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.
The Vikings were able to go through the first couple of days of training camp without the injury bug biting them. But that little bugger has reared its ugly head during the past two practices, and it has had a craving for the hamstrings of Vikings defensive backs in particular.
Safety Robert Blanton, who had been working with the first-team defense, sat out today’s practice after injuring his hamstring during Monday night’s practice. Then, this afternoon, cornerback Josh Robinson hurt his hamstring, left practice and did not resume practicing.
Head coach Mike Zimmer hinted that Blanton’s injury is the more concerning of the two.
“[Robinson’s] got a tight hammy,” he said. “I don’t think it will be very long. It just got tight. It was more preventative. I told [athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] to [hold him out today.]”
Rookie tight end A.C. Leonard also left practice. Zimmer said he was dealing with a headache.
As for safety Andrew Sendejo, who is on the PUP list with lower back and hamstring injuries, Zimmer expected him to be activated and start practicing with the team early next week.
There was good injury news. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had full participation and seemed to get through the practice without issue. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn also suited up, but was limited to just a little bit of individual work. He said after practice that he expects his participation to ramp up tomorrow and that he hopes to be a full-go by next week.
“You don’t want to get yourself reinjured, but it feels great to be back on the field,” he said.
In non-injury news, Zimmer indicated that the Chad Greenway experiment at middle linebacker is all but over. The Vikings are keeping him at outside linebacker for now so that they can evaluate others at the position. I guess Greenway could always be a fall-back option at the MIKE, but you have to figure if the coaches like what they saw from him, they would have kept him there. Jasper Brinkley got most of the first-team reps between Greenway and top pick Anthony Barr, who was getting his first extensive look with the ones.
I guess I should mention that a certain other first-rounder got some first-team reps, too. Bridgewater got at least five reps with the ones before veteran Matt Cassel was inserted back with the first team. So #HowDidTeddyLook? Zimmer said Bridgewater was a little shaky.
“Ahhhh, he didn’t look quite as accurate as he had throughout the whole camp,” he said.
Every day On most days, our Vikings reporters walk you through what’s happening that day.
We have a long way to go until the Vikings’ position battles are settled. But of all the position groups, the linebacker situation is easily the one with the least clarity four days into camp.
Take last night’s practice for example. One second you see No. 52, 54 and 57 on the field together. Then you look up and No. 55 is out there with some first-teamers in the blitz period. Then you see No. 50 or 56 or 58 getting sprinkled in with the first or second team.
Whoops, you just blinked and missed another combination.
“We are rotating a lot of different guys in a lot of different areas,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said a couple of days ago, adding, “We like the competition, we like the guys that we have got, we know it will work itself out in the end.”
My best early guess: Chad Greenway will be one starter, and could either be in the middle or at one outside linebacker spot. Mike Zimmer loves him some Anthony Barr, so I bet we see him starting on the outside, though a job isn’t going to be handed to him. As for that third spot in the base defense, your guess is as good as mine right now. What do you say we just throw some darts?
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
--- TE Kyle Rudolph and the Vikings envision a bright future together.
--- RB Adrian Peterson thinks the Vikings offense will be much less predictable.
--- The Vikings had a spirited practice under the lights last night.
--- Rookie CB Jabari Price is learning to play with better technique instead of relying on speed.
TWEET OF THE (YESTER)DAY
Kyle Rudolph said the first thing he will do with his money is keep a promise to his HS strength coach and buy the school a new weight room.— Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) July 28, 2014
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
--- Could Jimmy Clausen be the Bears’ backup quarterback?
--- The Lions have called off contract talks with DT Ndamukong Suh.
--- Pass rusher Julius Peppers is settling in with the Packers.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
Today is a scheduled off day for Vikings players, and for us, too. Time to catch up on laundry.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
We have yet to see a Vikings quarterback throw an interception in team drills through the first four days of training camp. And yes, before you ask, that’s including Christian Ponder. What are we to make of that? I guess it depends on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty guy or gal. On one hand, offensive coordinator Norv Turner has stressed ball control, so the lack of picks is a good thing. But Zimmer wants his defensive backs to contest passes, and while they have done a decent job deflecting passes and jarring them from receivers, interceptions are even better.
Mike Zimmer has promised that the Vikings would be fast and physical, but they eased into training camp this afternoon. There will be no live contact in the first couple of days of camp, so Zimmer said earlier that those practices will have more of an OTA feel. He ended up being right.
Practice started with position drills followed by some 1-on-1 work. After that, Zimmer sprinkled in some 11-on-11 team drills and a brief blitz period. There was also a lot of special teams work.
Usually at the start of training camp, the defense gets the better of the offense as the offense finds its rhythm. Today, the defense had its moments, contesting passes as Zimmer has said he hoped to see, so they’d probably get the slight edge, partially due to several errant passes from the offense.
SETTING THE SCENE: Practice was outdoors. The practice lasted around two hours. Players were in helmets and shells. The weather here was overcast and the temperature was reasonable.
BATTLE OF THE ‘BACKERS: Top pick Anthony Barr, who missed most of the spring due to an NFL rule that kept him at UCLA, started his first NFL training camp with the second-team defense. Running with the first team were Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole. It will probably only be a matter of time until Barr is with the starters, but Zimmer is going to make him earn it.
SIMPSON SIZZLES: Wide receiver Jerome Simpson had a pretty solid first day, despite one bobbled pass that nearly led to an interception in team drills. In individual drills -- yes, I know, they are just 1-on-1s -- Simpson once ran a crisp deep out route, slamming on the brakes to leave his defender in the dust before making a nice, lunging grab near the sideline. On another play, he got behind the defense but Teddy Bridgewater barely overshot him. Simpson brings that vertical dimension to Norv Turner’s vertical offense, and could thrive if he can become more consistent.
LET’S TALK QUARTERBACKS: OK, maybe I should have gotten to the quarterbacks sooner, but there wasn’t a whole lot to report from this afternoon. Matt Cassel, who was throwing to the starters, completed six of his 10 attempts in team drills, though a couple of those incompletions were the result of blatant drops. Bridgewater, who was with the second-stringers, was 5-for-8. Christian Ponder was just 1-for-2, and he threw a few errant passes during individual drills.
CORDARRELLE A NO-GO: Second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson wore a bucket hat instead of a helmet today. Patterson was held out of practice after injuring his foot. The team says that he is day-to-day and no, Patterson wasn’t the guy who failed the conditioning test yesterday.
SAFETY DANCE: Robert Blanton continued to line up next to Harrison Smith with the starting defense, but I can report that 2012 and 2013 starter Jamarca Sanford has returned from injury.
DROPPING THE BALL: When it was time to practice punts, only Jarius Wright and Kain Colter went back to catch them, and Wright struggled at doing so. He let one Jeff Locke punt toward the left sideline drop in front of him and muffed another punt, which was recovered by the coverage team.
NOT CATCHING ON: The Vikings have said they hope to get Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game, but this afternoon his terrifyingly-strong hands failed him on a few occasions.
INJURY REPORT: Beyond Patterson and the PUP guys -- CB Captain Munnerlyn (strained hammy), S Andrew Sendejo (lower back and ankle) and TE Chase Ford (foot) -- everyone else practiced.
For the first time since 2011, Michael Mauti hasn’t spent most of his spring rehabbing an injury.
The Vikings’ second-year middle linebacker is more than a year removed from his third ACL reconstruction surgery, and for the first time in a long time, Mauti is feeling like himself again.
“Right now, I feel great physically,” the 2013 seventh-round pick said. “I had a full offseason just to work out and get my legs right and not have to rehab anything, which is great. I feel like my body is back to where it was. I haven’t felt this good in a couple years now, which is a great thing because I don’t have to worry about where I am physically and I can just go out and play.”
Mauti is in the mix at middle linebacker, though he has been taking a backseat to Jasper Brinkley and Chad Greenway in a competition that defensive coordinator George Edwards describes as an “open” one. Mauti, who was active for 14 games last year because of his play on special teams, was used sparingly on defense last year.
He is ready to change that this year. And no, it’s not just because his knees are troubling him less.
“Last year, being a rookie, there were just so many things [to learn]. It wasn’t just the knee necessarily,” the former Penn State standout said. “I felt good enough to play and I made some plays last year on [special] teams. But really, not being a rookie really is the best part about it. Mentally, you got that first year under your belt and you can start to get more comfortable. You’re not the new guy anymore. Now it’s just learning the defense and putting all my focus into that.”
While he is becoming versed in a completely different defense, Mauti is working on the subtle but key nuances of the MIKE linebacker spot, the decisions that happen before the ball is even snapped -- getting himself and teammates lined up in the right spots, making the reads and calls before the snap and ensuring that all 11 defenders are on the same page of Mike Zimmer’s playbook.
Of course, what happens during the plays themselves is important, too, and Mauti will have to have a strong training camp to distinguish himself from a crowded group of linebackers. Brinkley had been lining up at middle linebacker on the first-team defense during OTAs open to the media. And now that outside linebacker Anthony Barr is back, Greenway has been manning the middle more, both in the base defense and in sub packages. Mauti has worked with the backups.
"Michael’s doing a good job," Zimmer said. "He’s again competing for a spot as a starter or on the team, both. He’s a smart guy, he’s got a tremendous family background with playing football and he’s an extremely hard worker, very, very focused on what he’s trying to get done and so I’m excited to see him when he gets in here in pads, see him when the bullets are flying a little bit more."
But down in Mankato, Mauti hopes to inject himself in the middle linebacker conversation.
“I think we’re all competing. It’s just a matter of who they feel is going to be best in that spot,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of linebackers here that work hard. In training camp, coaches will make that decision. But that’s what we’re all here to do -- to play and give it our best shot.”
Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole lined up as the linebackers with the first team on Thursday, but it is still way too early to get an indication of who will line up where in Week 1.
For starters, top pick Anthony Barr was not present because UCLA is still in session -- it must be tough for a big man on campus to hang around that campus this time of year -- and he won’t be back on the practice fields at Winter Park until next month’s mandatory minicamp. While head coach Mike Zimmer hasn’t anointed Barr as one starter, that is certainly the early expectation.
Second, the one practice per week or two that media members are allowed to watch is just one snapshot of what the Vikings are up to, and it’s certainly possible that someone such as Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti has been getting a crack running with the first-team defense, too. After all, Zimmer said Thursday that there is no depth chart now as the coaching staff evaluates the roster.
Plus, meaningful reps in training camp and snaps in the preseason will play a larger role.
Still, one linebackery thing seems clear, and that is that Zimmer has a lot of respect for Greenway, who told reporters he is studying football now more than he ever has.
“That’s good, I like that, I do. It’s important to him,” Zimmer said. “That’s why he has been a good player for a long, long time, because it’s important to him. If we had 90 of those kind of guys we would really be good. I do think our guys are studying a lot and hopefully we are keeping them accountable about knowing what they’re supposed to do all of the time. Yeah, it makes me feel good.”
I don’t know if the Vikings would have their answer at quarterback with 90 Greenways on the roster, but you get the point: Zimmer values the leadership and professionalism Greenway brings.
It will be interesting to see what Zimmer decides to do with Greenway over the next three months. He spent most of Thursday’s practice at one of the outside linebacker spots, but he also got snaps at MIKE linebacker and could ultimately end up filling that void in the middle.
Regardless, Zimmer said that the versatility (or lack thereof) of his linebackers will be a factor as the coaching staff tries to sort out a crowded group and determine who makes the team.
“When you go to the game with six linebackers, you know, something happens they have to be ready to go,” Zimmer said when asked specifically about Greenway’s versatility. “Part of the deal with all of our guys is we are trying to give them a lot of different things to do. I’ve always felt like the more things that you can do the more valuable you are, especially on game day.”
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