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.
Remember all that exuberance Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman had late night back on April 25 and again the next afternoon? Spielman had hit the trifecta, landing three first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd at No. 23.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes two picks later.
And then, after a blockbuster trade with New England, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was added to the mix with the 29th overall pick.
Spielman was glowing when he introduced the three picks at Winter Park upon their arrival the next day.
Media saw the 1-2-3 package -- three potential difference makers at three positions of need -- and lauded the Vikings for their vision and aggressiveness.
The most optimistic of fans began wondering whether the most memorable draft in franchise history had just taken place.
And now? Well, the Vikings are in the final hours before training camp begins in Mankato and none of those three difference-makers has signed his rookie contract.
Time to panic, right?
Our one-word response: Re-lax. It’s no big deal.
Honestly. It’s not.
Don’t forget, a year ago the Vikings top draft pick, left tackle Matt Kalil (selected at No. 4 overall) didn’t finalize his deal until the day players reported to training camp. Kalil put ink to paper in an office at Winter Park, then got in a car with quarterback Christian Ponder and zipped down to Minnesota State University to join the action.
Didn’t miss a meeting. Didn’t miss a walk through. Didn’t miss a practice.
Might we expect the same for Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson? We might.
And yet even if none of the three picks were to sign on Thursday, here’s a few things to digest to keep it all in perspective.
In other words, the chances of any of the Vikings’ three first-round picks missing significant time is next to none. And no one is anticipating any sort of lengthy holdout for any of the three players.
Furthermore, don’t forget that Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson all participated in the team’s rookie mini-camp in May followed by three weeks of Organized Team Activities and another week of mandatory mini-camp. So it’s not like they haven’t already had a chance to make a first impression on teammates and the coaching staff. They've already been through plenty of early orientation.
So what’s the hold-up with these contract you might ask? It’s just the nature of the beast. Deadline pressure is fast becoming a factor in negotiations, influencing a staring contest in which teams don’t want the distraction of the headlines that'd come with top draft picks not locked up before camp begins. And rookies don’t want to be late to their first training camp.
But what must be reiterated is that under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was installed in 2011, there really isn’t a whole lot for first-round picks and teams to haggle over. With the new rookie salary structure, first-round picks fit into slots with the maximum value of their deals having very little wiggle room. All first-rounders get four-year deals with a fifth-year team option.
Most often at the center of these first-round pick negotiations: a) the amount of guaranteed money in the deal; and b) the inclusion or exclusion of offset language, which is essentially fine-print provisional details teams try to install to relieve themselves of financial responsibility in the event that they eventually cut a first-round pick, whom another team then signs.
Getting a little too technical here now, right?
So here’s another thing to keep in mind. As of Wednesday morning, 14 of 32 first-round picks were unsigned. So it’s not as if the Vikings are dragging their feet and behind the rest of the NFL. There’s a general waiting game that occurs as players and teams try to keep tabs on the contracts signed by rookies in similar pick range. And so it goes.
The agents for Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson are making their closing arguments. And at Winter Park, Vikings Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski is working to iron out every last detail in the contract verbiage.
The priority: getting all three players to Mankato for the first team meeting, which will occur Thursday evening. That’s a gathering that head coach Leslie Frazier stresses. A year ago, Frazier believed he could set the tone for an entire season with his introductory address at training camp and stressed the importance of having all 90 players present. Last year, Frazier used that meeting to deliver a sermon on focus and preparation. He asked players to avoid outside distractions. He told them to ignore the widespread prognostications that said that, after 2011, the 2012 Vikings were more of a laughingstock than a playoff contender. And Frazier insisted his players develop an identity from the very first training camp practice as a group that was united and prided itself on playing smart, tough, disciplined football.
That may sound like Disney-movie fluff to some. But many teams, especially young ones, take that first coaching address to heart. And even with outsiders laughing at the 2012 Vikings' playoff aspirations, the players followed their coaches lead and began thinking big immediately and working accordingly.
So yes, from top to bottom of the Vikings’ organization, there’s recognition that Frazier's emphasis on Thursday night’s meeting has merit. That will likely have a bit of influence on the late stages of negotiations with Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson. But it won't be a make-or-break factor in the business side of things. Even with all three players still unsigned, there is no reason whatsoever for worry.
Before long, the looming contract issues with three promising rookie talents will be finished. So rest easy.
The Vikings will hold their 10th and final Organized Team Activity on Thursday at Winter Park before reconvening next week for a three-day mini-camp. And as the offseason program enters the finishing stretch, third-year quarterback Christian Ponder continues zeroing in on making good reads more consistently.
On Wednesday afternoon, before teeing off at the team’s annual golf outing, an event that benefits the Vikings’ Children’s Fund, Ponder was asked how he’s measuring himself during this OTA stretch.“
The biggest thing is decision making,” he said. “Obviously you want to complete as many balls as possible, especially in things like 7-on-7. But we’re being put into some hard situations as well. Third-and-long. Blitz. A lot of blitz drills and everything. So it’s tough. I think the defense definitely has the upper hand in these drills. But it’s good for us to see that. And it makes the quarterback make smart decisions and get the ball out quick. So you want to see completions and the right decisions.”
Ponder knows the bar has been raised for him in his third year as a starter. And with back-up Matt Cassel now in the picture, his leash might not be quite as long in 2013 if his struggles are extreme. Still, the Vikings quarterback said the key in May and June is to feel things out within the offense without feeling exorbitant pressure.
“This is a time for us as an offense to just try a bunch of new stuff and see what sticks and see what we like,” Ponder said. “And there are a lot of new plays going in and everything. So it’s a fun time. It’s fun to try out quirky plays and see what the defense does. And the defense is doing the same thing, running funky coverages and everything. But our mindset is we want to get better every day and see a progression heading into training camp.”
On the injury front, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier reported that Chad Greenway’s Thursday morning arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee went well as expected. Greenway will be out of action until training camp begins in late July.
Fellow linebacker Nate Williams, signed in April as an undrafted free agent, has also undergone minor ankle surgery and, according to Frazier, will be sidelined until camp opens in Mankato as well.
The Vikings have their share of injuries to keep tabs on, especially with Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen continuing rehabilitation on his left shoulder in which he had a labrum tear repaired shortly after last season ended. Allen has been at Winter Park the past two weeks but not on the practice field. And he won’t be back in action during mini-camp next week either.
But Frazier said Wednesday he anticipated very few injury issues to still be a concern when the team reports to Mankato. The longest shot to be ready may be second-year receiver Greg Childs, who continues attacking his recovery from torn patellar tendons in both knees.
Frazier said after Tuesday’s practice that he isn’t certain how quickly Childs will receive medical clearance to return to full action but won’t rule out the receiver getting back to practice early in training camp.
"I have my fingers crossed, hoping that that will happen," Frazier said. "I'm waiting on [head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman and our medical staff to give us the green light. But that would be my hope. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what direction it will go."
Center of attention
On Wednesday, Frazier also noted that the team is closely monitoring the progress of standout center John Sullivan, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee.
In Sullivan’s absence during OTAs, the Vikings have tinkered with back-up plans at center. Veteran Joe Berger has seen work there. In addition, Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games at right guard and is the expected starter there for 2013, has also handled snaps.
“We don’t see any problems with Sully being ready to go,” Frazier said. “But you want to make sure that you have other guys prepared.”
Fusco was a center during his college career at Slippery Rock and could be an option at the position if Sullivan’s recovery was to hit an unforeseen snag or if he had any lingering knee issues that sidelined him during the season.
Sliding Fusco to center, of course, would then open up the competition at right guard where rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond as well as veteran Seth Olsen could figure into the mix.
Still, Frazier believes Sullivan’s recuperation will stay on track which would give the Vikings the luxury of opening training camp with the same starting offensive line that started all 16 games last year.
“We’ve still got to see a little more progress out of John Sullivan,” Frazier said. “He’s making progress. But we want to continue to see that. … You just want to see him continue to gain confidence and not be worried about the surgery but just move on. And he’s making progress. From everything that Eric Sugarman tells me, he’s on target. He’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got enough time for him to continue to improve. Hopefully when we get started, he’ll be able to go full go right away.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman just finished his session at the podium here at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The hottest topic: Percy Harvin’s future with the team. To which Spielman hasn’t changed his response, declaring once again Thursday that he has “no intent on trading Percy Harvin” – without, of course, a full declaration that he won’t do so.
But Spielman also said the only folks asking him about a potential Harvin trade are reporters. As of noon, the Vikings GM said he hadn’t received any Harvin inquiries from anyone else, with not a single NFL team approaching him on the matter.
“None,” Spielman said. “The cab driver coming in didn’t say anything to me about it. The pilot when I got on the plane [didn’t ask].”
So, yeah. Nothing new to see here right now. And now that we’ve got that initial obligatory Harvin update out of the way, let’s move on to another pressing topic that fans should wrap their brains around as the Vikings continue through the offseason. Those expecting a possible free agency spending spree? Not going to happen. In fact, it’s unlikely the Vikings will spend a lot of time and energy courting any of the possible “big splash” free agents that might be available come March 12.
To reiterate once again, the Spielman’s philosophy on building his roster can be summarized as follows: build through the draft and add a few minor pieces through free agency.
I asked the Vikings GM to elaborate on that mindset Thursday and here’s a big chunk of what he had to say:
“I’m not a real big believer in spending in free agency. We’re always going to try to build through the draft and continue to do that. Because I think that way you maintain a roster that can be competitive year in and year out. Not only on the field but also from a financial standpoint of staying within the cap and looking at the overall cash. I think you have a lot more success when you sign your own players as unrestricted free agents. Because you know them the best. And if you screw up signing one of of your own guys and he doesn’t pan out, then that’s a fault on you. I think it’s a little riskier when you go out and try to sign other team’s UFAs.”
Spielman said his detailed statistical analysis shows that players signed through free agency often struggle to adapt and may not have the level of success outsiders expect.
“I don’t want to call them rookies because they’re veterans,” Spielman said. “But they take time to adjust to their new teammates, take time to adjust to their new surroundings, take time to adjust to the new offense that they’re running. So it’s not always as smooth a transition as people would think it would be.”
A year ago, tight end John Carlson became the only major free agency investment the Vikings made. And, well, his struggles in 2012 may only further Spielman’s previous point. If you recall, many of the free agents the Vikings signed last spring – Jerome Felton, Marvin Mitchell, Jerome Simpson, Geoff Schwartz, even in-house guy Erin Henderson – were signed to one-year deals. Spielman referred to that as approach as “Rent-a-player.”
And with a hope annually to ideally have 10 draft picks at his disposal, Spielman likes to keep the door open for drafted players to emerge without feeling an obligation to elevate a major free agent signee.
“It’s an open competition that way,” the Vikings GM said. “So a veteran might be slightly ahead of [a draft pick] as you’re going through training camp and as you’re going through the preseason. But is that rookie going to pass him in Week 3, 4, or 5? Does he have the chance to be developed into a better player than where that current vet is? So it doesn’t lock you into the situation where you’re saying we have to keep this vet because we’ve paid him X amount. We can keep who we think is the best player for us.”
And you thought Blair Walsh and Randy Moss didn't have anything in common ...
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