Gage Hall is gone so it just won't feel quite the same, but that isn't stopping the Minnesota Vikings from making their annual trek down 169 to Mankato for the 48th consecutive year. This of course signals football season is beginning again… even though it never really ends. And that of course means fans and media types will be nit-picking every practice, every depth chart change and every post-practice quote for the next several weeks.
In this Twitter world in which we live even things as mundane as a training camp drill get hyper-analyzed, and leading the pack of breathless over-coverage for the next several weeks will be the Vikes' quarterback situation. It's understandable to a certain extent in this quarterback-driven league, especially since the Vikings have had less-than-stellar production from the position for the last three seasons. I'm not saying I'm going to ignore the practice field exploits of Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, but in all honesty what they do in Mankato will be pretty meaningless.
Ponder is the starter, Cassel the backup. That depth chart isn't going to change unless there's an injury. Even if Ponder goes completely off the rails during preseason games, I can't envision any scenario in which he doesn't remain the starter. Frankly, I suspect he'll be the starter all season. This is his year to prove it. If not, a change might be afoot next offseason. In my mind, however, Cassel was brought in to give the team a veteran quarterback that coach Frazier can turn to with some level of genuine confidence should Ponder's arm turn black and blue again. It should also help to have another set of experienced quarterback eyes on the sideline and in meetings during the week.
While Ponder and Cassel grab headlines, I'll be looking beyond the quarterback marquee at some Mankato storylines that should actually matter more.
1. Replacing Antoine Winfield
To me this is the No. 1 story for the Vikings this preseason. The departure of Percy Harvin garnered more attention, but replacing him with the combo platter of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson blunts the loss. As things stand today, the Vikings plan to replace Winfield – in my mind the best slot corner in the NFL last season – with second-year man Josh Robinson, who has never played the position before. If that doesn't give Vikings fans a smidge of heartburn, I'm not sure what will. Robinson could very well prove to be up to the job of (sort of) filling Winfield's shoes. There's no obvious Plan B.
2. Flash Patterson
Speaking of Patterson, I sure hope he lives up to his self-proclaimed "Flash" nickname this season because I'm not a fan of giving oneself a nickname. If Coradarrelle can (ahem) flash his enormous talent right away, he might not be stuck returning kicks and caddying for Jerome Simpson for long. There's no question he has unique, game-changing ability. If he spends his time learning under Jennings' wing and doing all the right things, he could be a huge asset to the Vikings offense. It all starts in Mankato.
3. Are the Vikings settled at cornerback?
This just in: quality cornerback play is fairly important in today's NFL. It might rank second in importance behind quarterback play because, you know, I hear teams like to pass a lot these days or something. Chris Cook and rookie Xavier Rhodes are penciled in as your Vikings starting corners as Mankato workouts get underway. Tons of upside there, but it's a far-from-proven situation, especially considering point No. 1 above.
4. Henderson or Bishop at the Mike?
I'm forecasting Erin Henderson winds up the starter at middle linebacker with Desmond Bishop starting on the weak side. However, both players are able to play both positions so this will truly be a training camp battle. It may ultimately be a moot point, as I suspect both will be on the field a lot. It could very well come down to who does a better job in pass coverage.
5. How is John Sullivan's knee?
It wasn't too many years ago that microfracture knee surgery was known to end careers. Okay, so maybe that was back in the 1990s when the procedure was relatively new. That's usually not the case anymore, but it's always a little worrisome when one of your best players has the surgery. John Sullivan is the most important member of what has developed into a very good offensive line -- and was also the biggest Pro Bowl snub last season. He underwent microfracture surgery back in February yet he is apparently ready to go for training camp. The Helga-horned faithful have their fingers crossed. It would be nice to scratch this one off the list as any kind of storyline.
6. Joe Webb's transition to wide receiver
A lot of folks are probably bored with the Joe Webb saga, but the Vikings need wide receivers like the Twins need starting pitching. If Webb can successfully make the transition from under center to out wide, it will be a nice bonus. Word on the street is that his ability to catch the ball is improving. We'll see if that continues in Mankato and, more importantly, during preseason games.
Other storylines to keep an eye on:
Will Brandon Fusco hold down the job at right guard?
Will Jeff Locke make Vikings fans forget Chris Kluwe (at least on the field)?
Are the Vikings going to get anything out of John Carlson?
What kind of drink specials will they be offering at Boomtown (asking for a friend)?
The return of wide receiver Greg Childs after tearing both patellar tendons last August – it would be a great story if he makes the team.