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 words "worth watching" are relative in this case. It's a fourth preseason game and nearly all of the players who will significantly impact the first regular-season game will be standing on the sideline in sweats and baseball caps.
However, there are some interesting areas to watch Thursday night as the Vikings wrap up the preseason with a game that will help them settle some position battles, as well as the bottom of what will end up being their 53-man roster.
Here's five of them:
1, Strong safety.
With Anthony Herrera having seemingly won back his starting right guard job and Erin Henderson having no competition at weak-side linebacker, strong safety is the only starting position still up for grabs heading into Thursday's game. If the rotation continues as it has through the first three preseason games, Tyrell Johnson will get the start. However, that's not a lock because Jamarca Sanford appears to be ahead in the battle, despite the fact defensive coordinator Fred Pagac continues to call it a dead heat. With the players off Friday through Sunday, this is the last opportunity these two players have to win the job. The Vikings can't play 12 men on defense (insert 12 men in huddle joke here), so a decision will be made after this game.
2, No. 2 quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said the final preseason game isn't "make or break" for the No. 2 QB battle. So the Vikings could adjust throughout the season based on how rookie Christian Ponder develops. With the new 46-man rule that would allow the Vikings to play all three quarterbacks in the game, there's a question of how much it really matters who wins the No. 2 job. Joe Does Ponder's long-term development improve with No. 2 reps during the course of the regular season? Whether it's No. 2 reps or No. 3 scout team, Ponder and Musgrave are going to be working overtime with an eye toward Ponder becoming the franchise QB in 2012. Joe Webb looks to be ahead of Ponder at this point, but if either one of them ends up starting this season, it's only because Donovan McNabb got hurt or the season fell apart. So if you're a Vikings fan, enjoy Ponder's Metrodome debut start and hope you don't see him again until next year.
3, The 273-pound linebacker.
Everson Griffen is fast and athletic enough that he was scouted by some teams as a 3-4 outside linebacker coming out of USC. No one saw him as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. At least not until the Vikings moved him there on Monday. Griffen probably will open the game at defensive end and play the first half there. But the interesting part won't come until he moves to weak-side linebacker and gives it a go after only two days of practice. He's so raw and new to the position that linebackers coach Mike Singletary didn't even know his first name in practice on Tuesday. Griffen would be a natural pass rusher from a stand-up position. But if opponents know he can't cover, then they'll know he's going to rush the passer every time he's on the field as a linebacker. So watch to see how Griffen does in pass coverages.
4, Ballard's playing time at end.
No one's stock is rising faster than rookie fourth-round draft pick Christian Ballard. It's one of the reasons the Vikings were able to experiment with Griffen at linebacker. Ballard can play the three-technique tackle and nose in the first-team nickel. The team will now take a look at him at defensive end on Thursday. Ballard has the build to play end as well as tackle. Heck, the big fella was covering kicks in practice on Tuesday.
5, Larry the Underdog
The best underdog story in camp is Larry Dean, the 6-foot (or so they say), 226-pound linebacker from Valdosta State. He's No. 51 and he's a tackling machine. The D-II Defensive Player of the Year last season is making a serious push to make the team as a special teamer. He's pushing veterans Heath Farwell and Kenny Onatolu, two players who have been slowed by injuries during the preseason.
The Vikings have a rich tradition of undrafted rookies who go on to have success. One of them, John Randle, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And on this year's team, starting free safety Husain Abdullah (2008), probable starting right guard Anthony Herrera (2004) and long snapper Cullen Loeffler (2004) were undrafted players.
As we near Saturday's final cuts from 80 to 53 players, there are two current undrafted rookies who are making a serious push to make the team. One of them, linebacker Larry Dean of Valdosta State, is a Division II player, just like Randle was coming out of Texas A&I back in 1990.
Here's a look at the two undrafted rookies who have the best chance to stick around:
Dean: One can see now why Dean was last year's Division II Defensive Player of the Year. He's a tackling machine with speed, quickness and instincts. He's only 6-foot, 226 pounds, which explains the Division II and undrafted status.
Dean could be an asset on special teams, which he showed Saturday night when he flashed between two blockers and made a crisp tackle on the game's opening kickoff.
Dean has some of our attention in the media. More importantly, he's got the attention of coach Leslie Frazier.
"Just watching Larry over these weeks that we have been in camp, he has really impressed," Frazier said. "He was a guy who was under the radar in a lot of ways from Valdosta State. He is making a lot of plays for a guy who didn't com in with a lot of fanfare. So we're going to give him a real hard look this Thursday and see how he does. He is a guy who has really gotten our attention."
Dean is a long shot, but don't count him out. He might have to beat out special teams leader Heath Farwell to make the team. Farwell, an undrafted rookie (2005) who made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer two years ago, has been battling a hamstring injury and has a salary of $1.75 million that could work against him.
TE ALLEN REISNER: Every time the 6-3, 255-pounder makes another catch, inevitably someone watching from the sideline will say, "Eighty-nine catches everything." The big kid from Iowa has turned everybody's head. He's got decent speed for a tight end, works hard, runs where he's supposed to and has soft hands. He could end up costing veteran Jeff Dugan a spot on the team as the team's fourth tight end. Dugan, 30, is one of the hardest workers on the team. He's been around since 2004 primarily because of a work ethic that's built him into a reliable special teamer.
Typically, there aren't many reasons to attend a fourth preseason game. But the Vikings' game against Houston on Thursday night might be the last time Vikings fans get a chance to see the future face of the franchise in action this season.
Christian Ponder, the 12th overall draft pick, will start the game and be followed by Joe Webb as the two of them take their battle for the No. 2 position down to the final week of the preseason. Starter Donovan McNabb's preseason is done. He didn't practice today and won't play on Thursday. The Vikings also released Rhett Bomar earlier today, so it's Ponder and Webb who will split the game. Each is expected to play a half.
Coach Leslie Frazier said it's a big game for the quarterbacks, as well as the guys trying to make the roster.
"We definitely want to see both [quarterbacks], Christian along with Joe, create some separation for that No. 2 spot," Frazier said. "Maybe this game will be an indication of which guy should be No. 2."
Based on watching practices the past month, Webb is ahead of Ponder, but not enough that the race should be called before Thursday night. Webb was the No. 2 QB in the first and third preseason games. Ponder was No. 2 in the second game.
Frazier said after a short practice today that he's still trying to decide which starters, if any, will see action on Thursday. A decision is expected after Tuesday's practice. Most of the starters won't play. The guys still fighting for positions will see limited action.
Other highlights today:
Tonight's scratches aren't a surprise, but here they are: Asher Allen (toe), Kevin Williams (plantar fasciitis), Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring), Ross Homan (concussion), Kenny Onatolu (foot), Toby Gerhart (Achilles' tendon/ankle), Heath Farwell (hamstring) . Onatolu practice last week, but it was his first week of practice since suffering a stress fracture in his foot.
Jasper Brinkley (hip) is not on the list of scratches, but he isn't expected to play.
Anthony Herrera, as expected, will start in his first preseason action. Also as expected, Jamarca Sanford will start at strong safety as his battle with Tyrell Johnson continues.
Meanwhile, David Herron is in uniform, wearing No. 58, a day after joining the team. He'll probably play since the linebacking corps is so depleted. Homan, Brinkley and Farwell are out, and Mark Washington was released Friday.
The Cowboys have 11 scratches, including starting corners Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, starting receiver Miles Austin, No. 1 kicker David Buehler, starting center Andre Gurode, starting guard Phil Costa and starting defensive end Marcus Spears.
The Vikings have signed linebacker David Herron and released linebacker Mark Washington, who was out this week with a shoulder injury.
If Herron's name rings a bell, that's because he was a pawn in the early stages of the feud between former Vikings coach Brad Childress and Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
In 2007, the Vikings signed Herron as an undrafted rookie. When teams began cutting players, the Vikings decided to put in a claim for Patriots tight end Garrett Mills. Childress not only claimed Mills, he then went public with details on how Belichick called and tried to get him not to claim Mills so that the Patriots could add Mills to their practice squad.
Childress said Belichick offered to not claim a released Vikings player if Childress agreed. Childress declined the offer, so Belichick claimed Herron.
"Belichick didn't really care for that," Childress said at the time. "He was trying to leverage, but you always find out who is honest and straightforward."
The Patriots ended up releasing Herron, who ended up back with the Vikings in 2007-08. Herron also was with the Chiefs in 2009, the Chargers in 2010 and the Jets earlier this offseason. Mills never made a significan contribution to the Vikings, but the relationship between Childress and Belichick remained frosty, at best.
Belichick, of course, got the last laugh. He traded Randy Moss to the Vikings for a third-round draft pick during the 2010 season. Moss ended up being released 26 days later in a move that played a major role in Childress' firing.
Herron gives the Vikings some depth at an injury-depleted postion. Heath Farwell (hamstring), rookie Ross Homan (concussion) and Jasper Brinkley (hip) all missed practices this week.
Raiders sign Sheppard: Former Viking Lito Sheppard was signed by the Raiders today. Sheppard, 30, played in 13 games with two starts for the Vikings a year ago.
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