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 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.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman just finished his session at the podium here at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The hottest topic: Percy Harvin’s future with the team. To which Spielman hasn’t changed his response, declaring once again Thursday that he has “no intent on trading Percy Harvin” – without, of course, a full declaration that he won’t do so.
But Spielman also said the only folks asking him about a potential Harvin trade are reporters. As of noon, the Vikings GM said he hadn’t received any Harvin inquiries from anyone else, with not a single NFL team approaching him on the matter.
“None,” Spielman said. “The cab driver coming in didn’t say anything to me about it. The pilot when I got on the plane [didn’t ask].”
So, yeah. Nothing new to see here right now. And now that we’ve got that initial obligatory Harvin update out of the way, let’s move on to another pressing topic that fans should wrap their brains around as the Vikings continue through the offseason. Those expecting a possible free agency spending spree? Not going to happen. In fact, it’s unlikely the Vikings will spend a lot of time and energy courting any of the possible “big splash” free agents that might be available come March 12.
To reiterate once again, the Spielman’s philosophy on building his roster can be summarized as follows: build through the draft and add a few minor pieces through free agency.
I asked the Vikings GM to elaborate on that mindset Thursday and here’s a big chunk of what he had to say:
“I’m not a real big believer in spending in free agency. We’re always going to try to build through the draft and continue to do that. Because I think that way you maintain a roster that can be competitive year in and year out. Not only on the field but also from a financial standpoint of staying within the cap and looking at the overall cash. I think you have a lot more success when you sign your own players as unrestricted free agents. Because you know them the best. And if you screw up signing one of of your own guys and he doesn’t pan out, then that’s a fault on you. I think it’s a little riskier when you go out and try to sign other team’s UFAs.”
Spielman said his detailed statistical analysis shows that players signed through free agency often struggle to adapt and may not have the level of success outsiders expect.
“I don’t want to call them rookies because they’re veterans,” Spielman said. “But they take time to adjust to their new teammates, take time to adjust to their new surroundings, take time to adjust to the new offense that they’re running. So it’s not always as smooth a transition as people would think it would be.”
A year ago, tight end John Carlson became the only major free agency investment the Vikings made. And, well, his struggles in 2012 may only further Spielman’s previous point. If you recall, many of the free agents the Vikings signed last spring – Jerome Felton, Marvin Mitchell, Jerome Simpson, Geoff Schwartz, even in-house guy Erin Henderson – were signed to one-year deals. Spielman referred to that as approach as “Rent-a-player.”
And with a hope annually to ideally have 10 draft picks at his disposal, Spielman likes to keep the door open for drafted players to emerge without feeling an obligation to elevate a major free agent signee.
“It’s an open competition that way,” the Vikings GM said. “So a veteran might be slightly ahead of [a draft pick] as you’re going through training camp and as you’re going through the preseason. But is that rookie going to pass him in Week 3, 4, or 5? Does he have the chance to be developed into a better player than where that current vet is? So it doesn’t lock you into the situation where you’re saying we have to keep this vet because we’ve paid him X amount. We can keep who we think is the best player for us.”
And you thought Blair Walsh and Randy Moss didn't have anything in common ...
Multiple winners of an NFC player of the week award:
This is the time of year when a lot of people in NFL circles talk about the "rookie wall" and how those first-year guys stop producing because their bodies are so used to the football season being over or in pre-bowl mode by now.
"Hitting the wall is something I think most rookies to go through," Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "I think that is a real phenomena in terms of guys getting tired or disinterested."
The Vikings, however, are coming off a critical victory in which a pair of rookies helped lead the way. Safety Harrison Smith returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown, while cornerback Josh Robinson returned another one 44 yards to set up a 5-yard touchdown drive in a 21-14 win over the Bears.
"Both of those guys are coming along very well," Williams said. "Harrison has been consistent from Day 1 and has never played like a rookie. And Josh is starting to play consistent football with the number of reps that he's getting. We're pleased that both guys are making plays and not hurting you. Most rookies hurt you when they play and ours are not. They're actually helping us and contributing to us winning football games."
Williams said he preaches keeping a set routine before and after practice to help break through the rookie wall. One thing he's not willing to do is give them time off in practice, similar to what he does for the veterans over 30.
"You have to pay your dues to get that time off," Williams said.
Same old Chris
Cornerback Chris Cook, who is on injured reserve but can return for next week's game at Houston, is in his second week of practice since breaking his right arm against Tampa Bay on Oct. 25.
"He looked good [on Wednesday]," Williams said. "He put his hands on some balls. He looked like the same old Chris that we saw when he got hurt. I think he's come along well."
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