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.
Welcome to the NFL. Happy Labor Day. Now get to work.
The Vikings return to Winter Park this morning after three days off. Since they last gathered for the 28-0 preseason finale victory over the Texans, they've cut from 80 to 53 players, put a middle linebacker (Jasper Brinkley) on IR, released three linebackers (Heath Farwell, Ross Homan and David Herron) and signed a linebacker (Xavier Adibi) that started against them on Thursday night. And, oh yeah, Kevin Williams found out he'll be suspended for the first two games.
It should be a short, non-padded practice when the team takes the field at 11 a.m. today. Here are some of the question marks we're looking at heading into Sunday's regular-season opener at San Diego:
. New starters at left tackle, quarterback, flanker, defensive tackle, nose tackle, left defensive end and weak-side linebacker.
. The team still hasn't announced a starter at strong safety.
. Two players, CB Cedric Griffin and RG Anthony Herrera, haven't played full games since tearing ACLs. Griffin, of course, has torn both over the past two years.
. Weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson has never started an NFL game.
. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. Both backup running backs -- Toby Gerhart (Achilles'/ankle) and Lorenzo Booker (back) -- are nicked up, although coach Leslie Frazier said everyone should be ready to practice this week.
. Depth at offensive line, linebacker and secondary.
Don't misunderstand. Pointing out question marks isn't meant to imply that an area is hopelessly lost or that the answer to that question won't turn out on the positive side. These are just areas that we'll all be watching closely.
For instance, as good as Pat Williams was for most of his Vikings' career, I'll still take Remi Ayodele at 28 over Big Pat at 38 and coming off a subpar year. I also think Donovan McNabb has looked surprisingly comfortable. And all eyes will be on LT Charlie Johnson, but let's face it, it's not like Bryant McKinnie was on top of his game the past couple seasons.
It's not the worst thing in the world that the Vikings head into a season picked to finish last in their division because of so many question marks.
After all, last year's team went into the season picked to win the Super Bowl because the perception was it had no question marks.
Finally, the NFL got around to announcing that defensive tackle Kevin Williams will be suspended for two games and fined an additional two game checks. It's not a bad deal for Williams -- except financially, of course -- and the Vikings considering the original suspension from back in 2008 called for four games.
Williams is battling a painful bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot and will be able to use the suspension to rest up, which might help him in the long run this season.
Williams tested positive for a banned diuretic back in 2008. He fought the case in court before finally giving up the fight earlier this year.
Here's the statement from the league: Kevin Williams of the Minnesota Vikings has been suspended without pay for the team's first two games of the 2011 regular season and fined an additional two game checks for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. Williams' suspension begins on Satuday, Sept. 3. He will be eligible to return to the Vikings' active roster on Monday, Sept. 19 following the team's Sept. 18 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Williams will lose around $1.4 million of his $6 million base pay for the four games. Had he taken the suspension back in 2008, it would have cost him about $235,000 of his $1 million base pay.
Here's a condensed timeline of how the case dragged on:
July 2008: Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (not related) have routine drug tests before training camp begins. Both players were to receive bonuses for reporting under certain weights, and both later admitted they used a diuretic, StarCaps, to cut weight.
Sept. 2008: The players are informed they will be suspended for four games by the NFL for taking a banned substance, bumetanide. They appeal the suspensions, saying the ingredient was not listed on the StarCaps label.
Dec. 2008: The NFL announces the suspension of the Williamses and four other NFL players without pay for violating the league's anti-steroid policy. A restraining order is issued allowing the Williamses to play, and eventually a U.S. District Judge blocks the NFL from enforcing the suspension until there’s a full hearing.
Feb. 2009: The Williamses file a $10 million lawsuit against the NFL, contending the league was aware StarCaps contained an unlisted banned substance, but didn’t warn players.
Sept. 2009: The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirms earlier rejections of the NFL’s argument that federal courts have jurisdiction over the labor laws that govern its drug-testing program. The case returns to Hennepin County District Court for a trial in the spring of 2010, meaning the Williams play the 2009 season.
March 2010: At a five-day trial in Minneapolis, a key issue is who employs the players — the NFL or the team. The Williamses claim they are protected by Minnesota state laws, including one that prohibits employers from imposing discipline based on a single positive test and demands other procedural protections before sanctions are imposed.
May 2010: A judge rules the Williamses can be forced to serve their suspensions even though the NFL violated their rights under state labor laws. They appeal and play the 2010 season.
Feb. 2011: The Minnesota Court of Appeals favors the NFL in its four-game suspension.
March 2011: Kevin Williams opts not to appeal the ruling. Pat Williams files an appeal to the State Supreme Court. before the 30-day deadline, agent Angelo Wright said. The Williamses tested positive for the banned diuretic called StarCaps during training camp of 2008.
Today: Kevin Williams is suspended for two games without pay and will lose his pay for two more games, costing him around $1.4 million.
MANKATO -- Free-agent linebacker Ben Leber visited the Seattle Seahawks on Monday, according to multiple reports.
The Seahawks already have signed former Vikings Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice.
It appears the Vikings are going to give Erin Henderson every shot to win the weak-side linebacker job that Leber had held in Minnesota. Nose tackle Pat Williams also remains on the market and isn't expected back in Minnesota.
By Mark Craig
MANKATO -- Some highlights from reporting day while melting away in Mankato (Zulgad saying he's now down to his eighth-grade weight) ...
Coach Leslie Frazier said:
Other highlights ...
Keep checking back. Judd could be bringing more highlights later on.
The Vikings have agreed to terms with nose tackle Remi Ayodele on a three-year, $9 million deal, according to an NFL source.
The agreement comes on the same day the Vikings are expected to announce that they have released defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Nose tackle Pat Williams also is a free agent and might not return. Kennedy was expected to be his replacement at one time.
Ayodele, 28, has spent three seasons with the Saints and finished last year with 21 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He started all 16 games for the first time in his career. In 2009, he started 13 of the 15 games in which he played and had 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Ayodele, whose brother Akin plays in the NFL, was part of a Saints defense that was 16th against the run last season, giving up 112.3 yards per game. Remi Ayodele, however, was considered to be strong against the run and likely will step into the first- and second-down role (at least) playing alongside Kevin Williams.
The Saints replaced Ayodele by signing Shaun Rogers to a one-year deal in early March before the NFL lockout.
The 6-2, 318-pound Ayodele went undrafted in 2006 and then bounced from New England to Baltimore to Dallas to Atlanta. Ayodele's name should ring a bell with Vikings fans. He was the player who hit quarterback Brett Favre in the upper body during the 2009 NFC title game while Bobby McCray hit Favre low in the third quarter. Favre suffered a sprained ankle on the play and the NFL later admitted a penalty should have been called.
Ayodele also had a key fumble recovery in the Saints' overtime victory over the Vikings. That set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Reggie Bush that gave New Orleans a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings can not officially sign Ayodele until 5 p.m. on Friday and he can't practice until Aug. 4 when the collective bargaining agreement is expected to be ratified. The Vikings also have agreed to terms with journeyman wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, who had been with the Chicago Bears.
Free-agent addition: The Vikings signed undrafted free-agent running back Alexander Robinson out of Iowa State. The Vikings now have 15 undrafted free agents signed. The move came a day after Kentucky running back Derrick Locke failed his physical with the Vikings. Locke ended up signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.
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