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.
Throughout the offseason workouts and minicamp practices we were allowed to attend, new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer often drifted toward his defensive backs to quickly chew them out or coach them up. Zimmer got his start in the NFL as a defensive backs coach with the Cowboys, so this is nothing new. But his notable focus on the secondary is also necessitated by the fact that the Vikings ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense last season. He will have a few key decisions to make on the back end down in Mankato, with two of his five starters still unsettled.
In the final installment of our “Going Camping” series, let’s take a look at the Vikings secondary.
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Vikings gave Zimmer some quality young defensive backs to work with. Free safety Harrison Smith had a frustrating 2013 season, but the talent is there. Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 first-round pick, made steady progress throughout his rookie season and is seen by some in the national media as a future star. The Vikings also signed former Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who will play on the outside in the base defense and move inside in the nickel (given the way NFL offenses operate today, he will be in the slot a lot). But the rest of the secondary is uncertain. The battle at strong safety appears to be wide open, especially since incumbent starter Jamarca Sanford was sidelined throughout the spring. With Sanford and Andrew Sendejo sitting out, Robert Blanton and Kurt Coleman were given an opportunity to impress Zimmer, as was sixth-round pick Antone Exum. The Vikings must also choose their third cornerback -- which is basically a starting position in today’s NFL -- among Josh Robinson, Derek Cox and Marcus Sherels, along with rookies Jabari Price and Kendall James.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Whoever wins the safety battle will be expected to play more snaps, but one could argue the third cornerback will be more critical to the defense. The Vikings appear to be in good shape with Rhodes lined up on the left and Munnerlyn in the slot. But opponents will look to attack the weakest link, so another cornerback needs to step up. Robinson and Cox, who both disappointed in 2013 (Cox played for the Chargers), are the most likely candidates.
THE BURNING QUESTION: How good can Rhodes be in his second season? It’s easy to assume that he will continue to ascend, especially after he had a strong spring, but the development of young cornerbacks isn’t always linear. Especially when that young cornerback has to match up against wide receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson.
Every Monday during the offseason we’ll take four questions from Twitter for our weekly mailbag using the #VikingsST hashtag.
I’ve thought since the time Bridgewater played his last game at Louisville, he’d be a guy that could start Week 1. Seeing him person hasn’t changed that opinion. Will the Vikings do so is an entirely different conversation.
It’s very reasonable to expect Bridgewater to start at some point this season. He’s been nothing short of impressive since rookie minicamp. Bridgewater was well prepared at Louisville to become an NFL caliber quarterback with the ability to read defenses, go through progressions and look off safeties. It’s one thing to see this during minicamp and another when Bridgewater actually performs in pads. Whenever he does start, there will be an adjustment period. But he’s very mature for a 21-year-old and already on par with the other options at quarterback in terms of ability. If he starts early on this season, naturally the comparisons will be drawn to when Christian Ponder started 10 games his rookie season. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair to Bridgewater, who shouldn't be held back because of the way Ponder's career has played out.
Barr is more difficult to predict. There’s still some growth he has to make at understanding the position before the Vikings feel comfortable to start him. Barr only spent two seasons at linebacker at UCLA, but he did noticeably improve in that span. If he’s also a quick learner on this level then mid-season could be possible. But unless there’s a significant injury, I’d ease him in and allow him to develop. May seem contradicting, but unlike Bridgewater, Barr is still a raw talent and not as polished. He’ll be used in pass rushing situations because of his size and athleticism but even as bleak as the situation looks at linebacker at the moment, it’s best not to rush him into a starting role.
Outside of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer’s three game suspension, that can be reduced to two games at the team’s discretion, it won’t. And it shouldn’t.
The distraction will linger over the team at least through the start of training camp and possibly into the season depending on how this plays out in court. That’s something both sides said they hoped to avoid but failed to accomplish. There will be some players that could get asked about the investigation in training camp but that’s not an excuse for a bad performance in practice, preseason or regular season. Yes, the situation is getting nastier by the week but the players should focus on football. And they will.
Down the road, it could be a possibility but this is a 4-3 base defense at the moment. It’s what Zimmer has done for most of his career as a defensive coordinator, except for two seasons with the Cowboys under Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells. Zimmer said Parcells waited two years to get the proper personnel before switching over to the 3-4 defense, in which they drafted defense end Demarcus Ware and defensive tackle Marcus Spears.
A selection like Barr, who played in a 3-4 defense at UCLA, makes the transition down the road a possibility. Zimmer seems intrigued with the idea of having a defense that can play multiple fronts so don’t be surprised if there are pockets of a 3-4 front incorporated this year to throw teams off. Buut the Vikings have been a 4-3 base defense up to this point.
It’s a good thing the Vikings opted not to make them.
Uni Watch revealed sketches of prototype Vikings jerseys designed by Reebok in 2003. It included two sketches of a black alternate jersey and they're pretty bad.
Look, I like fashion. I’m probably into uniform designs more than I should be. I like crazy looks for some teams (like my alma mater, Arizona State) but others should stick to what they’re known for. The Vikings are one of those teams. Purple home jerseys and white road jerseys – nothing more, nothing less. It's iconic and looks good.
The Vikings didn't produce the black jerseys and did a great job updating their jerseys and logos with Nike last year, so they're 2-for-2 in my book.
Look good, play good. Eat good, die good.
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was asked at the NFL Combine in February whether it was true that he was so obsessed with football that he doesn’t think about anything else.
“Yes. I eat, sleep and breathe football,” Bridgewater responded. “There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about football whether it’s I’m playing a game, practicing, watching film, even on the video game. A lot of people ask me what do I do on the video game. I call it taking virtual reps. Each day, I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to outwork my opponent, outsmart my opponent and just try to be the best quarterback that I can be.”
Bridgewater said on Wednesday he’s still taking “virtual reps” in the NFL as well. He said video games are so advanced that the defenses in the game are similar to those in real life.
“I try to take as many reps as I can,” Bridgewater said. “Whether it’s on a video game, playing EA Madden Football or in the playbook, just drawing it or visualizing it in my head, I try to maximize every rep I can get and every opportunity that I can take.
“It helps because you get one more rep than you had in practice, actual practice. Any chance you get to take an extra rep or go the extra step, extra mile, it’s going to be very beneficial transferring it to the field.”
*Bridgewater also touched on his deep ball accuracy, which offensive coordinator Norv Turner said has been ‘outstanding’ so far. It was considered a weakness of Bridgewater by many draft pundits.
“It’s just been all footwork – laying it and playing,” Bridgewater said on the improvement. “I’ve been able to watch Matt [Cassel], watch Christian [Ponder] and watch how those guys have had great success throwing the deep ball and try to apply some of the things that they’re doing to my game also.
*Linebacker Anthony Barr felt he’s coming along well despite his month long absence due to NFL restrictions on rookies that haven’t finished their finals.
“I was real bored,” Barr said of the layoff. “The longest four weeks, really. It was a good time for me to kind of decompress a little bit and get my mind right for this.
“There's a little bit of a learning curve, missing OTAs but it kind of is what it is,” Barr said. “I’ve just got to catch up and continue to watch film and continue to get better.”
Barr has been mixed in as a linebacker in the base 4-3 and nickel. He’s also been used with his hand in the ground while at defensive end, which Barr said he’s never done before.
“That’s something that’s still real new to me, and something I worked on when I was gone,” Barr said. “So, I’m going to continue to improve on as I continue to practice it.”
*The Vikings released a statement from general manager Rick Spielman thanking former defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who signed with the Seahawks, for 11 seasons with the franchise.
“Kevin Williams earned a place in Vikings history and continued the proud tradition of great defensive linemen to wear purple. Kevin’s work ethic, humility and team-first approach is a model for younger players. A 6-time Pro Bowler and 5-time 1st-Team All-Pro, Kevin was honored as an NFL All-Decade player for the 2000s along with a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings squad. We wish him the best and will always count him as a member of the Vikings family.”
Former Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams is still looking for a team for the 2014 season after the Vikings allowed him to reach free agency back in March. He has visited the Giants and Seahawks and most recently the 33-year-old has been courted by the Patriots.
But in an interview on SiriusXM today, Williams said he has heard from another team: the Vikings.
“We had several talks since [head coach Mike Zimmer has] been there," Williams said. "They just felt they were going to try to go younger, but still they talked to [my agent] lately and they might be trying to ease back into the picture. We’ll know more maybe as the week goes on.”
It had appeared that the Vikings had moved on from Williams after they showed little interest in re-signing him before he reached free agency, signed defensive linemen Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Corey Wootton, brought back Fred Evans, and took nose tackle Shamar Stephen late in the draft.
Zimmer said last week that he thought the team would have good depth along the defensive line once everyone was healthy and rookies Anthony Barr and Scott Crichton were eligible to practice with the team. So it’s a little surprising to hear that the Vikings and Williams are talking again.
Williams said in the radio interview that he is fine with being a rotational player at this point in his career and he is optimistic that he will sign a deal with a team before the start of training camp. He ideally would like to play for a team with a good quarterback that has a chance to win in 2014.
“I’ve been having a few talks with some teams, the ones that I met with. They’re kind of picking up a little bit so hopefully we can knock something out in the next week or two,” Williams said. “Hopefully sooner than later, to put it like that, and I’ll be signed before camp.”
Williams, who has said he would be comfortable with retirement if the right opportunity didn’t come along, feels he still has something to give to an NFL team. We’ll see if the Vikings agree.
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.
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