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.
MANKATO -- Donovan McNabb and 16 of his teammates became eligible to practice at 3:55 p.m. Thursday when vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman hung up his cell phone and gave them the high sign.
The NFL's new labor agreement had been ratified and players who were signed or re-signed as free agents or restructured their contracts (Bernard Berrian and McNabb) became eligible to start practicing. But it turns out McNabb and that group had gotten a bit of a head start on matters by heading out to a high school field in Mankato in recent days.
"We kind of found a place, a field we could work around here," McNabb said. "I think it was something that really is going to pay off. This is my first time with these guys. I'm unfamiliar with how they run routes and the speed and things of that nature so the guys who weren't able to participate in the early practices, we spent some time together, we were able to bound and now it's time for me to work with the rest of the guys and the offensive linemen so we can be on the same page."
It was clear in watching the first full-pads practice on Thursday that there is plenty of work to be done by the Vikings offense. That's not a surprise since they are learning coordinator Bill Musgrave's system and also shaking off the rust caused by the lockout.
Frazier could not supervise the workouts held at the high school, but he was happy to hear about them.
"No doubt about it," he said. "With the number of days that they had to sit and wait you would hope that they’d find a way to do something together. The fact that Donovan took the lead in getting that set up is a good sign for us. They were able to throw the ball around, move around a little bit, although they couldn’t do anything with us. So it was good to see.”
Not a bad thing
McNabb was asked if the lockout helped him to rest up this offseason, but he said he used the time for something else, too.
“The lockout gave me an opportunity to really focus in on last year," he said. "To get back to my style of play, honing my skills. Getting back to the fundamentals. That gave me an opportunity to spend more time on that and working with my trainer so I could get my legs back to where they needed to be, my movements and things of that nature. I felt like I didn’t have that.
"Just watching film of games last year that I played in, the mistakes that I made, my footwork. Things of that nature. That gave me an opportunity in the lockout to do that. Not just me, I’m sure a lot of guys across the league would say the same thing. It wasn’t a vacation time. It was good training. We’re just kind of getting back to the fundamentals and focusing in on the time when we could get back on the field.”
Sorry to see him go
McNabb's media session on Thursday was the first since left tackle Bryant McKinnie was released this week. McNabb made it clear he realized the significance of the move.
"Well, as a quarterback you don't want to hear about anything like that," he said. "Big Mac was a guy who had a lot of success here. He's one of the best tackles in the game and a friend of mine. His mom is very close to my mom and I was looking forward to playing with him here. But now we're kind of bringing in guys, and the guys that are playing that position, you have to have a lot of confidence in those guys that they can fill the hole.
"That's a big-time hole to fill – you're talking about a guy who's been to the Pro Bowl a couple of years and had a lot of success there. I just want to provide the confidence in all those guys and I want them to be confident in me back behind the center that I'll be able to execute the plays and get us in the right formation and things of that nature so we can be very successful converting first downs and scoring touchdowns."
McNabb had to be a little nervous, too, after new left tackle Charlie Johnson had some big-time struggles in his first practice going against Jared Allen. The Vikings clearly are hoping Johnson's issues were caused by him being rusty and trying to learn a new system in his first practice.
If Johnson is unable to do the job, the Vikings could try to move Phil Loadholt from right to left tackle, but Frazier does not want to do that.
“We think [Phil] is going to be an outstanding right tackle in our league and we feel like we’re pretty solid at that position," Frazier said. "We don’t want to weaken that position, so that’s not in the plans as we speak.”
MANKATO -- Ryan Cook will return to the Vikings.
The team agreed to terms with the versatile offensive lineman today. Cook had been on the free-agent market after spending his first four NFL seasons with the Vikings.
A second-round draft choice of the Vikings in 2006, Cook was a center at New Mexico and has played tackle, guard and center in the NFL. Cook started all 16 games in 2007 and started 14 regular-season games at right tackle in 2008. Last season, he started started six games, including the final six of the season in place of the injured Anthony Herrera at right guard.
Cook took over for John Sullivan at center after he was injured as well.
Cook's signing comes a day after the Vikings released veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie and provides some very depth on the line.
Cook becomes the fourth free agent to return to the Vikings, joining kicker Ryan Longwell, defensive tackle Fred Evans and safety Eric Frampton.
MANKATO -- Coach Leslie Frazier said after this afternoon's practice that running back Adrian Peterson will return to practice on Friday morning. Peterson's fiance had her baby, a boy, Monday night. Peterson missed one practice Tuesday, two today and will miss tomorrow's first full-padded practice.
Frazier also talked about the decision on Bryant McKinnie, who was released on Tuesday because of his tremendously poor conditioning level (although Frazier still won't acknowledge that as the reason).
"We made a decision for our organization that we felt was the best thing as we're trying to bring a world championship to Minnesota," Frazier said. "In order for us to do that, there are certain things I talked to our team about on that first night, the Sunday night when we got together as a group. I talked to them about the criteria and the things I thought were necessary to win in our league. In order for us to get where we need to go, there are certain things that need to happen and in Bryant's case, he's been a terrific player for the Vikings, I love him as a person, built a great relationship together, but at this point for all parties involved, I just thought it was the right thing to do. I'm sure he's going to catch on with a team and he's going to do well. He's a terrific player, but for where we are right now and where we're trying to go to, it just wasn't the right fit for the direction we want to go. But I wish him the best and I know good things will happen for him. ...Just the things that were involved didn't fit what we were trying to get done."
Frazier was asked when he knew there was going to be an issue with McKinnie.
"Probably [Aug. 27] when the guys had to come in to do the things they had to do to receive their bonuses. I had an idea," Frazier said. "I had no idea the way things were going to go, but we went through the process. Like I said, I know good things are going to happen for Bryant. Unfortunately for us and for him, it didn't work out here in Minnesota."
Frazier also voiced confidence in Charlie Johnson, who will practice for the first time on Thursday.
"Left tackle is an extremely important position in our league," Frazier said. "I know things will work out for Bryant, but we have a guy who we have high hopes for in Charlie Johnson. We'll give some other guys a chance there, but Charlie is the guy we've penciled in there. We're excited to have him. He has a Super Bowl ring, knows what it takes to win in this league. Hopefully, he'll do well."
Frazier also talked about:
MANKATO -- Vikings owner Zygi Wilf arrived in Mankato this afternoon and spoke to the entire team on the field following the afternoon walk-through. Wilf then took a few minutes to answer questions from reporters.
Q. What was your role in the decision to waive Bryant McKinnie?
A. "I give a lot of faith to Coach [Leslie] Frazier and to Rick Spielman [the Vikings vice president of player personnel] to make those decisions. It was a football decision on their part. Certainly I was aware of it but I left it up to them. I think our team is in great hands."
Q. Is there a point that you're only willing to put up with so much?
A. "Like I said, [with] the team in Coach Frazier's hands, I'm not going to worry about that. He has my full confidence."
Q. How important is it to get Adrian Peterson a contract extension with him entering the last season of his deal?
A. "I'm not going to comment on contracts. I'll leave it up to Rob [Brzezinski, the Vikings vice president of football operations] and Rick to do that. But we're all very excited to get going here and compete. As you know, that's always been our goal, to win championships, and we start out all even and hopefully be on top when it's all over."
Q. What did you think of the trade for Donovan McNabb?
A. "We're very excited to have Donovan on board. He's a consummate professional, exceptional at quarterback and we're very, very excited to have him here."
Q. Is there still a possibility for a September special session for a new stadium?
A. "We're working on that. We still have some work ahead of us to put all the pieces in place but we're very confident that we will have something worked out in the near future and hopefully that it could be addressed in a special session. But we're very confident in our location and for the future of the franchise in a new stadium up in Arden Hills. We're very excited about moving that process forward for our fans and for everybody in the state who utilized the Metrodome in such a good fashion for the last 30 years. This will be a great venue for the next generation."
Q. Are you at a breaking point on the stadium? Do you feel like you're getting pushed aside?
A. "No, not at all. Like I said, we have a lot of work ahead of us, it's an ongoing process and we want to make sure that when it's all said and done that the facility works out for everybody that was a partner in the venture and that it's a venue that everybody can look forward to and utilize for the best benefit of everybody in Minnesota."
MANKATO -- The Vikings decision to release an out-of-shape Bryant McKinnie on Tuesday caused a candid reaction from cornerback Antoine Winfield after this morning's practice.
"The message it sends is no one's untouchable," Winfield said. "We all understood as professionals the only thing we had to do was show up in shape. The coaches really had no choice but to do what they did. ... I'm sure he is disappointed in himself. That's kind of embarrassing. But he's going to have to deal with it."
Left guard Steve Hutchinson, who played alongside McKinnie, admitted not many people saw this coming.
"We weren’t really sure what the story was," Hutchinson said. "We knew he was not practicing, but I think the way Leslie [Frazier] explained it was, for him to try to go out there and try to go right now it would be endangering his health, with him being out of shape and I think there were some cholesterol issues. I’m not a doctor. I can’t really speculate on all that. But I know when it comes to your health as far as stuff like that goes, that’s not a joking matter."
Wide receiver Percy Harvin was a friend of McKinnie's but said he understood the decision. “Coach Frazier made it very clear that he was focused on the guys that were here and the guys that were ready to play football," he said. "We’re focused on the guys here, the 53 that are going to make this team and we’re going to run with what we’ve got.”
Pat Brown worked with the first team at left tackle today but that will change on Thursday when Charlie Johnson can start practicing. The Colts former left tackle was signed as a free agent on Monday by the Vikings and has to sit out until the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified.
Asked if he knew about McKinnie's situation when he signed, Johnson said: "I didn't. I was just going to come in and try to compete. That's what they brought me here for. They said you have a great opportunity to compete and play and so when I signed on the dotted line, my mentality was that I was going to come in and compete."
Johnson has taken McKinnie's No. 74 but said that was not his idea and he was assigned the number on Tuesday night.
As for the offense, new coordinator Bill Musgrave has lost a guy who was durable and certainly an above average left tackle.
"One of the things we do in this game and probably a lot of facets of life is adapt and adjust," he said. "So we're always ready to adapt and adjust to whatever comes our way. With Bryant moving on, we're ready to adapt with Charlie or whoever else is on the squad. We're looking forward to working with a number of guys starting tomorrow that haven't been allowed to be on the field as of yet."
Peterson still absent
Running back Adrian Peterson missed practice for a second consecutive day after leaving Mankato to be with his fiancee, who went into labor on Monday. Frazier said he was going to talk to Peterson on Tuesday about when he might return.
Peterson's absence has created plenty of reps for Toby Gerhart and Lorenzo Booker.
Change in philosophy
The Vikings previous regime had an offensive system that encouraged players to do what they were told. Remember, that was part of the issue between Brad Childress and Brett Favre. Musgrave sounds as if he will take a very different approach with Donovan McNabb.
"I told him from the get-go that we have a system that we intend to teach to he, the quarterbacks and all the players," Musgrave said. "But it's really his system. It's Donovan's system, so if something happens here in the month of August that he would like to tweak, maybe call something differently in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, maybe want to teach differently, [we told him] to definitely come and talk to us about it because we're open-minded.
"We like to tailor make or customize our system to fit our players. It's not a system where we're going to sit here and say, 'Donovan didn't fit or another player didn't fit.' We're going to customize our system to really play to their strengths. I think you do that not only with a veteran guy, but also with a young guy. Whether it be Donovan or Christian [Ponder], we want to identify their traits that can help us win and play to their strengths."
The Webb plan
The NFL's new rule that 46 players can dress on game day instead of 45 -- teams no longer will be allowed to have a third quarterback in uniform but technically inactive -- is good news for Vikings quarterback Joe Webb. Webb figures to be the Vikings third QB this season and previously if he had entered a game before the end of the third quarter the rest of the team's quarterbacks were rendered ineligible.
Now, Webb could enter a game at wide receiver or in the Wildcat in any quarter. Musgrave sounds as if he definitely has a plan to build a package of plays for Webb.
“I’ve heard a lot about Joe and I’m looking forward to seeing what all he’s got under the hood," Musgrave said. "He’s doing a nice job at quarterback now, we want him to focus on quarterback and not dilute his pot too much. We know he can run, we know he can throw it 80 yards, we know he can make people miss. The new rules will enable us to kind of have a Joe Webb package I can see in the future, too. We’re looking forward to finding out what Joe’s all about and if he proves to be one of our 11 best players at times then we’ll get his [butt] on the field.”
Harvin's return role
New special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said a decision on how much to use Percy Harvin on kickoff returns will be a "game-by-game type of deal." The issue is that Harvin is going to see significant time on offense.
Priefer expects that some games he will be told to use Harvin and other times his use on offense will limit what he can do on special teams. "I would obviously love to have him as our primary returner, although Lorenzo Booker is a very good returner," Priefer said. "We have some other young guys we're going to try to work in here during the preseason. I'm excited about where we're at. I've been at places where I didn't have many options at all. Here we have several options, which is very exciting for me."
Priefer said the punt return job is wide open at this point. Jaymar Johnson should have a good shot to win that spot. Johnson, by the way, has looked very good in the early days of camp and it's obvious his hard work in the offseason is paying off.
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