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 was an offseason of change for the Vikings, from the coaching staff to the stadium in which they will play their home games in 2014. Of all the things that will be different this season, the defensive line is up there. The Vikings overhauled that group this spring, letting two fan favorites go in free agency, signing an emerging nose tackle and putting their faith in two young players.
After looking at the big guys on the other side of the line, let’s break down the D-line today.
WHERE THINGS STAND: Outside of Brian Robison, the defensive line looked, well, different this spring without a pair of longtime defensive cornerstones in Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. The Vikings allowed those two to leave in free agency, instead hitching their wagon to talented but unproven youngsters in Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen. Still, new head coach Mike Zimmer, who relied on a deep defensive line rotation in Cincinnati, said last month that he thinks the Vikings will have enough talent and depth along the defensive line. He couldn’t say definitively, though, because a few key contributors were either sidelined by injuries or ineligible to practice due to NFL rules. Griffen and free-agent signee Linval Joseph, a big nose tackle, were limited this spring, as was versatile backup defensive end Corey Wootton. And fellow end Scott Crichton was stuck at Oregon State until the mandatory minicamp. The return of those four to active duty will boost the defensive line in training camp, giving Zimmer’s coaching staff a lot to evaluate.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: The Vikings have four defensive ends who can probably be penciled onto the 53-man roster in Robison, Griffen, Crichton and Wootton. And Joseph and Floyd, one of their 2013 first-rounders, are expected to be the starting defensive tackles. But the battle to back those two up should be interesting. Veterans Fred Evans and Tom Johnson will compete with younger players in Kheeston Randall, Chase Baker and Shamar Stephen, a 2014 seventh-rounder.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can Floyd and Griffen live up to lofty expectations? Floyd had his moments in a rookie season that included 2.5 sacks, but he has yet to distinguish himself as a starter in the league and the coaching staff has said he too often is thinking instead of reacting on the practice field. Griffen had 17.5 sacks in four seasons as a part-time player, and after the team opted to pay big money to him instead of Allen, the pressure is on the 26-year-old to produce.
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was asked at the NFL Combine in February whether it was true that he was so obsessed with football that he doesn’t think about anything else.
“Yes. I eat, sleep and breathe football,” Bridgewater responded. “There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about football whether it’s I’m playing a game, practicing, watching film, even on the video game. A lot of people ask me what do I do on the video game. I call it taking virtual reps. Each day, I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to outwork my opponent, outsmart my opponent and just try to be the best quarterback that I can be.”
Bridgewater said on Wednesday he’s still taking “virtual reps” in the NFL as well. He said video games are so advanced that the defenses in the game are similar to those in real life.
“I try to take as many reps as I can,” Bridgewater said. “Whether it’s on a video game, playing EA Madden Football or in the playbook, just drawing it or visualizing it in my head, I try to maximize every rep I can get and every opportunity that I can take.
“It helps because you get one more rep than you had in practice, actual practice. Any chance you get to take an extra rep or go the extra step, extra mile, it’s going to be very beneficial transferring it to the field.”
*Bridgewater also touched on his deep ball accuracy, which offensive coordinator Norv Turner said has been ‘outstanding’ so far. It was considered a weakness of Bridgewater by many draft pundits.
“It’s just been all footwork – laying it and playing,” Bridgewater said on the improvement. “I’ve been able to watch Matt [Cassel], watch Christian [Ponder] and watch how those guys have had great success throwing the deep ball and try to apply some of the things that they’re doing to my game also.
*Linebacker Anthony Barr felt he’s coming along well despite his month long absence due to NFL restrictions on rookies that haven’t finished their finals.
“I was real bored,” Barr said of the layoff. “The longest four weeks, really. It was a good time for me to kind of decompress a little bit and get my mind right for this.
“There's a little bit of a learning curve, missing OTAs but it kind of is what it is,” Barr said. “I’ve just got to catch up and continue to watch film and continue to get better.”
Barr has been mixed in as a linebacker in the base 4-3 and nickel. He’s also been used with his hand in the ground while at defensive end, which Barr said he’s never done before.
“That’s something that’s still real new to me, and something I worked on when I was gone,” Barr said. “So, I’m going to continue to improve on as I continue to practice it.”
*The Vikings released a statement from general manager Rick Spielman thanking former defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who signed with the Seahawks, for 11 seasons with the franchise.
“Kevin Williams earned a place in Vikings history and continued the proud tradition of great defensive linemen to wear purple. Kevin’s work ethic, humility and team-first approach is a model for younger players. A 6-time Pro Bowler and 5-time 1st-Team All-Pro, Kevin was honored as an NFL All-Decade player for the 2000s along with a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings squad. We wish him the best and will always count him as a member of the Vikings family.”
Former Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams said in a radio interview two days ago that he was still speaking with the Vikings about a potential return. Those conversations are now over.
Williams has agreed to one-year contract with the Seahawks, the team announced on Twitter.
After the Vikings allowed Williams to reach free agency, the 33-year-old first visited with the Giants and then the Seahawks in April. He recently visited the Patriots. And in an interview this week with SiriusXM NFL Radio, he said the Vikings "might be trying to ease back into the picture."
That supposed interest was a little surprising considering the Vikings say they are happy with the depth and talent they have on the defensive line after overhauling it during a busy offseason.
In that same radio interview, Williams said he would like to join a team with a good quarterback and a chance to win. One would think Russell Wilson and the defending Super Bowl champs fit the bill.
Williams, who last offseason talked about coming to grips with the fact that he was in the twilight of his fine career, had a career-low 29 tackles last season with 3.5 sacks and one interception.
Williams, a first-round pick in 2003, was selected to six Pro Bowls in his 11 years in Minnesota. He finished his Vikings career with 463 tackles, 60 sacks, five interceptions and seven forced fumbles.
Former Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams is still looking for a team for the 2014 season after the Vikings allowed him to reach free agency back in March. He has visited the Giants and Seahawks and most recently the 33-year-old has been courted by the Patriots.
But in an interview on SiriusXM today, Williams said he has heard from another team: the Vikings.
“We had several talks since [head coach Mike Zimmer has] been there," Williams said. "They just felt they were going to try to go younger, but still they talked to [my agent] lately and they might be trying to ease back into the picture. We’ll know more maybe as the week goes on.”
It had appeared that the Vikings had moved on from Williams after they showed little interest in re-signing him before he reached free agency, signed defensive linemen Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Corey Wootton, brought back Fred Evans, and took nose tackle Shamar Stephen late in the draft.
Zimmer said last week that he thought the team would have good depth along the defensive line once everyone was healthy and rookies Anthony Barr and Scott Crichton were eligible to practice with the team. So it’s a little surprising to hear that the Vikings and Williams are talking again.
Williams said in the radio interview that he is fine with being a rotational player at this point in his career and he is optimistic that he will sign a deal with a team before the start of training camp. He ideally would like to play for a team with a good quarterback that has a chance to win in 2014.
“I’ve been having a few talks with some teams, the ones that I met with. They’re kind of picking up a little bit so hopefully we can knock something out in the next week or two,” Williams said. “Hopefully sooner than later, to put it like that, and I’ll be signed before camp.”
Williams, who has said he would be comfortable with retirement if the right opportunity didn’t come along, feels he still has something to give to an NFL team. We’ll see if the Vikings agree.
A lot has changed in the sports world since the last time I compiled whom NFL mock drafters were projecting to the Vikings for the blog. The Wild are one Game 7 win away from their first playoff series win in more than a decade. Donald Sterling has been banned from the NBA. And Teddy Bridgewater is no longer worthy of a top-10 pick, at least in the eyes of some draft analysts.
Remember the last time I did this mock draft roundup? Five of the 10 draft analysts I randomly picked had the Vikings selecting the Louisville quarterback with the eighth overall pick.
Now? He is allegedly plummeting down draft boards, and the mock drafters are scrambling to account for it. Only one of the 10 analysts I picked is projecting Bridgewater to the Vikings now.
So who are all these guys mocking to the Vikings instead? Start scrolling to see a small sample.
Mel Kiper, ESPN: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. “Obviously, the current tandem of Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder isn't the long-term answer,” Kiper wrote. “On the other hand, the presence of both provides a reasonable basis for drafting a quarterback, because there's no need to simply force-feed a rookie the starting role out of the gate. I think Bortles will benefit from some time in the system before he's forced to handle first-team reps. I'll say again that Bortles is a very good athlete with excellent pocket instincts and can benefit from his ability to create some yards with his legs, as we've seen from a few other young quarterbacks recently.
Brian Baldinger, NFL.com: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA. “Mike Zimmer has always done it through defense everywhere he's been,” Baldinger wrote. “As much as they need a quarterback, Barr would be a great fit for Zimmer. He's only played linebacker for two years, but I think his upside is all in the NFL. Two years from now I think he'll be a Pro Bowl player.”
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama. “Why take a quarterback here and ignore a position where the Vikings need a day one starter?” he wrote. “They can come back in the second round for [LSU quarterback] Zach Mettenberger.”
Dan Kadar, SB Nation: Bortles. “Minnesota has one of the poorest quarterback situations in the NFL,” he wrote. “If Bortles is there with the eighth pick -- and he may not be -- he should be the choice for the Vikings. No other position will make as much of an impact on the franchise.”
Dane Brugler, CBS Sports: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh. “Best player on the board or quarterback? The Vikings desperately need an identity at quarterback, something Derek Carr or Teddy Bridgewater could bring to Minnesota,” Brugler wrote. “But more of a ‘sure thing’ might be the direction here and Aaron Donald would be Mike Zimmer's new Geno Atkins.”
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Bridgewater. “How low will Teddy go? That's the popular question that seems to be sparking wide-ranging debate as this year's longer-than-usual draft season unfolds,” Banks wrote. “While some mocks have him even falling out of the first round these days, I can't see how that worst-case scenario unfolds, and I'm pushing back against the anti-Bridgewater movement. The Vikings seem like a nice fit.”
Aaron Wilson, Baltimore Sun: Donald. “Donald has an array of pass-rushing moves, including a great swim move for a shorter defensive lineman. Donald isn't small, just short,” he wrote. “He overpowers blockers with an impressive charge and dominated at the Senior Bowl. The Vikings have moved on from Kevin Williams and could use a player like Donald to plug into his spot.”
Charles Davis, NFL.com: C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama. “So much discussion about a QB going here,” he wrote, “but with new head coach Mike Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator, in town, a defender gets the nod.
Thor Nystrom, Rotoworld: Bortles. “Anthony Barr and Aaron Donald will be discussed, and Peter King reported that the club won’t take a QB here, but I’m banking on Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner not being content with their futures in Matt Cassell’s shaky grip,” Nystrom wrote.
Todd McShay, ESPN: Bortles. “The Vikings need a long-term answer at quarterback, but the presence of Matt Cassel (who did not play terribly last season) would allow for Bortles to sit for at least part of his rookie season, which is an ideal situation for him,” McShay wrote. “He has prototypical size and good mobility, and I think that issues with his mechanics are fixable.”
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