Chip Scoggins is a Star Tribune sports columnist. He has temporarily returned to cover the Minnesota Vikings. He had the beat from 2008-2011 after covering college football for five years. Chip has been with the Star Tribune since January 2000. He can be followed on twitter at @chipscoggins.Find Chip on Facebook.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
Aaaaand …. here we go! In many ways, the Vikings’ 2013 season officially gets underway Friday – first training camp walkthrough at 10:30 a.m., first practice at 2:45 in Mankato. And yes we know a lot can and will happen between now and Sept. 8, the day the Vikings open the regular season at Detroit. But taking the 90 players currently on the roster, we’re delivering our in-depth position-by-position report as a primer for the opening of camp.
Currently on roster: 16
Likely to make opening day roster: 9
Certain to make the team: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Letroy Guion, Fred Evans
On the bubble: Christian Ballard, Lawrence Jackson, Everett Dawkins, D’Aundre Reed, George Johnson
Practice squad candidates: Chase Baker, Anthony McCloud
Camp depth: Collins Ukwu, Marquis Jackson
Biggest offseason developments: The Vikings were stunned when star defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, widely projected as a top 5 pick for April’s draft, was still on the board when they came on the clock at No. 23. They didn’t hesitate a second in making Floyd their top pick, the first of three first-rounders they nabbed. … The Vikings also restructured the contract of defensive tackle Kevin Williams, reducing his 2013 pay by $2 million and eliminating the 2014 season from his current deal.
What we’ll be watching: Allen and Robison were each hampered significantly in 2012 by injuries. Allen dealt with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a meniscus issue in his left knee for most of the season. And Robison played through an elbow injury for most of the year before a severely sprained shoulder hindered his mobility even more for the final two regular season games and the playoffs.
Those physical setbacks were a partial reason the team’s sack total dipped from 50 in 2011 to 44 last season. But now both veteran ends feel as if they are back at full strength and aiming to stay as fresh as they can.
Allen’s disdain for the dog days of training camp are well documented. And he figures to add at least a couple of quips weekly to reinforce those sentiments. So it won’t be a surprise if the coaching staff ends up giving Allen several afternoons off during the stay in Mankato to keep him fresh physically and mentally.
On the interior, once the pads come on, we’ll be eager to see just how quickly Floyd adapts and excels in the middle of the defense. And it will also be a big camp for Guion, the incumbent starter at nose tackle who will have to fend off Evans to retain that role.
All in all, Allen feels terrific. He’s re-energized. He’s dedicated. He’s eyeing a dominant 2013 and believes he has three or four more good seasons left.
But there is also an intriguing subplot lurking.
In April, Allen turned 31. Two months earlier, he had surgeries to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a meniscus problem in his right knee. And, oh yeah, he has entered the final year in his six-year contract.
So with all factors considered, could this really be Jared Allen’s last season as a Minnesota Viking? A farewell tour?
To be clear, that’s not Allen’s desire. But it could be his reality. Which is why he refuses to spend much time thinking about life beyond January.
“I pray about it,” Allen said. “I talk to my wife. And we’ll end up going where the good Lord takes us. But I don’t know where that path is headed.”
-- May 24
The Vikings will hold their 10th and final Organized Team Activity on Thursday at Winter Park before reconvening next week for a three-day mini-camp. And as the offseason program enters the finishing stretch, third-year quarterback Christian Ponder continues zeroing in on making good reads more consistently.
On Wednesday afternoon, before teeing off at the team’s annual golf outing, an event that benefits the Vikings’ Children’s Fund, Ponder was asked how he’s measuring himself during this OTA stretch.“
The biggest thing is decision making,” he said. “Obviously you want to complete as many balls as possible, especially in things like 7-on-7. But we’re being put into some hard situations as well. Third-and-long. Blitz. A lot of blitz drills and everything. So it’s tough. I think the defense definitely has the upper hand in these drills. But it’s good for us to see that. And it makes the quarterback make smart decisions and get the ball out quick. So you want to see completions and the right decisions.”
Ponder knows the bar has been raised for him in his third year as a starter. And with back-up Matt Cassel now in the picture, his leash might not be quite as long in 2013 if his struggles are extreme. Still, the Vikings quarterback said the key in May and June is to feel things out within the offense without feeling exorbitant pressure.
“This is a time for us as an offense to just try a bunch of new stuff and see what sticks and see what we like,” Ponder said. “And there are a lot of new plays going in and everything. So it’s a fun time. It’s fun to try out quirky plays and see what the defense does. And the defense is doing the same thing, running funky coverages and everything. But our mindset is we want to get better every day and see a progression heading into training camp.”
On the injury front, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier reported that Chad Greenway’s Thursday morning arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee went well as expected. Greenway will be out of action until training camp begins in late July.
Fellow linebacker Nate Williams, signed in April as an undrafted free agent, has also undergone minor ankle surgery and, according to Frazier, will be sidelined until camp opens in Mankato as well.
The Vikings have their share of injuries to keep tabs on, especially with Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen continuing rehabilitation on his left shoulder in which he had a labrum tear repaired shortly after last season ended. Allen has been at Winter Park the past two weeks but not on the practice field. And he won’t be back in action during mini-camp next week either.
But Frazier said Wednesday he anticipated very few injury issues to still be a concern when the team reports to Mankato. The longest shot to be ready may be second-year receiver Greg Childs, who continues attacking his recovery from torn patellar tendons in both knees.
Frazier said after Tuesday’s practice that he isn’t certain how quickly Childs will receive medical clearance to return to full action but won’t rule out the receiver getting back to practice early in training camp.
"I have my fingers crossed, hoping that that will happen," Frazier said. "I'm waiting on [head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman and our medical staff to give us the green light. But that would be my hope. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what direction it will go."
Center of attention
On Wednesday, Frazier also noted that the team is closely monitoring the progress of standout center John Sullivan, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee.
In Sullivan’s absence during OTAs, the Vikings have tinkered with back-up plans at center. Veteran Joe Berger has seen work there. In addition, Brandon Fusco, who started all 16 games at right guard and is the expected starter there for 2013, has also handled snaps.
“We don’t see any problems with Sully being ready to go,” Frazier said. “But you want to make sure that you have other guys prepared.”
Fusco was a center during his college career at Slippery Rock and could be an option at the position if Sullivan’s recovery was to hit an unforeseen snag or if he had any lingering knee issues that sidelined him during the season.
Sliding Fusco to center, of course, would then open up the competition at right guard where rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond as well as veteran Seth Olsen could figure into the mix.
Still, Frazier believes Sullivan’s recuperation will stay on track which would give the Vikings the luxury of opening training camp with the same starting offensive line that started all 16 games last year.
“We’ve still got to see a little more progress out of John Sullivan,” Frazier said. “He’s making progress. But we want to continue to see that. … You just want to see him continue to gain confidence and not be worried about the surgery but just move on. And he’s making progress. From everything that Eric Sugarman tells me, he’s on target. He’s moving in the right direction. And we’ve got enough time for him to continue to improve. Hopefully when we get started, he’ll be able to go full go right away.”
Defensive end Lawrence Jackson and cornerback Jacob Lacey are now officially Minnesota Vikings. The team announced the signing of both veterans Monday morning, adding additional depth and reinforcement to their defense.
Jackson agreed to his contract with the Vikings in the middle of last week with the deal finalized today. He comes to the Twin Cities following a three-year stop in Detroit, where he played 37 games as a back-up end. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman had familiarity with Jackson from within the division and saw an opportunity to find another pass-rushing option as the Vikings head into the 2013 season with the team's top three ends -- Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen -- all in the final year of their contracts.
Spielman said on Friday that Jackson was given a one-year deal, which has been the organization's m.o. the past two offseasons with many of their second-tier free agent signings. That gives the Vikings a low-risk opportunity to look at Jackson as a pass rusher in 2013 as they then begin to decide what to do up front going forward with so much uncertainty surrounding the futures of Allen, Griffen and Robison.
Jackson, originally a first-round pick by Seattle in 2008, made 24 starts in his first two NFL seasons with the Seahawks. He has 19.5 career sacks to go along with 141 tackles. He was traded to Detroit in the summer of 2010 in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick.
Lacey, meanwhile, also arrives from Detroit where he made nine starts last season, recording 36 tackles and a Week 11 interception of Aaron Rodgers.
Lacey began his career in Indianapolis, signed by the Colts as an undrafted free agent following the 2009 draft. He spent three years there working with secondary coach Alan Williams, who is now entering his second season as the Vikings defensive coordinator.
As we noted this morning, the Vikings have been searching for solutions at slot corner since releasing Antoine Winfield last month and failing to re-sign him. Lacey may now find his opening to make a bid for that role.
-- The Vikings released punter T.J. Conley on Monday afternoon, two days after drafting left-footed punter Jeff Locke out of UCLA. Conley was signed in January as a street free agent. He was with the Jets in 2011 but cut before the start of last season and was out of the NFL during the 2012 season.
With Locke selected in the fifth round Saturday, veteran Chris Kluwe is widely figured to be on the ropes as the Vikings eye a new direction at the position.
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:
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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