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.
In their first football-related announcement in a while, the Vikings said today that they have waived defensive end Spencer Nealy and replaced him on their 90-man roster with tight end Mike Higgins.
Higgins, 26, played four total games for the Saints in 2011 and 2012, including one start. He has two career catches for one yard. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound tight end was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska-Omaha in 2011. The Saints cut him after last preseason.
Nealy, 24, spent time on the Vikings’ practice squad last year, but he was never elevated to their active roster during his first professional season. The defensive end was recently suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Higgins is expected to report to Mankato tomorrow along with the rest of the Vikings players.
It was an offseason of change for the Vikings, from the coaching staff to the stadium in which they will play their home games in 2014. Of all the things that will be different this season, the defensive line is up there. The Vikings overhauled that group this spring, letting two fan favorites go in free agency, signing an emerging nose tackle and putting their faith in two young players.
After looking at the big guys on the other side of the line, let’s break down the D-line today.
WHERE THINGS STAND: Outside of Brian Robison, the defensive line looked, well, different this spring without a pair of longtime defensive cornerstones in Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. The Vikings allowed those two to leave in free agency, instead hitching their wagon to talented but unproven youngsters in Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen. Still, new head coach Mike Zimmer, who relied on a deep defensive line rotation in Cincinnati, said last month that he thinks the Vikings will have enough talent and depth along the defensive line. He couldn’t say definitively, though, because a few key contributors were either sidelined by injuries or ineligible to practice due to NFL rules. Griffen and free-agent signee Linval Joseph, a big nose tackle, were limited this spring, as was versatile backup defensive end Corey Wootton. And fellow end Scott Crichton was stuck at Oregon State until the mandatory minicamp. The return of those four to active duty will boost the defensive line in training camp, giving Zimmer’s coaching staff a lot to evaluate.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: The Vikings have four defensive ends who can probably be penciled onto the 53-man roster in Robison, Griffen, Crichton and Wootton. And Joseph and Floyd, one of their 2013 first-rounders, are expected to be the starting defensive tackles. But the battle to back those two up should be interesting. Veterans Fred Evans and Tom Johnson will compete with younger players in Kheeston Randall, Chase Baker and Shamar Stephen, a 2014 seventh-rounder.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can Floyd and Griffen live up to lofty expectations? Floyd had his moments in a rookie season that included 2.5 sacks, but he has yet to distinguish himself as a starter in the league and the coaching staff has said he too often is thinking instead of reacting on the practice field. Griffen had 17.5 sacks in four seasons as a part-time player, and after the team opted to pay big money to him instead of Allen, the pressure is on the 26-year-old to produce.
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.
Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said negotiations have stalled with the Vikings and that he will go forward with the lawsuit.
Kluwe and his lawyer, Clayton Halunen, both said they’re in the process of litigation at the moment. They said the Vikings were still not interested in releasing the full report, which was a non-negotiable part of the settlement. Kluwe expects the lawsuit to be filed as early on Monday against the Vikings, claiming discrimination on the grounds of human rights, religion, defamation and “tortious interference for contractual relations.”
Kluwe said along with releasing the report, he asked that the Vikings would donate $1 million to LGBT charities and also suspended special teams coach Mike Priefer, who Kluwe alleged made anti-gay remarks in a letter to Deadspin in January, for four-to-eight games under the conduct policy of the NFL and the Vikings.
“At this point it seems that there’s a culture there that needs to be changed,” Kluwe said on Friday. “If there was anything in the report then people need to know that. And obviously there is something in the report because the Vikings don’t want to release it. If it cleared the team, they would have it out. They would’ve released it any time and put it out. It’s pretty obvious there’s something in there that they don’t like.”
Kluwe expressed his frustration on Twitter on Friday afternoon, claiming that “next week is open season.” He’s disappointed that the Vikings wanted to be transparent with the investigation but have waited seven months without even releasing the report.
“And all of a sudden, they decided they don’t want to do that anymore,” Kluwe said. “Frankly, I find that unacceptable.
“The NFL is a business and the Vikings are a business just like any other business. If they’re going to take public funding for stadiums, if they’re going to take public funding for Super Bowls, then they have an obligation to react under the appropriate state laws. They can’t foster an environment that hides homophobia and bigotry because no other corporate environment will allow that.”
We have reached out to the Vikings for comment and will update when we hear back.
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