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.


Posts about Vikings draft

Vikings sign three draft picks; Chuck Muncie dies; Urlacher "rumored" to Vikings ...

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated: May 14, 2013 - 2:27 PM

The Vikings signed three draft picks -- linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Everett Dawkins -- today.

Hodges was a fourth-round selection (120th overall), while Mauti (213th) and Dawkins (229th) were seventh rounders. Hodges and Mauti are from Penn State, while Dawkins played at Florida State.

The signings were announced by the team. Hodges posted his signing on Twitter. He called it the happiest moment of his life.

A video review of the Vikings picks, if you have a little time to watch, is here. Sid also broke down the Penn State linebackers here. (Just wanted to use "Sid broke down" in the context of Sid breaking down film.  Not sure that line worked.)

Other Vikings notes:

  • Chuck Muncie, who played briefly for the Vikings at the end of a career plagued by substance abuse, has died at age 60. News reports say Muncie, a star with San Diego, had a heart attack.
  • And former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and the Vikings have been mentioned in the same sentence by a Chicago Sun Times "gossip" columnist.

Michael Sneed, who apparently is quite comfortable referring to herself in the third person, wrote: Sneed hears that former Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher, whose stellar, longtime career with the Bears began with a growl and ended with a whimper, is getting close to finding a new pigskin playground. Sneed is told that Urlacher, whose decision to leave the Bears followed their offer of a $1.6 million renewal contract, has been talking to the Minnesota Vikings and the Denver Broncos. “It’s getting close to happening, but Brian is leaning toward heading to Minnesota and is talking a one to two year contract,” said a source close to Urlacher.

As they used to say on Hee Haw, we don't like to repeat rumors ... so you better listen closely the first time.

 

Pat Williams returns to the Vikings -- for one day

Posted by: Updated: April 25, 2013 - 7:24 PM
In his own words, Pat Williams was “just trying to fade away.” His last game as an immovable defensive tackle came in 2010 at the end of a turbulent Vikings season. And then, after 14 years in the NFL and six in Minnesota, Williams’ final contract expired and he found no new team to sign with.
Just like that, he was out of football. Until Thursday.
In a ceremonial gesture, the Vikings signed Williams to a one-day contract but will release him Friday, allowing the 40-year-old former nose tackle to officially retire as a member of the team whose defensive line he anchored for so long.
The idea of the one-day contract, Williams said, was that of Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who called him up last month.
Said Williams: “I was like, ‘What in the world’s Spielman calling me for?’ I had no idea. He called me out of the blue.”
Williams was appreciative of the call and signed his contract at Winter Park on Thursday.
His signing bonus: “I got a Viking pen when I signed.”
In a 10-minute chat before the draft Thursday evening, Williams quickly revisited his time with the Vikings. Asked for his best memory, he instead picked out the worst.
“When that dome crashed [in December 2010],” Williams said, recalling the snowstorm that tore a hole in the roof at Mall of America Field. “We didn’t know where we was playing. It was all over the board. That was the worst.”
And while Williams had no trouble declaring the 2009 season the high point of his career, that 31-28 overtime loss to New Orleans in the NFC Championship game still has its scars, especially with Williams, now back home in Louisiana and subject to too much discussion about that loss among Saints fans.
“[They argue] that the Saints had the better team,” Williams said. “And they really didn’t. If you knew football, they didn’t. We whipped their [butts] if you really knew football. We basically gave it to them, all those [darn] turnovers. I said if we didn’t turn the ball over, we would have blown your [butts] out.”
Williams’ playing days are over. But he hasn’t moved on from football. He just accepted a position as an assistant coach at a high school in Louisiana.
“All the kids down there love me,” Williams said. “It’ll keep me busy.”

Quarterback snapshot: How well can the Christian Ponder-Matt Cassel tandem function?

Posted by: Updated: April 18, 2013 - 8:37 AM
As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Quarterbacks
Current starter: Christian Ponder
Reserves under contract: Matt Cassel, Joe Webb, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Biggest offseason move: When the inevitable finally occurred and Matt Cassel was released by the Chiefs on March 14, the Vikings quickly pounced. They had put out a “Help Wanted” ad for a back-up quarterback and saw a guy in Cassel whom they trusted to assume that role with professionalism and comfort. Cassel was given a two-year deal that could be worth up to $7.4 million. But there is also a fine-print provision within the soon-to-be 31-year-old’s contract that would allow him to opt out of the 2014 portion of things shortly after next season ended.
In essence, both Cassel and the Vikings have given themselves a safety net. For the Vikings, if it’s determined at any point in 2013 or at season’s end that Christian Ponder is not the long-term answer at quarterback, Cassel’s presence would provide a bridge as the organization searches for its next solution at the position. And Cassel himself could be an option there. 
But if Ponder excels in 2013 and locks down the role as the starter with no signs of relenting it, then Cassel could weigh his alternatives and have the option to seek a starting role elsewhere.
Level of draft need: None. Heading into the season, Ponder is the undisputed starter. Cassel owns the back-up role. With so many other needs, using a pick on a quarterback next week seems impractical.
You should know: Vikings coach Leslie Frazier feels very strongly about what Cassel will bring to the team at practice and in meetings. Here’s an exchange Frazier had with the Star Tribune at the NFL’s annual meetings in Phoenix last month …
Before the offseason heated up, you guys made it very clear that Christian is the starter. The opening was for a back-up. Matt had experience as a back-up in college behind Carson Palmer, behind Matt Leinart. He gets to New England and backs up Tom Brady. What was your feel for his understanding of that role?
Frazier: “You sense that he gets it. In my conversations with him, he made that very clear. He understands the needs for a back-up and how the back-up should conduct himself. That was great to hear. That was such a big part of us consummating this deal -- that he would understand his role and then understand the importance of a back-up handling that role the correct way. He made it very clear to me that he understood that. He’s experienced this league as a starter, he’s experienced this as a back-up. So to me, it was hey let’s get the deal done.”
And obviously he has 2008. Brady gets hurt early in the first game and just like that, he’s got the controls the rest of the season for the Patriots.
Frazier: “Exactly. And we talked about that. And we talked about his time in Kansas City when he was a starter and how his back-ups handled themselves. I like that he’s been on both ends of it. He knows the importance of that role and how to handle it.”
So what can he do with Christian so they are working in tandem and obviously the back-up is at least helping your starter to grow and develop?
Frazier: “Matt’s experience will help Christian. Being in that meeting room and being able to see things, being able to point things out. Christian hasn’t really had that per se since he became our starter. He hasn’t had that veteran back-up who might see some things that the coaches might not see. Or to speak from a players’ perspective. That’ll be big. And I think Matt’s practice habits, the way he prepares are a big deal. All those same things he learned from Tom Brady, Matt will now be able to instill some of those values with our young quarterbacks. We talked about that. He noted a lot of the things he learned from Tom. He took those to Kansas City and now he’ll bring that to our situation in Kansas City. Some of the things he explained to me about his relationship with Tom and watching how he prepared, Matt felt it really helped him. And I think that’ll help Christian now as well.”
One more thing: With Ponder, the Vikings will be looking for more consistency and signs of growth in 2013. The excuse of being a young player with limited experience is no longer valid. Ponder has 26 starts under his belt and now must prove to be reliable week after week after week. To be clear, he won’t ever be asked to be the superstar of this offense. Not so long as Adrian Peterson is whizzing around the backfield. But Ponder will again be asked to be efficient, to cut down on costly errors. That again means avoiding drive-killing sacks and game-turning turnovers.
It’s hard for the Vikings to know which Ponder will show up more often in 2013. Will it be the guy who failed to throw for 100 yards in three contests last season, the guy who had a rating below 60 on five occasions, the guy who torpedoed the team’s upset bid at Lambeau Field in Week 13 by going seven consecutive possessions without a completion while also throwing two brutal red zone interceptions in the second half? Or will Ponder ride the momentum and confidence he built in the final four weeks of the regular season into Year 3? During that stretch, he helped the Vikings’ surge into the playoffs with four straight wins by taking only five sacks and turning the ball over just twice. He helped the team score on its opening possession in all four games (three TDs, one field goal) and the Vikings never trailed thereafter in any of those wins. And in the season finale against Green Bay, Ponder threw for 234 yards and three scores while posting a career-best rating of 120.2. Under the brightest of lights with the pressure at its peak. That’s the guy General Manager Rick Spielman believes will show up more often in 2013.
The worst-case scenario for the Vikings is that Ponder struggles enough to indicate he might never be the team’s long-term answer yet displays enough signs of promise to convince the coaching staff and front office that he still needs just a little more time to get over the hump.
The hope in 2013 is that one way or the other, Ponder proves what he is once and for all.
Lastly, on a side note, there has been speculation that Joe Webb may face a conversion back to receiver in 2013. But when asked on multiple occasions last month about a possible position change for Webb, Frazier said his mindset was to take Webb to training camp as a quarterback, asking him to compete for the team’s No. 3 job.
Could that change? Perhaps. Would the Vikings be better off trying to get Webb on the field in some way with his speed and athleticism rather than stashing him down the depth chart at QB? Maybe. But again, Frazier has said directly that he’d prefer not to have Webb change positions.
“I’m not thinking that way, as we speak,” he had said. “I’m seeing Joe as a quarterback. Things may change. But I see him as a quarterback and I see him coming in and competing for a position.”

Receiver/tight end snapshot: What’s next in life after Percy Harvin?

Posted by: Updated: April 17, 2013 - 7:19 AM

As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.

Today’s snapshot: Wide receivers and tight ends

Current receiver starters: Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright

Reserves under contract: Stephen Burton, Greg Childs, Chris Summers

Current tight end starter: Kyle Rudolph

Reserves under contract: John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, LaMark Brown, Chase Ford

Level of draft need for receivers: High. Even with Jennings now on board, the Vikings owe it to themselves to surround quarterback Christian Ponder with as many weapons as possible if they are to complete his three-year evaluation fairly. Ponder and the offense badly need an outside speed threat. More reliable depth at the position is necessary, too. Nabbing at least two receivers in the draft seems likely.

Level of draft need for tight ends: None. Kyle Rudolph is still ascending, a dangerous red zone weapon who made great strides with his blocking a year ago. In Leslie Frazier’s words, Rhett Ellison still sets the standard as the team’s best blocking tight end, which has earns him a chance to be on the field more in 2013.

Biggest offseason move: The March 11 blockbuster trade that sent Percy Harvin to Seattle in exchange for three draft picks was without question a pivotal moment in Vikings’ history. Replacing Harvin won’t be easy. Despite missing the final seven games last season, Harvin still led the team with 62 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns. He was also a major threat as a kick returner. And yet whatever unfolded behind the scenes after he suffered that severely sprained left ankle in a Week 9 loss in Seattle permanently fractured Harvin’s relationship with the franchise. Details of the divide have been kept under lock and key. And while various national outlets have taken bold stabs at trying to identify why the Harvin-Vikings divorce had to happen, members of the front office and coaching staff continue to assert  the true reasons for Harvin’s departure have not been revealed.

As Leslie Frazier said at last month’s league meetings in Phoenix: “There are a lot of layers to this situation. And one day, when I sit down and write this book, we'll divulge all the layers. But it's complicated.”

Loosely translated: Don’t put full stock in the notion that Harvin’s frustration with Ponder was the wick that made things explode. Said Frazier: “It didn't play the role that most think.”

Also, it should be made clear that contract negotiations weren’t the main cause of the strain either. Instead, it came down to the receiver’s desire to get out of town. For reasons still fully unknown.

As patient as Frazier had always been with Harvin, the mercurial receiver made it clear at the tail end of last season that he wanted out, that he desired to be moved. Rather than engaging in a potentially volatile staring contest, Vikings GM Rick Spielman sought out significant trade compensation for Harvin and came away thrilled when the Seahawks offered the No. 25 pick in this year’s draft plus a seventh-rounder this year and a third-rounder in 2014. At that point, Spielman excitedly pulled the trigger. And even with the wide hole that opened in the Vikings’ receiving corps, there was also a recognition internally that the team finished last season with five wins in the seven games Harvin missed. The Vikings were also a perfect 4-0 to close the regular season immediately after Harvin was put on Injured Reserve.

You should know: Of all the things the Vikings love about Greg Jennings – his versatility, his experience, his crisp route running – they’ve raved most about his positive energy. A few hours after signing the 29-year-old receiver away from Green Bay, Frazier noted the character and professionalism Jennings will infuse into the locker room.

Added Spielman: “You can see the leadership he brings on the field and the enthusiasm he plays with. It’s easy when you watch guys on tape, [you can see] which guys really love to play the game. And there is no question when you watch the tape on Greg Jennings, you know that he loves to play the game.”

The Vikings also feel encouraged about the hunger Jennings has brought with him. Remember that three-year stretch from 2008-10 when Jennings averaged 75 catches, 1,223 yards and eight TDs per season? The Vikings feel they can tap into that potential and get similar production going forward. Jennings wants to prove he's still that kind of player.

Jennings has missed 11 games the past two seasons due to injuries – a knee issue cost him three games in 2011 and a core muscle problem held him out for half of last year. And while he was out, the Packers’ offense didn’t miss a beat with Jordy Nelson and James Jones and Randall Cobb all excelling and becoming top-notch playmakers for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Jennings began to feel overshadowed, lost in the shuffle, under-appreciated in that equation. And so as he dove into free agency last month, he was not only looking for an offense he felt he could fit into, he was also looking to feel wanted.

The Vikings, who finished 31st in the NFL in passing offense last season, certainly wanted Jennings. And yes, his production in the coming years should be a part of the subsequent evaluation of the success of the Harvin trade.
In trading Harvin, the Vikings not only received those three draft picks from the Seahawks, they were then able to take a chunk of the money they'd been budgeting for a potential contract extension to Harvin and deliver it to Jennings.

One more thing: While everyone in the Vikings’ organization is rooting for Greg Childs to return from the brutal knee injuries he suffered last August, the team is proceeding with the understanding that Childs may never play a meaningful down in the NFL. It’s not just that the 23-year-old receiver from Arkansas blew out both knees during a training camp scrimmage last summer, tearing his patellar tendons on both sides, it’s that that setback came 22 months after his junior season in college ended with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

Childs fought through that rehab and returned to play in eight games as a senior. But he was nowhere near top form, tallying only 21 catches for 240 yards. And while his perseverance and optimism through his more recent rehabilitation stretch has been laudable, it’s hard to look past the notion that he hasn’t had a full season at full strength since 2009.

Frazier was asked about Childs at last month’s league meetings and had this to offer: “It'd be a monumental surprise if Greg Childs somehow, some way came back and was a factor. With his size and his athleticism, that would be a big boon for our wide receiver position. … There's a concern because of the [injury] history, for sure. We just have to kind of wait and see. He'd be making history because nobody's ever come back from that injury. But the way he's working gives you hope.”

Running back snapshot: Examining Adrian Peterson’s quest for 2,500 yards

Posted by: Updated: April 14, 2013 - 10:37 PM

As the NFL draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.

Today’s snapshot: Running backs

Current starters: Adrian Peterson, Jerome Felton

Reserves under contract: Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard

Biggest offseason move: The re-signing of Felton was a big deal, even if it didn’t receive much attention or hype outside the Twin Cities. The 26-year-old fullback was superb as a lead blocker in 2012, aiding Adrian Peterson’s MVP season.

Level of draft need: Low. The depth chart seems set and solid for 2013. But Toby Gerhart is also entering the final year of his rookie contract. And if he seeks to hit free agency in 2014 to find greater opportunity elsewhere, the Vikings’ may want to start shopping for potential back-ups for Adrian Peterson.

You should know: Peterson’s vow to follow his extraordinary 2,097-yard eruption in 2012 with a 2,500-yard explosion in 2013 is downright ridiculous. And maybe it’s most preposterous because his teammates and coaches don’t question it.

Here’s what Felton said in January: “I really don’t feel like it’s out of reach. You look at it. It’s what, around 155 yards per game? With him, that’s doable.”

Added Jared Allen: “With that dude? It’s logical. And yeah, that’s crazy. … But I think too, with the way the league is now as such a pass dominant league, you’re seeing smaller fronts. You’re not having that 330-pound nose tackle anymore. You’ve got to have guys there who can rush the passer because of these spread offenses and these check-down systems. So you get a team like us that likes to run the ball with a back like Adrian and smaller [defenders] on the field, 2,500 might not be a stretch.”

And then in March, Leslie Frazier chimed in: “I think it's a good goal to have if you're Adrian Peterson. He's more than capable of getting it accomplished.”

All that said, the Vikings know it’s in their best interest to diversify their offense, to not be so one-dimensional and predictable. And so with an eye on energizing the passing attack, Peterson’s workload and production will almost certainly dip some. That will be by design with the hope that another reliable playmaker emerges. (That means you, Greg Jennings.)

Consider Peterson’s numbers from the first nine games of last season when Percy Harvin was healthy and adding pop to the offense: an average of 19 carries and 106 yards plus six total touchdowns.

And in the final seven games without Harvin around? Peterson averaged 26 carries and 163 yards with seven TDs.
Balance is a priority and so while Peterson will be aiming for 2,500 yards, Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave are hopeful they won’t have to push at that milestone to be successful.

All that said, the opposite train of thought says that if Peterson was capable of topping 2,000 yards last season while spending the first month working back towards full strength and the last two months as a marked man facing stacked defenses while fighting through a painful sports hernia injury, imagine what he might be able to do if he stays healthy for a full year and the Vikings find a balanced offense that keeps opponents from keying on him.

Yikes. Maybe 2,500 yards isn’t as asinine of a goal as it sounds.

For what it’s worth, six other backs have topped 2,000 yards in a season. Here are their numbers from the following season:

  • O.J. Simpson (1974): 270 carries, 1,125 yards, three TDs
  • Eric Dickerson (1985): 292 carries, 1,234 yards, 12 TDs
  • Barry Sanders (1998): 343 carries, 1,491 yards, four TDs
  • Terrell Davis (1999): 67 carries, 211 yards, two TDs
  • Jamal Lewis (2004): 235 carries, 1,006 yards, seven TDs
  • Chris Johnson (2010): 316 carries, 1,364 yards, 11 TDs

One more thing: When it came to a final vote at the NFL’s annual meetings in March, the Vikings actually voted in favor of the new rule that will now penalize any runner or tackler who “initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet.”

But that “Yes” vote was more a reluctant concession than an indication of support. The Vikings simply did not want to appear in opposition of a player safety proposal that already had enough votes to pass.

Only an hour before that vote was taken in Phoenix last month, Frazier repeatedly declared his skepticism.
“We’re not one of those teams who is for it,” he asserted.

His biggest worries? That dynamic backs like Peterson could be neutered if they’re forced to be thinking too much.

“It's such an instinctive position,” Frazier said. “The guys are just reacting most of the time. If you ask Adrian [Peterson] on some of his runs, 'How did you know that guy was coming from the left or the right?' It's just a sense, just a feel sometimes. … As a running back, it's instincts. For me to start thinking now, 'Oh, man, I've got to lower my shoulder or I've got to turn this way' -- I don't know. We'll see.”

We will all see how the new rule is legislated. The league has made it clear that it wants its officials to zero in on only the obvious infractions. But that will still be a judgment call from week to week. And with a back who runs as powerfully as Peterson with the thirst to deliver contact before absorbing it, it’s a rule worth monitoring.

Said Frazier: “Is it going to make the game safer without altering what these guys do for a living and how they play and how they perform? … I just know being around great running backs, whether it be Walter [Payton] or Adrian, they are so instinctual in what they do. They’re not thinking a lot of times about when they’re going to use a stiff arm, how they’re going to use it. They’re not premeditating some of the moves they make. And to make them start thinking about, should I lower my shoulder left or right or spin this way? I just don’t know.”
 

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