Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 7/17/12

Vikings training camp preview


1. Make Christian Ponder comfortable. Every move the Vikings made this offseason is worthless if their starting quarterback isn't finally up to speed in his second season. Ponder got a free pass last season because of the NFL lockout and the fact that he sat behind Donovan McNabb through the first six weeks of the season. This year is different. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line, added targets at receiver and tight end and brought in some much-needed secondary help in hopes that Ponder won't have to win divisional shootouts with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Training camp is a vital period for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He must put all these pieces together and give Ponder the confidence to succeed.

2. Secondary comes first. There's a reason the Vikings have lost 11 consecutive NFC North games. They couldn't stop Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler and their high-powered passing attacks. Despite having the best pass rush in the league a year ago, the Vikings still had the worst secondary in franchise history. Injuries, ineffectiveness and off-the-field problems left them without the talent or a clue for how to defend the NFL's best quarterbacks and big receivers. This year should be much better. For starters, cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook return from a season in which they missed a combined 21 games. Quality depth was added behind them with the signing of veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, and the drafting of speedy third-rounder Josh Robinson. At safety, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith immediately improves a ridiculously weak position.


Left tackle Matt Kalil. If you think the pressure is on Ponder, keep an eye on his blindside protector. The Vikings' stagnant offense depends on the massive Kalil living up to the even more massive hype surrounding his fourth overall selection in this year's NFL draft. Kalil could be in for a tough summer since his first NFL assignment is trying to block league sack king Jared Allen every day in training camp. If Kalil fails, the rebuilt offensive line collapses and takes Ponder, the offense and the entire team with it. If Kalil quickly becomes the league's next great left tackle, Ponder's comfort level soars and Musgrave can put more receiving targets in play because he won't have to keep calling max protect. And with more receiving targets to stretch the field, there's more room underneath for the Vikings' running attack and the shifty talent of slot receiver Percy Harvin.


Ultimately, the responsibility for success or failure in the NFL lands on the quarterback's shoulders. The Vikings staked their future on Ponder when they used the 12th overall pick on him in 2011. He's a likeable guy who seems to have the mental makeup for the position. But he's also done nothing to silence those who believe he was a big draft-day reach at No. 12. He posted just two wins as a rookie, and one of them came when his backup, Joe Webb, led the team from behind after Ponder was injured. Ponder also threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns and often made the same mistakes while trying to force balls late into tight coverage. Ponder enjoyed universal patience a year ago. That ends now.


Winfield will get some time off

--Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is talking about taking it easy on cornerback Antoine Winfield, at least when it comes to the practice field. Winfield couldn't be happier about it.

"Oh, I love it," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything more. It comes with age. I'll be 35 Sunday. I expect it. This is my 14th season. I want to last 16 games. I want to last the whole season. I feel like, if I'm on the field, our defense plays a lot better. So, I want to be out there and help them."

Winfield missed 11 games last season because of a neck strain and a broken collarbone. The missed time triggered a clause in his contract that dropped this season's base salary from $7 million to $3 million.

Winfield guessed this week that he maybe knows 25 of the 90 players on the team's roster. But he's OK with that.

"I think it's good, considering we were 3-13 last season," he said. "We can't do much worse. Young guys brings energy."

There has been talk that Winfield might move to safety, but he doesn't believe that's a good idea.

"I've played cornerback for so many years, and moving to safety is a totally different technique," he said. "I'm usually coming from the side where I have angles to make tackles. Being a safety, I'm looking at that running back eye to eye. (Facing) a 225-pound, 235-pound running back, there'd be wear and tear. I don't think the body is ready for that."

--The Vikings had one of the worst secondaries in franchise history in 2011. So it's understandable that they've been mixing and matching several different combinations during OTAs and minicamp. One interesting starting combination during minicamp had free-agent acquisition Chris Carr and rookie third-round draft pick Josh Robinson at cornerback instead of Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield.

"Just trying to see guys in different positions, put them in some stressful situations and see how they respond," Frazier said. "Until we get the pads on in Mankato, you have to be careful about passing judgment. But we're trying to do some things to get a feel for where they are mentally and how they work, and that helps us as we prepare for Mankato."

--Wide receiver Stephen Burton, a player the team stood behind despite a miserable rookie training camp a year ago, is a long shot to make the team now that the Vikings have added some talent at the position. He was, however, impressing coaches in OTAs until coming down with pneumonia. He wasn't able to participate in minicamp this week. "But we should have him back for training camp," Frazier said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I found out yesterday laying in the bed, relaxing, and I saw it go across the screen. Whatever the issue is, I'm sure they will get things squared away." -- Vikings running back and most popular player Adrian Peterson, when asked when he learned that teammate Percy Harvin, the team's second-most popular player, had requested a trade.


--Defensive end Everson Griffen is being given a look at linebacker. Said coach Leslie Frazier, "We want to give him a chance to see if he can help us at that linebacker spot where we're still working with our depth. We're still trying to identify what our depth is going to be at that position."

Griffen was used on a limited basis at linebacker last season. He said, "I'm comfortable. With my athletic ability, I feel like I can come and pretty much do anything. That's not me being cocky. I just feel like I can just come in and adapt to the situation."

--Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave smiles when he talks about Jerome Simpson. A lot.

Calling the team's new split end "exactly what the doctor ordered" for the Vikings' offense, Musgrave believes the former Bengals receiver will give the team the speed and matchup advantages that it sorely lacked a year ago.

"We need somebody with juice like that playing the split end," Musgrave said. "We need to be able to count on somebody from our split end position winning consistently versus man coverage. With the way I think we can run the football, defenses are going to try to take away the run. And we want to make them pay for that through the air."

Simpson caught 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He'll serve a league-imposed three-game suspension to start the season.


--MLB Jasper Brinkley, who is expected to take over for the departed E.J. Henderson as the starting middle linebacker, was held out of the Vikings' minicamp recently. The reason depends on who you choose to believe. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the team is treating Brinkley for a groin injury and is not being held out because of anything related to the major hip surgery that wiped out Brinkley's entire 2011 season. But Brinkley says his injury is "just a process with the hip." General manager Rick Spielman said, "There's some concern there, definitely. The durability is a question right now." Tyrone McKenzie, who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad, has been working with the team's No. 1 defense in Brinkley's absence.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Christian Ponder. Backups -- Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels.

Ponder has talked a good game so far. He's talked about learning from his mistakes. He's talked about being patient and not running from the pocket, throwing across his body, forcing balls into shrinking holes and doing all the other things that rookies are often known for. But in 11 games and 10 starts a year ago, he often made the same mistakes after talking about how he needed to learn from them. He had an excuse a year ago. The NFL lockout and the failed Donovan McNabb experiment cost him the preparation needed to have any chance of success as a rookie. He's now had an offseason, and the Vikings have surrounded him with better talent. If he fails now, the team's future is bleak. The coaches also would have to consider starting Webb, whose size, electric running style and strong arm make him the most intriguing player on the roster. The experience and composure that Rosenfels, a 12-year veteran, brings gives the Vikings an enviable situation should their top two quarterbacks go down.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups -- Toby Gerhart, Lex Hilliard, Jordan Todman, Derrick Coleman, FB Ryan D'Imperio, FB Matt Asiata.

An arrest in July in Houston took the Vikings by surprise, but they've opted to withhold judgment until his court appearance on Aug. 6 given the dissenting witness accounts from the bar incident in which Peterson was charged with resisting arrest for allegedly shoving an off-duty officer. Peterson is ahead of schedule in his return from a gruesome Christmas Eve injury that saw his left knee collapse under a direct shot at Washington. He's had the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments rebuilt and is determined to play in the season opener. The team says it's a realistic goal, but is obviously taking a more protective tone with their face of the franchise. The key to Peterson's multi-faceted talent is his powerful cuts. They give him his elite change of direction and set up his leverage advantage and ability to reach daylight in a blink. Even if Peterson returns for Week 1, look for his touches to be limited. With a run-oriented philosophy, this is why the Vikings used a second-round draft pick on a backup running back (Gerhart) in 2010. Gerhart is fully healed from a minor knee injury at the end of last season. He's also significantly more muscular and is itching to carry the load early on. Gerhart isn't Peterson when it comes to the combination of power, speed and quick-twitch explosion, but he can move a pile and is deceptively nimble for a big back. Felton was signed to give the Vikings a legitimate fullback that can block and catch. The battle for No. 3 running back is one to watch between veteran newcomer Lex Hilliard and Jordan Todman, a shifty second-year guy who was signed off of the Chargers' practice squad during the final week of last season. Whoever wins that job could be getting some significant carries early in the season as Peterson is eased back into the offense.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kyle Rudolph. Backups -- John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner, Mickey Shuler.

Rudolph is the starter, but he and Carlson will be on the field together a lot in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's tight-end friendly offense. Musgrave brought that philosophy with him from Atlanta before last season. Like a lot of coordinators, he also wants to duplicate what the Patriots have done with their tight ends the past two years. Without a true No. 1 receiver, the Vikings made Carlson their No. 1 target in free agency this offseason. He and Rudolph are similar players from Notre Dame. Both have good speed for the position, soft hands and a tremendous catch radius. Rudolph, a second-round pick in 2011, has All-Pro potential. His hands are massive and they catch anything that's thrown near them. Ellison is another player to watch. Without a blocking tight end on the roster, the Vikings used a fourth-round pick on Ellison this year. Ellison is a fullback/tight end/H-back hybrid in the mold of a Jim Kleinsasser, the long-time Viking who retired after last season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Percy Harvin, Jerome Simpson. Backups -- Michael Jenkins, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Bryan Walters, Kerry Taylor, Stephen Burton, Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arceneaux.

Simpson, a free-agent signing from Cincinnati, gives the Vikings the potential for something they've desperately lacked since Sidney Rice was catching deep balls from Brett Favre: A legitimate No. 1 receiver that can line up wide and beat defenders with speed, a lanky frame and ball skills. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they'll have to wait until Week 4 to see all of that in a game that counts. Simpson will serve a three-game suspension after pleading guilty to a felony drug charge. Harvin is the team's most electric receiving threat. But his small build, while incredibly strong, has limited his role in this offense to short and intermediate routes from the slot position. Jenkins is coming back from a knee injury. He'll never live up to being a former first-round pick of the Falcons, but he could be a reliable No. 3 receiver. He runs crisp routes and knows the offense well. Wright and Childs are fourth-round picks from Arkansas. Friends and teammates since third grade, they bring two distinctly different talents that could breathe life into a terrible passing attack. Wright is a shifty slot guy similar to Harvin. Childs, who was slowed by a knee injury during his senior season, is a tall receiver that could come in handy in the red zone. If they both make the team, a sixth receiver position could be up for grabs between Walters, Burton, Aromashodu and Arceneaux. Aromashodu, who is inconsistent but promising as a downfield threat, would have the early advantage.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Geoff Schwartz, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups -- G/C Joe Berger, LT Patrick Brown, G Chris DeGeare, G/C Brandon Fusco, G Tyler Holmes, T Levi Horn, T DeMarcus Love, T Austin Pasztor, C Quentin Saulsberry, T Darrion Weems.

Those who've cried out for years that the Vikings' offensive line was the team's biggest weakness finally were heard this offseason. The line has been rebuilt. The team released aging starting guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera shortly after the season. They drafted Kalil fourth overall and named him an immediate starter. That moved Johnson, a stopgap starter at left tackle a year ago, to his more natural position at left guard. Johnson gave it all he had a year ago when Bryant McKinnie was released on Day 2 of training camp. But Johnson simply doesn't have the build to play left tackle at a high level. He'll be a much-needed infusion of youth at left guard. The starting right guard job will be determined following a training camp battle between Schwartz and Fusco. Schwartz, 26, missed last season with the Panthers because of a back injury. But he's healthy and comes in with 19 career starts and a tackle-like build at 6-6, 331. Fusco is an overachiever who has turned heads quickly. Despite coming from Division II Slippery Rock and having never played guard before, last year's sixth-round draft pick will either be a starter or a top interior backup. Sullivan, who once struggled against bigger nose tackles, has improved his technique and footwork and has become a leader on the line at center. Loadholt shows flashes of being a dominant right tackle, but is easily the most inconsistent lineman on the team. He needs to achieve that consistency in Year 4. Brown and Love will battle for the No. 1 backup job behind Kalil. Berger is an exceptional backup at center and both guard positions. He had starts at all three spots a year ago and might actually be better than Schwartz and Fusco at right guard.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Brian Robison, NT Letroy Guion, DT Kevin Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups -- DE Everson Griffen, NT Fred Evans, DL Christian Ballard, DE Nick Reed, DE D'Aundre Reed, DT Tydreke Powell, DE Ernest Owusu, DE Eric Latimore, DE Anthony Jacobs, DE Trevor Guyton, DE Jeff Charleston, DT Chase Baker.

The ends are the strength of the team. The tackles are a question mark. Robison and Allen combined for 30 sacks a year ago. With 22 sacks, Allen set the franchise record and came within a sack of breaking the NFL mark. Robison replaced Ray Edwards and proved he can be an every-down player. He had a career-high eight sacks and played the run well. Guion is a more natural under tackle, but he's also the second-best tackle behind the aging Williams. So the Vikings moved Guion from under tackle to nose tackle. He'll be undersized, but he's quick and will be an upgrade over Remi Ayodele, who lasted just one year before being released. Williams turns 32 in training camp and often shows his many miles. But if he can stave off nagging knee and foot injuries, he could turn back the clock to a time when he was a dominant All-Pro. After all, this is a contract year for him. Griffen is one of the best young players on the team. He'd be a starter if his position wasn't defensive end. The Vikings will look to get him on the field more at end and continue using him as a fourth linebacker when they go to their 3-4 look. Ballard, a second-year player, also is intriguing because he can play both tackle positions as well as left end. He's a tackle in an end's body.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Erin Henderson, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups -- MLB Audie Cole, MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Larry Dean, WLB Solomon Elimimian, SLB Tyrone McKenzie, MLB Tyler Nielson, OLB Corey Paredes.

So far, the Vikings are taking a leap of faith that Brinkley can replace long-time starter and team leader E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker. Henderson remains unsigned, but that could change if the Vikings get desperate enough. Brinkley missed all of last season because of hip surgery. He was then limited in OTAs and minicamp. The team said it was a groin injury, while Brinkley said it was his hip. Brinkley also is a downhill run-stuffer who struggled with the deep middle coverage assignments in the Tampa 2 scheme. Erin Henderson probably will play in the middle in the nickel package. He became a starter a year ago and had a decent season. He was upset the team didn't give him a multi-year contract, but the one-year deal he signed will motivate him this season. Greenway is a steady player who has led the team in tackles the past four years. He doesn't make a lot of splash plays, but the defense also doesn't put him in the best positions to make them. If Brinkley doesn't work out at middle linebacker, Mitchell was an under-the-radar free agent signing that could pay off. Cole is a massive linebacker (6-4, 246) who could find a role as a seventh-round pick.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Chris Cook, FS Harrison Smith, SS Mistral Raymond. Backups -- CB Chris Carr, CB Zack Bowman, CB Josh Robinson, CB Brandon Burton, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Nicholas Taylor, CB Corey Gatewood, CB Bobby Felder, S Eric Frampton, S Jamarca Sanford, S Robert Blanton, S Andrew Sendejo.

Winfield is 35 and coming off a season in which he missed 11 games. He's not concerned because his injuries last season (neck, collarbone) weren't to his legs. Cook missed 10 games last year as he battled an arrest and charges for felony domestic assault. Cook was cleared of the charges during the offseason and won't be suspended. So this is the year he finally lives up to the hype. A giant corner at 6-2, 212, Cook was a second-round pick in 2010. Injuries essentially wiped out any chance of him making an impact as a rookie. He was reaching his potential as a big cover corner last year when he was arrested before the seventh game of the season. The backup corners have been immensely upgraded. Robinson, a third-round pick, ran the fastest 40 time at the Combine this year. Bowman and Carr are legitimate NFL starters who were signed in free agency. By trading back into the first round to take Smith at No. 29, the Vikings found at least one new starter at safety. He appears to have the size, speed and instincts to play the position better than anyone the Vikings have had since Darren Sharper left after the 2008 season. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round pick a year ago, got valuable starting experience because of injuries down the stretch in 2011. But he'll have to win back the job in training camp. Sanford will be in the mix, but only because he's the most experienced starter. He's essentially a special teams player who has had to start because the position has been woefully undermanned in recent years. Frampton returns as a special teams leader. Blanton, a converted cornerback, could sneak into the strong safety battle. Helping him is the fact he played alongside Smith at Notre Dame. Sherels, the undrafted surprise who made the practice squad in 2010 and then became the team's top punt returner in 2011, has promise at corner, but might be caught in a numbers situation this year. The Vikings invested a fifth-round pick in Burton a year ago. But he also failed to gain the trust of the coaches despite a desperate need for corners a year ago.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KR Percy Harvin, PR Marcus Sherels.

Walsh, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia, faces as much pressure as anyone on the roster this summer. Not only did he replace one of the league's all-time steadiest players in Ryan Longwell, he also is coming off a horrendous season in which he missed 14 of 35 field-goal attempts. The Vikings love his leg strength on kickoffs and insist that his place-kicking woes from last year are correctable. They point to his 90-percent accuracy as an underclassman as proof that he can become an accurate NFL kicker. The Vikings say they will not bring a veteran kicker to camp. But if Walsh crumbles under the pressure, don't be surprised if one arrives soon. Longwell still hasn't been signed to any team. Loeffler returns from a back injury and should be steady as usual. Kluwe is the best punter in team history. He has a big leg and tremendous control closer to the goal line. Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings try desperately to limit his touches to keep his 185-pound frame fresh. Sherels is the backup kickoff returner and No. 1 punt returner, but that could change because he's more of a long-shot to make the team now. Jarius Wright could win the punt return job and compete at kick returner. Josh Robinson is another fast rookie who could return kicks. From a coverage standpoint, the team's youth movement should help. Solomon Elimimian was a standout CFL linebacker. He also excelled at special teams and was voted by his peers as the CFL's hardest hitter in 2010 and 2011.

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