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.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are on their way to Louisiana to check out another of the draft’s quarterback prospects.
The Vikings will be in Baton Rouge on Wednesday to check out quarterback Zach Mettenberger at LSU’s pro day and, according to my colleague Master Tesfatsion, they will also meet with Mettenberger privately, something they have done with other quarterback prospects such as Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
Mettenberger tore the ACL in his left knee in LSU’s win over Arkansas on Nov. 29. He had knee surgery on Jan. 2 and missed the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine because of the injury. He has rehabilitated the injury enough to participate in LSU’s pro day, where he will be throwing in front of NFL talent evaluators for the first time since his injury. His offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, will lead the workout.
Mettenberger has the size and tools of a prototypical pocket quarterback. He was listed at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds last season and he has one of the strongest arms of this draft class. His skill set appears to be a fit for the vertical offense that Turner has run throughout his career.
Mettenberger blossomed as a senior, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged a whopping 10.4 yards per attempt for the 10-3 Tigers.
The 22-year-old is considered by most draft analysts to be a second-round or third-round prospect, but a strong performance on his surgically-repaired knee could boost his draft stock.
The Vikings have the eighth and 40th overall selections in May’s NFL draft.
With the 2014 NFL draft a month away to the day, now seems like a good time to check in to see whom the growing number of NFL draft analysts have the Vikings picking in their latest first-round mock drafts.
Sneak preview: Their need for a long-term solution at quarterback is a reoccurring theme.
While a few notable draft analysts project that the Vikings, who need a major turnaround on defense, will address the defensive side of the ball with the eighth overall pick, the consensus is that the Vikings will select a quarterback in the first round for the second time in four years.
One quarterback in particular is being linked to the Vikings a lot.
Dan Kadar, SB Nation: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. “Although media reports may disagree, choosing Bridgewater with this pick wouldn't be a reach,” Kadar wrote. “In fact, he's our top-rated quarterback. In a sense, this would be the anti-Christian Ponder choice. Instead of reaching for a quarterback, the Vikings could sit at eight and get the best one available.”
Dan Brugler, CBS Sports: Bridgewater. “The Vikings have been linked to Bridgewater in recent weeks and if he's still on the board with this pick, could they really pass on him? I don't see how and they shouldn't,” he wrote.
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. “At face value, Johnny Manziel and Mike Zimmer may seem like an odd couple -- but sometimes those situations work out the best,” Miller wrote. “His style of play may not be prototypical, but you can certainly appreciate his skill set and the ways in which he makes a defense uncomfortable. No one will understand that better than Zimmer given his background as a defensive coordinator.”
Todd McShay, ESPN: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. “If I were to rank the two or three likeliest teams to trade out of their first-round pick, the Vikings would be right in the mix,” McShay wrote. “But if they stay put, I think the Vikings take the best player available, either offensive tackle Jake Matthews or cornerback Justin Gilbert out of Oklahoma State. I'll go with Gilbert, the top corner prospect on our board who has excellent speed, size and playmaking ability.”
Bucky Brooks, NFL.com: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh. “The re-signing of Matt Cassel gives Rick Spielman plenty of options on draft day,” Brooks wrote. “He could replace Kevin Williams with a Geno Atkins-clone who is an ideal fit in Mike Zimmer's aggressive scheme.”
Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated: Bridgewater. “The Vikings still have Christian Ponder under contract, and they re-signed Matt Cassel. But Zimmer will still have a problem if he expects either of those guys to lift the Vikings out of the cellar in a very tough NFC North division," he wrote. "Bridgewater was maligned by many after a less than impressive pro day, but he has a lot of skills, he sees the field well, and though his ceiling may not be as high as Manziel’s or [UCF quarterback Blake] Bortles’, that may appeal to Zimmer, who wants a quarterback he doesn’t have to worry about.”
Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA. “With Jared Allen gone, the Vikings are in desperate need of a defensive playmaker,” Farmer wrote. “Barr fills the bill.”
Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State. “The Vikings won't take just any quarterback at this spot in the draft for Norv Turner's offense,” he wrote. “If Carr is available he makes the most sense. Minnesota may have to jump over Oakland to get him.”
Matt Smith, NFL.com: Bridgewater. “They have a Pro Bowl left tackle in Matt Kalil, a Hall of Fame running back in Adrian Peterson and two solid receivers,” he wrote. “The need is a quarterback who is able to navigate all of those tools as efficiently as possible.”
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Bridgewater. “His so-so pro day performance didn't help his cause one bit, and we're now down to debating whether he should be throwing with or without a glove,” Banks wrote. “That's the way the pre-draft fault-finding process works, especially for first-round quarterbacks. But the Vikings might represent a pretty soft landing for Bridgewater, who wouldn't have to be rushed onto the field with veteran Matt Cassel re-signed and ready to handle the starting job this season.”
It sure sounds like Kyle Rudolph is excited to get back to work today -- and for good reason.
Norv Turner, the new Vikings offensive coordinator and one of the NFL’s most respected play-callers, has a history of turning tight ends into stars and he also helped one future Hall-of-Famer shine even brighter.
Antonio Gates had already established himself as one of the NFL’s top tight ends before Turner arrived in San Diego, and Turner continued to feature Gates, especially in the red zone. Gates scored at least seven touchdowns in each of his six seasons with Turner and had a career-high 1,157 receiving yards in 2009. In addition to being a red-zone threat, Gates was a field-stretcher. He averaged 15.0 yards per catch in 2009 and 2010, the highest two-season average of a career that will get his bust bronzed in Canton.
Gates isn’t the only tight end to benefit from a working relationship with Turner.
With Turner coordinating the prolific Dallas Cowboys offense from 1991 to 1993, Jay Novacek caught 171 passes -- a lot for a tight end back then -- and made the first three of his five Pro Bowl appearances.
In stints with the Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins as either a head coach or offensive coordinator, Turner didn’t have tight ends who put up “Madden”-type numbers. But the position has been a highly-productive one in his offense since he became the San Diego Chargers’ head coach in 2007.
Watching Gates score all those touchdowns probably had a lot to do with that.
After Turner joined the Cleveland Browns’ staff in 2013, third-year Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, who like Gates was a former college basketball player, blossomed with Turner orchestrating the offense. Cameron’s receptions quadrupled from 2012 to 2013 as he caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. And he had 11 receptions of 20 or more yards, which ranked sixth among NFL tight ends.
Cameron did a sizable chunk of his damage when flexed out into the slot, just like Gates has done with the Chargers. According to Pro Football Focus, Cameron ran 375 of his 622 routes -- 60.3 percent -- out of the slot last season. Only Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons lined up as a slot receiver more often among qualifying tight ends.
Meanwhile, Rudolph, who passed up basketball scholarships to play tight end at Notre Dame, ran 40.2 percent of his routes out of the slot before suffering a season-ending broken foot after eight games and 37.1 percent the season before.
While Rudolph got a Pro Bowl nod in 2012 (and was named Pro Bowl MVP), he hasn’t really been featured as a vertical threat. He has averaged just 9.7 yards per catch through three NFL seasons.
But based on how Turner utilized Gates and Cameron, we can expect Rudolph to be less of a traditional in-line tight end and line up in the slot more frequently.
We’ll see if it results in an uptick statistically, but Turner’s history suggests we should probably expect that, too.
The Vikings schedule is expected to be announced this month. It’ll be the first of two seasons playing at TCF Bank Stadium with the Vikings’ new stadium is under construction.
With that, there are some scheduling restrictions in place between the University of Minnesota and the Vikings under the facility use agreement for as long as the Vikings play at TCF Bank Stadium.
*The Vikings can only use the stadium for one weeknight game each season when class is not in session. That game must be coordinated and approved by the school in its sole discretion, according to the agreement.
The school semester ends on Dec. 18. Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) would be the only possibility of a weeknight home game during the school year that would work. The Vikings hosted every Thursday night game (Tampa Bay and Washington) since the NFL forced every team to play at least one Thursday night game two years ago.
Without a university off day on Monday during the fall semester, it’s very difficult to see the Vikings host a Monday Night Football game given their only opportunity will be in Week 16 on Dec. 22. That doesn’t exactly sound appealing when Monday Night Football games can’t be flexed and the team went 5-10-1 last season. The Vikings haven't hosted a Monday night game since Dec. 20, 2010 against the Bears at TCF Bank Stadium after the Metrodome roof collapsed.
*The Vikings can host a Saturday home game when there isn’t a scheduled Gophers football game. The NFL brought back Saturday games this season after a one-year hiatus and will have a two-game Saturday doubleheader in Week 16 on Dec. 20.
The Gophers season ends on Nov. 29 with their last home game on Nov. 15, so there won’t be any conflict there.
*In the agreement, the University asks that the Vikings make their best efforts to work with the NFL to avoid scheduling games during Gophers football games and the Minnesota State Fair (Aug.21-Sept. 1). The University also would like to minimize conflicts with the university academic calendar. Some of the events listed include move-in (Aug. 15, 25-26, 30), Welcome Week (Aug. 27-Sept 1) and Finals (Dec. 12-18).
This portion of the agreement is pretty much in the NFL’s hands. Based on the language, both sides understand that scheduling around all these dates will be difficult and that there’s a good chance there's a Gophers and Vikings game at TCF Bank Stadium on the same weekend. Here’s the Gophers home schedule:
Aug. 28 vs. Eastern Illinois
Sept. 6 vs. Middle Tennessee State
Sept. 20 vs. San Jose State
Oct. 11 vs. Northwestern
Oct 18 vs. Purdue
Nov. 8 vs. Iowa
Nov. 15 vs. Ohio State
*The University would also like the Vikings and the NFL to reserve two Sundays in November and December for Gophers home basketball games. In the event a Vikings home game is scheduled on the same day of a Gophers hockey or basketball game, university hockey and basketball season ticket holders have priority to reserved parking and “available public parking will be severely limited.”
If you aren't a child and your memory is intact and you're an NFL fan who has somehow managed to maintain the ability to think for yourself, you've probably already flagged Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's "flags" comment concerning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
In fact, in the up-is-down, down-is-up world of pre-draft misdirection, some of you probably heard or read Zimmer's highly-publicized comments and came away thinking, "Hey, maybe the Vikings like this kid more now than they ever have."
As Master Tesfatsion posted Monday, here's what Zimmer told 104.9 The Horn in Austin when asked about Johnny Football:
“We asked him all kinds of questions. ...There are some flags that come up. All of the things that happened out in Los Angeles, the commercials and all that stuff (Manziel had a cameo in a recent McDonalds commercial with LeBron James); the position of quarterback in the NFL is such an important position and the reason these guys need to be a totally football-minded guy is the pressure of the position and being the face of an NFL team and doing everything right. That’s the thing you want to know about him -- will he be into work early every single day? Will be the last to leave? Will he be the guy that is working the hardest to get better?
“There is a change, otherwise all of these other quarterbacks that have come up through the years would have made it, from the college game to the NFL game as far as the speed of the defense and some of the complexities of the different defenses. So that position has got to be a position that really eats, breathes, and sleeps football where he is going to take it upon his shoulders to win. At least the Peyton Manning’s, Drew Brees’ of the world have done that and really all we have to go on in the NFL is past history.”
First of all, it's always nice to hear a coach say something that doesn't cause a veteran NFL media member's eyeballs to glaze over. Secondly, Zimmer didn't say anything that's out of whack with logical thinking by those of us in the non-football genius camp. Anybody who sells "Johnny Football" as his persona is likely heading in one of two directions: Superstar or future draft-day punch line. Try making that call with your job hanging in the balance.
What we can't deduce from Zimmer's comments, however, is how he or the Vikings actually feel about Manziel. Honesty isn't the best policy in the NFL. It's treason come spring time.
Two years ago, Rick Spielman took over as general manager. He had plenty of time to convincingly hide the team's slam-dunk affection for left tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall pick. He also had the benefit of glaring needs that matched two other top-five caliber prospects in receiver Justin Blackmon and cornerback Morris Claiborne. For competitive reasons, Spielman even managed a straight face when saying repeatedly that all three were ranked evenly on the Vikings' draft board. (Maybe his fingers were crossed).
Spielman also managed to get people to let their guards down on the value of left tackles. He'd ask people to name the nondescript left tackles that protected some of the game's greatest quarterbacks.
“There’s the adage that you go back and forth on – is the left tackle that important or is it more important to have playmakers on offense?" Spielman said before that 2012 draft.
Spielman wasn't doing anything wrong. In fact, he was doing everything right. Let's just try and remember that from year to year when we're tempted to put too much weight on what anyone affiliated with the NFL says about the draft before the draft.
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