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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