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 playground started to buzz as the four buses rolled up to Lucy Craft Laney School in North Minneapolis on Wednesday afternoon. The students at the school had been working all morning to build a brand-new playground and were excited to see the Vikings show up to help finish the job.
New head coach Mike Zimmer led the Vikings off the first bus, and most of the players and many members of the personnel staff, including general manager Rick Spielman, participated in the team’s annual playground build. They grabbed shovels and wheelbarrows as soon as they stepped off the buses. At around 2:30 p.m., after a couple of hours of work, the job was done.
“It’s important to our players that we give back to Minnesota as much as they give to us, so it’s been really fun for us to get it,” Zimmer said, surveying the scene. “It has actually been fun for us to get away from practice a little bit and get out and kind of joke around with each other.”
Rap songs and dance music blared over the speakers as players and coaches worked alongside teachers, administrators and students of a wide range of ages. The hot sun beamed down, with an occasional cloud offering a moment of shade, but the players appeared to be having a blast.
“I just love the fact that everybody is here with the same goal, the same mindset, which is to help provide and enhance the playground and the culture here at the school so kids get to have fun and experience each other with a great playground,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said.
Among the players participating in the event was rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was tasked with painting checkerboards on some tabletops. Bridgewater was wearing a pair of work gloves, of course, but he took them off to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the kids.
“It’s very cool,” said Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the draft. “I look forward to being in Minnesota for many years. So to be out here after less than a month and to be able to make an impact, to impact this school … it’s just a great feeling to be able to leave our imprint here and I’m glad this school will have a playground that they’ll be able to play on for many, many years to come.”
Most of the Vikings organization arrived after Wednesday’s organized team activity workout, but some employees, including members of the media relations staff, arrived first thing in the morning to assist with the project. Zimmer, who mostly supervised at the playground build, said it was a good thing that the coaches and players got to spend some time together off the field.
“It’s more of a relaxed atmosphere,” Zimmer said. “It’s good. It’s good to be around them when you don’t have a whistle in your mouth and trying to be demanding on everything.”
The Vikings announced on Wednesday key dates for training camp, which will be held for the 49th consecutive year in Mankato.
The team will report to training camp on July 24 and will hold its first practice the following day. The team will break from training camp on Aug. 15, a day before their second preseason game against the Cardinals at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Vikings will hold an evening practice on Aug. 2 at Blakeslee Stadium. It will be followed by a team introduction and fireworks. A full training camp schedule will be released at a later date.
The Vikings have claimed cornerback Julian Posey off waivers from the Browns. To make room for Posey on the 90-man roster, the Vikings waived fellow cornerback Kip Edwards.
Posey, 25, appeared in five games for the Browns last season and made one start. He recorded six tackles and one sack.
The Vikings are his fourth NFL team in four years. He signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent out of Ohio in 2011 and spent some time on their practice squad. He landed with the Dolphins in 2012 and played in two games. He started the 2013 season the Browns practice squad before he was promoted.
Edwards, 24, joined the Vikings' practice squad during the 2013 season but was never promoted to the 53-man roster. After the season, he signed a reserve/future contract with the Vikings.
When trying to project how first-round pick Anthony Barr will fare during his rookie season, you may want to point to what Aldon Smith and Von Miller did as rookies as the best-case scenario.
The reality is, though, that it takes most edge rushers time to find their groove at the next level.
While Smith had 14 sacks for the 49ers in his first season in 2011 and Miller was not far behind with 11.5 for the Broncos, edge rushers racking up double-digit sacks as rookies is not common.
For every Smith and Miller, there is a Vernon Gholston or Aaron Maybin who made little impact.
Looking at the 32 edge rushers selected in the previous seven drafts, those players averaged just 3.7 sacks and 20.2 tackles as rookies despite playing 509 snaps on average in their first season, according to Jeff McLane, who did some digging on rookie pass rushers for the Philly Inquirer.
Gholston and Maybin were top picks of the Jets and Bills, respectively, who did not record a sack as rookies. Gholston is the worst-case scenario, having washed out of the league without a single sack.
The Vikings, of course, are confident Barr will develop into a star pass rusher. General manager Rick Spielman has said that they projected the outside linebacker out of UCLA as the second-best pass-rushing prospect of this class behind Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.
While it appears that Barr will be facing an even steeper learning curve than his rookie peers and predecessors considering he didn’t start playing defense at UCLA until his junior year, the Vikings said that Barr, before he got sent back to California, did not look like a major project.
“I know that’s a big thing with everybody that he’s only played two years, but the things he’s done defensively he’s done pretty well,” coach Mike Zimmer, who envisions Barr playing a hybrid role like Miller does in Denver, said two weeks ago. “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue whatsoever.”
Still, while the Vikings anticipate that Barr will ascend to a starting role by the time training camp ends, it might be best to curb your enthusiasm when it comes to his first-year sack total. Potent rookie pass rushers like Smith, Miller, Brian Orakpo (11 sacks for the Redskins in 2009) and Clay Matthews III (10 sacks for the Packers in 2009) appear to be exceptions to the rule.
“Everybody has a development stage,” Spielman, speaking generally about the immediate contributions of rookies, said last month. “Some hit it right off the bat. Some take some time.”
Harrison Smith said pretty much what you would expect him to say when one of my fellow media members asked him if the players had bought into new coach Mike Zimmer. But I liked how the third-year free safety put it (though I understand if you’re leery of boat analogies).
“Yeah, I felt that even before we got on the field,” said Smith, who is healthy by the way. “The workouts, the conditioning, you could tell that guys had bought in. I think it’s been great so far. Everybody jumped in the boat and we’re all pressing ahead. We’ve just got a long way to go.”
It shouldn’t surprise you that Vikings players are saying that they have bought into Zimmer. It would only be a story if they were saying they hadn’t after his first four months on the job.
Zimmer’s thoughts on his players buying into his program, however, were more interesting.
“I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about if they are buying in,” Zimmer told reporters after Thursday’s OTA workout. “My job is to coach them hard and try to get them to be the best players they can be. You’d have to ask them if they are buying in, really. My job is to coach them.”
Translation: They better have bought in, and if they haven’t yet, the offer is only going to stand for a little while longer.
After getting a brief glimpse at Zimmer during previous offseason workouts, we finally got a good look -- and listen -- on Thursday at how he interacts with his players, especially his defenders. I had my eyes on Zimmer for much of the morning, watching him go from defensive back to defensive back, sometimes dispensing words of praise and other times getting on their cases.
I particularly enjoyed this exchange with veteran cornerback Derek Cox, who was a step behind his man in coverage on one play but wasn’t targeted as the quarterback threw elsewhere.
“Is that your guy?” Zimmer asked Cox as he walked back to the line of scrimmage.
“Yeah,” Cox replied, though Zimmer knew the answer already.
“So cover him!” Zimmer said before turning and walking away.
Zimmer had a few exchanges with players that were less family friendly. He got after free-agent signing Captain Munnerlyn after he lost track of Cordarrelle Patterson in one 1-on-1 drill. He had some unbloggable words for rookie safety Antone Exum after he was tentative on another play.
But Smith told me a few dirty words aren’t a big deal, and that he actually enjoys getting chewed out by Zimmer. Hey, the NFL office is nothing like your office, and it’s not like there is anything unique about a football coach occasionally using four-letter words to get a point across.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner showed a little fire, too, yelling at the first-team offense after some confusion in the huddle and later when Christian Ponder, who worked mostly with the second-stringers during Thursday’s workout, got a quick-hitter swatted down at the line.
We know that Zimmer has a reputation for being blunt and he certainly didn’t hold much back in the snippets of “Hard Knocks” that HBO chose to broadcast (know that there are more sides to Zimmer than that). But it was a little surprising to see the seemingly stoic Turner getting after people, too.
However, it was nothing over the top, and after some tense workout sessions at the start of the offseason program last month, the players seemed a little more relaxed on Thursday morning.
Don’t let the smiles fool you, though. These guys know that there is a lot at stake, even in May.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business,” Smith said. “If you haven’t bought in, they’ll just get rid of you.”
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