Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
The Vikings report to training camp Thursday and will hold their first full practice Friday afternoon at Minnesota State University in Mankato. That means the first preseason game is now 16 days away with the Sept. 9 regular season opener against Jacksonville kicking off just six-and-a-half weeks from now. As the Access Vikings team gets ready to head to camp, here’s a list of eight under-the-radar players who we’ll be watching closely, guys who could have a significant role in helping turn things around.
Reporters weren't the only ones who couldn't tell the players without a scorecard during the first day of the Vikings' rookie mini-camp at Winter Park.
Leslie Frazier, the head coach, had trouble putting names to the numbers of 70 players who were in camp. Even some of the big names.
"I was watching the guys return punts this morning," Frazier said. "We still have the cheat sheets where we're looking at guys' numbers. Josh [Robinson] caught a punt and he just took off like a guy shot out of a rocket. I said, `Man, that guy's got a nice little burst. See who that is.' And I look and it's Josh Robinson. I said, `That's a good sign. That's a good thing.'"
Robinson, the team's third-round draft pick, ran a combine-best 4.29 40-yard dash.
"That burst, it sticks out," Frazier said. "You can see why he ran a 4.2, 4.3 40 at the combine. He can get from A to B pretty quick."
Robinson will compete for the punt return job and might be given a chance to compete at kick returner. The former Central Florida player needs polish at corner, but Frazier isn't ruling anything out this year.
"We'll keep throwing things at him and watch him compete for a job," Frazier said. "Not just the nickel position. We want him to compete for a starting job."
Robinson said he never doubted he'd be able to run the best time at the combine.
"I've run faster hand-timed 40s before," he said.
Vikings bring in 70 players to evaluate
The Vikings brought in 70 players to this weekend's camp, which includes two sessions today, two on Saturday and one on Sunday. There were 10 draft picks, 15 undrafted free agents that have been signed, seven first-year players they signed before the draft and 38 players who are trying out. There would have been 39 trying out, but Trevor Olson, an offensive tackle from Northern Illinois and Richfield High School, signed a deal with the Buccaneers before camp started.
"When we were talking about this year's rookie minicamp, I asked [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and the scouts, `Get us some numbers. We want competition at this game.' Get us the best guys you can get, but get us some depth as well because the more guys you have competing, the better chance you have of finding someone who was undrafted who may be able to help your team. So that was the goal, to get some numbers and not have just 20 to 25 guys."
Here are some of the 38 players trying out:
Here are some other highlights from Frazier's press conference:
The NFL Draft is now less than a week away. And by now, we’ve exhausted the discussions about quarterback sensations Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III; about what the Vikings plan to do with their No. 3 pick; about the value of receivers and left tackles and running backs.
But have you ever wondered what this final week is like for those middle- to late-round prospects and their agents? Have you ever heard about the chaos that ensues after the final pick is made for those players who weren’t drafted? Ever wanted an agent’s take on the noise and hype that surrounds the draft?
This week, we visited with agent Blake Baratz, president of the Institute for Athletes, at his downtown Minneapolis office. Baratz has three clients who have a chance of being drafted next week – Texas defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, Iowa guard Adam Gettis and Wisconsin kicker Philip Welch.
Here are the eight most notable insights Baratz regarding the undercurrent that exists during the final stages before the draft …
On how an agent takes the pulse on the draft stock of his clients …
"At this stage, I’m talking to teams, if not daily then every other day. So you start to get a pretty good idea of which teams are interested in your players, how heavily and in what capacity. And I won’t know even up to the day of the draft, 90 percent of the time, as to exactly where a player is going to go. But I have an idea of which teams have a heavy interest in them. And I know where they have them graded from a draft standpoint and I know what number they pick in each round. So I can pigeonhole that. These are the three or four teams that really like them, this is where they draft, so there’s a good chance they go in this little window."
On getting the players themselves to understand that part of the equation …
"I think we’ve done a really good job of just managing expectations. I think a lot of agents don’t. A lot of agents do the opposite. They tell every guy that they’re going to be a first-round pick or a second-round pick and it turns into a disaster. We’re very clear with them from jump street about how the draft plays out. At the end of the day I stress to these guys, in the long run it doesn’t matter. Yes, I want our guys to get drafted as high as possible because there is pride involved and there’s financial incentive. But it doesn’t matter. Once you’re into OTAs the next week, no one cares where you were drafted. JaMarcus Russell is sitting at home. And Jake Ballard [a Baratz client] went undrafted two years ago and started at tight end in the Super Bowl for the Giants. Guys like Kurt Coleman, who was a seventh-round pick two years ago, is a starting safety for the Eagles. It doesn’t really matter."
On the hype that surrounds the draft from the media and draft pundits …
"It’s a ton of overkill. There are so many of these mock drafts and all this speculation. Mel Kiper. Todd McShay. Every other blogger in the world. They don’t know anything anyway. It’s not like [Chiefs general manager] Scott Pioli is telling Todd McShay his entire draft strategy. They’re telling almost no one their strategy. Before last year’s draft, we had Adrian Clayborn, who went 20th [to Tampa Bay], and we had Jonas Mouton, who went in the second round [to San Diego]. And I didn’t have a single team before the draft telling me Jonas Mouton was going to get taken higher than the third round. If you look at any of these mock drafts, they all had Jonas in the sixth round, the seventh round, undrafted. It’s all a circus. It’s for the fans. It’s the media. It’s speculation. And because there is so much hype surrounding the National Football League, that’s what happens. I don’t read it. I don’t care. I try to remain even keel."
On the pre-draft stock rise of client Adam Gettis, a guard from Iowa …
"From a media standpoint, he was under the radar to begin with. He was only a one-year starter at Iowa. He had a really good senior year, was very fundamentally sound. But you’re talking about the Iowa offensive line. And there you have Riley Reiff stealing a bulk of the spotlight because he’s a top 20 pick. Plus the normal person can’t name two college guards in the country anyway, let alone the eighth best guard in the country. With Adam, I had done enough homework on him and talked to enough people in the NFL to do know he was very good fundamentally. But he played guard in college at like 275 pounds. So the issue for him was he was already going to be off a bunch of team’s draft boards because he wasn’t heavy enough to play on their offensive line. We knew he would test out great athletically. But none of that matters if you’re not big enough and strong enough to play on the offensive line in the NFL. So we set a goal that he would weigh in at 290-plus come the combine. … He showed up there at 294 and athletically did everything people expected him to. So now he’s “on the rise.” Not surprising to us. But to all the NFL teams that don’t know him that well and the media that doesn’t know who he is, for a guy to come in at 294 and put up the numbers he put up, it showed how athletic he was."
On why stories like that seem common …
"These NFL teams, no disrespect to any of them, but they’re just cramming for a test that they’re not prepared for. That’s why they now have the [East-West] Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl and the pro days and the combine and all of this within three months. They’re just cramming for a test they’re not prepared for. They’re worrying about a thousand guys. There’s free agency at the same time. So it’s not a coincidence that teams miss on draft picks so often. I know our draft picks 100 times better than these teams do. Because I’m only worried about a handful of guys. These teams are worrying about 1,000. And they’re worrying about hundreds of free agents too. You can’t possibly be in tune with all these guys. I realized a long time ago, it’s not all about the talent in the NFL. It’s about working hard and being coachable and doing the right things. This time of year, teams will get so caught up in physique and size and speed. But honestly, if you’re in this NFL business and you can’t watch a guy play football for four years and interview them and talk to their college coaches and figure out if they’re going to be a good player, then you’ve got the wrong guys on your staff. That’s my belief. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I know a lot of these GMs. And they have a difficult job. But they can fall into the trap of overanalyzing."
On the Vikings seemingly having interest in both Gettis and Kheeston Randall …
"It’s two positions they definitely need help at. They’re looking for a D-tackle to play next to Kevin Williams, a plugger. Too many running backs were getting to the second level last season and getting to the linebackers. So they’re looking for a Pat Williams replacement. Kheeston is lighter than Pat but more athletic. There’s some interest there. They like him. He’d be a good fit. And Adam is just versatile. He plays both guard positions. He can play center. For him, all of it will depend on what Minnesota does at the top of the draft. If they take Kalil, then Charlie [Johnson] gets kicked inside to guard and that position becomes less of a priority. But where these two guys should get drafted – third, fourth, fifth round – a lot of those picks you’re looking for versatility, hunting for depth. Minnesota’s in rebuilding mode and obviously has many areas of need. But they’ve gotten to know those guys well."
On the frenzy that will occur Saturday night when the draft is over and teams begin scrambling to sign undrafted free agents …
"The undrafted process is the worst process in the whole world. It’s chaos. Absolute chaos. Guys literally have 2 minutes to make a decision. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have experience doing it. And so I’m monitoring the draft very closely and constantly updating the depth charts very closely. For an undrafted free agent, where they land is so important. That is what determines whether they have a shot or don’t have a shot. And I know each team’s tendencies. If we have an undrafted tight end, for example, I know which teams happen to keep two tight ends on average or five tight ends on average. The New York Giants, at a minimum, will keep four tight ends on their roster, sometimes five. The New Orleans Saints usually keep two. So if the Saints already have four or five tight ends on their roster and you’re an undrafted free agent tight end, you don’t want to go to New Orleans. Too many agents ignore that fact. And if New Orleans offers $5,000 more than the Giants, they’ll send their guy to New Orleans. And that can be the end of a guy’s career. That quickly. So I’ve got those depth charts under constant watch. And I’ve already started having those conversations about those guys who could potentially go undrafted. You need to make sure your guy has a home quickly. Because once those rosters fill up, they’re gone. And guys have literally one minute to make a decision a lot of times.
"Honestly, it’s so chaotic. The GMs and a lot of times even the scouts are calling about 20 players at one time. And they may even be calling the players directly. So if you have two or three of those guys, everyone is calling at the exact same time and they want a decision right then. So if I find an opportunity that’s a good home for the guy, I’m going to try to hold on to that as long as possible while I search everything else out. Some guys have only one offer. But Jake Ballard had 25 different offers as an undrafted free agent [before signing with the Giants]. Jonathan Casillas had two dozen offers. The Buccaneers, with Casillas, came to us offering to pay seventh-round money. They were going to give him a $40,000 signing bonus. And we turned it down to take $10,000 from New Orleans based simply on the opportunity. At the time, it was the right decision. He contributed to a Super Bowl champion as a rookie. And Tampa Bay went in the opposite direction. But it all depends on the individual and the situation and the teams involved.
"It can be crazy. It’s like a recruiting pitch. The defensive coordinator is calling them. The head coach is calling them. These guys are undrafted free agents so they don’t know what to believe. Everyone is selling them a dream. And it’s difficult to tell a college kid who has no money to turn down $40,000 to take $10,000. But 98 percent of the time our guys will listen because they trust we’re putting them in the right spot. And I make more money if they make more money. So turning down those offers. it’s taking money out of my pocket too. So they trust the motivation. The goal is that you put yourself in a situation to make the active roster and make that $400,000 salary then."
On veteran free agents that remain unsigned right now …
An analytical look at three conversation-starting developments for the Vikings this week ...
1) How exactly did cornerback Chris Cook walk away scot-free from his domestic assault trial?
Before we fast-forward too quickly and begin forecasting Cook’s future with the Vikings – understand he’ll be given every chance to start in 2012 – it’s worth looking back at Cook’s compelling trial, which ended Thursday afternoon with the 25-year-old defensive back acquitted on all charges.
So now Cook gets another chance to resume his NFL career.
Yet it’s worth asking how, with all the testimony and evidence presented, 12 jurors could ultimately conclude Cook deserved to walk free without any punishment whatsoever. After all, Cook never denied the fact that an October fight with his then-girlfriend Chantel Baker turned startlingly violent. And at the end of the scrap, Baker was left with a perforated eardrum, a bruised face and a bloody nose. Several marks on Baker’s neck also seemed to confirm the claims she made first to Eden Prairie police officers and later to detectives and doctors that Cook had tried to choke her. That’s what led to the heaviest felony charge: domestic assault by strangulation.
Cook also faced a count of domestic assault in the third-degree. And on Wednesday afternoon, when the jurors were sent into deliberations, they were instructed to consider a pair of lesser charges as well: domestic assault with intent to cause fear and domestic assault with intent to inflict bodily harm.
In the end, the jury came back with the same verdict across the board: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.
In the end, Cook’s attorneys had delivered a self-defense argument that provided the jury with plenty to think about. Baker’s recantation of her previous statements to authorities and medical personnel was also a major element in the case and a major setback to the prosecution, whose case seemed straightforward and with few significant holes.
But those who have ever sat on a jury for a criminal trial – in 2010, I was a juror for a first-degree murder case – can appreciate the very detailed instructions that come with issuing a verdict. And in many cases, that old foundation phrase of the United States legal system, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” can really complicate things for those evaluating testimony and evidence. Remember Cook began his trial on March 5 with a presumption of innocence and the burden of proof sitting on the state’s shoulders. And in a trial like this one, the prosecution can present a case and a side of the story that’s more believable than the defense’s and it’s still not enough. All it takes is for the jury to have that reasonable doubt to steer away from a guilty verdict. So where does each juror and the jury as a whole draw that reasonable doubt line.
As Nick Dykstra, a juror in the Cook trial, told the Star Tribune’s Abby Simons on Thursday afternoon: “I thought there was an 80 percent chance that he was guilty, but that 20 percent reasonable doubt was just a couple percentage points enough to make me vote not guilty.”
That reason is telling and representative of what many jurors go through in cases such as this.
After all, one of the core principles defense attorney John Lucas used in his closing arguments was the notion that only two people who truly know what went on during that brawl on Oct. 22 are Cook and Baker. And under oath, before a judge and a jury during trial, their stories matched up. Enough to leave a reasonable doubt about the testimony of so many others called to the witness stand by the prosecution. Cook and Baker both asserted on the stand that she was the aggressor in the fight.
Following Thursday’s verdict both Lucas and fellow defense attorney David Valentini shared their view on Cook and the case.
Said Valentini: “We worked really hard. This took a lot of effort. What we wanted Chris to do was do his homework. We expected Chris to know the case and sit at counsel table with us and be an integral part of this team. He read every report. He read every piece of evidence on the experts. He gave his opinion throughout the trial. And he had zero hesitation to testify. He wanted to tell his side of the story. And his side of the story was never told until we were in this courtroom.”
Lucas also acknowledged what many who know Cook well often say: that the Vikings defensive back is a friendly young man, so often engaging and introspective.
“I didn’t know Chris at all before this,” Lucas said. “I’ve come to find he’s very thoughtful and considerate. He’s bright. I really think that about him.”
Now? It won’t be long before Cook is back with the Vikings, trying to make a difference in their secondary.
2) What is the significance of John Carlson’s arrival?
No real easy way to segue from such intense legal matters to the importance of the Vikings’ only free agent signing to this point. But when the Vikings made a mad rush at John Carlson on Tuesday night, expressing their interest and commitment in a way that caused the tight end to quickly leave Kansas City before a scheduled free agent meeting with the Chiefs there was plenty to digest. The Vikings had Carlson’s ear and he bolted from Kansas City to connect with the brass at Winter Park.
General manager Rick Spielman’s interest in landing Carlson shows the commitment that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has expressed towards making tight ends a big part of the offense. It’s easy to envision Carlson and Kyle Rudolph operating together in two tight end sets next season, each able to put stress on opposing defenses with their pass-catching abilities.
Plus, the Vikings’ five-year commitment to Carlson also speaks to a bigger picture priority at Winter Park and that’s the hope to surround quarterback Christian Ponder with young playmakers that will be around for a while. The quest for continuity on offense is a major priority right now.
Carlson’s worth? We’ll need at least a full season maybe two to begin evaluating whether a deal worth a reported $25 million over five years was sensible. Yet on Wednesday, Carlson expressed his vision for how things will work out, excited about the core of playmakers in place – from Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin to Christian Ponder and Rudolph.
“My goal has always been to be a well-rounded player,” Carlson said. “Being able to contribute in the passing game, being able to stretch the field and make plays like that. But also I need to do the pass protecting that you need to do as an effective tight end in this league. I want to catch passes. That’s the fun part. But I’m also excited about doing a good job in the run game and protecting as well.”
3) What might the Vikings investment in defensive tackle Letroy Guion accomplish?
The 24-year-old Guion has agreed to a new three-year deal and the belief is that new defensive line coach Brendan Daly will be able to tap into Guion’s potential and turn him into a difference maker on the defensive front. The goal is to use Guion exclusively at nose tackle, where the Vikings badly need a spark.
In the team’s first season without Pat Williams in 2011, the Vikings lacked the consistent presence on the interior they had grown used to for the previous six seasons. Remi Ayodele’s first season with the team was an indisputable disappointment. Opponents faced few risks when double-teaming Kevin Williams. And linebacker Chad Greenway struggled to deliver many impact plays at all.
Now, the Vikings want Guion to compete with Ayodele to be the team’s starting nose tackle in 2012. And the belief is that if he plays up to his potential – which didn’t happen in 2011 after a promising preseason – the Vikings’ defensive front could again be one of the most menacing in the NFC. After all, Jared Allen is still on one end with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen also capable of taking another step forward in 2012.
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