10th and final Organized Team Activity on Thursday at Winter Park before reconvening next week for a three-day mini-camp. And as the offseason program enters the finishing stretch, third-year quarterback Christian Ponder continues zeroing in on making good reads more consistently.
On Wednesday afternoon, before teeing off at the team’s annual golf outing, an event that benefits the Vikings’ Children’s Fund, Ponder was asked how he’s measuring himself during this OTA stretch.“
The biggest thing is decision making,” he said. “Obviously you want to complete as many balls as possible, especially in things like 7-on-7. But we’re being put into some hard situations as well. Third-and-long. Blitz. A lot of blitz drills and everything. So it’s tough. I think the defense definitely has the upper hand in these drills. But it’s good for us to see that. And it makes the quarterback make smart decisions and get the ball out quick. So you want to see completions and the right decisions.”
Ponder knows the bar has been raised for him in his third year as a starter. And with back-up Matt Cassel now in the picture, his leash might not be quite as long in 2013 if his struggles are extreme. Still, the Vikings quarterback said the key in May and June is to feel things out within the offense without feeling exorbitant pressure.
“This is a time for us as an offense to just try a bunch of new stuff and see what sticks and see what we like,” Ponder said. “And there are a lot of new plays going in and everything. So it’s a fun time. It’s fun to try out quirky plays and see what the defense does. And the defense is doing the same thing, running funky coverages and everything. But our mindset is we want to get better every day and see a progression heading into training camp.”
On the injury front, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier reported that Chad Greenway’s Thursday morning arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee went well as expected. Greenway will be out of action until training camp begins in late July.
Fellow linebacker Nate Williams, signed in April as an undrafted free agent, has also undergone minor ankle surgery and, according to Frazier, will be sidelined until camp opens in Mankato as well.
The Vikings have their share of injuries to keep tabs on, especially with Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen continuing rehabilitation on his left shoulder in which he had a labrum tear repaired shortly after last season ended. Allen has been at Winter Park the past two weeks but not on the practice field. And he won’t be back in action during mini-camp next week either.
But Frazier said Wednesday he anticipated very few injury issues to still be a concern when the team reports to Mankato. The longest shot to be ready may be second-year receiver Greg Childs, who continues attacking his recovery from torn patellar tendons in both knees.
Frazier said after Tuesday’s practice that he isn’t certain how quickly Childs will receive medical clearance to return to full action but won’t rule out the receiver getting back to practice early in training camp.
"I have my fingers crossed, hoping that that will happen," Frazier said. "I'm waiting on [head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman and our medical staff to give us the green light. But that would be my hope. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what direction it will go."
Center of attention
On Wednesday, Frazier also noted that the team is closely monitoring the progress of standout center John Sullivan, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee.
In Sullivan’s absence during OTAs, the Vikings have tinkered with back-up plans at center. Veteran Joe Berger has seen work there. In addition, Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games at right guard and is the expected starter there for 2013, has also handled snaps.
“We don’t see any problems with Sully being ready to go,” Frazier said. “But you want to make sure that you have other guys prepared.”
Fusco was a center during his college career at Slippery Rock and could be an option at the position if Sullivan’s recovery was to hit an unforeseen snag or if he had any lingering knee issues that sidelined him during the season.
Sliding Fusco to center, of course, would then open up the competition at right guard where rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond as well as veteran Seth Olsen could figure into the mix.
Still, Frazier believes Sullivan’s recuperation will stay on track which would give the Vikings the luxury of opening training camp with the same starting offensive line that started all 16 games last year.
“We’ve still got to see a little more progress out of John Sullivan,” Frazier said. “He’s making progress. But we want to continue to see that. … You just want to see him continue to gain confidence and not be worried about the surgery but just move on. And he’s making progress. From everything that Eric Sugarman tells me, he’s on target. He’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got enough time for him to continue to improve. Hopefully when we get started, he’ll be able to go full go right away.”
The Vikings have agreed to terms on a one-year contract with reserve linebacker Marvin Mitchell, opening the door for the 28-year-old linebacker to return to the team for a second season. Mitchell originally signed with the Vikings as a free agent last spring after spending the 2011 season with the Dolphins and 2007-10 in New Orleans.
In 2012, Mitchell was used primarily on special teams but was thrust into a starting role in Weeks 3 and 4 with Erin Henderson sidelined by a concussion. He will continue to provide the Vikings with quality depth at the position.
According to team statistics, Mitchell was credited with four tackles on defense last season and five tackles plus a forced fumble on special teams.
The Vikings now have six linebackers on their roster with Pro Bowler Chad Greenway and Henderson as returning starters. Behind them are Mitchell, Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie and Larry Dean.
The team still is searching for a starting middle linebacker after Jasper Brinkley landed in Arizona two weeks ago via free agency.
It seems likely that with three of the top 52 picks in next month’s draft, General Manager Rick Spielman will select a middle linebacker in the top two rounds. The team has also not closed the door on the possibility of Cole, a seventh-round pick last year, working his way into consideration for a starting spot.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is the seventh unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Vikings this month. The others were right tackle Phil Loadholt, fullback Jerome Felton, linebacker Erin Henderson, receiver Jerome Simpson, safety Jamarca Sanford and offensive lineman Joe Berger.
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
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