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.


Vikings OTAs: Six under-the-radar players to keep tabs on

Posted by: under Vikings, Leslie Frazier, Antoine Winfield, Chris Kluwe, Leslie Frazier Updated: May 28, 2013 - 8:15 AM
The Vikings will begin their Organized Team Activities on Tuesday at Winter Park. Wednesday’s session will be open to the media. And Thursday’s workout will wrap things up for this week. Then the team will also hold additional OTA sessions June 4-6 and June 10-13 before the mandatory three-day mini-camp kicks in June 20.
Here’s our promise: We’ll keep our Team Strib filter on as high as we can as we relay info and analysis from OTAs. We’re even thinking about starting our own Twitter hashtag: #itsonlyotas. Just as a reminder to keep it all in perspective.
After all, trying to deliver definitive judgments on individual players and the team as a whole during OTAs is akin to trying to forecast the success of a marriage based on the efficiency of the wedding rehearsal.
But if you’re a Vikings junkie and need your late-May football fix, we’re here for you. Today, we bring you a snapshot look at six under-the-radar players we’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming weeks.
JACOB LACEY
Following the March release of Antoine Winfield, defensive coordinator Alan Williams has been hard at work trying to identify his team’s new options at slot corner. And it may work in Lacey’s favor that he has such familiarity with Williams. Before making nine starts last season in Detroit, Lacey spent his first three NFL seasons working under Williams in Indianapolis. At present, the Vikings’ nickel corner job is open and internally there’s doesn't seem to be a high level of confidence that Josh Robinson is ready for the move inside, having had minimal training in the slot. A.J. Jefferson could be an option. Bobby Felder, a 2012 practice squadder could figure into the competition as well. And the Vikings may not be opposed to experimenting some with a nickel package that’d deploy three safeties. But right now, perhaps it’s Lacey who will get the early nod. And his understanding of Williams’ system has given him a head start on his transition to Minnesota.
“Coming off the jump, it’s not like I’m running a brand new system,” he said. “It’s so much more of a picking up where I left off kind of deal.”
The keys to excelling in the slot? Said Lacey: “You have to be quicker. You have to think a lot quicker. You have to use your eyes a lot more in there because you always have to read the run as well as play the pass. So it’s a different feel. But it’s a feel I have and a feel I like.”
JEFF LOCKE
Tracking the progress of a punter? In May? At OTAs? Ah, the glory of being an NFL beat writer. But hey, this is the obligation now.
The Vikings haven’t had a full-time punter not named Chris Kluwe since 2004 when Darren Bennett held the post. Well, now with Kluwe released and relocated in Oakland, this is Locke’s gig. As a senior at UCLA last fall, he averaged 43.3 yards per punt. (Kluwe’s career average with the Vikings, for what it’s worth, was 44.4 yards.) But once the Vikings determined they needed to get younger, cheaper and better at the position, they spent the pre-draft process doing their homework on Locke. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer began getting to know Locke first at the Senior Bowl in January and a few weeks later at the combine.
In mid-March, Priefer put Locke through a private workout at UCLA, which provided the closing argument to ink him in as the top punter on the team’s draft board. Locke said he had other private workouts with the Jets, Bills, Eagles, Browns and Ravens but had a hunch he had really clicked with the Vikings. Now he has to keep the team feeling that way.
“I’m just trying to do what I do,” Locke said at rookie mini-camp earlier this month. “I’m not trying to do anything extra.”
JEROME SIMPSON
Simpson has a new contract, new optimism and, yes, a new bed. All three of those things have the sixth-year receiver believing he’s ready for a 2013 breakthrough.
That contract, the one-year, $2.1 million deal Simpson signed in March? Simpson appreciated it as a sincere vote of confidence from the organization, using it as encouragement to push forward into a second season in Minnesota.
The optimism? Well, Simpson knows things can’t be any worse this season than they were last year when he missed the Vikings’ first three games due to suspension, then suffered an odd lower-back ailment that caused a frustrating nerve issue that slowed him for two months.
Rock bottom may have been a Week 12 loss in Chicago when Simpson had several key drops and finished with one catch for 1 yard. The injury, Simpson believes, played a major role in his lack of productivity through October and November.
“It was more my push-off. I didn’t really have my burst to be able to get away from my defenders when I needed to,” Simpson said.
And this new bed? That’s a Tempurpedic mattress with a pillow top.
“It’s helped stabilize my back and keep me in good posture,” Simpson said.
Simpson thought his strength and burst started to return in December and says he’s now back at 100 percent. Which is why he’s envisioning a much more productive season in 2013.
Yes, we’ll take all Simpson’s optimism with a grain of salt, still hesitant of a full buy-in after miscalculating what his 2012 contributions could be. But with rookie Cordarrelle Patterson likely needing significant time to get up to speed with the offense, Simpson will almost certainly start the year with a golden opportunity to be the Vikings’ main outside speed threat.
ROBERT BLANTON
Quietly, Blanton put together a terrific season on special teams as a rookie. And in the one game where he saw extended action on defense – in Week 5 after Harrison Smith was ejected from the win over Tennessee – Blanton held his own, convincing the coaching staff that the game is not too big or too fast for him at this level. So what kind of role can Blanton carve out for his second season? While Jamarca Sanford will open training camp as the second starting safety alongside Smith, Blanton and Mistral Raymond will be given every opportunity to make a run at that job. Having made a successful transition from cornerback to safety last year, Blanton should hit the ground running this week. His confidence and passion always needles at high. A significant emergence may not be far off.
AUDIE COLE
We didn’t recognize Cole at first when the Vikings opened the doors to their offseason strength and conditioning program one morning late last month. Gone are the long, blonde Thor-like locks that used to swim out of his helmet. Now, the second-year linebacker has an unfamiliar preppy look and an increased hunger to contribute. Cole has every intention of pursuing a starting spot in his second year. As OTAs begin, a very confident Erin Henderson will man the Vikings’ middle linebacker position, the best bet to own that job heading into training camp. Especially now that we know for certain that Brian Urlacher isn’t walking through that door.
But head coach Leslie Frazier will also give Cole an opportunity to show what he can do in the middle. And Cole feels like he has climbed the steepest part of the college-to-NFL learning curve. He’s also trimmed down after coming into the league, he says, about 10-15 pounds too heavy a year ago. The Vikings drafted Cole in 2012 because they admired his versatility, not to mention his smarts and passion. So certainly, he’d be thrilled if he wound up winning the starting spot at weakside linebacker. But right now, he has his sights set on competing at middle linebacker.
“In the big picture, it’s simple,” he said. “You have to make tackles that are there to make, limit mistakes and be solid in coverage. When you describe it, it’s that easy. Obviously, it’ll be tougher come game time. But that’s all you’ve got to do. That’s the role. Find the ball. Make tackles.”
NATE WILLIAMS
If you’re looking for an OTA darkhorse, we present this 6-foot-3, 241-pound undrafted rookie from Ohio State, whom the Vikings signed last month to add depth at linebacker. Williams didn’t hear his name called over seven rounds and 254 picks in part because he’s something of an outside linebacker/defensive end ‘tweener and was still working back to full strength in 2012 after missing almost all of the previous season due to a knee injury. But Williams is also the kind of unselfish, intelligent, hard-working player this Vikings’ coaching staff is magnetized to. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team fell in love with him over these next few months. Of course, that means Williams will have to initially catch the eye of Priefer, needing to show he can contribute significantly on special teams in order to get a foot in the door. With the right mindset, that’s something he’s capable of. And his ability to supply quality depth at outside linebacker would certainly be a plus.
Early prediction: Williams will at least find his way onto the practice squad this season. He also has a legitimate chance to make the 53-man roster.

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Kansas City 20 FINAL
Oakland 24
Cleveland 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta
Tennessee 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Detroit 11/23/14 12:00 PM
New England
Green Bay 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Jacksonville 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Cincinnati 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Tampa Bay 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Arizona 11/23/14 3:05 PM
Seattle
St. Louis 11/23/14 3:05 PM
San Diego
Miami 11/23/14 3:25 PM
Denver
Washington 11/23/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
Dallas 11/23/14 7:30 PM
NY Giants
NY Jets 11/24/14 6:00 PM
Buffalo
Baltimore 11/24/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
LA Clippers 110 FINAL
Miami 93
Chicago 88 FINAL
Sacramento 103
Minnesota 3 FINAL
Philadelphia 2
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL
Toronto 5
St. Louis 1 FINAL
Montreal 4
Nashville 2 FINAL
Ottawa 3
Detroit 4 FINAL
Winnipeg 3
Arizona 1 FINAL
Dallas 3
Washington 3 FINAL
Colorado 2
Chicago 4 FINAL
Calgary 3
Anaheim 4 FINAL(SO)
Vancouver 3
Carolina 2 FINAL
Los Angeles 3
Florida 3 FINAL(SO)
San Jose 2
Texas A&M 53 FINAL
Dayton 55
USC 46 FINAL
Akron 66
Coll of Charleston 57 FINAL
Connecticut 65
Drexel 46 FINAL
Miami-Florida 66
New Mexico 65 FINAL
Boston College 69
Penn State 97 FINAL
Charlotte 106
Detroit 62 FINAL
Michigan 71
Eckerd 59 FINAL
UCF 76
VU of Lynchburg 51 FINAL
East Carolina 92
Texas 71 FINAL
Iowa 57
Jacksonville 43 FINAL
NC State 79
Navy 51 FINAL
Providence 88
Grambling St 30 FINAL
Purdue 82
UMass Lowell 57 FINAL
Sacred Heart 54
Keystone 69 FINAL
St Francis-PA 102
Niagara 61 FINAL
Saint Peters 59
Palm Beach Atlantic 85 FINAL
Stetson 96
Texas Southern 58 FINAL
Tennessee 70
MD-Eastern Shore 66 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 106
SUNY-Westbury 49 FINAL
Wagner 83
Bluefield (VA) 57 FINAL
William & Mary 100
Bob Jones Univ 41 FINAL
USC Upstate 107
New Hampshire 63 FINAL
Bryant 72
Fordham 50 FINAL
Maryland 66
Howard 52 FINAL
Radford 61
Champions Bapt 29 FINAL
UT Martin 115
George Mason 65 FINAL
West Virginia 91
South Florida 73 FINAL
UAB 71
UC Davis 63 FINAL
Eastern Ill 61
Fla Atlantic 49 FINAL
Harvard 71
SMU 68 FINAL
Indiana 74
Franklin Pierce 57 FINAL
Minnesota 109
Brescia 56 FINAL
Murray State 89
North Florida 67 FINAL
Northwestern 69
Fisk 60 FINAL
Tennessee St 75
New Orleans 71 FINAL
TCU 86
Miss Valley St 61 FINAL
Tulane 100
Bucknell 65 FINAL
Villanova 72
Northwestern St 89 FINAL
LSU-Alexandria 79
Winthrop 58 FINAL
Savannah State 59
Southern U 38 FINAL
Ole Miss 69
Morgan State 53 FINAL
Northern Iowa 73
Cornell 45 FINAL
South Carolina 69
Southern Miss 67 FINAL
Alabama 81
Loyola Marymount 44 FINAL
Arizona State 68
Lipscomb 62 FINAL
Vanderbilt 72
Texas-Arlington 66 FINAL
Grand Canyon 64
Syracuse 59 FINAL
California 73
Idaho 67 FINAL
Northern Ill 78
Fresno State 52 FINAL
Northern Ariz 73
Pacific Union 56 FINAL
Pacific 81
Denver 62 FINAL
St Marys-CA 78
CS-Bakersfield 27 FINAL
San Diego St 51
Nicholls 74 FINAL
UCLA 107
Bowling Green 20 FINAL
Toledo 27
Kent State 0 Postponed
Buffalo 0
(12) Kansas State 26 FINAL
West Virginia 20
North Carolina 45 FINAL
(25) Duke 20
Arkansas State 27 FINAL
Texas State 45
Kent State 0 Cancelled
Buffalo 0
Texas-El Paso 7:00 PM
Rice
Air Force 8:30 PM
San Diego St
San Jose St 8:30 PM
Utah State
Char Southern 11/22/14 11:00 AM
(9) Georgia
South Alabama 11/22/14 11:00 AM
So Carolina
Rutgers 11/22/14 11:00 AM
(10) Michigan State
Minnesota 11/22/14 11:00 AM
(21) Nebraska
Northwestern 11/22/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
(18) Marshall 11/22/14 11:00 AM
UAB
Kansas 11/22/14 11:00 AM
(23) Oklahoma
Indiana 11/22/14 11:00 AM
(7) Ohio State
Penn State 11/22/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
(14) Eastern Ky 11/22/14 11:00 AM
Florida
TX-San Antonio 11/22/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
SMU 11/22/14 11:00 AM
UCF
Virginia Tech 11/22/14 11:30 AM
Wake Forest
Washington St 11/22/14 12:00 PM
(13) Arizona State
Louisiana Tech 11/22/14 12:00 PM
Old Dominion
Western Mich 11/22/14 12:00 PM
Central Mich
New Mexico 11/22/14 12:30 PM
(22) Colorado State
Eastern Mich 11/22/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Appalachian St 11/22/14 1:00 PM
Louisiana
Tulsa 11/22/14 2:00 PM
Houston
(15) Arizona 11/22/14 2:30 PM
(20) Utah
FIU 11/22/14 2:30 PM
North Texas
(8) Ole Miss 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Arkansas
Louisville 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Notre Dame
Maryland 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Texas Tech 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Iowa State
(14) Wisconsin 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Iowa
Syracuse 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Boston College 11/22/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Georgia State 11/22/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Tulane 11/22/14 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Stanford 11/22/14 3:00 PM
California
Western Carolina 11/22/14 3:00 PM
(2) Alabama
ULM 11/22/14 3:00 PM
New Mexico St
So Florida 11/22/14 3:00 PM
Memphis
Colorado 11/22/14 3:30 PM
(3) Oregon
Fla Atlantic 11/22/14 6:00 PM
Middle Tennessee
Samford 11/22/14 6:00 PM
(16) Auburn
Miami-Florida 11/22/14 6:00 PM
Virginia
Vanderbilt 11/22/14 6:30 PM
(4) Miss State
(19) Missouri 11/22/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
Oklahoma State 11/22/14 6:30 PM
(6) Baylor
(24) USC 11/22/14 7:00 PM
(11) UCLA
Cincinnati 11/22/14 7:00 PM
Connecticut
Boise State 11/22/14 9:15 PM
Wyoming
Oregon State 11/22/14 9:30 PM
Washington
Fresno State 11/22/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
UNLV 11/22/14 10:00 PM
Hawaii
Ohio U 11/25/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Ohio
LSU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas A&M
(5) TCU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas
Montreal 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Hamilton
Edmonton 11/23/14 3:30 PM
Calgary
TBA 11/30/14 5:00 PM
TBA
Webber International 41 FINAL
Florida A&M 52
San Jose St 80 FINAL
UC-Riverside 100
Norfolk State 65 FINAL
Radford 74
Washington Adventist 44 FINAL
Morgan State 66
Alabama State 62 FINAL
Savannah State 71
VA Commonwealth 72 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 50
Southern U 68 FINAL
Ole Miss 91
Monmouth 78 FINAL
Long Island 57
Bethune-Cookman 51 FINAL
Jacksonville 64
St Thomas (TX) 49 FINAL
Incarnate Word 64
Boston U 56 FINAL
Boston College 73
Clemson 41 FINAL
(2) South Carolina 99
(7) Duke 82 FINAL
Old Dominion 66
Belmont 35 FINAL
(12) Louisville 95
Fla Gulf Coast 69 FINAL
Auburn 72
Florida 66 FINAL
St Johns 72
James Madison 69 FINAL
American Univ 65
Philander Smith 62 FINAL
Ark-Pine Bluff 76
Tougaloo 59 FINAL
Grambling 98
Virginia 71 FINAL
Xavier 62
Murray State 68 FINAL
Wright State 75
Providence 54 FINAL
Hartford 57
Holy Cross 53 FINAL
Dartmouth 69
Valparaiso 65 FINAL
Northern Ill 50
Detroit 57 FINAL
Ohio U 60
St Bonaventure 58 FINAL
Toledo 64
Mary Washington 59 FINAL
Navy 79
Michigan 64 FINAL
Pittsburgh 85
Davidson 68 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 67
Longwood 50 FINAL
Richmond 80
USC Upstate 69 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 60
(17) West Virginia 61 FINAL
Miss State 74
Concordia-Austin 31 FINAL
TX-Pan American 72
Western Ill 90 FINAL
Chicago State 55
Albany 54 FINAL
Western Ky 63
Drake 60 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 74
Memphis 58 FINAL
Illinois 60
Arkansas 58 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 51
LSU-Alexandria 70 FINAL
McNeese State 79
Vanderbilt 67 FINAL
Wisconsin 58
Utah 56 FINAL
Creighton 64
Weber State 71 FINAL
Air Force 53
(10) Texas 87 FINAL
(6) Stanford 81
Utah Valley U 61 FINAL
Utah State 79
New Mexico St 85 FINAL
Sacramento St 93
South Dakota 82 FINAL
Washington 96
Santa Clara 47 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 33

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