Sid Hartman: Vikings offense could surprise

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2012 - 7:02 AM

GM Rick Spielman says that many newcomers have shown promise in the opening days of training camp.

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Christian Ponder threw a pass during first day of Vikings training camp Friday in Mankato. With a full training camp this year and better players around him, the Vikings expect an improved performance from their top pick in the 2011 draft.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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General Manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings have been pleasantly surprised with all their draft picks so far, especially on offense.

Now that training camp has started in Mankato and players will don pads, the real story will develop on whether the 10 picks can contribute enough to help the team avoid another 3-13 season.

"Harrison Smith is doing a great job, he's really picking up the system and we have great competition there at the safety position," Spielman said about the first-round pick.

"[Left tackle and top pick] Matt Kalil is everything we thought he would be. [Wide receiver] Jarius Wright has really had a good camp, he's been working out of the slot and working as a punt returner.

"The other guy that's really flashing, and we'll see when the season comes, is Blair Walsh, the kicker. We're very excited about what we've seen from him so far."

Speaking of other newcomers, Spielman said quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who briefly played in Sacramento of the United Football League under Dennis Green last year, is a "big, good-looking athlete with a strong arm. He has the chance to be a starting quarterback down the road." Bethel-Thompson finished last season on the Miami Dolphins practice squad.

In fact, Spielman said he believes the Vikings have four very strong QBs. "Christian [Ponder] is our guy and Sage [Rosenfels] had a great camp, and Joe Webb continues to progress and everybody knows his athletic ability," Spielman said. "We feel very strongly about the four quarterbacks. It will be great competition there."

Speaking of how the team will use Webb, who was drafted in 2010 with the intention of making him a receiver, Spielman said: "The coaches will figure that out as we get into the season. Webb really progressed as a quarterback this offseason, but he's just a freak athlete. ... When you have the depth that we have at quarterback, it gives you the option to maybe utilize Joe in some other things, but the coaches will determine that."

Spielman said that the addition of free-agent receiver Jerome Simpson has improved the Vikings' speed.

"Simpson has been, I shouldn't say a surprise because we knew he was a great athlete, but consistent," Spielman said. "... He's going to be a big downfield threat that we haven't had in a while."

With Simpson joining Percy Harvin, Stephen Burton and Wright at receiver, Spielman said, "We feel very strongly about our skill position. That's the one thing that we wanted to do in the offseason was get enough playmakers around our young quarterback, and I think we're on the right path."

The Vikings' other big free-agent pickup was tight end John Carlson, and Spielman said he has been impressed by that position.

"You look at the two tight ends [Carlson and Kyle Rudolph] and the third tight end, Rhett Ellison has really had a very impressive camp, so there could be a lot of two- and three-tight end sets," he said.

The GM said the offensive line will be better. Charlie Johnson is at his natural position at left guard, replaced at left tackle by Kalil, an instant upgrade. There is hope right tackle Phil Loadholt will improve in his fourth year, and there is no question John Sullivan is one of the best centers in the NFL. At right guard, the developing Brandon Fusco is expected to compete with Geoff Schwartz.

So if Ponder is better with his first proper training camp and if Adrian Peterson's knee heals quickly as the running back hopes, the Vikings might be a lot better offensively than they were in 2011.

Some positives with Twins

Despite the adversity faced by the Twins this year, Ron Gardenhire pointed out some positive developments for the team.

"Josh Willingham has been even better than advertised," the manager said. "We knew he could hit some home runs, and I think that's been fantastic. It's been fun watching him go to the plate and do the stuff that he's done."

"[Glen] Perkins and [Jared] Burton out there in the bullpen at the end, with [Matt] Capps going down, have been very good. Trevor [Plouffe] breaking out into this season and having close to 20 home runs already. There's been some real good surprises, and there's been some stuff we're still trying to figure out whether it's going to work out or not."

GM Terry Ryan believes one thing that hurt the club a lot when it comes to its starting pitching problem was that Carl Pavano, who pitched so well for the Twins the past three seasons, developed shoulder trouble. Pavano hasn't appeared in a game in two months.

"He's the type of guy we need here," Ryan said. "We need innings, we need starters to give us an opportunity, and that saves wear and tear on your bullpen. When he does come back, he'll be a welcome sight."

Jottings

• Media reports continue to speculate that the Dodgers are interested in making a trade with the Twins for Justin Morneau, with the team needing more production at first base. Dodgers first baseman James Loney is hitting .254 with two homers and 28 RBI after driving in only 65 runs in 158 games last year.

• Tartan cornerback Keelon Brookins, who was the first player to commit to the Gophers' 2013 class, went to the Illinois football camp and was named its MVP, but he came back saying his commitment to Minnesota was solid. However, Brookins kept making trips to Wisconsin. And the result is that he announced this week that he is switching to the Badgers rather than the Gophers.

Jon DuToit, the standout Chaska High School golfer who will join the Gophers next fall, finished with a 2-under-par 147 at the 2012 U.S. Amateur section qualifying tournament at Somerby Golf Club in Byron this week, putting him in a tie for sixth place. He finished one shot from being an alternate; finishing in fifth at 146 and earning that last alternate position was Gophers junior-to-be Colton Buege.

Gophers football coach Jerry Kill and Carleton athletic director Gerald Young were teammates and roommates at Southwestern College in Kansas and keep in touch to this day. In fact an article on Patch.com pointed out that it was Young who connected Kill with the Gophers strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein. Kill and Young, teammates on three conference championship teams, met for a long time this past week in Kill's office.

• More than $120,000 was raised for the benefit of paralyzed Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey player Jack Jablonski on Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, with a who's who of hockey on hand. Retired NHL star Jeremy Roenick made a big contribution and has been a great supporter of Jablonski.

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