Although you have only two eyeballs, here are three things to keep at least one of them on as the Vikings report to training camp in Mankato on Thursday:
1. The speed of Christian Ponder’s progression reads
The skinny: Ponder’s not the little boy quarterback any longer. He has 26 NFL starts. He has two full offseasons in the same offense with the same coordinator, Bill Musgrave. He knows the offense and should now possess all the knowledge it takes to move through his progression reads rapidly enough to make all those smart decisions that he’s always talking about but doesn’t make consistently enough. He's shown he can be good, but if he can’t do it consistently this season, perhaps it’s time to ask whether he ever can.
The challenge: Two of Ponder’s top four receivers – Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson – are new this season. A third of those four receivers – Jarius Wright – has played only seven games alongside Ponder. And the fourth of those four receivers – Jerome Simpson – was a major disappointment last year in his one and only season alongside Ponder. And, oh yeah, that safety-valve bubble screen to Percy Harvin now requires a 1,656-mile throw from here to Seattle. Ponder needs to lead Jennings, Patterson, Wright and Simpson, and his favorite target – tight end Kyle Rudolph – to a point where their timing becomes quick and efficient enough to provide some balance while Adrian Peterson is still in the prime of his career.
What to look for: Quarterbacks don’t get hit in practice, so it’s hard to judge them until game day. But one can get a sense for the timing between a quarterback and his targets. Pass plays can have two to five targets. It’s up to the quarterback to read the defense at the line of scrimmage, know where each of his receivers will be, in order, throughout the play and then react quickly enough to choose the right target. For each target, there’s a point in the drop where the ball has to come out. Otherwise, the rhythm is busted, the quarterback looks like a confused shopper who can’t find his car, and at least one receiver usually starts screaming at coaches and/or teammates on sidelines (miss ya, Percy). Look for whether Ponder is looking at more than one receiver and whether the ball is coming out in rhythm. If it’s the first receiver, is Ponder launching the instant he reaches the deepest part of his drop? If it’s the second receiver, is he launching after a quick half step up in the pocket? Does he reset his feet quickly and decisively if he’s throwing to the third option? And, oh yeah, is he delivering the ball accurately or T-Jackian? Although there’s no smashing the QB allowed in practice, we’ve all seen enough football to know when a long time in a Mankato pocket in August would be too long in a Metrodome pocket in September.
2. Patterson’s `wow’ factor
The skinny: When I look at Peterson and the Vikings, I think of Joe Pesci sitting on the porch of the cabin in the woods in “My Cousin Vinny.” He’s straining to get up to speed in multiple areas while his young girlfriend, Marisa Tomei, explains that she’s in her prime and that her “biological clock is ticking like this [stomping the floor].” Peterson, who hasn't complained and never would, is 28, so he’s not old. And, heck, this guy’s mold is so different, he may play until he’s 40 (just kidding … we think). But just in case that’s not the case, the Vikings would be wise to exhibit a sense of urgency at the other 21 positions to maximize a prime year of one of the best running back careers in NFL history. So when I hear that Patterson may need a year to “develop” as a receiver, I think of Peterson’s biological clock (assuming he is, indeed, human). I think of the Vikings ranking 31st in passing a year ago. And I also think about the guy who supposedly stands between Patterson and the starting lineup. No offense to Simpson, who has promise, but this is a guy who caught only 26 balls, none for touchdowns, and dropped way too many passes during an injury- and suspension-marred 2012 season. Raw or not, the Vikings traded four picks to move back into the first round and select Patterson, a gifted 6-2, 220-pounder with deep-ball speed and skills. The payoff should come this year, not when Peterson and his legs are 29.
The challenge: Either Patterson is really raw or the Vikings are overplaying that notion to take the pressure off the youngster. We’ll find out soon enough, as Patterson should see a lot of time in the preseason. Receivers coach George Stewart is a strong communicator and well-liked by the players. That will be a big help when it comes to helping a player who played only one year of major college football. Stewart has been helping Patterson with the nuances of the position, such as how to use his hands to get off jams at the line of scrimmage, the footwork needed to get in and out of cuts at this level, etc.
What to look for: Receiver is the most enjoyable and easiest position to watch and judge in training camp. Can Patterson catch or is he Troy Williamson? How does he get through traffic at the line of scrimmage? Does he separate from defenders? Does he use those 220 pounds to fight for the ball when it’s in the air? And is he creating more “oohs” and “ahhs” from the sun-baked – and sometimes half asleep – crowd than Simpson?
3. Can Robinson be ready a year early?
The skinny: Currently, Josh Robinson is listed as the starter at left cornerback, the spot occupied by Antoine Winfield the past nine seasons. Just don’t write that name down in anything but pencil. And have your eraser close by. Xavier Rhodes, the 25th overall draft pick this year, will be the starter soon. It will be similar to last season, when the Vikings made then-rookie safety Harrison Smith earn the No. 1 reps even though he clearly was deserving much earlier. Rhodes doesn’t have Winfield’s experience, but he does have five more inches on his height and 13 fewer candles on his cake. Those are two pluses when it comes to playing corner in the NFL. So let’s give Rhodes the benefit of the doubt heading into camp. He could be the perfect draft pick at the perfect time. As for Robinson, losing a battle with Rhodes doesn’t take the pressure off him. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams considers the third cornerback a “starter,” and for good reason. That third corner plays about 50 percent of a team’s defensive snaps. And that’s an important job on a team that plays Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford six out of 16 games each year.
The challenge: Robinson is one of the fastest players in the league, but he wasn’t supposed to step into a role of this magnitude until 2014, which will be his third NFL season. That idea fell apart when the Vikings released Winfield and banked on him re-signing at a cheaper salary. Winfield chose a similar deal with the Seahawks and, well, who could blame him for being a little peeved at being asked to take a pay cut after the year he had last year. Winfield was one of the best inside slot cover corners in the league. He had the quickness and savvy to play in extreme traffic, the best and most willing tackling skills of any corner in the league and an ability to rush the quarterback. By comparison, Robinson has never played the inside slot corner in a game. As in never, ever.
What to look for: Robinson has spent the offseason learning how to play the slot corner position. His speed will help him make the transition, but watch him to see if he’s moving fluidly and with confidence. If his head is going back and forth like he’s sitting courtside at Wimbledon, there might be issues. With the way the NFL is played today, especially in the NFC North, the success of Robinson, Rhodes and starting right corner Chris Cook – who amazingly still remains just a tantalizing prospect heading into Year 4 -- is vital. If Robinson can’t cut it, the Vikings would turn to Jacob Lacey. Lacey has experience in this defense from his days in Indianapolis, but he also was signed off the street and missed minicamp after undergoing thumb surgery. If Lacey couldn’t cut it, then, well, the Vikings’ pass defense is in big trouble no matter who Plan C is.
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