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.
As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.
If there is one peer that Adrian Peterson considers his closest rival and the guy he really, really, REALLY wants to top, it would no doubt be Chris Johnson.
Peterson has never come out and said that. But anyone who has interviewed him since 2009 knows this to be the case.
When the 2009 season began, Peterson was, well, Peterson. In the eighth game of his 2007 rookie season, he ran for a league-record 296 yards. In his second season, he ran for a Vikings franchise-record 1,760 yards.
Johnson, who joined the league a year later than Peterson, was a 1,200-yard rusher as a 2008 rookie. Good, but no Peterson.
In 2009, however, things began to change, at least temporarily. For the first time in his three seasons, Peterson was being asked to name the best running back in the league.
It’s a setup question when tossed out to someone of Peterson’s abilities. Naturally, Peterson bristled at the notion that Johnson was better than him.
But Johnson kept piling up the yards before reaching the exclusive 2,000-yard club (2,006). Meanwhile, the same question kept being lobbed at Peterson and Johnson just to see what they’d say.
Johnson wasn’t shy about declaring himself the best running back in the league. Meanwhile, Peterson’s initial reaction usually was to answer the question with a question: “Who do you think is the best?” Then he’d smile and keep the conversation professional, but assert his competitive side.
In 2011, Johnson was a training camp holdout. It took the Titans coughing up $54 million over four years to get him back to work. Peterson congratulated him. Weeks later, Peterson topped him with a seven-year deal worth up to $100 million.
In 2012, Peterson joined Johnson in the 2,000-yard club, rushing for 2,097 in the season that immediately followed a knee reconstruction.
Now, two seasons later, Johnson has been released by the Titans as the age of the devalued running back position marches on. Tennessee chose a $4 million salary cap hit and no Johnson over a $10 million cap hit and Johnson. And while Johnson didn’t have the greatest season a year ago, he’s still a durable and productive back under the age of 30 (29 on Sept. 23).
Johnson has missed only one game in his career and is one of only six running backs to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six season. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame.
But a career-low 3.9-yard average per carry was lackluster enough for the Titans to dump him.
On a conference call last week, Peterson was asked about a trend that’s seen a pass-oriented league devalue running backs. Former Vikings running back Toby Gerhart’s $4.5 million in guaranteed money is the most by a 2014 free-agent running back and is less than kickers Robbie Gould ($8.85 million) and Dan Bailey ($7.5 million) and punter Pat McAfee ($5.3 million). Johnson is expected to land a relatively modest deal, and no running back is expected to be taken in the first round of the draft for a second straight year.
“You know, it’s just kind of how it is, unfortunately,” Peterson said. “There are a couple of guys who are different from that. I feel like I’m one of them.”
Peterson then made it clear that his one-time rival wasn’t one of them last season.
“Chris Johnson, maybe if he would have ran for 1,800 yards, he’d have a different story about how much he could be bringing in [this year],” Peterson said.
“It’s all about what have you done for me lately. Unfortunately for the guys who were in free agency this year didn’t have incredible numbers or incredible seasons to be able to get the type of [money] they wanted in free agency. I feel like that’s it. I feel like me and a couple of other guys are going to keep it alive as far as running backs being able to come out and keep the running back position at a top level. That comes with guys putting in the hard work and being able to produce and show that when they step on the field.”
The NFL released its preseason schedule on Wednesday, which -- unless you are the rare fan who gets geeked up for exhibition games -- is noteworthy because it means the regular season schedule will be unveiled soon, too. The NFL hasn’t yet said when, but it should be in the next two weeks.
We do know who the Vikings will be playing this season. And where. We just don’t know when.
The Vikings play the NFC South in 2014. They last drew that division in 2011 as they rotate through the different NFC divisions every three years. They host the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons at TCF Bank Stadium and will travel to play the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
They play the AFC East for the first time since 2010. The New England Patriots and New York Jets will come to the Twin Cities and the Vikings will travel to play the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
They also play the St. Louis Rams (on the road) and the Washington Redskins (at home) because those two teams, like the Vikings, finished last in their respective NFC divisions in 2013.
And, of course, the Vikings will play each of their NFC North rivals twice.
Only four opponents were playoff teams in 2013: the Packers (twice), Panthers, Saints and Patriots.
We will break down the opponents in greater detail once the schedule is announced, but here is the quick rundown of their home and road opponents this season (with 2013 records in parenthesis).
HOME: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Falcons (4-12), Panthers (12-4), Patriots (12-4), Jets (8-8) and Redskins (3-13).
AWAY: Bears (8-8), Lions (7-9), Packers (8-7-1), Saints (11-5), Buccaneers (4-12), Bills (6-10), Dolphins (8-8) and Rams (7-9).
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson made the following comments on a conference call with about 20-some media members roughly 18 hours ago. We haven't checked to see, but do realize it's quite possible that these words have spent the past 17 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds being analyzed from coast to coast, internationally and galactically on the Martian NFL Radio Network.
But, hey, it's AP and it was one of his typically honest responses about a hot-button issue that divides opinions and usually leaves people in Peterson's position reaching for a comfortable fence to straddle. So when Peterson is asked whether college athletes should be paid, well, it's interesting to see where he stands. And here's where he stands, according to where he stood 18 hours ago:
"I feel like they deserve to [be paid]. I've been asked this before [and people have said,] `Well, what do you think about full scholarships?' Guys will say scholarships are good enough. No. No. Because you work for those full scholarships. You qualify academically, and if you don't ... I see the best athletes go to junior colleges because academically they weren't able to qualify. So guys work extremely hard to get to college, to be able to get that full scholarship at a university.
"And then, once you get to the university, you see guys ... for example, Johnny Manziel and, actually, I could use myself, too. When I was in college, I know personally as far as jersey sales and ticket sales I helped that university make a lot of money. Johnny Manziel helped make Texas A&M so much money. You're talking about championship games he was able to lead them to. You're talking about jersey sales that he doesn't see a dime of. And in the meantime, you got a guy who possibly could be struggling to live outside of college.
"No one wants to live in the dorms for four years. Then the guys who are older, who have responsibilities ... I came in at a time when my first daughter was being born. So there were different responsibilities that I had outside of playing football and going to class. So I feel like as much as universities make, I feel like some of that money should be given down to the players as well because essentially we are the ones making these universities money. These bowl games, without the players, how much money do they make? None. Without the players, how much money do they make? They make no money without the players.
"And then you transition into basketball. I hear they're trying to make basketball players go two years to college. Wow. I wonder why? Just think about it. Imagine if LeBron James would have gone to college for two years. How much money would that college have made off LeBron James? They would have made so much money off of LeBron James. So I feel like that's the reason they're doing it. And I understand they're are a lot of guys who come out of high school and go to the draft and they don't end upu making it. But it's a freedom. This is the United States. It's based off of freedom. You should be able to do as you want and make your own decisions. So I really feel like athletes should get paid as well because the universities are definitely getting paid."
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said he's getting close to being able to participate in the team's offseason conditioning program and that he fully understands and wasn't bothered when new head coach Mike Zimmer went on an Austin, Texas radio station and said that Peterson needed to prove himself as a leader on Zimmer's team.
Speaking to reporters via a conference call set up to promote Peterson's investment in a medical recovery device called Hyperice, Peterson said he's bouncing back well from the groin surgery he had in January. It's the third straight offseason in which Peterson has had surgery. He had major knee surgery before the 2012 season and hernia surgery before last season.
"I can't sit here and say I'm back right now," Peterson said. "But I am not far off at all."
As with most athletes, Peterson was more revealing about the timing and seriousness of his groin injury today than he was last season. Peterson said he originally hurt the groin on Nov. 3 at Dallas. He played in the next seven games before taking a seat early in the second half of the 15th game of the season at Cincinnati. To be fair, the team didn't hide the groin injury and there were times during the second half of the season when the whole football-watching world knew Peterson wasn't anywhere near 100 percent.
Here are a few highlights of Peterson's conversations with reporters:
On his groin surgery in January:
"To be honest with you, I didn't know what to expect. I was hoping I wouldn't have to have surgery. [The injury] happened Nov. 3 [at Dallas], and originally it felt like it might be a strained groin. Gradually, it continued to get worse and then we went to Baltimore [on Dec. 8] and I had the foot injury. It all came back to the previous groin injury. The foot injury was a reflection of the groin because I wasn't able to cut and I wasn't as elusive as I needed to be. But being the competitor that I am, I didn't come out and say that. I'm going to go out and try to do the job no matter what.
"I felt like I didn't really have the lateral movement, but I was still going to be able to get outside the tackle box and cut upfield. ... It was a situation that put me possibly in a bad predicament. But now I'm feeling good. I'm training hard. My recovery is connected as well. So I'm using the Hyperice. Icing is the key. I've been sitting back, working out, recovering my body and getting ready for the season.
On Zimmer's comments about Peterson needing to prove he's a leader:
"Being around a new coach for the third time, yeah, I definitely understand where he's coming from when he says that. He doesn't know me that well. I met him. We talked. We chatted once or twice. I'm sure not only me, but everyone else has to prove that they are leaders of the team. That's something that I really take pride in as well. That's all a part of me taking care of my business when I'm away from the facility. It's normal. It's a normal routine for me. When I'm not in Minnesota, I'm taking care of my body. I'm working out extremely hard to be productive for my team. Coming off the groin surgery, I was slowed down a little bit, but I've been able to recover a lot faster. So, yeah, it is what it is. I respect what he has to say."
On participating in the team's offseason program, which began on Monday:
"I haven't been able to put a date on [when I'll be there], but, yeah, I do [plan to] as far as participating. Right now, the most important thing is being healthy. That's what I'm doing. I'm rehabbing. I'm working out still to get the body back to where it needs to be. Talking about the Hyperice, it's a big part of my recovery as far as being able to ice different parts of my body to speed up the recovery time, to get me back out on the training field to be able to be productive and work towards getting back to my normal self."
Peterson was introduced to Hyperice by NBA star and fellow Univeristy Oklahoma product Blake Griffin. According to the Hyperice company, the device provides the benefits of cryotherapy and compression, enabling the reduction of swelling and the healing of tissues. Considering that Peterson set the bar for all future ACL recoveries, he's quite the company spokesman.
"It's a game-changer for me," Peterson said of Hyperice.
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