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.
For the first time since 2011, Michael Mauti hasn’t spent most of his spring rehabbing an injury.
The Vikings’ second-year middle linebacker is more than a year removed from his third ACL reconstruction surgery, and for the first time in a long time, Mauti is feeling like himself again.
“Right now, I feel great physically,” the 2013 seventh-round pick said. “I had a full offseason just to work out and get my legs right and not have to rehab anything, which is great. I feel like my body is back to where it was. I haven’t felt this good in a couple years now, which is a great thing because I don’t have to worry about where I am physically and I can just go out and play.”
Mauti is in the mix at middle linebacker, though he has been taking a backseat to Jasper Brinkley and Chad Greenway in a competition that defensive coordinator George Edwards describes as an “open” one. Mauti, who was active for 14 games last year because of his play on special teams, was used sparingly on defense last year.
He is ready to change that this year. And no, it’s not just because his knees are troubling him less.
“Last year, being a rookie, there were just so many things [to learn]. It wasn’t just the knee necessarily,” the former Penn State standout said. “I felt good enough to play and I made some plays last year on [special] teams. But really, not being a rookie really is the best part about it. Mentally, you got that first year under your belt and you can start to get more comfortable. You’re not the new guy anymore. Now it’s just learning the defense and putting all my focus into that.”
While he is becoming versed in a completely different defense, Mauti is working on the subtle but key nuances of the MIKE linebacker spot, the decisions that happen before the ball is even snapped -- getting himself and teammates lined up in the right spots, making the reads and calls before the snap and ensuring that all 11 defenders are on the same page of Mike Zimmer’s playbook.
Of course, what happens during the plays themselves is important, too, and Mauti will have to have a strong training camp to distinguish himself from a crowded group of linebackers. Brinkley had been lining up at middle linebacker on the first-team defense during OTAs open to the media. And now that outside linebacker Anthony Barr is back, Greenway has been manning the middle more, both in the base defense and in sub packages. Mauti has worked with the backups.
"Michael’s doing a good job," Zimmer said. "He’s again competing for a spot as a starter or on the team, both. He’s a smart guy, he’s got a tremendous family background with playing football and he’s an extremely hard worker, very, very focused on what he’s trying to get done and so I’m excited to see him when he gets in here in pads, see him when the bullets are flying a little bit more."
But down in Mankato, Mauti hopes to inject himself in the middle linebacker conversation.
“I think we’re all competing. It’s just a matter of who they feel is going to be best in that spot,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of linebackers here that work hard. In training camp, coaches will make that decision. But that’s what we’re all here to do -- to play and give it our best shot.”
Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole lined up as the linebackers with the first team on Thursday, but it is still way too early to get an indication of who will line up where in Week 1.
For starters, top pick Anthony Barr was not present because UCLA is still in session -- it must be tough for a big man on campus to hang around that campus this time of year -- and he won’t be back on the practice fields at Winter Park until next month’s mandatory minicamp. While head coach Mike Zimmer hasn’t anointed Barr as one starter, that is certainly the early expectation.
Second, the one practice per week or two that media members are allowed to watch is just one snapshot of what the Vikings are up to, and it’s certainly possible that someone such as Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti has been getting a crack running with the first-team defense, too. After all, Zimmer said Thursday that there is no depth chart now as the coaching staff evaluates the roster.
Plus, meaningful reps in training camp and snaps in the preseason will play a larger role.
Still, one linebackery thing seems clear, and that is that Zimmer has a lot of respect for Greenway, who told reporters he is studying football now more than he ever has.
“That’s good, I like that, I do. It’s important to him,” Zimmer said. “That’s why he has been a good player for a long, long time, because it’s important to him. If we had 90 of those kind of guys we would really be good. I do think our guys are studying a lot and hopefully we are keeping them accountable about knowing what they’re supposed to do all of the time. Yeah, it makes me feel good.”
I don’t know if the Vikings would have their answer at quarterback with 90 Greenways on the roster, but you get the point: Zimmer values the leadership and professionalism Greenway brings.
It will be interesting to see what Zimmer decides to do with Greenway over the next three months. He spent most of Thursday’s practice at one of the outside linebacker spots, but he also got snaps at MIKE linebacker and could ultimately end up filling that void in the middle.
Regardless, Zimmer said that the versatility (or lack thereof) of his linebackers will be a factor as the coaching staff tries to sort out a crowded group and determine who makes the team.
“When you go to the game with six linebackers, you know, something happens they have to be ready to go,” Zimmer said when asked specifically about Greenway’s versatility. “Part of the deal with all of our guys is we are trying to give them a lot of different things to do. I’ve always felt like the more things that you can do the more valuable you are, especially on game day.”
Will history repeat itself for the Vikings during this week’s NFL draft? Well, the Vikings have a lot of history -- six decades and counting -- so sure, some things are bound to feel familiar.
But what about the recent history? Which positions have they been picking? Which schools have they scoured? When have they been selecting players? And how many had staying power?
Partially to entertain and inform you but mostly just to educate myself because I’m new here, I decided to look for some trends and factoids from recent Vikings draft classes. I dug through the eight drafts from 2006 to 2013 (GM Rick Spielman came on board after the 2006 draft). Also, if I would have gone the whole way back to 1961, I wouldn’t have finished this by Thursday night.
Here is a quick look at the who, what, whens and wheres of the Vikings’ last eight draft classes (I’ll leave the whys -- or the whys?!?!? -- up to you).
--- The Vikings drafted 61 players from 2006 to 2013. Of those picks, 31 were used for defensive players, 28 were used for offensive players, one was used for a kicker and one for a punter.
--- Which positions have they targeted the most? They have selected nine linebackers, nine wide receivers and nine offensive linemen. They drafted eight cornerbacks, too. Which have they targeted the least? They have drafted just two running backs and not a single fullback (although they took Rutgers linebacker Ryan D'Imperio in the seventh round in 2010 with the idea of converting him to fullback, which they did).
--- They have drafted players from 39 different schools. Spielman and the Vikings have a reputation for coveting Golden Domers, and it’s legitimate as they have drafted four players from Notre Dame since 2006. That is tied for the most with Florida State and USC. They have selected three players apiece from Georgia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and my alma mater, Penn State.
--- They have drafted just one player, linebacker Nate Triplett, from the U of Minnesota.
--- The Vikings have drafted 12 players from the SEC, the most of the major BCS conferences. That should come as no surprise given the SEC’s powerhouse reputation. They have drafted nine players apiece from the Big Ten and the Pac 10, eight from the ACC and five from the Big 12.
--- The Vikings have made 35 trades involving draft picks over the past eight years, and that includes player-for-pick trades during the regular season. They had seven trades involving draft picks in both 2008 and 2012. The 2008 year was the one when they acquired Jared Allen.
--- The Vikings have selected nine players in the first round, including five the past two years. They have drafted nine in the second (but none in the past two drafts), three in the third (and just one in the past four), eight in the fourth, 10 in the fifth, 10 in the sixth and 12 in the seventh.
--- Of their nine first-round picks, only two were in the top 10 and just three were in the top 16.
--- Their earliest pick was USC tackle Matt Kalil at fourth overall in 2012. Their latest was the 237th pick in 2010, used on D'Imperio.
--- The most picks they had in one draft was 10 each in 2011 and 2012. The fewest were five, which they had in both 2008 and 2009. They will enter Thursday’s draft with eight selections.
--- The most valuable five draft picks, based on Pro Football Reference's weighted career approximate value, in order were Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway, Percy Harvin, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Christian Ponder was the seventh most valuable, for what it is worth.
--- Of their 61 draft picks from 2006 to 2013, 27 are still on the roster (that includes Jasper Brinkley, who left and came back). But just eight Vikings drafted between 2006 and 2010 remain.
Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway, Cordarrelle Patterson, John Sullivan and a Vikings rookie to be announced -- maybe Patterson again? -- will pick up some shiny hardware next weekend.
The Vikings will hand out their 2013 awards at the “Minnesota Honors Football” awards event May 4 at the Hilton Minneapolis. The Vikings are the presenting sponsor for the second straight year.
The event is open to the public. Tickets can be purchased at www.nffmn.org.
Peterson, who rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns, was named their Offensive Player of the Year. Greenway, who led the team in tackles, was their Defensive Player of the Year. Patterson won the Special Teams Player of the Year award after averaging 32.4 yards per kickoff return and scoring two touchdowns. John Sullivan was the Community Man of the Year.
The team’s Rookie of the Year for 2013 has not been named. So who should it be?
As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.
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