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.
In their first football-related announcement in a while, the Vikings said today that they have waived defensive end Spencer Nealy and replaced him on their 90-man roster with tight end Mike Higgins.
Higgins, 26, played four total games for the Saints in 2011 and 2012, including one start. He has two career catches for one yard. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound tight end was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska-Omaha in 2011. The Saints cut him after last preseason.
Nealy, 24, spent time on the Vikings’ practice squad last year, but he was never elevated to their active roster during his first professional season. The defensive end was recently suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Higgins is expected to report to Mankato tomorrow along with the rest of the Vikings players.
Unable to build an ark big enough to contain a football field, the Vikings stayed indoors today for the last day of the team’s mandatory minicamp and the final practice of Mike Zimmer’s first offseason workout program. The indoor facility isn’t ideal for a roster of 90 players, but Zimmer and his coaching staff used the time to focus on individual technique and drill the group in situational drills.
At one point when the players were broken up by positions, Zimmer stood in the middle of a triangle of defensive position groups. He watched the linebackers and barked out something at middle linebacker Michael Mauti. Then he walked over to the defensive linemen and gave a quick pointer to defensive end Brian Robison. He turned his attention to the defensive backs, and passed along a coaching point to one of his assistants to relay to the players. It’s clear that Zimmer loves the teaching aspect of the game, and it has been fun watching him educate his players.
The final drill of the day was the two-minute offense -- in which they needed seven points, not a field goal -- and two of the three quarterbacks were able to lead their respective offenses to touchdowns.
Veteran Matt Cassel went first, but despite completing seven of his 10 attempts and converting on a 4th-and-4 play early in the drive, he was unable to get the starters into the end zone.
Teddy Bridgewater was with the second-stringers and he completed eight of his nine attempts (not including spikes to stop the clock). The lone incompletion was a drop by rookie running back Dominique Williams. With the defense backing off to avoid giving up the big play, Bridgewater gradually moved the offense across midfield with short passes, including a fourth-down completion to wide receiver Adam Thielen. With nine seconds on the clock and the ball near the 30-yard line, Bridgewater had one final shot at the end zone, and he arched a beautiful ball to rookie wide receiver Kain Colter, who made a nice catch in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
Christian Ponder was the last to go. He was sharp, too, completing seven of his eight attempts, including a short pass to wide receiver Kamar Jorden in the end zone with plenty of time to spare.
After practice, Zimmer called his players to midfield. They were joined by more than a dozen former Vikings players, including Mick Tingelhoff and Rich Gannon. After Zimmer finally broke the huddle ending the camp, the current Vikings players gave the old guys a round of applause.
Zimmer then began his press conference, and he told us that he thought he might actually miss all of his players over the next five weeks -- not that he actually shared that sentiment with them.
Zimmer talked about how he was awed with running back Adrian Peterson’s cutting ability and had some praise for Robison. But the highlight was that he said he has a date in mind by which he would like to name a starting quarterback. Sorry, guys, but he wasn’t sharing that with us today.
I’d say he was saving it for a rainy day, but, well, my shoes are still soaked from this morning.
Harrison Smith said pretty much what you would expect him to say when one of my fellow media members asked him if the players had bought into new coach Mike Zimmer. But I liked how the third-year free safety put it (though I understand if you’re leery of boat analogies).
“Yeah, I felt that even before we got on the field,” said Smith, who is healthy by the way. “The workouts, the conditioning, you could tell that guys had bought in. I think it’s been great so far. Everybody jumped in the boat and we’re all pressing ahead. We’ve just got a long way to go.”
It shouldn’t surprise you that Vikings players are saying that they have bought into Zimmer. It would only be a story if they were saying they hadn’t after his first four months on the job.
Zimmer’s thoughts on his players buying into his program, however, were more interesting.
“I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about if they are buying in,” Zimmer told reporters after Thursday’s OTA workout. “My job is to coach them hard and try to get them to be the best players they can be. You’d have to ask them if they are buying in, really. My job is to coach them.”
Translation: They better have bought in, and if they haven’t yet, the offer is only going to stand for a little while longer.
After getting a brief glimpse at Zimmer during previous offseason workouts, we finally got a good look -- and listen -- on Thursday at how he interacts with his players, especially his defenders. I had my eyes on Zimmer for much of the morning, watching him go from defensive back to defensive back, sometimes dispensing words of praise and other times getting on their cases.
I particularly enjoyed this exchange with veteran cornerback Derek Cox, who was a step behind his man in coverage on one play but wasn’t targeted as the quarterback threw elsewhere.
“Is that your guy?” Zimmer asked Cox as he walked back to the line of scrimmage.
“Yeah,” Cox replied, though Zimmer knew the answer already.
“So cover him!” Zimmer said before turning and walking away.
Zimmer had a few exchanges with players that were less family friendly. He got after free-agent signing Captain Munnerlyn after he lost track of Cordarrelle Patterson in one 1-on-1 drill. He had some unbloggable words for rookie safety Antone Exum after he was tentative on another play.
But Smith told me a few dirty words aren’t a big deal, and that he actually enjoys getting chewed out by Zimmer. Hey, the NFL office is nothing like your office, and it’s not like there is anything unique about a football coach occasionally using four-letter words to get a point across.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner showed a little fire, too, yelling at the first-team offense after some confusion in the huddle and later when Christian Ponder, who worked mostly with the second-stringers during Thursday’s workout, got a quick-hitter swatted down at the line.
We know that Zimmer has a reputation for being blunt and he certainly didn’t hold much back in the snippets of “Hard Knocks” that HBO chose to broadcast (know that there are more sides to Zimmer than that). But it was a little surprising to see the seemingly stoic Turner getting after people, too.
However, it was nothing over the top, and after some tense workout sessions at the start of the offseason program last month, the players seemed a little more relaxed on Thursday morning.
Don’t let the smiles fool you, though. These guys know that there is a lot at stake, even in May.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business,” Smith said. “If you haven’t bought in, they’ll just get rid of you.”
The hiring of Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, as Vikings coach has met the approval of some Vikings defensive players.
“It’s a good hire,” said defensive end Brian Robison. “I think he’s one of those guys that’s very passionate. Obviously he’s going to expect the best out of his players week-in, week-out, and I think it’s a great job. [General manager] Rick [Spielman] and them did their homework as far as interviewing a bunch of guys and came up with what best suits our organization.”
The intense Zimmer will be a change from Leslie Frazier, who was usually calm and collected.
“We’ve got the guys in the locker room to handle any type of coach they throw at us. I think we got a lot of mentally tough guys that, if you look at our season last year, things weren’t going the way they needed to be. Guys stayed in and fought hard, so I think we have guys that can pretty much handle anything in that locker room.”
There is a thought that Zimmer will switch to a 3-4 based defense. Here's what Robison had to say about that:
"We’re not sure what type of defense he’s going to run because of the different backgrounds he’s had over the years, but it’s going to be very interesting to see what kind of things we do under a new scheme, or even the same scheme. I’m not sure what’s going to happen but one thing we do know is that we’ve got a new head coach and we’ve got to rally behind him and get some Ws back here.
"I would love to do a hybrid type of defense. Maybe throw in some 3-4 plays, some 4-3 plays. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. Bottom line is if he decides we’re going to do a 3-4, I’m open to being a 3-4 outside linebacker. We stay with the 4-3, I’m totally fine with that too. I’m confident in my athletic ability to do anything at this point."
Robison talked to defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who played under Zimmer when Zimmer was a Cowboys assistant.
"Bottom line was that he said he’s a guy that’s obviously going to kind of be a hard guy on you," Robison said. "He’s going to yell at you and trying to get the best out of you but at the same time if you deserve praise, he’s going to praise you up. It’s just a different change of pace I guess from Coach Frazier."
Other Vikings reaction:
Safety Jamarca Sanford: “I’ve heard nothing but great things about him. I heard he’s a passionate coach, a player coach, a man of respect. That’s what you want out of a head coach.
“I like the way he communicates with the players on the sidelines, he’ll get in your face and he’s aggressive. I love that as a defensive player. That’s what every defensive player wants.
“You see the things he did in Cincinnati. They were playing great defense out there. That’s one aspect we’re looking to correct. That’s the last thing you want to be, almost dead last in the league in defense.”
Center John Sullivan tweeted: “Very excited to play for coach Zimmer and to see the staff that he puts together. #skolvikings”
Defensive end Everson Griffen, who will be a free agent, said: “Seems like the Bengals went far this year in the playoffs, and he called good plays on defense. Haven’t heard too much about him, but I can tell you that the way the Bengals play defense, the way they attack the ball and some of the things I’ve heard from guys around the league on his mentality, his style and aggression, it seems like a good fit for the Minnesota Vikings.”
Kicker Blair Walsh tweeted: "Congrats Coach Zimmer. Welcome to the Vikings!"
A number of Vikings players have taken to twitter to voice support for special teams coordinator Mike Priefer regarding the allegations from Chris Kluwe. Kicker Blair Walsh issued a statement to reporters.
Here is his statement:
I have been a member of the Minnesota Vikings for 2 years. I want to start off by saying I have the utmost respect for Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier and Mike Priefer. All three, are good men.
I have had countless conversations and interactions with Coach Priefer, and I personally can attest to his integrity and character. His professionalism in the workplace is exemplary, and I firmly believe that my teammates would whole-heartedly agree. The allegations made today are reprehensible and totally not compatible with what Mike Priefer stands for.
As we all know, in the NFL you must perform at the highest level and meet the performance expectations of your coaches, management, and ownership. If these expectations, based upon past performance AND future potential for excellence, are not met, your NFL career with that team, is over. I believe this was the case with Chris, and it is unfair to think that his release was anything other than football related.
In my time here at Minnesota, Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier have exemplified true leadership. Contrary to Chris’ statements, they have promoted a workplace environment that was conducive for success. At no time did I ever feel suppressed or that I could not be myself.
I firmly stand behind Rick Spielman, Leslie Frazier, and Mike Priefer.
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