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Training camp countdown: 8 under-the-radar players

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  • July 24, 2012 - 12:30 AM

The Vikings report to training camp Thursday and will hold their first full practice Friday afternoon at Minnesota State University in Mankato. That means the first preseason game is now 16 days away with the Sept. 9 regular season opener against Jacksonville kicking off just six-and-a-half weeks from now. As the Access Vikings team gets ready to head to camp, here’s a list of eight under-the-radar players who we’ll be watching closely, guys who could have a significant role in helping turn things around.

Jasper Brinkley
Position: Linebacker
Size: 6-1, 252
The scoop: Brinkley spent the entire 2011 season on injured reserve after undergoing surgery last August to repair a torn labrum in his hip. With E.J. Henderson gone, the door was kicked open for Brinkley to become the starting middle linebacker for 2012. But Brinkley was bothered by a groin problem during OTAs and mini-camp, leading general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier to publicly express their concerns about his durability. That leaves Brinkley with much to prove in Mankato. Especially with Marvin Mitchell, signed in April after spending last season in Miami and the previous four in New Orleans, looking for an opening.
 
Jarius Wright
Position: Wide receiver
Size: 5-10, 180
The scoop: Percy Harvin has two seasons left on his contract and will almost certainly press hard for a lucrative extension when this year ends. But how heavily will the Vikings be willing to invest in Harvin, a dynamic playmaker who should be part of the team’s long-term plans? Well, Harvin’s future may depend in some small part on what Wright is can show as a versatile slot receiver. No one is under the delusion that the rookie from Arkansas is quite as explosive as Harvin. But Wright has similar skills. He has eye-opening quickness and incredible balance and now must learn how to get in and out of breaks quickly and efficiently. If he can impress enough to become a regular contributor to Bill Musgrave’s offensive attack, the situation with Harvin may become even more complex.
 
Letroy Guion
Position: Defensive tackle
Size: 6-4, 303
The scoop: Last year’s experiment with Remi Ayodele at nose tackle was a disaster. No one expected Ayodele to be the second coming of Pat Williams. But the Vikings did expect more production than his 15 tackles and 1.5 sack for the entire season. They also hoped the massive nose tackle could be a space-filler who would help lessen the attention other teams paid to Kevin Williams. But that never happened. So now Ayodele is gone and the hope is Guion takes advantage of the opportunity to become a starter and a significant contributor. Guion has bounced around at both defensive tackle positions. But the plan going forward is to play him exclusively at the nose, where he will share time with Fred Evans. Inside the organization, Guion is praised for his athleticism and his strength and is believed to have incredible upside. Add in the energy and teaching skills of new defensive line coach Brendan Daly and a Guion breakthrough could be on the itinerary,
 
Blair Walsh
Position: Kicker
Size: 5-10, 192
The scoop: Walsh missed 14 of his 35 field goal attempts as a senior at Georgia last season. But the two years prior to that, he connected on 40 of 45 kicks. Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer thinks he knows the secrets to helping Walsh rediscover that accuracy. And it starts with the rookie kicker heeding Priefer’s advice to slow down his approach. Walsh’s leg strength should be a major plus on kickoffs, too. So rather than stress him out with a fierce competition for the kicking job in camp, the organization instead opted to release Ryan Longwell in May, giving Walsh more time to develop confidence and chemistry with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and holder Chris Kluwe. 
 
Chris Carr
Position: Cornerback
Size: 5-10, 181
The scoop: In an ideal world, the Vikings would like to reduce Antoine Winfield’s workload, aiming to use him extensively in the slot in a nickel-type role. To do so, they’ll need to find a second corner besides Chris Cook to hold things down outside. Enter Carr, who’s 29 and entering his eighth NFL season and has the ability to succeed inside and outside. With so much youth in the secondary, Carr’s veteran savvy could provide some added stability and comfort. And his presence may help as rookie Josh Robinson takes time to polish his skills.
 
Everson Griffen
Position: Defensive lineman/linebacker
Size: 6-3, 273
The scoop: Where exactly does Griffen fit? On the field. That’s the simplest answer the Vikings can give. And it’s why they’re tinkering with creative ways to increase Griffen’s snap count. As camp opens, Griffen is expected to see plenty of time at linebacker. The logic: There’s no sense stashing him on the sideline as a defensive end while Jared Allen and Brian Robison eat up the majority of playing time. So why not attempt a conversion to linebacker, a scenario the Vikings experimented with in various packages last season? Griffen has imposing size and yet he has the speed and space awareness to be an even greater force. Can he learn the nuances and discipline to be reliable and consistent at linebacker? Camp will offer the first opportunities to answer that question.
 
Brandon Fusco
Position: Guard
Size: 6-4, 306
The scoop: Fusco will compete with Geoff Schwartz to become the Vikings’ starter at right guard. But it’s a battle he should win. Spielman is incredibly high on Fusco, seeing great potential and lauding the big man’s footwork, intelligence and toughness. Fusco saw limited action last season, called into duty when injuries demanded it. And after Fusco played his college career at center at Division II Slippery Rock, Spielman came away impressed with how the young lineman adapted, embracing a new position and a new intensity level in the NFL. That has the Vikings convinced Fusco has the deportment to be a long-term contributor.
 
Robert Blanton
Position: Safety
Size: 6-1, 200
The scoop: Fast-forward to 2013. Maybe even late 2012. Is it possible the Vikings will be starting two safeties with Notre Dame roots? Harrison Smith is a near-lock to open this season as a starter. But how long will it take his college teammate to work his way up the ladder? Blanton has good athleticism and shows obvious smarts. He’s a reliable tackler and, in college, was effective in run support. The Vikings saw so much in Blanton that they used a fifth-round selection on him in April, fully intending to put him through the cornerback-to-safety conversion machine. Mistral Raymond, a sixth-round pick in 2011, is further along in that transition right now. But there are hopes Blanton can make a fast climb. In a best-case scenario, he could crack the starting lineup later this season.

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