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.
As I wrote in this story in today’s newspaper, Vikings outside linebacker Anthony Barr has been wearing a few different hats for the Vikings, who are already putting the rookie’s versatile skill set to use. But one of the things that excites them most is his upside as a pass rusher coming off the edge.
Barr had 23.5 sacks in two seasons as a 3-4 outside linebacker at UCLA. His size and his success in that scheme left some draft analysts scratching their heads, saying he wasn’t a fit for the Vikings. The Vikings quickly made it clear, though, that they had a special role in mind for their top pick.
That role includes rushing off the edge in sub packages or blitzing up the gut as a stand-up ‘backer.
Barr has already impressed veteran teammate Brian Robison with his pass-rushing prowess.
“He’s got good speed,” Robison said yesterday. “A lot of us are speed rushers on this team. The one thing that we do well is beat guys with speed then try to set up other moves off of that. I think he’s no different. He’s a great speed guy off the edge and has decent moves to go along with it.”
Barr showed off one nice counter move during yesterday’s practice. After lining up over the outside shoulder of left tackle Matt Kalil, he burst off the line toward the inside. Kalil shuffled to his right to deny a path to quarterback Matt Cassel, but Barr dusted him with a spin move to the outside. He chased after Cassel but couldn’t get there in time as the quarterback had quickly rolled to his right.
While Barr is usually with linebackers coach Adam Zimmer during position drills, he also spends time working with defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who is helping him with his pass-rushing moves.
“I’ve just got to continue to work at that and hopefully I can make an impact when I’m asked to rush the passer,” said Barr, who is trying to get used to rushing from a three-point or four-point stance.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings still have to develop him "a little bit more" as a rusher.
"In college, you can run around guys," Zimmer said. "You can't do that here in this league."
Still, they expect immediate contributions from Barr, who should start right away. They have been impressed with him from a mental standpoint, saying he has been a sponge, soaking up Xs and Os.
“He’s really one of those guys that want to learn,” Robison said. “With rookies, you sometimes have to pull them along, but he’s doing a great job of getting into our defense, getting into our book, learning our schemes and things like that. We look forward to him having a huge year for us.”
Every day On most days, our Vikings reporters walk you through what’s happening that day.
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
--- The Vikings are pleased with what they have seen from top pick Anthony Barr.
--- The Vikings had a sloppy practice yesterday.
--- Why the heck are the Vikings blaring that bullhorn at practice?
--- The mystery at middle linebacker continues for the Vikings.
--- K Blair Walsh thinks a 33-yard kick is a reasonable distance for the extra point.
TWEET OF THE (YESTER)DAY
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
--- A look at why Lions WR Calvin Johnson is such a nightmare to cover.
--- The Packers haven’t gotten much production from recent first-round picks.
--- The Bears are looking for DE Willie Young to refine his finishing touch.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
After their 10:30 a.m. morning walkthrough, the Vikings will hold their second night practice of Camp Zimmer at 7:30 p.m. It is not a scrimmage, but there should be live tackling in some drills.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
Head coach Mike Zimmer has said on several occasions that tackling ability will be a major determining factor in the battle at safety. And understandably so, because the Vikings had no safeties who ranked in the top 40 in the league in Pro Football Focus' tackling efficiency rating in 2013. Harrison Smith was the team’s most reliable tackler, missing one tackle for every 9.1 attempts and eight total tackles overall. Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo fared a little worse.
Coach Mike Zimmer was asked how he's doing as he came off the practice field this afternoon.
"Not as good as yesterday," he said.
Asked for an instant evaluation of the practice, which was held in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts, he said, "Sloppy."
"I didn't think we were as precise as we have been probably on both sides of the ball," Zimmer said. "Effort was good, but we've got a lot of things in, so some of the stuff runs together for them. We're making way too many mistakes for my liking. So we got to keep working it, getting this stuff right."
There's never been a training camp that didn't experience lulls like the Vikings had today. Zimmer said he went into the practice thinking this could be one of those sloppy afternoons.
"Honestly, the team is working hard," he said. "They busted their rear end yesterday. It was a very physical, fast-paced day on both sides of the ball. I kind of anticipated that it would be a little bit not as good today. That's why I brought them up early and told them, `Hey, we got to suck it up and we got to go.' That's kind of the way it goes."
SETTING THE SCENE: It was perfect weather and some imperfect performances on and off the field. Zimmer touched on how the team was just a little bit off. But he didn't know until after practice just how off one of his camera operators was while attempting to drive his lift machine from one field to another during practice. The big machine, which allows the camera operators to film practice from high above, became entangled and stuck on the chain-link fence that runs behind the fields. Fans in the nearby stands cheered when the machine was sfreed from the fence. But it wasn't able to be be moved into its normal position. As for the fence, it was destroyed. "I did not see that," Zimmer said as he turned to look. "Nice job. Whoa, look at that fence."
YOUR DAILY QUARTERBACK SMORGASBORG: Matt Cassel went 13 of 18 with an interception during the 11-on-11 competition. Teddy Bridgewater, who continues to get sprinkled into some first-team reps, went 14 of 20. And Christian Ponder, who remains a distant No. 3, completed 5 of 7 with the third unit. Zimmer went back to the word "sloppy" to describe today's QB play.
"We gave them a lot of different looks on defense today, too," he said. "That's part of the evaluation is it's not to line up there in the same look every time and they know where they're going before the ball is snapped. It's good for a young quarterback to see some of the things that we do on defense because that's what people are going to do to him early in the year anyway if he's the guy. So for me, if I'm the defensive coordinator, I'm going to give the guy a bunch of different looks."
SOME REST FOR GREENWAY: A day after 29-year-old Adrian Peterson got the day off from heavy lifting, 31-year-old linebacker Chad Greenway was rested today. "Just trying to take care of the older guys a bit," Zimmer said. Rookie seventh-round draft pick Brandon Watts got a significant amount of reps at Greenway's weak-side spot with the first unit. Watts is raw and a bit undersized at 6-2, 231, but the kid can run. He also got overpowered once when he was driven to the ground by tight end Rhett Ellison.
COX GETTING COMFORTABLE AT CORNER: Bridgewater's interception came on an out route when receiver Adam Thielen slipped and fell. Backup cornerback Derek Cox was right there to make the interception right behind the fallen Thielen. Cox came in as one of the top competitors for the third cornerback job. If he's making progress toward that goal, it hasn't shown in practice. "I think he's getting more comfortable with the techniques," Zimmer said. "He's a smart guy, so he understands a lot of things. The smarter guys generally play a little bit better early."
CAN YANKEE PULL AN UPSET?: David Yankee doesn't look like your typical rookie offensive lineman. He looks more developed physically, especially when you consider he's a fifth-round draft pick. It doesn't appear that he'll unseat left guard Charlie Johnson in camp, but he seems to be progressing toward being able to step in should Johnson struggle. Yankee looks well balanced with a low center of gravity. He's also clearly an advanced technician when it comes to pulling. "The first thing you have to do is clear the line and then when he gets there, the linebackers are moving, so you have to be able to adjust on your feet to get to that guy," Zimmer said. "It's coming around and then being able to find the moving linebacker and be able to kick him out or turn him back in. He did it about a million times in college, so that helped him. He's done it so much that he's good at it."
COLEMAN WITH A NICE PICK: Cassel was working briefly with the second-team offense when a ball intended for running back Jerick McKinnon was intercepted by safety Kurt Coleman, who made a diving catch. I'm a little surprised Coleman isn't more in the mix for the opening next to Harrison Smith. But that spot is far from being determined.
HORN REMINDS PLAYERS TO PLAY TO THE WHISTLE: The Vikings started using this obnoxious-sounding horn in practice today. Its purpose is to remind players not to quit on a play before the whistle. It's something Zimmer used when he first got to Cincinnati as defensive coordinator. Today, the horn was blown at five seconds after the snap.
"I'm trying to remind them that we have to keep playing," Zimmer said. "We have one of the best running backs in the league and if we will sustain our blocks or we will swarm on defense that we will [be more successful]. I'm just trying to remind them that we have to go hard until at least this long each and every play. Some of the pass plays take a little longer. I'm trying to get them to understand that you do your job. If you're standing over here and the ball is over there, we got to get our butt over there to help. Same thing with the offense. We can't block this guy and then stop. Let's keep blocking and stay on him. Basically, we want them to finish."
INJURY UPDATE: Safety Robert Blanton [hamstring], safety Andrew Sendejo (back) and tight end Chase Ford (foot surgery) sat out again today. Cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) sat out a day after he had returned. Meanwhile, rookie free agent tight end AC Leonard missed another practice after leaving the field earlier this week because of a headache. "He's getting some tests done," Zimmer said. Asked if it was for a concussion, Zimmer said, "Honestly, I don't know. He had a headache and [the team doctors] don't think it was a concussion. So I don't really know."
We’re a week into training camp, and the only clarity we have when it comes to the Vikings’ vacant middle linebacker position is that Chad Greenway probably isn’t going to be that guy. Head coach Mike Zimmer has moved him back to the outside exclusively so he can settle in on the weak side.
So who is in the running to be the Mike? It depends on the down, distance and situation, really.
Zimmer has been plugging and playing with different combinations of linebackers throughout camp and said yesterday that the team could possibly go with a committee at the middle linebacker spot.
“We are trying to get the best guys on the field in each situation so we’re looking at a lot of different guys,” Zimmer said, adding, “The more you can do the more value you have to this football team.”
In their base 4-3 defense, the Vikings have been using Jasper Brinkley, who is more of a downhill thumper than a cover guy, in the middle. We have also seen young linebackers Michael Mauti and Audie Cole, who had a pick-six of Teddy Bridgewater during yesterdays’ practice, at the Mike, too.
In the nickel package, with the Vikings using four down linemen, we have seen Greenway manning the middle. We have also seen rookie Brandon Watts get some snaps in that role. In the dime, we have seen different guys, too, including Gerald Hodges and, interestingly, top pick Anthony Barr.
Another question is who will wear the green dot? The middle linebacker is typically the defender who wears a headset in his helmet to communicate with the coaching staff. It is usually the Mike because, well, he is in the middle of all 11 defenders, making it easiest to relay the play calls and checks before the snap. Ideally, you give that responsibility to a veteran who is never going to come off the field. I’m guessing that was part of the appeal with experimenting with Greenway at the Mike.
So yeah, like I said, we don’t have much clarity when it comes to who will be between Barr and Greenway in the base defense and who Zimmer will plug into his sub packages. But the good news is that the Vikings still have a five more weeks and four preseason games to figure everything out.
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was one of five kickers to miss an extra point try last season. Not one kicker missed more than one attempt, while 30 kickers made all of their attempts.
The NFL competition committee took notice in the offseason and will make PATs a little more difficult during the first two weeks of the preseason.
Preliminary discussions began with making extra points a 43-yard attempt but the NFL settled on experimenting with 33-yard PATs. Walsh was adamant about establishing extra points at 38 yards during the offseason but said a 33-yard attempt is a good start.
“If you start going to that 40-49 yard range, you’re going to have games decided by whether guys can make extra point tries from that distance,” said Walsh, who went 43 of 44 on PATs last season. "I don’t think that’s what the commissioner wants or the competition committee.
“I think you’re still going to get a couple of timely misses if you had it all year. I just don’t know if that’s how people want the games to be decided. You already get enough grief from people that say games shouldn’t be decided by kicker. I obviously disagree with that. So it just makes your kicker more and more important and more valuable.”
Walsh said he’s practiced from 33 yards since OTAs after the NFL announced the change. He said he’s also practiced at TCF Bank Stadium, where the Vikings will play their first two preseason games, and hasn’t missed an attempt yet from the new spot.
“You can’t always get attempts in a preseason game because you don’t know how it’s going to go,” Walsh said. “Being in that stadium for the first time, those will be like short attempts for us.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said nothing will change from a protection standpoint during the first two weeks. While PATs will still be spotted at the 2-yard line and not the 15 during the regular season, Priefer understands that will probably change at some point in the future.
“I’ve kind of accepted that fact,” Preifer said. “It’s going to be tougher for the northern cities that have the wind and the weather. A 33-yard field goal, to me, is still not a chip shot."
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