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.
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.”
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.”
Spending part of the morning with Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway as he interacted with children at Hudson Hosptial & Clinics in Wisconsin was a healthy reminder that most NFL players are decent men who add value to their communities. Unfortunately, they just don't grab the headlines and the spotlight the way the lunkheads do when they get into trouble.
Greenway traveled to Hudson as part of his "Lead The Way Foundation," joking that as a Viking, he "crossed the border, but not very far because we have to tread lightly over here." He and his wife, Jenni, were well-received -- no Cheeseheads were spotted -- during an event in which they unveiled "Chad's Locker," a program that provides patients and their families access to kid-friendly technology during hospital visits.
An actual locker, labeled "Chad's Locker" and all decked out in purple with a photo of Greenway in uniform, was opened to reveal several iPads, video gaming systems, laptops and other items. This was the third hospital in the Twin Cities area that the Greenways have partnered with as they grow their "Chad's Locker" idea.
Greenway said he was made aware of a similar idea before he had children. He thought it was a good idea. But not as good as when his children came along.
"We've spent a lot of time in the hospital the last year with my dad," said Greenway, whose father is again battling leukemia after a brief remission. "When you're in that moment in time in the hospital, it's huge to have something for your kids to occupy their time. You need them to behave, but it's also unrealistic for them to just sit there for five, six, seven hours with nothing to do."
One of the hospital's care-givers took it to another level, recalling how a young boy was able to use one of the iPads from the locker to distract himself during a lengthy chemotherapy session.
I also caught up with Greenway on a number of hot topics concerning the Vikings. Here's a look:
On the release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield: "Obviously, when it comes to free agency, you never know what's going to happen. Even from a personal standpoint, you worry because if your cap number is high, you could possibly be that guy. Antoine didn't see it coming, obviously. To me, he's one of the top players on our football team. Veteran leader. Great guy in the locker room. Hard worker. And even at his age, he plays at such a high level. I really hope they can work something out and get him back on our team because he makes us a lot better.
On reaching out to Winfield to see if he'll return (The Vikings have said the door is open): "I haven't reached out to him yet. It probably would be a good idea for some of us veterans to reach out to him just to say, `Hey, we want you back.' If there's a chance he can work it out to come back, that would be great. It also becomes personal because he's been here nine years. He's had a long career just here. It was unfortunate to see it, but obviously we all understand the type of business it is and the job we're asked to do. Hopefully, I can talk to him. Hopefully, a bunch of guys can talk to him and tell him if he wants to play a couple more years, we'd love for it to be with us. "
On the likelihood that middle linebacker will be manned by a rookie: "we'll have to see how things shake out. We don't know what they'll do. They could move some people around. They could change some positions. It depends on how the draft goes or if they reach out to someone in free agency. Obviously, Erin [Henderson] has experience at that position, so that's something you could think about doing as well. If they want to move me there, I don't know. I'm open to whatever, but I'm not sure that's what they're thinking. But I do know that if it's a young guy who ends up starting there, it can work. Every position at some point you have to go young. So it's a normal process that takes place."
On the Percy Harvin trade: "You look at the move from a football standpoint and he's obviously one of our top players. The output that he was producing at when he was healthy was pretty amazing. The talent he has is amazing. It's hard to see a guy like that go, but obviously management thought it was a good move for our football team. And the things that we got in return for the talent level that he has is pretty deep as well. And picking up Greg [Jennings} helps. We'll be happy not to have to play against him anymore. He's also such a great character addition to our team. Just a great guy all the way around. But it's hard to see Percy go. He could be MVP of the league. Last year, I was stumping for him midseason when he was healthy and doing so well for us. That doesn't change just because he's on another team. He's got some amazing talents."
On whether Harvin's sometimes poor attitude ever spilled over to the locker room: "What he was dealing with when it came to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Coach] Leslie [Frazier], that was in a private setting. We don't get to hear or know all that's going on. There were a couple of instances with him when [players] were around, but that's something that needs to be kept in the locker room, even from the standpoint that he's now on another team. For Percy, the work ethic he has and the talent he has, he put it all out there for us. As a teammate, you have to appreciate that."
More on Jennings: "Greg's got tremendous ability. I know people question his age, which makes me worry because we're the same age [Greenway is 30, Jennings will be 30 in September]. But he can still get vertical over the top of the defense. And from what I hear and know, he runs excellent routes. He's going to be there to bail out Christian [Ponder] when he needs a bailout option. And he can play the slot as well. There are going to be a lot of things he can do to ease that transition away from Percy. We do lack some depth at receiver right now, but I'm sure we'll be able to pick some guys up. We feel pretty confident about the job that Rick and his staff do."
On the league's decision to outlaw the `peel-back' blocks, making it a penalty for an offensive player to throw a low blindside block on a defender even in the box: "I'm in favor of that rule change. I've caught a couple of those in my day. At that point, when it happens, you're just saying, `Ah, it's part of the game.' That's how it works. You gather yourself and try to go on and play. But if you're talking about health and safety, you have to talk about health and safety of defensive players as well."
On the league's decision to outlaw running backs lowering their heads and delivering a blow with the crown of their helmet outside the tackle box and at least three yards down the field: "It's hard for us when you have running back like Adrian [Peterson]. But I think we've come to find out that if there's a rule that's going to be made, it's going to be administered the same way throughout the league. So it might affect us more than many other teams, but at the same point we're going to get that benefit as well. I don't necessarily agree with it. I don't agree with taking the physical portion of the game away. In any way. But I also realize that it is what it is. I'm not going to go out there and stump and say we should do this and get anything accomplished. I'm better off saying, `If these are the rules, then I'm better off playing within the rules.'"
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has spent a big chunk of this offseason in Arizona, working out and training at Athletes Performance in Phoenix. This morning, Ponder swung through the Arizona Biltmore where the NFL is holding its annual meetings this week. And with the Vikings using last week to get Ponder a back-up quarterback and a new top receiver, the third-year quarterback stopped Monday to deliver a few thoughts on the recent acquisitions.
Here’s some of what Ponder had to say:
On his contact with Greg Jennings, the newest arrival to the Vikings’ receiving corps …
“I talked to him Thursday night before he signed. I talked to him after he signed. And I’m sure we’ll try to get together at some point before OTAs start. I’m offering him whatever he needs help with. He can come stay at the house or whatever. But we’re excited. I’m definitely excited to have him. … He’s a great route runner. And obviously that’s important. And he’s got some speed and an ability to make plays after the ball is in his hands. We saw that countless times playing against him, in the five games that I’ve seen him play against us. That’ll be good to have. But it’s also his leadership aspect, with the young guys that are in the room already, he’s going to bring a lot to this team and this offense.”
On Jennings’ comments Friday that he studied Ponder to “know what I was getting into” …
“It’s always a positive thing to see. He watched me on film and then he signed. So that’s definitely good. And that’s always important. I think that shows you how smart of a guy he is. He knew to look at what he’s coming into with the offense and with his quarterback. I think that shows his maturity and his intelligence and I’m glad he signed with us.”
On the arrival of Cassel and his thoughts on whether he could be pressured for the starting spot at quarterback despite the continued insistence of GM Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier that he is the undisputed starter …
“I think there’s always a competition. Whether it’s Matt or Joe [Webb] or McLeod [Bethel-Thompson], there’s always competition. And I think competitions is always a good thing. I think it’s always definitely a motivating factor. It helps us push each other. So I think it’s nothing but positive.”
On the group of pass catchers he know has with last week’s signing of Jennings, the re-signing of Jerome Simpson and the continued development of tight end Kyle Rudolph …
“Having a guy like Kyle, I think everybody knows our chemistry together and his ability as a player. Pro Bowl MVP. But with him and adding Greg, who’s obviously a great player as well. And Jerome, who I think will be so much better having this past year under his belt and being able to learn from that and continue to grow in this offense. And I’m sure we’ll draft a guy or two in the draft and guys who can step up and play early. And to have Adrian Peterson in the backfield as well, it helps. I think we’re really coming together as an offense.”
On the communication he had with Cassel last week ...
“We talked after he signed. He gave me a call. And then we’ve texted back and forth a little bit. And I had worked out with him last year for about a week. So we’ve had some conversations. He’s excited, all-aboard. And he’s said that whatever he can offer to help me, he will. I think it’ll be a good relationship.”
On what having a veteran back-up will mean …
“I think it helps. Obviously, he’ll probably know more than I do on certain things and has a different [vantage point] in watching film. I think that’s always good to learn, how guys watch film and what they can see and can pick up on. That’s always a good thing.”
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