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 17 days away with the Sept. 8 regular season opener in Detroit kicking off less than seven weeks from now. As the Access Vikings team heads to camp, here’s our list of seven under-the-radar players who we’ll be watching closely as the Vikings try to improve upon last season’s 10-6 run.
Position: Wide receiver
Size: 5-10, 180
The scoop: The Vikings have so many other high-profile storylines within their receiving corps. In rank order: 1) The arrival of Greg Jennings and his bid to again become one of the premier playmakers in the league. 2) The early development of rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, drafted 29th overall in April after the Vikings sent four picks to New England to make the explosive-yet-raw receiver theirs. 3) The conversion of Joe Webb from quarterback to receiver.
But don’t sleep on Wright, who had the team’s two longest receptions in 2012 – a 65-yarder in the regular season finale against Green Bay and a 54-yard grab as his first career catch seven weeks earlier. Inactive for the first nine games as a rookie until a severe ankle injury sidelined Percy Harvin for the season, Wright never sulked. He accepted his role and pushed to get better. With the Vikings now needing to better balance their run-first offense, look for the dynamic second-year receiver to assume a heightened role. And oh yeah, the Vikings would also love if Wright could become more reliable fielding punts, needing to improve his ball security to unseat Marcus Sherels at that position.
Size: 6-1, 200
The scoop: An all-Notre Dame safety duo? Don’t rule it out. Blanton could be nearing a significant breakthrough, far more settled and eyeing a starting spot on defense alongside fellow Fighting Irish alum Harrison Smith. Last summer in Mankato, Blanton barely had a chance to showcase his skills, bothered throughout camp by a hamstring issue. He missed the team’s first three preseason games, then only saw significant time on defense in one regular season contest – in Week 5 when Smith was ejected from a win over Tennessee and Mistral Raymond was in street clothes recovering from a dislocated ankle. The Vikings’ coaching staff loves Blanton’s confidence and believes his versatility – he played cornerback in college – could bring another dimension to the pass defense. Blanton said he has a far greater feel now for being so far off the ball at the snap and will enter an intriguing competition at safety with Jamarca Sanford and Raymond.
Size: 6-0, 246
The scoop: A year ago at this time Felton arrived in Mankato as an unknown. He was entering his fifth NFL season with his fourth team and figured to battle incumbent Ryan D’Imperio and fellow new arrival Lex Hilliard for the fullback spot. Not only did Felton win that role in the Vikings’ offense, he delivered a breakout season, helping catalyze Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard season. The rewards? Felton received a late-January trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl followed six weeks later by a new three-year, $7.5 million contract from the Vikings. And if you think such returns have the possibility to lessen Felton’s hunger, you don’t know the fullback’s wiring or his appreciation for how difficult it was to finally reach this place. Even with the recognition and the new contract, Felton believes he has an even sharper focus this year entering camp than he had last year. And he’s predicting that the career season he had in 2012 will be topped in 2013.
Position: Defensive end
Size: 6-4, 271
The scoop: The Vikings need to start making contingency plans at defensive end in the event that Jared Allen hits the free agent market next March and seeks a payday elsewhere that General Manager Rick Spielman won’t be able to match. Yes, fourth-year playmaker Everson Griffen figures to be a big part of any Allen succession plan that the Vikings would consider. But Griffen too is entering the final year of his deal. So is Brian Robison, the starter at right end. That leaves Spielman seeking to formulate a longer-term plan at the position, needing to make certain that there’s enough depth in place to avoid a total overhaul in 2014. Who knows what the coaching staff’s ultimate vision for Jackson might be? Given the team’s current depth and pecking order at defensive end, it’s going to be awfully hard for Jackson to crack the rotation or even make the team. He’ll face competition as well from D’Aundre Reed, who’s the only end on the roster signed past this season. But Jackson is a former first-round pick – taken 28th by Seattle in 2008 – and has shown brief flashes of promise. The Vikings’ decision to sign him to a low-risk, one-year deal was shrewd and will allow them to measure his potential, starting first with training camp.
Position: Right guard
Size: 6-4, 306
The scoop: The Vikings’ offensive line seems stable on the outside with Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt proving as nasty and reliable as any tackle tandem in the league. And center John Sullivan, hopefully nearing 100 percent after offseason microfracture surgery on his right knee, is coming off his best season yet, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2012. So that leaves the question marks at the guard spots where both Fusco and Charlie Johnson will have to improve their play to retain starting roles. Fusco was far from consistent in his first season starting last fall. His confidence dipped. His reliability fluctuated. And before he knew it, his reps were cut, forced into a time share with Geoff Schwartz. Over the offseason, Fusco went back and watched every game from last season wanting to digest the differences between his best work and his poor play. When he was struggling most, Fusco says, he was “out of whack, out of control, trying to do too much and trying to be too superb.” When he settled back down, his aggressiveness was balanced with patience. The Vikings hope Fusco has a better understanding of what’s needed out of him this year, wanting him to take secure hold of the starting spot at right guard from now until season’s end.
Size: 6-2, 233
The scoop: The Vikings took a calculated gamble last month when they signed Desmond Bishop to a low-risk, one-year $750,000 deal a week after the Packers released the 29-year old linebacker. The best-case scenario is that Bishop, after missing all of 2012 with a torn hamstring, returns to his 2011 form and quickly emerges as a starter, preferably at middle linebacker, otherwise on the weakside. But what if Bishop’s hamstring becomes aggravated? What if his lack of elite quickness keeps him from emerging as a reliable starter? Don’t sleep on Hodges, a fourth-round pick who impressed defensive coordinator Alan Williams during Organized Team Activities and mini-camp with his footwork and instincts. Williams said he can’t wait for players to get the pads on to truly measure Hodges’ ability. Hodges played quarterback in high school and dabbled at safety in his early days at Penn State, sharpening his vision and his feel in coverage. The Vikings believe he may be a diamond in the rough and will be measuring his progress closely in Mankato.
Size: 5-10, 192
The scoop: You have to wonder what special teams coordinator Mike Priefer asked Walsh to improve on over the offseason after the rookie kicker absolutely dominated in 2012. As a rookie, Walsh made 35 field goals in 38 attempts, including all 10 tries from 50 yards or longer. He hit two game-winners – a 38-yarder to upend Jacksonville in Week 1 and a walk-off 29-yarder to beat Green Bay and clinch a playoff berth 16 Sundays later. Walsh also drilled a 55-yard bomb at the end of regulation to send that Jacksonville game into overtime. Furthermore, he produced touchbacks on 62 percent of his kickoffs and was an easy pick as the NFL’s All-Pro kicker. To come anywhere close to repeating those feats, Walsh will have to use camp to continue to synchronize the field goal operation, working closely with longtime long snapper Cullen Loeffler and new holder Jeff Locke. During the offseason program, Priefer noticed some minor technical glitches in Locke’s tilt. It’s a minute detail to be certain. But it’s one the Vikings will not ignore as they try to prove that Walsh’s 2012 explosion wasn’t a fluke.