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.
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?
The Vikings were active before and immediately after the start of free agency, spending big bucks to re-sign defensive end Everson Griffen and quarterback Matt Cassel then bolstering their defense by adding defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Now, a month after the NFL’s shopping spree began, all of the marquee free agents have been snatched up and the spending has died down around the league. But G.M. Rick Spielman and the Vikings have shown they still plan to tinker with the roster, evidenced by last week’s signing of wide receiver Lestar Jean and their contract offer to free-agent safety Kurt Coleman.
As of this morning, the Vikings have just under $11 million in salary cap space remaining, according to overthecap.com, so they will likely carry financial flexibility into the 2014 season.
That space could also allow them to offer an extension to an emerging young player -- tight end Kyle Rudolph is an obvious candidate -- before that player comes close to reaching free agency.
That is a post for another day, though, because today, I wanted to take a closer look at how the Vikings have spent their money. The website overthecap.com is a valuable resource, and it allows you to look at how much money each of the 32 teams is spending for each position.
For example, even though the Vikings are still in need of a backup running back to take some of the burden from Adrian Peterson, something my colleague Mark Craig explored over the weekend, no team has committed more of their salary cap space to the running back position.
As of this morning, the Vikings had $61.28 million of their cap space allocated to offensive players and $52.93 million to defenders. Their three specialists combine for a $2.41 million cap figure.
Let’s run though the numbers and see how much the Vikings are paying at each position group.
Quarterback ($8.98 million, 20th in the NFL): The Vikings are spending $8.98 million at the quarterback position after bringing back Cassel with a two-year, $10.5 million deal. Christian Ponder, a former first-round pick turned clipboard-holder, has a cap hit of $3.23 million. A dozen teams are spending less at the position, including the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, which shows how helpful it can be to have a quality starting quarterback on a rookie deal.
Running back ($19.16 million, most in the NFL): The Vikings have the NFL’s best back in Peterson, but he also carries a premier contract. Peterson has a cap number of $14.4 million this season, the highest cap figure on the team and the highest among NFL running backs. And with $2.13 million on the cap, Jerome Felton is carries one of the highest figures among fullbacks.
Wide receiver ($12.29 million, 21st in the NFL): Greg Jennings, in the second year of his contract, will count for $7 million against the cap. But the rest of the team's wide receivers combine to make just over $5 million. At $1.64 million, Cordarrelle Patterson should be bargain.
Tight end ($1.97 million, 30th in the NFL): Only two teams are spending less money on tight ends than the Vikings. In the final year of his rookie deal, Rudolph has a cap hit of $1.47 million.
Offensive line ($23.05 million, 17th in the NFL): The Vikings have one of the NFL's better pairs of starting offensive tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but they are only counting for a combined $11.14 million in salary cap space. Center John Sullivan has a cap hit of $4.75 million. The collective cap hits of those three will go up in 2015, but only about $3 million combined.
Defensive end ($16.59 million, ninth in the NFL): Despite letting long-time sack specialist Jared Allen walk in free agency, the Vikings still have a large amount of salary committed to this critical position. Griffen's $8.2 million cap figure is second on the team to only Peterson. Fellow starter Brian Robison, who also got a new deal from the Vikings, has a $5.7 million cap figure.
Defensive tackle ($11.27 million, 11th in the NFL): Joseph, the newcomer at nose tackle, has a cap figure of $5.75 million, fifth-highest on the Vikings roster. Sharrif Floyd, a 2013 first-round draft pick and the other projected starter at defensive tackle, carries a cap hit of $1.84 million.
Linebacker ($11.03 million, 24th in the NFL): The Vikings have a lot of youngsters at this position group, and those guys come relatively cheap. Veteran starter Chad Greenway, however, has a big cap number of $7.2 million, which ranks third on the Vikings behind Peterson and Griffen.
Cornerback ($9.81 million, 25th in the NFL): Munnerlyn was a significant signing for the Vikings, who needed a corner to play in the slot. But he carries a modest cap hit of just $3.33 million. Only one other Vikings cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, has a cap hit of more than $1 million. Derek Cox, a former starter in Jacksonville then San Diego, will make just $780,000.
Safeties ($6.40 million, 21st in the NFL): Starting strong safety Jamarca Sanford has a cap hit of $2.5 million, higher than starting free safety Harrison Smith, who has a $1.95 million cap figure.
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!"
Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas. Now back to football.
In case you somehow forgot, Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel had four turnovers in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. We’ll take a look at two this week that resulted in 14 easy points for the Bengals in the first half.
The situation: On the opening drive, the Vikings faced a 3rd and 6 at the Bengals’ 45. They attempted to convert on pass play.
The reason: The Vikings received good field position on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson’s return but gained just four yards on the first two run plays to running back Adrian Peterson. A three-and-out would be a devastating start given the drive began in their opponents’ territory.
The result: Cassel fumbled while he was sacked. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap recovered the loose ball and returned it 46 yards to the Vikings’ 4. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored two plays later.
"There are some things we could have done a little bit different to help us there," head coach Leslie Frazier said about the offensive line. "We could have done better and we did better as the game went on, but on that very first one we didn’t handle it as well as we should have.”
How it happened:
As Cassel drops back, the Bengals bring six defenders (marked with red "x"), but it shouldn't be a problem with seven blockers (marked with yellow "x"). Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict drops in coverage just as the ball is snapped.
Of course, just because the Vikings have more blockers doesn't mean Cassel will be assured good pocket protection. More on that in the next still, but clearly Cassel is under pressure. The Bengals are playing man coverage on the outside receivers and use Burifct to play underneath the slot receiver with a safety over the top.
So why exactly did Cassel feel heat with more blockers? First, running back Toby Gerhart (circled in yellow) did a good job picking up the linebacker blitzing from the A gap, but the right side of the line doesn't shift over. Center John Sullivan doesn't have anyone to block. Not only do the Bengals have one-on-one matchups across the line but there's a defender that goes untouched.
Cassel goes down and doesn't protect the football. It's bad enough that the Vikings wasted great field position on a short opening drive but this fumble was costly. He has to do a better job of holding on to the ball.
"We probably could have protected a little bit better," Frazier said. "There were some things we could have done a little bit better as an offense as a whole that maybe could have helped Matt some, but he still has to do a good job protecting the ball."
The situation: Down 14-7 with 10:10 left in the second quarter, the Vikings face a 3rd and two at their 20 and go with an empty backfield.
The reason: By this point in the game, Gerhart doesn't play again with his hamstring injury and Peterson wasn't effective dealing with his foot sprain. He had no gain on first down but Patterson's eight-yard rush gave the offense to a managable situation.
The result: Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey intercepted Cassel's pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
"Anytime you turn the ball over and you have drive start, in their case, from the four, that’s tough," Frazier said. "The pick-six, those are tough to overcome on the road. You don’t want to dig yourself a hole of any kind. You don’t want to give people things on the road.”
How it happened:
Just as the offense gets set, Burfict (circled in red) makes a late defensive adjustment on the coverage. The Vikings have three wideouts bunched on the right side with two on the left. The Bengals don't show blitz before or after Burfict's adjustment.
In fact, the Bengals just rush three and drop eight on the short yardage play because the Vikings have an empty back set. Cassel shifts his attention to the trips side on a three-step drop, so he'll likely get the ball out quickly.
Cassel stares down at Greg Jennings, Cassel's favorite target, on the play and hits his third step at this point. Rey (circled in red) notices Cassel's eyes and sits in that area with tight end Rhett Ellison cutting across.
Eyes don't lie in this case. Cassel throws to Jennings just as he breaks on the five-yard route and Rey reads it the entire way. He jumps the pass for the interception and scores easily.
The morning after a 48-30 win over the Eagles, we take a look at the Vikings’ snap distribution on offense and defense.
Offense: 75 snaps
QB Matt Cassel – 75 snaps (played 100% on offense)
QB Christian Ponder – DNP
Cassel finished with the fourth most passing yards (382) among quarterbacks on Sunday and the only one in the top seven to win. He went 26 of 35 with two touchdowns and an interception, finishing with a 116.6 passer rating. The Eagles defense was ranked 29th in total defense entering the game, but it was the only team in the NFL that didn’t allow over 21 points since Week 5.
That streak is now history.
RB Matt Asiata – 65 (87%)
FB Jerome Felton – 28 (37%)
RB Joe Banyard – 5 (7%)
The average wasn’t pretty (1.7), but Asiata scored his first three career touchdowns in his first career start. Asiata became the first player in a first career start to rush for three or more touchdowns since former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. He remarkably received 30 carries in the game for 51 yards.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
TE Rhett Ellison – 64 (85%)
WR Greg Jennings – 50 (67%)
WR Cordarrelle Patterson – 42 (56%)
WR Jerome Simpson – 36 (48%)
TE Chase Ford – 35 (47%)
WR Jarius Wright – 23 (31%)
WR Joe Webb – 17 (23%)
Jennings had a career-high 11 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown. He had 13 targets, more than double the receiver with the second most targets (Patterson had six). Cassel has made Jennings worth every dollar the Vikings paid him in the offseason.
C Joe Berger – 75 (100%)
G Charlie Johnson – 75 (100%)
C John Sullivan – 75 (100%)
T Matt Kalil – 75 (100%)
T Phil Loadholt – 75 (100%)
T J’Marcus Webb – 7 (9%)
G Joe Baca – 3 (4%)
Berger filled in at guard for Brandon Fusco, and the offensive line did a good job protecting Cassel for most of the game. A good example was Cassel’s 57 yard touchdown to Jennings. The offensive line bought him enough time to hit Jennings in stride. Cassel was still sacked three times though.
Inactives: QB Josh Freeman, RB Adrian Peterson (foot), RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), G Brandon Fusco (knee), TE John Carlson (concussion)
The Vikings scored 48 points without Peterson and Gerhart. That says enough about Cassel’s day.
Defense: 69 snaps
DE Jared Allen – 65 (94%)
DE Brian Robison – 58 (84%)
DE Everson Griffen – 42 (61%)
DT Kevin Williams – 37 (54%)
DT Sharrif Floyd – 32 (46%)
NT Letroy Guion – 22 (32%)
NT Fred Evans – 20 (29%)
DT Chase Baker – DNP
Allen and Robison finished with two sacks each and seem to mirror each other in that category down the stretch. They combined for six of the team’s 10 quarterback hits. Williams also had two quarterback hits.
The most impressive aspect of Sunday’s game was how the defense limited Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to eight carries for 38 yards. To put that in perfective, Asiata had 22 more carries than the league’s leading rusher.
LB Chad Greenway – 69 (100%)
LB Audie Cole – 67 (97%)
LB Erin Henderson – 11 (16%)
LB Marvin Mitchell – 1 (1%)
Henderson saw an increase in snaps, particularly short yardage downs, but the Vikings remained almost exclusively in the nickel. Cole led the unit with seven tackles and a quarterback hit. Greenway had five tackles.
CB Marcus Sherels – 69 (100%)
CB Shaun Prater – 69 (100%)
FS Harrison Smith – 61 (88%)
SS Robert Blanton – 59 (86%)
SS Jamarca Sanford – 47 (68%)
FS Andrew Sendejo – 30 (43%)
CB Robert Steeples – DNP
Smith didn’t start the game but that’d be hard to tell based on the amount of snaps he received. He was rotating with Sendejo, but Smith took over at safety in the second half. He finished tied with a team-high eight tackles with Blanton.
The cornerbacks had a good day without three players although Eagles quarterback Nick Foles finished with 428 yards. Prater got his first career NFL start and an interception against his former team. Sherels finished fourth on the team with six tackles.
Inactives: CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle), CB Chris Cook (knee)
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