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.
We'll take a daily look at where the Vikings' roster stands at the moment position-by-position leading up to our NFL Combine coverage next week.
On the roster: Chad Greenway, Audie Cole, Gerald Hodges, Simoni Lawrence, Michael Mauti
Free agents: Desmond Bishop, Marvin Mitchell, Larry Dean (restricted), Erin Henderson (released)
The Vikings have already made two roster moves at linebacker this offseason. They released Erin Henderson and signed former Gophers linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who spent the last two seasons in the CFL.
There’s some young talent on the roster that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and his son, linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, will inherit in Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.
Cole, who will turn 25 by the start of next season, started at middle linebacker when he replaced Henderson during the season before spraining his ankle. His recorded a sack during his rep as a starter on an A-gap blitz against the Packers and finished with 13 tackles. He matched that performance with 13 tackles against the Ravens two weeks later.
The seventh round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft at worst will be a serviceable special teams player and backup linebacker given his aggressive mentality. He’ll have a shot to earn a starting position in training camp either at middle or inside linebacker.
Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges were used sparingly on defense and mainly on special teams, but the Penn State linebackers will also get a shot at a larger role next season. Mauti, 24, made it through his rookie season playing in 14 games after three torn ACL injuries in a five-year span at Penn State. If his knees can hold up, the seventh round pick in last year’s draft has always had the potential as a starting inside or middle linebacker.
Hodges, 23, played in 11 games during his rookie season. He was projected as an outside linebacker last year in the draft but was hardly used at the position with Chad Greenway on the roster.
Zimmer will get a chance to work with the young linebackers before the draft in May. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley could be available when the franchise is on the clock with the eighth overall selection.
Greenway started all 16 games for a fifth consecutive season, but his play regressed last season playing through two broken bones in his wrist for most of the season. Greenway, 31, was graded 34th among 35 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers by Pro Football Focus. Greenway is expected make a base salary of $6.4 million next season, which trails just running back Adrian Peterson on the roster. It might benefit the franchise to restructure his contract this offseason if it needs more cap space.
“He is as tough an hombre as there is for him to play linebacker with a broken wrist through a lot of the season,” Spielman said on Friday. “I know that is healed and healthy now. He would never make an excuse for that either.”
The morning after a 48-30 win over the Eagles, we take a look at the Vikings’ snap distribution on offense and defense.
Offense: 75 snaps
QB Matt Cassel – 75 snaps (played 100% on offense)
QB Christian Ponder – DNP
Cassel finished with the fourth most passing yards (382) among quarterbacks on Sunday and the only one in the top seven to win. He went 26 of 35 with two touchdowns and an interception, finishing with a 116.6 passer rating. The Eagles defense was ranked 29th in total defense entering the game, but it was the only team in the NFL that didn’t allow over 21 points since Week 5.
That streak is now history.
RB Matt Asiata – 65 (87%)
FB Jerome Felton – 28 (37%)
RB Joe Banyard – 5 (7%)
The average wasn’t pretty (1.7), but Asiata scored his first three career touchdowns in his first career start. Asiata became the first player in a first career start to rush for three or more touchdowns since former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. He remarkably received 30 carries in the game for 51 yards.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
TE Rhett Ellison – 64 (85%)
WR Greg Jennings – 50 (67%)
WR Cordarrelle Patterson – 42 (56%)
WR Jerome Simpson – 36 (48%)
TE Chase Ford – 35 (47%)
WR Jarius Wright – 23 (31%)
WR Joe Webb – 17 (23%)
Jennings had a career-high 11 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown. He had 13 targets, more than double the receiver with the second most targets (Patterson had six). Cassel has made Jennings worth every dollar the Vikings paid him in the offseason.
C Joe Berger – 75 (100%)
G Charlie Johnson – 75 (100%)
C John Sullivan – 75 (100%)
T Matt Kalil – 75 (100%)
T Phil Loadholt – 75 (100%)
T J’Marcus Webb – 7 (9%)
G Joe Baca – 3 (4%)
Berger filled in at guard for Brandon Fusco, and the offensive line did a good job protecting Cassel for most of the game. A good example was Cassel’s 57 yard touchdown to Jennings. The offensive line bought him enough time to hit Jennings in stride. Cassel was still sacked three times though.
Inactives: QB Josh Freeman, RB Adrian Peterson (foot), RB Toby Gerhart (hamstring), G Brandon Fusco (knee), TE John Carlson (concussion)
The Vikings scored 48 points without Peterson and Gerhart. That says enough about Cassel’s day.
Defense: 69 snaps
DE Jared Allen – 65 (94%)
DE Brian Robison – 58 (84%)
DE Everson Griffen – 42 (61%)
DT Kevin Williams – 37 (54%)
DT Sharrif Floyd – 32 (46%)
NT Letroy Guion – 22 (32%)
NT Fred Evans – 20 (29%)
DT Chase Baker – DNP
Allen and Robison finished with two sacks each and seem to mirror each other in that category down the stretch. They combined for six of the team’s 10 quarterback hits. Williams also had two quarterback hits.
The most impressive aspect of Sunday’s game was how the defense limited Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to eight carries for 38 yards. To put that in perfective, Asiata had 22 more carries than the league’s leading rusher.
LB Chad Greenway – 69 (100%)
LB Audie Cole – 67 (97%)
LB Erin Henderson – 11 (16%)
LB Marvin Mitchell – 1 (1%)
Henderson saw an increase in snaps, particularly short yardage downs, but the Vikings remained almost exclusively in the nickel. Cole led the unit with seven tackles and a quarterback hit. Greenway had five tackles.
CB Marcus Sherels – 69 (100%)
CB Shaun Prater – 69 (100%)
FS Harrison Smith – 61 (88%)
SS Robert Blanton – 59 (86%)
SS Jamarca Sanford – 47 (68%)
FS Andrew Sendejo – 30 (43%)
CB Robert Steeples – DNP
Smith didn’t start the game but that’d be hard to tell based on the amount of snaps he received. He was rotating with Sendejo, but Smith took over at safety in the second half. He finished tied with a team-high eight tackles with Blanton.
The cornerbacks had a good day without three players although Eagles quarterback Nick Foles finished with 428 yards. Prater got his first career NFL start and an interception against his former team. Sherels finished fourth on the team with six tackles.
Inactives: CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle), CB Chris Cook (knee)
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has listed running back Adrian Peterson as "questionable," meaning the guy we all assumed would miss Sunday's game against the Eagles, now has a 50-50 chance of playing.
Once again, we may find out that assuming the worst for Adrian Peterson isn't a wise thing to do.
Peterson practiced today for the first time this week. According to Frazier, Peterson planted and showed good burst off the right foot that he sprained early in the second quarter of last week's game at Baltimore.
"It was impressive when you consider the early diagnosis," Frazier said. "He's unique. Very unique. He's so different than everybody else when it comes to recovering from injuries. We've been in situations in the past where you thought he wouldn't make it and he made it. So it was always in the back of my mind the chance he would make it. He's amazing."
Frazier sounded optimistic, but was not willing to go beyond listing Peterson as questionable in part because he'll need to see how Peterson's foot responds tomorrow after going through today's workout. Frazier also indicated it could be a game-time decision on whehter to play Peterson.
Meanwhile, running back Toby Gerhart, who suffered a hamstring injury in last week's game, also returned to practice today for the first time this week. Frazier said Gerhart looked good, but was kept from testing the hamstring with the kind of cuts and burst he would typically use in a game.
Cornerback Chris Cook (knee) was a surprise addition to the injury report today. He was limited in practice and has been listed as questionable.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (ankle) and right guard Brandon Fusco (knee) did not practice and were listed as doubtful. Marcus Sherels would start for Rhodes while Joe Berger would start for Fusco.
And, finally, tight end John Carlson still has not passed the NFL protocol for returning from the concussion he suffered last week. Rhett Ellison will get the start. Chase Ford also would be available.
Linebackers Larry Dean (knee) and Chad Greenway (wrist) are listed as probable.
In other news, barring an unlikely setback on Saturday, free safety Harrison Smith will be activated from injured reserve on Saturday and will have a role in Sunday's game. Smith has been on injured reserve the past eight weeks because of a turf toe injury. He returned to practice two weeks ago.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said quarterback Christian Ponder is the team's only injury concern after Sunday's win over the Bears. Ponder left the game with a concussion that he suffered just before halftime.
"We’ll have to see how things go with him over the next few days with the NFL protocol regarding concussions," Frazier said.
Due to Ponder's injury, Frazier didn't announce the starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the Ravens. Matt Cassel replaced Ponder and went 20 of 33 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
"There’s no reason at this point on Monday at 12:40 [p.m.] that we have to make a decision," Frazier said. "We can talk it through and do what’s best. But Matt did a terrific job in relief yesterday afternoon leading our team to victory."
Frazier said Ponder missing practice time or meeting sessions because he hasn't passed the concussion tests could factor into the decision at quarterback. Frazier didn't rule out Josh Freeman if Ponder can't play Sunday.
Linebacker Chad Greenway left Sunday's game after aggravating a fractured wrist injury he's played with for over a month. Frazier doesn't expect Greenway to miss Sunday's game however and feels he'll be back on the field after a few days.
The morning after the Vikings 23-20 overtime win over the Bears, we take a look at the snap distribution on offense and defense
Offense: 86 snaps
QB Matt Cassel – 61 snaps (played 71% on offense)
QB Christian Ponder – 25 (29%)
Ponder left the game due to concussion symptoms right before halftime, but the offense was more effective under Cassel, who’s responsible for all three wins this season.
Cassel went 20 of 33 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He finished with an 80.7 quarterback rating. Ponder was 3 of 8 for 40 yards.
RB Adrian Peterson – 78 (91%)
FB Jerome Felton – 38 (44%)
RB Toby Gerhart – 7 (8%)
It took the Vikings five possessions to take advantage of the Bears worst-ranked run defense in the NFL. But once they started, they relied heavily on the shoulders of Peterson, who had 35 carries for 211 yards (both season highs).
Peterson was healthy enough where the team didn’t use Gerhart as much compared to last week against the Packers where Peterson played 65 of the team’s 81 snaps (Gerhart spotted him on 14 plays).
Wide Receiver/Tight End
TE John Carlson – 78 (91%)
WR Greg Jennings – 50 (58%)
WR Cordarrelle Patterson – 48 (56%)
TE Rhett Ellison – 45 (52%)
WR Jerome Simpson – 40 (47%)
WR Jarius Wright – 31 (36%)
TE Chase Ford – 10 (12%)
WR Joe Webb – 5 (6%)
Something about Cassel brings out the best in Jennings. He caught his third touchdown this season, all thrown by Cassel, and led the team with seven receptions for 78 yards. Jennings had just one catch for two yards with Ponder. Carlson also had a solid game with four receptions for 61 yards.
Patterson started over Simpson for the third straight week and received a season-high 48 snaps. He’s had over 40 reps in three straight games, but the rookie finished with one catch for four yards. Patterson did, however, score on a 33-yard run in the second quarter
G Charlie Johnson – 86 (100%)
C John Sullivan – 86 (100%)
T Phil Loadholt – 86 (100%)
G Brandon Fusco – 86 (100%)
T Matt Kalil – 86 (100%)
As it’s been for most of the season, the starting unit played the entire game against the Bears. Cassel and Ponder were sacked a combined five times in the game (Bears defensive end Julius Peppers had 2.5 sacks), but the Vikings ran for 283 yards.
Defense: 66 snaps
DE Jared Allen – 58 (88%)
DE Brian Robison – 56 (85%)
DT Kevin Williams – 45 (68%)
DE Everson Griffen – 33 (50%)
NT Letroy Guion – 29 (44%)
NT Fred Evans – 22 (33%)
DT Sharrif Floyd – 21 (32%)
The front line had three of the team’s four sacks (Allen, Robison and Floyd) and hurried Bears quarterback Josh McCown six times.
Guion had five fewer snaps than he did in his return last week against the Packers (34). Evans, who had 17 reps last week, played more as a result.
LB Audie Cole – 66 (100%)
LB Chad Greenway – 64 (97%)
LB Marvin Mitchell – 20 (30%)
LB Larry Dean – 2 (3%)
Although he was suited up on the sideline, linebacker Erin Henderson did not play for a second consecutive game. He missed last week's game due a personal issue, which was revealed Henderson was arrested for an alleged DWI on Nov. 19.
Cole replaced Henderson last week in his first career start and has played the entire game in consecutive weeks. He had nine tackles and a pass deflection.
Greenway left the game during the overtime session due to a wrist injury he’s played through for over a month, but he only missed two plays. He tied for a team-high 10 tackles, three for loss, and a sack.
FS Andrew Sendejo – 66 (100%)
CB Xavier Rhodes – 66 (100%)
SS Jamarca Sanford – 66 (100%)
SS Robert Blanton – 45 (68%)
CB Chris Cook – 43 (65%)
CB Marcus Sherels – 24 (36%)
Rhodes put together another good game with six tackles, one for loss, and a nice pass deflection in the end zone against Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Cook was ejected for making contact with an official after allowing a 46-yard touchdown to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter. It left a thin unit to rely on Sherels, who typically plays a spot corner, to play opposite of Rhodes and Blanton as the nickel corner.
Jeffery broke the Bears’ franchise record with 249 receiving yards. He also had 12 receptions and two touchdowns, both against Cook.
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