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Running backs, Gophers and more: Five things to watch at the NFL combine

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The NFL Scouting Combine officially begins Tuesday as the first group of draft prospects reports to Indianapolis.

Players will undergo medical and psychological testing along with the physical assessments seen on TV. On-field drills do not begin until Friday.

But much of what will get accomplished by the Vikings and other teams this week includes current players and shaping their start to free agency. Negotiations are expected to heat up between teams and agents since this year the legal tampering window begins a day after the combine ends. Then free agency officially opens March 9.

The Vikings sit with 14 unrestricted free agents and likely other contracts to address on the roster, including the $18 million team option for Adrian Peterson.

“I think there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency of potentially getting our own players, who we want to sign back, done during the combine,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said.

Setting the stage: Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman, Matt Kalil and Cordarrelle Patterson highlight the Vikings pending free agents for which contract figures will certainly be floated in Indianapolis this week. Deals can be finalized with their own players. While negotiations aren’t allowed with reps of other free agents (until March 7), some of those talks are bound to take place before then. The Vikings have until March 8 to decide on Peterson’s option.

‘Strongest’ RB class: Spielman enters the combine feeling good about his chances of finding a running back in the draft. He called this year’s class “the strongest I’ve ever seen,” which could serve them well due to Peterson’s uncertain future and Matt Asiata’s pending free agency. Some potential mid-round backs to keep an eye on include Alvin Kamara from Tennessee and D’Onta Foreman out of Texas.

What about O-line?: The combine is another chance for players to separate themselves from the rest, but according to the top draftniks the Vikings are entering a tough year to be in dire need of tackles. “Trying to get a starting tackle in this draft is going to be difficult,” NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock said this week. That’s especially true without a first-round pick. A team like the Vikings has more options to draft a starter at guard, according to Mayock, including Indiana’s Dan Feeney and Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp. Potential second-round tackles to watch include Troy’s Antonio Garcia and Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton.

Three Gophers: Former Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner will be one of 15 passers evaluated this week. He’ll be joined by two former teammates in safety Damarious Travis and cornerback Jalen Myrick. The University of Minnesota has had at least two players selected in each of the last three drafts, a first since 2000-2002.

A coin flip: The NFL draft order will officially be set when a coin flip on Friday breaks a tie between the Vikings and Colts. An identical record and strength of schedule means the Vikings will need a coin flip to decide whether the first pick will be slotted at 46th or 47th overall. The Eagles have the Vikings’ top pick at 14th or 15th overall.

Will the Vikings be looking for a new kick returner?

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In lieu of playing time for Laquon Treadwell, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman got an extended look at Cordarrelle Patterson last season before the former first-round pick could test free agency next month.

Giving those opportunities to Treadwell next season will be a “point of emphasis” moving forward, Spielman said last week, which could make it difficult for the Vikings to pay Patterson what he might command on the open market.

“A kid that has [Treadwell's] talent, with his work ethic and all the extra time he puts in to be good,” Spielman said, “he is going to be a good player with us. I do believe that in my heart.” 

So where does that leave the Vikings and their NFL-leading kick return game?

Their free agent options aren’t very robust should the Vikings be looking to replace Patterson next month. He’d undoubtedly be the best returner available on the free agent market.

Other avenues could help fill the void. Internally, punt returner Marcus Sherels used to command that role, but he hasn’t since 2012. Undrafted and drafted rookies, such as Bengals returner Alex Erickson and Chiefs standout Tyreek Hill last season, annually make differences in the return game as well.

Pending free agent receivers/kick returners 

Cordarrelle Patterson (Vikings), age 25

Patterson has been one of the NFL’s best kick returners, if not the best, since he entered the league in 2013. Despite the touchback rule aimed to further mute kick returns, Patterson averaged a league-best 31.7 yards last season and was named to his second All-Pro team as a returner. Underutilized or unreliable as a receiver? That’s the question other teams will likely be willing to gamble on given Patterson’s unquestionable talent.

Ted Ginn (Panthers), age 31

Ginn turns 32 in April and could be a more manageable contract for the Vikings as a proven kick and punt returner. He’s had unreliable hands in the past, fumbling 17 times on returns in his career. However, only three of those whiffs have come during his 300 kick returns in 10 NFL seasons.

Brandon Tate (Bills), age 29

Tate is another receiver who could fill the Vikings’ potential opening at kick returner. Tate hasn’t done much on offense throughout his career, but he’s been reliable fielding kicks averaging 22 to 26 yards per return in each of his eight NFL seasons. Tate also spent three seasons with the Bengals (2011-2013) while Mike Zimmer was defensive coordinator.

Deonte Thompson (Bears), age 28

No player had more kick returns than Thompson (35) last season. He averaged 23 yards per return, ranking 11th among players with at least 15 attempts. The former undrafted Florida receiver has been effective when given chances in the return game.

Marc Mariani (Titans), age 29

Mariani was once a Pro Bowl kick returner for the Titans, but that was six years ago during his rookie season. Injuries derailed his stay in Tennessee before returning last season to average a career-low 21.5 yards per kick return.

Other free agency previews: 

- Left tackle

- Guard

Final, 2/5 1 2 3 4 OT F
New England 0 3 6 19 6 34
Atlanta 0 21 7 0 0 28

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