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.
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.
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.”
Last year, around this time, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier kept hearing about Percy Harvin.
First, while coaching the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and later at the 2012 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Frazier was repeatedly approached by opposing coaches, who in casual conversation just kept mentioning how much of a headache it was to defend Harvin.
The energetic slot receiver was just so slippery, so dynamic, so explosive.
The more Frazier heard from peers and foes about the stress Harvin could cause an opposing defense, the more he realized Harvin had to become an even bigger cog in the Vikings’ attack. And so plans were tweaked, Harvin’s role was enhanced and for eight games in 2012, the explosive playmaker did a little bit of everything.
He took bubble screens and short quick-hit passes and turned them into big gains. He lined up in the backfield and displayed his demolition derby style as a running back. He lobbied for more action on special teams and continued to be one of the league’s most electrifying return men, evidenced best by his 105-yard score in Week 4 in Detroit.
At the season’s midpoint, Harvin was the Vikings star being propped up as a league MVP candidate, not Adrian Peterson. Harvin was the one who seemed more responsible for the team’s 5-3 start, amassing a league-best 60 catches and totaling 739 yards from scrimmage with five total touchdowns mixed in. (Peterson, for the record, had 914 yards from scrimmage and four TDs after eight games.)
But now? Well, now all that Percy Harvin feel-good has been snowed under by a blizzard of Percy Harvin confusion. Most significantly: the question on whether Harvin will remain a Viking in 2013 and beyond cannot be answered definitively, fueling a new wave of speculation that he may soon be traded.\
To be clear, this uncertainty and these rumors have existed for a while now, even if they are just now mushrooming and making bigger headlines nationally. But much of the outside conjecture is justified as the Vikings coaching staff and front office continues keep the details of Harvin’s saga very, very private.
Percy Harvin? On the trading block? Could it be?
Yes. Yes, it could be.
When the Vikings head back to the Combine next week, you can bet they’ll cast a few Harvin-baited hooks into the waters and see if there are any nibbles. And with the 24-year-old playmaker heading into the final year of his rookie deal, now may be a practical time to pull the trigger.
After all, keeping Harvin happy in Minnesota in 2013 would likely require a lucrative long-term contract extension. And with the durability and personality question marks that are in permanent ink in Harvin’s evaluation file, the Vikings have to measure the risk-reward of investing in Harvin long-term versus dealing him for a few choice draft picks.
Are Harvin’s game-changing skills so valuable that they mitigate the ever-present worry that his moodiness may one day grow too toxic for a team looking to fuel its rise with low-maintenance, drama-free players? That’s what the Vikings must decide. And that decision is only complicated by the market value Harvin now has at a position where salaries are quickly escalating.
Publicly, neither Frazier nor General Manager Rick Spielman would benefit from openly declaring Harvin up for auction. But you can bet the Vikings will be listening to interested suitors at the combine, perhaps ready to move away from the dangerous temper wick attached to Harvin’s toughness, speed and elusiveness.
The abrupt end to Harvin’s 2012 season still registers as strange. Yes, there was the severe left ankle sprain Harvin suffered in the second half of a Week 9 loss in Seattle. And that was followed by a four-and-a-half-week stretch in which, despite a calculated combination of rest and rehabilitation, Harvin’s ankle just never improved enough for him to get back on the field. So the Vikings insist the decision to end Harvin’s season with a move to Injured Reserve on the Wednesday of Week 14 was purely protective, a decision to keep the always aggressive receiver from pursuing a return to action in a way that could endanger his long-term health.
But along with that plausible explanation comes the inevitable follow-up questions, the ones the Vikings never really did answer head-on: If the injury was the only thing being evaluated, then was it really a practical move to end Harvin’s season on Dec. 5, in the middle of a playoff push, with four regular games left? It was, after all just an ankle sprain. And wasn’t it peculiar that Harvin’s injury never required surgery and that the Vikings’ played their playoff game at Lambeau Field 62 days after the receiver sprained that ankle?
Seems only fair to wonder if Harvin might have been able to play in that contest.
And so the mystery looms, heightened even further when you think back to the awkwardness Frazier displayed on the podium at Winter Park hours before the Harvin-to-I.R. move was rubber-stamped.
Asked directly if there were issues beyond the ankle injury that were contributing to Harvin’s absence, Frazier paused and squirmed for a moment.
“You know, it’s …” Frazier said. “I know that he wants to win like we do. And I’m sure he’s going to do everything he can to do what he has to do to help our football team.
“We’ll see where it goes.”
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
Meanwhile, if you want direct and honest answers from the Vikings head coach and GM on their Harvin feelings? Sorry. That’s not going to happen. But here is what we can tell you about what Frazier and Spielman have said about Harvin since the Vikings’ season ended with a playoff loss in Green Bay last month.
First, there was Frazier’s insistence that Harvin’s odd disappearance from the team in December was no big deal and a firm declaration that the mercurial receiver “will coexist peacefully” within the organization going forward.
“He exists peacefully now,” Frazier said.
Sometime last month, Harvin finally returned to Winter Park for a mandatory exit physical. And here is how Frazier summarized his most recent conversation with Harvin.
“I told him how much I love him and want him to be a part of our team,” Frazier told KFAN’s Dan Barreiro in a Feb. 3 interview. “And all those things that he hears in questions that are asked to me about his future in Minnesota, I mean I want him to play for our team. I don’t want him to play for anyone else. And I tried to put that to rest with him. So he’s clear on how I feel. And we have great respect for one another and hope that things will be great next season.”
As for Spielman? In his season-ending gathering with local reporters, he denied that the team had concerns about Harvin’s attitude, saying flat out: “We have no issues with Percy Harvin.”
Which, of course, is exactly what a GM would say if a) he really had no issues with Harvin; or b) if he was being careful to minimize and hide any such problems so as not to scare off potential trade partners or reduce Harvin’s trade value.
You can see why the opening for conspiracy theories and speculation continues to open wide. And so, if you choose, you can be the one that reads between the lines on everything Spielman says. Like when he told KFAN’s Paul Allen in a radio interview Friday that he would love a scenario in which the Vikings went into April’s draft armed with 10 or 11 picks.
Wait … But … The Vikings only have eight selections at present. So Spielman had to have up something big in mind with that insinuation, right?
And how about the sudden silliness that sprung up Sunday when the Vikings’ 2013 season ticket poster was noted for having five standouts featured: Peterson and Jared Allen and Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield and Christian Ponder.
No Harvin? That, the conspiracy theorists will argue, also has to mean something.
So yep, this is where a complicated situation can too often become overwhelmed with gossip and innuendo.
With well-rehearsed talking points, the Vikings continue to publicly discuss Harvin by expressing everything you already knew. That Harvin is a good football player. A blue-chip player in fact. And that he’s under contract for one more season. And then when paired with Peterson, he gives the Vikings two big-play threats that makes the Vikings offense very, very dangerous.
It’s also worth noting that commitment is a two-way street. So even if the Vikings were fully intent on finding a way to make things work with Harvin long-term, the receiver himself would have to reciprocate such interest.
And given that Harvin hasn’t done an interview in nearly three months, it’s hard to know what exactly he’s thinking about all this.
Instead, the soap opera continues, Harvin’s future as a Vikings as iffy as ever,
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