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.
While wondering how many people truly grasp the reality that the Vikings are down to 10 games left on their Metrodome lease ...
These are a sampling of questions that have popped up in a number of different ways. You know, things like email, Twitter, blog comments, the hot sun beating my brains in for 2 1/2 hours during practice ...
1, If teams can throw away from Antoine Winfield, why not move him to strong safety?
I think Antoine would make an outstanding safety. If he's not the best tackler in the league, he's not far down the list. I think eventually he'll end up there and extend his career by a couple years. However, right now he's also the Vikings' best and most reliable cornerback. I'd like to see the Vikings have him shadow the opponents' No. 1 receiver, but that hasn't happened before and there's no reason to think it will now. Winfield moves into the slot in the nickel. That sometimes puts Chris Cook (the presumptive winner of the nickel job now that Asher Allen has been slowed by a toe injury) on the other team's top receiver. Cook is still a youngster in NFL catchup mode. Also, in this defense, corners are run-stoppers as well as cover guys. And with most offenses being right-handed in the running game, the Vikings like Winfield on that left side of the defense. No one comes up and drops a ball-carrier quicker than Winfield. And one thing new defensive coordinator Fred Pagac likes to do is rush Winfield off the edge in some passing situations. That's been very effective.
2, Any chance rookie Kyle Rudolph takes the No. 1 tight end job while Visanthe Shiancoe's hammy heals?
No player in camp has looked better than the big kid from Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Shiancoe has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. He hasn't played in the preseason and probably won't since the team has already ruled him out of the third game on Saturday night. I don't think Rudolph moves ahead of Shiancoe. And in this offense, there's room for two pass-catching tight ends. But I do think Rudolph is earning himself more playing time, whether that means more two tight end sets or some kind of rotation with Shiancoe.
3, Why not just move Phil Loadholt to left tackle?
Bryant McKinnie's condition -- or lack thereof -- caught the team off-guard. They weren't expecting him to be in great shape. But they were expecting something close to functional shape. When that wasn't the case, the team cut McKinnie in a move that could take up to a year to bounce back from. The long-term answer the team probably hopes to execute next offseason is moving Loadholt from right tackle to left tackle. Loadholt played it in college and is a massive human being with feet quick enough to play the position. But this close to the season, the Vikings are trying not to upset the entire apple cart by moving everybody around. They're already unsettled at right guard. A run-oriented offense doesn't want both positions on the right side to be unsettled. So, for now, the team is hoping Charlie Johnson can hang on for a season over on the left side.
4, Why doesn't Percy Harvin return punts?
He'd be the best punt returner on the team, for sure. His body-type and skills would make him a great punt returner, but is it worth putting extra wear and tear on a 195-pound guy who also is counted on as the team's best receiver and one of the league's top kickoff returners? With kickoffs moved to the 35-yard line, perhaps teams will render Harvin useless on kickoff returns by simply booting the ball deep into the end zone. If that's the case, maybe the Vikings would take him off kickoff returns and get better use out of his return skills on punt returns.
5, Why not have Toby Gerhart play fullback?
Reporters basically were scolded for stereotyping when they asked on draft day 2010 whether Gerhart would be a fullback and play alongside Adrian Peterson. Gerhart has running back skills, but is built big like a fullback. It's not like fullback is a high priority on this team. On a 90-man roster, the Vikings have two fullbacks. Neither has played an NFL game, and the leader in the clubhouse is Ryan D'Imperio, a converted college linebacker. That's not to say one of the many tight ends can't also line up as a fullback. But Gerhart seems more powerful this year -- although he's currently battling Achilles' and ankle soreness -- and it would be interesting to see him and Peterson together in the backfield in certain situations. I also like when the Vikings use Harvin out of the backfield. There were runs the past two years when Harvin looked like the second-best running back on the team.
Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe suffered a setback with his hamstring injury and was back on the sideline a day after returning to the practice field. Coach Leslie Frazier said the team is erring on the side of caution by deciding not to play the veteran in Saturday night's third preseason game against the Cowboys.
"It's nothing major," Frazier said of the setback. "Just enough that we don't want to chance him not being there for the first [regular season] game."
Shiancoe first injured the hamstring during the first week of practice in Mankato. His first day back to practice was Tuesday, when the Vikings practiced for 2 1/2 hours in full pads.
Meanwhile, backup middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley missed practice because of a hip flexor that has bothered him since the end of last season.
On the flip side, Frazier said right guard Anthony Herrera will start on Saturday in what will be his first game since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last November. Frazier said the team hopes to get at least one quarter out of Herrera on Saturday.
Herrera has been practicing with the first team since last week, but was held out of last Saturday's preseason game. With Scott Kooistra (neck) landing on injured reserve, Chris DeGeare fading and Ryan Cook probably better suited to be a backup at multiple positions, Herrera is the favorite to recapture his starting position, assuming he stays healthy.
Other highlights include:
Chris DeGeare spent the final five games of his rookie season in 2010 at left guard, playing in place of the injured Steve Hutchinson. He then opened training camp at right guard subbing for Anthony Herrera, who was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list after having surgery last November to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Coach Leslie Frazier indicated during the Vikings time in Mankato that when Herrera did return he would have to battle DeGeare for the starting job. But when Herrera was activated from the PUP on Monday, DeGeare suddenly was no longer being used exclusively at right guard. Instead, he was playing right tackle.
A fifth-round pick out of Wake Forest, DeGeare had played both tackle and guard in college. Tthe Vikings public stance on this Monday was they wanted to see how much position flexibility they have with the second-year player. If DeGeare is capable of playing multiple spots it makes him that much more valuable when the team is deciding on its 46-man game-day roster.
But could there be something else at work here? DeGeare has not been working with the first team at right tackle -- that job belongs to Phil Loadholt -- but it’s possible the Vikings want to see how DeGeare does at that spot.
If he proves capable, that could lead to a long-term plan that would have DeGeare playing right tackle and Phil Loadholt shifting to the left side. It's now pretty clear that when the Vikings signed Charlie Johnson as a free agent from the Colts that they knew he would end up replacing long-time left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but that doesn't mean that Johnson is defenitely the right guy for the job.
Johnson did not look terrible against Tennessee on Saturday, but he continues to have his hands full with Jared Allen in practice and the last thing the Vikings want is to have 34-year-old Donovan McNabb feeling consistent pressure from his blindside when the regular season begins.
There is a chance the Vikings are being proactive and coming up with a potential plan in case Johnson struggles. Frazier said a few weeks back that he wants to leave Loadholt at right tackle, but what else is he going to say at this point? Until, the move is made -- if it's made -- that's going to be his stance.
Loadholt, who is 6-foot-8 and listed at 343 pounds, is the anti-McKinnie. He came into camp in great shape and looking ready to rebound from a second season in the NFL that wasn’t as good as his first year. Loadholt played left tackle at Oklahoma so the job wouldn't be new to him if the decision is made to go in that direction.
The Vikings cleared salary cap space by releasing safety Madieu Williams, restructuring wide receiver Bernard Berrian's contract and releasing left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
But even with those moves the Vikings remain second-to-last in the NFL when it comes to available cap room, according to Pro Football Talk. The Vikings are only $380,000 below the $120 million cap, putting them ahead of the St. Louis Rams ($270,000).
Those are the only teams that don't have available cap room in the millions. The Atlanta Falcons, who are $1.1 million below the cap, are third from last in the league.
Two big issues remain the cap hits of linebacker Chad Greenway ($10.1 million on a one-year franchise deal) and running back Adrian Peterson ($12.775 million in the final season of his rookie contract). That's why it makes sense for the Vikings to get one or both of those players extended as soon as possible.
It would keep the players' happy and create more salary cap room for 2011, just in case that is needed.
NASHVILLE, TENN. -- The Vikings have numerous questions that need to be answered before the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at San Diego.
While it's likely going to take the entire preseason to get some of the answers, the Vikings' preseason opener on Saturday against the Tennessee Titans should at least help to begin providing clarity on some issues. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the Vikings and Titans play at 7 p.m.
1) Left tackle: The Vikings only plan to play their starters for a series or two but it will be interesting to see how new left tackle Charlie Johnson does against Titans right end Jason Jones, who has been moved from tackle. Johnson, signed as a free agent, is replacing Bryant McKinnie and looked completely overmatched at times in practice last week against Jared Allen.
Granted, Allen is an elite right end but it had to be a concern to the Vikings to see Johnson get beat so badly at times. The question is was Johnson just adjusting to a new system and trying to shake off the rust from the lockout or was he providing an example of why the Colts were planning to move him from tackle to guard if he stayed in Indianapolis?
The Vikings offensive line already had some question marks entering the season, but until McKinnie showed up at nearly 400 pounds and was released, left tackle wasn't thought to be one of the bigger concerns (pun might have been intended).
Donovan McNabb might have been mobile at one time, but he's now a 34-year-old quarterback who spends far more time trying to find receivers than Peyton Manning did when Johnson protected his blindside. If Johnson's struggles continue the Vikings might have to move to an Option B at left tackle. That could mean sliding Phil Loadholt from the right to the left side, although coach Leslie Frazier has said that is something he doesn't want to have to do.
If you're wondering, Pat Brown is listed as the Vikings backup left tackle and has been working with the second team.
2) Battle at strong safety: Tyrell Johnson is listed ahead of Jamarca Sanford on the first (and unofficial) depth chart put out by the Vikings but at this point the reality is these two are battling for the job.
Johnson missed time in training camp this week because of a hamstring injury, giving Sanford a chance to get more reps with the first team. That isn't going to hurt his case. It also doesn't hurt that Sanford is an aggressive safety and while that might cause him to make mistaks it also provides an intensity that has been lacking at times from the safeties on this team in recent seasons.
Johnson, a second-round pick in 2008, started 15 games in 2009 but lost his job to Husain Abdullah last year and saw action in only seven games (two starts). Sanford was a seventh-round selection in 2009 and has made three starts in his first two seasons.
One would think that Johnson and Sanford would split the starts in these first two games as coaches try to get a look at them playing against the top competition on the field.
3) Backup quarterback: Don't blink or you're going to miss McNabb's appearance. However, it could get a bit more interesting after that.
Not sure I buy that Joe Webb and Christian Ponder are really competing for the No. 2 job, but Frazier has been alternating the two between second- and third-team reps and there have been times that Webb definitely has looked to be sharper.
The plan for Saturday is to have Webb replace McNabb and then have Ponder follow after so that will give Webb the reps with the second team. If Webb impresses on Saturday, the competition for the backup spot indeed could be on.
The one thing we do know is Rhett Bomar is going to see plenty of playing time in the second half and with McNabb, Webb and Ponder in front of him there is little chance Bomar is around for very long.
4) Wide open? One would think that Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian and Michael Jenkins are assured of jobs on the 53-man roster. But after that there will be plenty of competition for the Nos. 4-5 jobs at wide receiver.
The candidates include Jaymar Johnson (who worked extremely hard this offseason and has looked good in camp); Manny Arceneaux; Devin Aromashodu; Greg Camarillo; and Juaquin Iglesias. That is leaving out Stephen Burton, Dominique Johnson and Andre Holmes but those three would have to have superior camps in order to make this team. Burton, for one, struggled much of last week.
If you asked me right now, I'd say Johnson, Aromashodu and Camarillo are the ones really fighting for the final two spots, assuming Frazier doesn't decide to keep six wide receivers. It will be interesting to see how much playing time offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave plans to try to get each of the wide receivers.
5) Bounce back for corner? Chris Cook had a terrific training camp last year after being selected in the second round by the Vikings, but things went downhill from there. Cook had arthroscopic surgeries on both knees after suffering meniscus tears, with the first coming in the preseason.
Now, Cook has a golden opportunity to show he's healthy and can contribute. Cedric Griffin is not going to start at right corner Saturday as he continues his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- he might play a week from Saturday at Seattle -- so Cook could get the start.
Ideally, the Viking would love to see Cook take his opportunity and win a job playing in the nickel defense. That would mean he would shift to left corner when Antoine Winfield goes inside to cover the slot. Cook has said he's healthy this summer and this will be his first chance to show that his level of play has risen to the form we saw a year ago at this time.
Finally, the Weather Channel is calling for a high of 90 in Nashville on Saturday with afternoon showers or thunderstorms. A few of those could be severe. There is potential for scattered thunderstorms on Saturday night -- when the game will be played -- with a low of 69. the chance of rain is 50 percent.
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