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.
Unable to build an ark big enough to contain a football field, the Vikings stayed indoors today for the last day of the team’s mandatory minicamp and the final practice of Mike Zimmer’s first offseason workout program. The indoor facility isn’t ideal for a roster of 90 players, but Zimmer and his coaching staff used the time to focus on individual technique and drill the group in situational drills.
At one point when the players were broken up by positions, Zimmer stood in the middle of a triangle of defensive position groups. He watched the linebackers and barked out something at middle linebacker Michael Mauti. Then he walked over to the defensive linemen and gave a quick pointer to defensive end Brian Robison. He turned his attention to the defensive backs, and passed along a coaching point to one of his assistants to relay to the players. It’s clear that Zimmer loves the teaching aspect of the game, and it has been fun watching him educate his players.
The final drill of the day was the two-minute offense -- in which they needed seven points, not a field goal -- and two of the three quarterbacks were able to lead their respective offenses to touchdowns.
Veteran Matt Cassel went first, but despite completing seven of his 10 attempts and converting on a 4th-and-4 play early in the drive, he was unable to get the starters into the end zone.
Teddy Bridgewater was with the second-stringers and he completed eight of his nine attempts (not including spikes to stop the clock). The lone incompletion was a drop by rookie running back Dominique Williams. With the defense backing off to avoid giving up the big play, Bridgewater gradually moved the offense across midfield with short passes, including a fourth-down completion to wide receiver Adam Thielen. With nine seconds on the clock and the ball near the 30-yard line, Bridgewater had one final shot at the end zone, and he arched a beautiful ball to rookie wide receiver Kain Colter, who made a nice catch in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
Christian Ponder was the last to go. He was sharp, too, completing seven of his eight attempts, including a short pass to wide receiver Kamar Jorden in the end zone with plenty of time to spare.
After practice, Zimmer called his players to midfield. They were joined by more than a dozen former Vikings players, including Mick Tingelhoff and Rich Gannon. After Zimmer finally broke the huddle ending the camp, the current Vikings players gave the old guys a round of applause.
Zimmer then began his press conference, and he told us that he thought he might actually miss all of his players over the next five weeks -- not that he actually shared that sentiment with them.
Zimmer talked about how he was awed with running back Adrian Peterson’s cutting ability and had some praise for Robison. But the highlight was that he said he has a date in mind by which he would like to name a starting quarterback. Sorry, guys, but he wasn’t sharing that with us today.
I’d say he was saving it for a rainy day, but, well, my shoes are still soaked from this morning.
Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said all the right things last week when he was asked if he would be content with holding a clipboard at the start of the NFL career.
Of course, he isn’t the only first-round quarterback who is carefully choosing his words when it comes to questions about his immediate future in the NFL. Coaches and executives in both Jacksonville and Cleveland, like those here in Minnesota, are preaching patience with their young passers, and Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel have said similar things as Bridgewater.
The reality is, though, that these guys are competitors who want to play.
Another reality is that all three of them probably will sooner than later.
As I wrote after Bridgewater was selected 32nd overall last month, all nine of the quarterbacks selected in the first round from 2011 to 2013 made at least five starts as rookies, including Christian Ponder, who is jockeying with Bridgewater and Matt Cassel on the Vikings’ depth chart today. Six of those first-round quarterback started for their respective teams in Week 1.
And according to ESPN Stats and Info, 69 percent of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2008 started in Week 1 and those quarterbacks, including the ones who didn’t play in Week 1, started an average of 12.3 games as rookies. Contrast that with the numbers from 1970 to 2007, when just 20 percent of the first-round QBs started right away and made an average of 5.4 starts.
One more interesting factoid from the folks over at ESPN Stats and Info: Forty-nine percent of the first-round quarterbacks since the 1970 merger started within their team's first five games.
Will Bridgewater follow suit and take over the huddle before Week 6?
The schedule appears to have some major challenges for the Vikings in the first five weeks of the season. They open the season on the road against an emerging Rams team then are tasked with defeating the respective squads of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in the following four weeks. If the Vikings -- specifically Cassel -- were to stumble and face-plant over that stretch, the team could potentially turn to Bridgewater, if they hadn’t done so already.
Of course, it’s still too early to predict how things will play out. But it’s hard to ignore recent NFL history -- and these numbers -- when it comes to first-round quarterbacks like Bridgewater.
One area where the Vikings need to get much better, on both sides of the ball, is on third down.
Of course, it is easy to look at where the Vikings ranked defensively and point to that as the bigger issue, but the offense’s inability to convert on third down was also very costly a season ago.
You can probably spread the blame throughout the offense from the pass protectors to the guys running the routes. But in the end, there is a reason why the quarterbacks make the big bucks. And on third down last season, the Vikings quarterbacks ranked among the NFL’s least efficient.
According to Pro Football Focus, only former Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, now with the Seahawks, fared worse than Matt Cassel on third down. Christian Ponder was not much better.
On the 80 dropbacks that PFF charted, Cassel completed just 37 of his 70 attempts for 536 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. His accuracy percentage -- completion percentage taking drops into consideration -- on third down was near the bottom of the league at just 62.9 percent, lower than quarterbacks such as Josh Freeman, Thaddeus Lewis and Brandon Weeden.
Interestingly, it was the shorter conversions that gave Cassel the most trouble. He ranked near the bottom of the league on both 3rd-and-medium and 3rd-and-short. When it came to the latter, Cassel completed just one of his 10 attempts with a NFL passer rating of zero point zero.
As for Ponder, he completed 41 of his 66 third-down attempts for 443 yards and his accuracy percentage was a little higher than Cassel's at 66.7 percent. He threw three interceptions on the down, though, with no touchdowns. Ponder also took 12 sacks, a lot on only 92 dropbacks.
The Vikings converted 36.4 percent their third downs, last in the NFC North and 19th in the NFL.
When Teddy Bridgewater first arrived in Louisville in the middle of winter, he started wearing his now infamous glove because of the cold. That begs the question: If Bridgewater thought Kentucky was cold in the middle of winter, how the heck is he going to handle the weather up here?
Some outsiders believe that frigid weather could impact Bridgewater, considering he was said to flutter some passes at his pro day, and that was indoors. When the weather gets cold, footballs can feel like a frozen turkey to quarterbacks without huge hands. And if those quarterbacks don’t throw tight spirals in December -- and hopefully January -- winter wind gusts can unravel those passes.
The Vikings will play their next two seasons outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, but general manager Rick Spielman said that had no real impact on how the team scouted players.
“The stadium doesn't enter in at all,” Spielman said two days before the draft. “We still have to play outdoors. We still have to play in Chicago, in Green Bay. It doesn't have any bearing at all. We are going to get football players, guys that we can get that can help us win.”
Bridgewater never played a game when the temperature was below freezing in college, according to some quality research from ESPN Stats and Info. The coldest one Bridgewater started was a 34-degree game against Connecticut in 2012. He threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns in the game, which was the one where he broke his left wrist only to play in a key game five days later.
Bridgewater made 11 starts when the temperature was below 50 degrees. He completed 63 percent of his passes in those games with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In his 24 starts when it was 50 degrees or warmer, he completed 71 percent of his passes with 48 touchdowns and 13 picks.
On the surface, that looks like a significant difference due to the weather, but keep in mind that when the weather was warmer Louisville was feasting on small-school cupcakes and the games got bigger and the opponents were more formidable when fall started to turn to winter.
For what it is worth, Bridgewater, who said he will never take the glove off again (I assume he just means professionally and not personally, too), doesn’t sound worried about the weather.
“I think it won't be a big adjustment at all,” he said. “I think we'll be able to use that to our advantage here in Minnesota. It's a mental thing and I'll just block it out and continue to play.”
Because of the Christian Ponder situation, we talked a lot about fifth-year options in this space over the past month or so. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the possibility of the Vikings and other NFL teams trading back into the first round to pick up that extra year of contractual control.
It turns out I was on to something. For once.
Last night, after the Vikings traded their second-round pick and their fourth-round pick to the Seahawks for the 32nd overall pick, which they used to select Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, general manager Rick Spielman acknowledged that beyond wanting to secure one of the top quarterbacks on their board for 2014, they also wanted to secure him for 2018, as well.
“The other thing that we felt was very, very important was debating whether you sit and wait or do you go ahead and get a guy up there on your board who you really liked at that position and felt just going to make that move up to 32nd was very important,” Spielman said while explaining the thought process of trading up. “The other thing that comes into play is that fifth-year option, which is a key part of it as well and that was also a part of the discussion of moving up.”
Spielman declined to say whether making beat writers rip up their game stories was also a consideration in his annual late-night dealings. But hey, at least he keeps us all on our toes.
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