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.
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
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.
The Vikings coaching staff and front office are in the process of fully evaluating their roster as they plan for the opening of free agency in March as well as April’s NFL Draft. As General Manager Rick Spielman, head coach Leslie Frazier and their respective staffs put their heads together, the Access Vikings team is doing the same. We are in the middle of delivering snapshot evaluations of every position group. Today, we look at the defensive line.
Get excited: At this time last year, the Vikings were vowing to find ways to get Everson Griffen on the field more, hoping to take greater advantage of his rare blend of size, strength and quickness. A training camp experiment with Griffen at linebacker was quickly scrapped and defensive coordinator Alan Williams instead settled on a role that utilized Griffen as both an end and as an inside rusher in passing situations. Griffen finished the regular season with eight sacks, third on the team behind Jared Allen (12) and Brian Robison (8.5). Griffen also had an interception in Week 15 in St. Louis, returning that 29 yards for a touchdown. It was an eye-opening display of speed and athleticism for a guy who measures 6-foot-3, 273 pounds. He also had one of three Viking sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the Vikings’ playoff loss in Green Bay.
Coach Leslie Frazier continues to laud Griffen’s maturity and increased willingness to study the game. And Griffen’s emergence will allow the Vikings some flexibility on the d-line as they put together their future plans.
Griffen is entering the final season of his rookie contract. And if his production continues escalating, you can bet General Manager Rick Spielman will try to find the right timing to lock Griffen up for the long-term well before he’d be able to become a free agent in March 2014.
Keep an eye on: Defensive tackles in this spring’s draft. There’s a belief that this year’s draft class is stacked at that position, which may tempt Spielman to alter the 2012 interior rotation that featured Letroy Guion and Fred Evans at nose tackle and Kevin Williams and Christian Ballard at the under tackle spot.
On a draft analysis conference call Wednesday, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. rattled off a handful of tackle prospects who might make sense for the Vikings. Say, for example, the team uses free agency to address its need for an outside receiver. Then it could possibly make sense to give Georgia’s John Jenkins a long hard look with the No. 23 pick. Jenkins is 6- 3, 358 pounds and can be a fantastic plug in the middle of the defense.
But even if the Vikings wanted to wait to address their defensive tackle needs, they’ll have decent options in later rounds. In the Round 3 range, for example, Kiper mentions Penn State’s Jordan Hill as an option. He also offers a couple of sleepers for the fourth or fifth round in Missouri Southern State’s Brandon Williams and Georgia Southern’s Brent Russell.
There’s also Bowling Green’s Chris Jones, who will be cast aside by many teams as undersized. But Jones is a smart player with a high motor whom Kiper said was “as productive as any defensive tackle in college football this year. At any school, at any program.”
Reason for worry: Age. Three of the Vikings’ four d-line starters in 2012 will be in their 30s by the time training camp opens.
So now comes time to ask that difficult but necessary question: Just how much do the older guys have left in the tank? And might the Vikings ask either Jared Allen or Kevin Williams to restructure their contracts this offseason?
Allen will head to his fifth Pro Bowl in the last six seasons next week. But his inclusion in this year’s game was based more on past reputation than this season’s production. Allen played most of the year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury he will need surgery to fix following his trip to Honolulu. How fast he bounces back remains to be seen. Contract-wise, he’s also entering the final year of his deal and will be owed in excess of $14 million in 2013. And it’s far from a given that Allen, now nearing his 31st birthday, will remain with the organization beyond that.
Williams, meanwhile, will turn 33 in August. And while he’s one of those ideal hard-working, low-maintenance leaders who fits Frazier’s blueprint for success, the mileage of 10 full NFL seasons is catching up. Taking loyalty and emotion out of the equation initially, it’ll be up to Spielman and his staff to deliver an honest assessment of just how much they think they can still squeeze out of Williams going forward. At present, Christian Ballard is in line to be Williams’ successor. But Ballard hasn’t yet established himself as a can’t-miss fallback plan.
It wasn’t long ago that Allen and Williams were dominant game changers whose presence was noticeable every Sunday. And to be clear, both are still very good players who can steady and energize the defense. But for how much longer? That’s the type of question that the NFL’s best teams have instinct for answering.
Quarterback Christian Ponder is listed as questionable for the Vikings-Packers game tomorrow because of his sore right elbow. Ponder had limited participation in practice all week.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield is also questionable because of his broken right hand.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Thursday that he expected both to play.
Tyrone McKenzie, one of the team's top special teams player, is out because of an injured shoulder.
Listed as probable are running back Adrian Peterson (abdomen), safety Harrison Smith (knee), defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder), defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder), cornerback A.J. Jefferson (ankle), defensive end George Johnson (quadriceps), punter Chris Kluwe (left, or non-kicking, knee) and right tackle Phil Loadholt (knee).
Update: For the Packers, defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee) and wide reciever Jarrett Boykin (ankle) are out, and running back James Starks (knee) is questionable.
Cornerback Charles Woodson returns from a broken collarbone and is probable, as are wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee), receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb (ankle) and running back Alex Green (hip).
Out means a player has no chance of playing (unless he's Brett Favre). Questionable is 50 percent chance. Probable is virtual certainty he will play.
Last week, Antoine Winfield wore only a wrap and a protective pad on his fractured right hand. This week, he’ll go with a sturdier soft cast. And that more than anything else is giving Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier optimism that Winfield will be able to play more Saturday night in Green Bay than he did in last weekend’s home win over the Packers.
“I feel better,” Frazier said following Thursday’s practice, the Vikings’ last of the week. “Just to see him move around with that cast, he was actually over there hitting the dummies and doing some things to jar it just to see how it would feel. And he said it felt great. So that was encouraging, very encouraging.”
Winfield played only 18 of 64 defensive snaps last weekend. And the Vikings defense was chewed up after his exit in the second quarter. Even if Winfield can start Saturday night, Frazier has dabbled with contingency plans, one of which would include moving A.J. Jefferson inside as a slot corner and using rookie Josh Robinson outside. Marcus Sherels, who replaced Winfield on Sunday, is also an option in the slot, though it seems clear the Vikings are looking for ways to minimize Sherels’ role on defense.
Winfield will likely be listed as questionable when the Vikings issue their official injury report on Friday. It seems likely that he will start. Keeping that hand protected will be key.
Winfield also noted after Thursday's practice that he would definitely be seeking medicinal help to numb his right hand as much as possible.
In other injury news …
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