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.
After a few weeks away on vacation, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will return back to his comfort zone – the practice field.
The walkthrough and practice on Friday will be Zimmer’s first as a head coach, where he will be assessing players and himself.
“It’s what I love to do,” Zimmer said on Thursday as players reported to Mankato. “I love to teach. I love to coach. Once I get out there I won’t have any time to think about anything else. I’ll be going full speed.”
Zimmer has already set an aggressive tone during the minicamps and OTAs to give the team a better understanding of how training camp will run, but he said it’s a fine line on how hard he can push the players without beating them up. Friday’s afternoon practice will be the first one this offseason with pads.
“We’re going to try and be smart about it,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have contact because that’s football. But as far as live contact, we’ll have some early in camp and then we’ll see where we’re at. I believe to be a good defensive team you’ve got to be a good tackling team so we’re going to have to work on that.”
One of the biggest challenges for Zimmer when he became a head coach was scheduling the offseason. He said he has texted Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who worked with Zimmer for the past six years, for advice and how to construct practices at training camp. Zimmer said he wanted to focus on situations, which he learned from Parcells when he served as the Cowboys defensive coordinator from 2003-06. Zimmer also took input from offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has head coaching experience with the Chargers, Redskins and the Raiders.
“I think over time you get a chance to say, ‘Well, I’d do this a lot different,’” Zimmer said. “We may change things as I continue to look at the football team, where we’re at and where we might need to adjust the camp. I think that’s a part of coaching and teaching is adjusting to the players you have.”
The environment will be different for the players, and even fans watching, at training camp with Zimmer at the helm. Players have already noticed the change on their first day in Mankato. Unlike last season, every player went through a conditioning test consisting of timed runs.
Whether the aggressive atmosphere is for better or for worse remains to be seen, but running back Adrian Peterson has been impressed with Zimmer and the coaching staff so far.
“To be honest with you, [they’re] ahead of the curve,” Peterson said comparing to previous coaching staffs he’s had with the Vikings. “That’s comes from just having guys that are buying into to what they are presenting to us and having great coaches surrounding us as well. Just the atmosphere, there’s a lot more energy in the air, in the building there’s a lot more energy from the players.”
Every day On most days, our Vikings reporters walk you through what’s happening that day.
Pushing carts stocked with flat-screen TVs and video-game systems -- in Everson Griffen’s case, an old Nintendo 64 -- and pulling wheeled suitcases into the dorms, Vikings players on Thursday reported to the quiet campus of Minnesota State Mankato for the start of training camp.
After dropping off their stuff in their rooms, they took their physicals and had to run the team’s conditioning test, something Adrian Peterson said previous coaching staffs never asked players to do. But the Vikings didn’t put on helmets or pick up any footballs. That all comes today.
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
--- Wanting to focus on football today, the Vikings made Mike Priefer available yesterday.
--- Chase Ford is expected to miss all of camp, but Matt Kalil and Linval Joseph are good to go.
--- Adrian Peterson wants to know who is going to start at quarterback soon, too.
--- This is more than a day old, but oh well, here is my pre-camp Q&A with Mike Zimmer.
TWEET OF THE (YESTER)DAY
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
--- Packers WR Jordy Nelson wants to get paid.
--- The Lions put WR Golden Tate and DE Ziggy Ansah on the PUP list at the start of camp.
--- The Bears are learning to deal with high expectations.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
Camp Zimmer officially kicks off at Minnesota State Mankato with a morning walkthrough that starts at 10:30 a.m. The first full practice runs from 3 p.m. to approximately 5:10 p.m. and players will be in helmets and shells. The first full-padded practice isn’t until Sunday afternoon.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
Ten different quarterbacks have started a game for the Vikings since Peterson entered the league in 2007. No wonder the guy is hoping for a little stability at the position this season.
Cullen Loeffler was seemingly put in a difficult spot when independent investigators hired by the Vikings approached him after the 2013 season. Say one thing and he could put his boss’s job -- and his own -- in jeopardy. Deny it and he would have gone against the word of his former teammate.
Loeffler, the Vikings’ long snapper since 2004, chose to corroborate former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe’s claim that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer uttered an anti-gay statement during a team setting in 2012. His involvement in the investigation led to an acknowledgement from Priefer that he did make the remark that ultimately led to a three-game suspension.
Today, Loeffler said he never worried about losing his job and said he has the team’s support.
“It wasn’t difficult,” he said. “I just told the truth, as the Vikings wanted me to tell the truth. They’ve been supportive throughout the process and it wasn’t hard for me at all.”
While one can’t justify making an anti-gay comment -- especially that “nuke the gays” comment Priefer is apparently apologizing for -- at their workplace (or anywhere else, really), context is key in this situation. And Loeffler maintains he thought Priefer was joking when he said it, as he told the investigators.
And allegedly Kluwe was in on the joke, too.
“I never thought that it was a serious comment,” Loeffler said. “I always thought it was a joke. They both laughed about it. I never thought anything about it.”
Kluwe laughed about it?
“It happened so long ago,” Loeffler said. “I don’t really remember the exact reaction other than that he had laughed as well at that time.”
Loeffler said that he hasn’t talked to Kluwe “in quite some time,” their last conversation taking place before Kluwe’s made his claims public in a January article on Deadspin.com.
After a few questions about Kluwe, Loeffler said he is ready to move on from this situation and getting his focus back to snapping footballs cleanly and flying under the radar.
“I’m glad that the investigation has now come to a close,” Loeffler said. “Now back here, I’m excited about playing football and I’m ready to go.”
As Vikings players reported to training camp at Minnesota State Mankato this afternoon, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made his first public comments since it was announced last Friday that the team was suspending him for two to three games following the investigation into former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe’s claims that Priefer made anti-gay comments in a team setting.
Priefer, who is required to participate in sensitivity training, opened with a lengthy statement.
“I’d like to start off by saying that I like to set a higher standard for myself -- a higher standard of conduct, a higher standard of work ethic, a higher standard of being a father and a husband and I expect a lot from my players as well,” Priefer said. “My wife and I raise our children this way in terms of our last name and what that means. Remember who you are. In this regard, in this situation, with my comment, I failed. I didn’t just go below the bar. I went way below the bar. I made a mistake. I was wrong. I brought a lot of undue attention to the Minnesota Vikings organization and brought an unwanted distraction, and I apologize. The apology that I spoke about, that I put out on Friday, I want to reiterate that in a very humble and sincere manner.”
Priefer was then asked what he regretted most about the situation involving himself and Kluwe.
“The biggest thing I regret is I brought a lot of bad publicity to the Minnesota Vikings and I felt like I let my family down,” the emotional coach said, choking up as he finished that sentence.
Priefer wouldn’t go into specifics about what he said to Kluwe or what he said to independent investigators during their six-month investigation, referring reporters to the 29-page summary that was released by the Vikings last Friday in chorus with the announcement of his suspension.
“I spoke to the appropriate individuals and I cooperated throughout this entire process and the results are in that investigation, and now I think it’s time to move on,” Priefer said.
Later asked if he wanted the full report to be made public, he responded, “I haven’t seen the whole report, so I wouldn’t know.”
General manager Rick Spielman was also made available to media today, and he also declined to answer questions about the specifics of the investigation.
Asked if the team considered firing Priefer when determining his punishment, Spielman replied, “When the report came out last Friday I know we reviewed everything, and this is what we thought and our ownership thought was the best course of action.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer said he is standing behind Priefer, who he decided to keep on his staff after he replaced Leslie Frazier in January and after Kluwe’s made his claims on Deadspin.com.
“We all make mistakes,” he said. “We all try to learn from our mistakes. And I think this guy is a very high-character, quality person that I want to stand behind. Honestly, I want to stand behind him because I know what is inside of him, I know what’s in his heart. And he made a mistake, and if anyone here hasn’t made a mistake, I want you to raise your hand, because I know I’ve made plenty.”
Priefer said it “hurts” that he won’t be with his players for at least the first two weeks of the season (he won't be allowed inside the team facility). He expects to spend the first week of the regular season in sensitivity training, though he doesn’t know yet what exactly that entails. If he participates in that training, the Vikings say they will consider reducing his suspension from three games to two games. He respects their decision to suspend him and said “It’s one that I will fulfill.”
“I’m not going to change the way I coach and I’m not going to change the way I teach,” Priefer said. “But I’ve learned a lesson. I have learned a lesson here. That’s a great thing about this situation, I’m going to look back and say something good had to come from this. But I learned a hard lesson, I’ve got to be sensitive to other people in what I say and that’s not going to happen again.”
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.
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