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.
As teams starting anew at head coach, the Vikings, Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Texans, Titans and Redskins were given a two-week head start on their offseason conditioning programs. That head start is coming to an end this week, so we talked with Vikings linebacker Audie Cole about the importance of being allowed to get a jump on most of the league.
“Right now, I don’t think any of us is an expert on what’s going on defensively,” Cole said. “We’re still learning what the coaches want us to do because it’s different than what we’ve done. We need to pick it up as fast as we can, and to have two [more] weeks helps.”
No position on any of the teams mentioned above better illustrates the need for a head start than the Vikings’ linebackers. The Vikings have played the same defense with essentially the same linebacker responsibilities since 2006. So that means even 31-year-old Chad Greenway has never played in any other defense than the Cover-2-oriented system that came to town with Brad Childress and then-first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin eight years ago.
Until April 7, the new coaching staff and its players weren’t allowed to even talk football. If they passed in the hallways at Winter Park, they could say “hello,” “how’s it goin’,” “boy, some weather we’re having, eh?” But they couldn’t talk football, per rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement established in 2011.
“It was a little strange,” tight end Kyle Rudolph admitted this week.
The Vikings' coaches, led by new head coach Mike Zimmer, went about their business. Zimmer had a new team-meeting area with theater-like seating built in the corner of the indoor practice facility. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, and made changes to the nutrition program.
Then, on April 7, Zimmer and his coaches were allowed to teach football, at least off the field. They could meet with players and discuss actual football. Go through the playbook. Those kinds of things. But as far as on the field, only strength and conditioning activities are allowed at this point.
The Vikings, however, will get an extra voluntary veteran minicamp, which also should help. Especially at linebacker, where the Vikings have eight players, several potential answers and only one confirmed starter in Greenway. But even Greenway’s role is uncertain.
“We’re still learning what the plays are called and how the coaches want us to play,” Cole said. “It’s not that big a deal. I mean there’s only so many things you can do. Maybe, I don’t know, we won’t be as much of a Cover 2 team as we used to be. But we’re finding all of that out now.”
If one were to pencil in – lightly – a prospective depth chart at linebacker, it might look something like this:
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Cole, Simoni Lawrence.
WLB: Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Terrell Manning.
SLB: Greenway, Larry Dean.
Brinkley was the starter in the middle two years ago, but was allowed to leave via free agency to Arizona. It didn’t work out for him there and now he’s back with a tentative sliver of a lead on Cole. Hodges, a second-year player now, is highly-regarded, but wasn’t able to seize the weak-side job against weak competition a year ago.
Of course, because of the new defense, there’s potentially some new position flexibility that the coaches will explore during the minicamps. Even Greenway, who has been a strong-side backer his entire career, might move around.
“I think I could play any of the three positions,” Cole said. “I think the way we’re doing it, anybody could play any of the positions. That’s a good thing to have. You can always have people to fit into the puzzle. We’ve only scratched the surface on what we’re going to do, so it’s going to take us a while to figure this out.
“But I think if you talk to any of the linebackers, they’d say we have the guys we need on the roster. We all think each one of us can play.”
That may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that the Vikings will come out of next month’s draft without at least one more linebacker in the mix. And depending on how the first round shakes out, that new face may come in as the top dog at one of the three starting positions.
The Vikings made eight selections in the 2010 NFL Draft following a 12-4 season that ended a win away from a spot in Super Bowl XLIV. Only four of those players selected were on the roster last season and all will be free agents this season.
The team has since gone 24-39-1 with more coaching changes, two, than playoff games, one.
The Vikings didn’t operate with a general manager at the time but general manager Rick Spielman was Vice President of player personnel and handled the draft, but former head coach Brad Childress had final veto power on all personnel moves. Spielman didn't have the final say as he does now.
“Different philosophy back then,” Spielman said. “It was a different structure back then. Some haven’t panned and some have, but I think what we’ve done since then is go back and assess and analyze and I know exactly what went wrong with the ones that didn’t make it and what went right with ‘em. But we’ve used that as we’ve gone forward especially over the last two draft classes. Basically that’s my total responsibility now."
Well, a lot didn’t pan out. When asked about the philosophy in the draft, Spielman repeated, “I’ll just leave it at that it was a different philosophy.”
It’s a big reason why the Vikings have struggled to remain consistent and now have an emphasis to build through the draft. Here’s a look at who they picked and some notable players they missed in each round.
The Vikings traded their 30th overall selection to the Lions for a second (34th) and seventh (214th) pick. They also swapped fourth round selections.
The Lions drafted Cal running back Jahvid Best, who retired due to his concussion history.
Noteworthy players after selection: OT Rodger Saffold to the Rams (33rd overall pick; second round)
With the second pick in the second round acquired from Detroit, the Vikings selected Virginia cornerback Chris Cook. The team needed a cornerback and Cook had the size and athleticism listed at 6-2 and 212 pounds at the time, but he turned out to be a bust.
Cook hits free agency without an interception in four seasons with the Vikings. He missed the final 10 games in 2011 due to an ongoing domestic assault arrest that was he was later found not guilty. He was cleared on gun charges that same year prior to the arrest.
On the field, Cook couldn’t stay healthy. He played 12 games last season, a career-high, but he wasn’t productive. He was ejected in Week 13 against the Bears after making contact with an official after allowing a 46-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who previously had an 80-touchdown against Cook and set the franchise record with 249 receiving yards.
Noteworthy players after selection: S T.J. Ward to the Browns (38th overall); TE Rob Gronkowski to the Patriots (42nd overall); LB Daryl Washington to the Cardinals (47th overall)
The Vikings traded up to the 51st overall pick, swapping second round picks with the Texans and giving their third round pick, to select Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.
He served as Adrian Peterson’s backup and had his most productive season when Peterson tore his ACL in 2011. Gerhart has a career-high 109 carries for 531 yards.
Both Cook and Gerhart are free agents this offseason and it doesn’t appear that either will return. Gerhart wasn’t a bust however and will draw some interest from other teams as a possible starting running back.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Carlos Dunlap to the Bengals (54th overall); LB Sean Lee to the Cowboys (55th overall);
The Vikings didn’t have a third round pick due to the Gerhart trade.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Brandon LaFell to the Panthers (78th overall); WR Eric Decker to the Broncos (87th overall); LB NaVorro Bowman to the 49ers (91st overall); TE Jimmy Graham to the Saints (95th overall)
After swapping fourth round selections with the Lions, the Vikings drafted USC defensive end Everson Griffen with the 100th overall selection.
He was considered to be a first round pick but there were questions about his effort and off the field issues. Following his rookie season, Griffen was arrested twice in three days for public intoxications and driving with an invalid driver’s license.
Griffen made just one start in four seasons behind defensive ends Brian Robison and Jared Allen. He’s so versatile that the Vikings used him at all four positions on the defensive line during his tenure.
Griffen and Gerhart were clearly the two best players the Vikings selected in the draft but both were primarily backups over the last four years. Though Griffen has expressed interest to return, the Vikings will have a difficult time bringing him back. There aren’t many good 4-3 defensive ends in the draft and free agency.
Noteworthy players after selection: CB Alterraun Verner to the Titans (104th overall); TE Aaron Hernandez to the Patriots (113th overall); TE Dennis Pitta to the Ravens (114th overall); DT Geno Atkins to the Bengals (120th overall): S Kam Chancellor to the Seahawks (133rd overall; fifth round); WR Riley Cooper to the Eagles (159th overall; fifth round)
With the 161st overall selection, the Vikings drafted Wake Forest offensive tackle Chris DeGeare. He was wavied and signed to the practice squad in 2011 and released right before the start of the 2012 season. He spent that season on the Titans’ practice squad.
DeGeare has signed a reserve/future contract with the Giants in January.
The Vikings also had a compensatory pick and selected Gophers linebacker Nathan Triplett with the 167th overall pick. He was cut in preseason and spent three seasons with four teams after the Vikings. He wasn’t signed with a team last season.
Noteworthy players after selection: DE Greg Hardy to the Panthers (175t5th overall; sixth round); RB James Starks to the Packers (193 overall; sixth round); WR Antonio Brown to the Steelers (195th overall; sixth round); WR Trindon Holliday to the Texans (197th overall; sixth round)
With the 199th overall pick, the Vikings selected UAB quarterback Joe Webb. The team got good value for Webb, who served as a wide receiver, running back, quarterback and special teams.
However, his tenure with the Vikings will be remembered for his performance in the franchise’s last playoff game. He was the starting quarterback in the 2012 NFC Wild Card matchup against the Packers due to a deep tricep bruise quarterback Christian Ponder suffered in the final regular season game against Green Bay.
Webb became the fourth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start a postseason game after not starting in the regular season. He went 11 of 30 for 180 yards with an interception and a fumble in the 24-10 loss.
Noteworthy players after selection: WR Marc Mariani to the Titans (222nd overall; seventh round); DE George Selvie to the Rams (226th overall; seventh round)
The Vikings selected Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler Jr. with the 214th overall pick and Rutgers linebacker Ryan D’Imperio with the 237th overall selection. Shuler Jr. was cut twice by the Vikings in 2010 and 2012. He spent last season on the Falcons practice squad.
D’Imperio switched from linebacker to fullback was cut in 2012 by the Vikings. He retired before the start of last season after signing with the Giants.
Former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper has been named in a foreclosure lawsuit over his 9,867-square foot home in South Florida's Broward County, according to the South Florida Business Journal.
Culpepper, a former All-Pro who finished runner-up to Peyton Manning in the 2004 NFL MVP voting, also has a lawsuit against him for failure to pay home association dues in the gated community. According to the report, the house is not Culpepper's main residence.
In 2003, Culpepper signed a 10-year, $102 million deal with the Vikings. He didn't earn the entire $102 million, but did get a $16 million signing bonus and play through four of the 10 seasons.
A devastating knee injury at Carolina in 2005 changed his career forever. In 2006, he clashed with then-new coach Brad Childress and the Vikings over his rehab and his contract. He was traded to Miami before the season. The Dolphins restructured his contract and gave him a $7 million signing bonus.
Although Culpepper met his goal of returning from knee surgery for the start of the 2006 season, he played only four games and was released. He later played for Oakland and Detroit. His last NFL season was 2010 with the Lions.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman met with 10 local reporters Friday at Winter Park, addressing everything from the Percy Harvin trade rumors to the 2014 option the team exercised on Leslie Frazier’s contract to the ongoing preparations for next week’s NFL Combine. Here are the top four highlights from that session.
1. So, will the Vikings really entertain trade offers for Harvin as has been speculated on a grand level for the past week?
Spielman grinned at that question.
“We have no intent of trading Percy Harvin,” he said. “Percy Harvin is under contract and we expect him, just like all of our players under contract, to be here.”
Case closed, right?
Well … Not exactly.
In the next breath, Spielman was asked if his intent with Harvin and his course of action could ultimately differ. In other words, while the Vikings may say they have no intent of dealing Harvin away, does that mean they won’t pull the trigger if a good offer comes their way?
That question made the Vikings GM dance a little more.
“Again, there is no intent to trade Percy Harvin,” Spielman said. “He is a very good football player. I’m not going to talk about any contractual issues because those are kept internal.”
As Harvin’s contractual issues go, he’s due to make $2.9 million in 2013, the final year of his rookie contract. He’s also seeking a long-term extension, an option the Vikings will certainly explore. But it remains to be seen whether the team and their mercurial playmaker will see eye-to-eye on the price tag of that extension. And as we’ve said all along, the whole Harvin-Vikings relationship has so many moving parts right now that it’s too early and too difficult to forecast a final resolution right now.
Further complicating things are all the varying reports and rumors that continue surfacing nationally on Harvin’s status.
At this point, in the always hyper-active world of NFL media, where it seems news has to be made every day, it’s a challenge to filter through rumors for reality.
Spielman’s take on all the wild chatter out there?
“There’s so much stuff flying out there this time of year that comes from everywhere,” he said. “I know where we stand and with the people in this organization, it’s a very close circle on what gets out. And so I sit there and look at some of the stuff. But I would just say don’t believe all the half-truths or the rumors or the no-truths that are out there because there is so much stuff that flies around. … Ya know, it’s great reading.”
Spielman said it would be too time-consuming and ultimately futile to try and keep up with all the innuendo flying around.
“You can’t just come out there and clarify every half-truth and every no-truth because there’s so much that goes on at this time of year. … That’s today’s age and the Internet and the social media and everything like that. So I understand that’s a part of the deal.”
So, yeah. Let this stand as a reminder to everyone to just take a breath and calm down on the Harvin story until something new actually happens.
2. The Vikings insist they are fully behind Frazier as the head coach to continue leading them upward on a chase for a championship.
That support has been very real and very genuine throughout the organization. Until this week when the Vikings announced they had picked up the 2014 option on Frazier’s contract but hadn’t offered a longer-term extension. In fact, Frazier’s agent Bob Lamonte said he had never heard from Vikings ownership to even begin negotiating a longer-term deal.
Is that a major slap in the face? No. Does it add a bit of awkwardness to things? Absolutely.
From a business standpoint, it’s understandable why the Vikings would take a wait-and-see approach with Frazier’s contract, especially after getting burned by the extension they gave to Brad Childress in November 2009. Just as it would have been premature to fire Frazier after the 3-13 faceplant in 2011, it probably would have been premature to go all-in on the talented head coach after the Vikings’ 10-6 march and return to the 2012 playoffs.
“Leslie has done an outstanding job here,” Spielman reiterated Friday. “He’s been a great leader of the men down in the locker room. We expect him to be our coach for a long time. He’s been outstanding at everything from leadership to development of young players, everything we’re doing. We’re just looking forward to getting ready for next year and anything from a contractual standpoint or anything like that will always be held internal, just like players. … There’s no question of the support that our ownership group, myself, I think our whole organization has for Leslie Frazier.”
Spielman was asked Friday whether the contract issue could become a point of contention between the head coach and the powers above him.
“No. Not with Leslie Frazier,” he said. “I don’t want to put words [in his mouth]. But with Leslie Frazier you know what type of character and what type of person he is and what he stands for.”
Understand this: This is by no means any sort of significant controversy. Just more of a peculiar offseason footnote.
Moving on …
3. The Vikings currently have nine draft picks in their stockpile for April.
Last month, the team announced it had only eight selections. But after some confusion on whether they would have to relinquish a sixth-rounder to Washington in connection with the Donovan McNabb trade in 2011, the Vikings have been informed by the league that that pick remains theirs.
So, Spielman rubber-stamped the selections for the Vikings. They currently have a pick in every round and two selections in both the fourth and seventh rounds.
4. Spielman is giddy about the opportunities the combine provides to further the team’s evaluations on so many draft prospects.
The GM’s explanation of his eagerness was forthright.
"It's probably the biggest event heading into the draft,” he said. “It's the first time you're going to get all the Olympic numbers on these guys: the height, weight, speeds, the first time that we'll get in front of a lot of these guys, especially the juniors. We'll get all our medical, our psychological, both areas that we test in those. It's probably my most exciting time besides the day of the draft is going to the combine, because there's so much that you get accomplished there."
What was a foregone conclusion following a surprising playoff season has come to pass. The Vikings and head coach Leslie Frazier have agreed on a multi-year contract extension, a team source has confirmed.
The agreement, which was first reported by the Associated Press, comes as Frazier was heading into the last year of his contract. He is 16-23, including 0-1 in the playoffs, since replacing the fired Brad Childress with six games left in the 2010 season.
Frazier's 3-3 record as an interim coach during that disastrous 2010 season earned him the full-time post heading into the 2011 NFL lockout. After finishing 3-13 in his first full season, Frazier led the Vikings to a 10-6 record that virtually no one saw coming for a rebuilding NFC North team that had an unproven quarterback.
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