Vikings notebook: Bridgewater player to watch
If nothing else, Teddy Bridgewater has planted the seed of doubt when it comes to the general assumption that he’ll be brought along slowly and out of sight while veteran Matt Cassel mans the starting quarterback job to start the regular season.
Yes, the Minnesota Vikings are the beneficiary of a draft-day slide that delivered Bridgewater to them in a slot (No. 32 overall) that comes with fewer expectations and more patience. But the youngster from Louisville showed enough on and off the field during minicamps and OTAs to be taken seriously as a contender for the starting job from opening day.
Those who don’t believe that should research what happened in Seattle just two years ago. Remember when Matt Flynn was going to be the temporary bridge to a Seahawks future that included third-round pick Russell Wilson starting at quarterback? Remember how quickly Wilson accelerated that timetable, shoving Wilson off his so-called bridge and seizing the starting job from Week 1 of his rookie season?
Bridgewater might not be the next Wilson. But he’s shown the work ethic, the instincts, the mental capacity, the quick release, the poise and the arm strength to give a career journeyman such as Cassel a run for the starting job. As for those who point to Cassel’s highlights a year ago (versus Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), well, they also need to brush up on his lowlights (versus Carolina and Cincinnati) and overall inconsistency and shaky ball security.
Many have assumed a likely scenario that includes Cassel starting, Bridgewater waiting a year and Christian Ponder serving as the No. 3. But Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has been careful not to name a starter, a No. 2 or a No. 3.
The only definite that still appeared intact as the team’s minicamp came to a close was Ponder’s role as the No. 3. As for Bridgewater, the coaches seem genuinely impressed by everything the kid has done to this point.
“I knew he’d make great decisions, quick decisions,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “But he has been outstanding throwing the deep ball, which some people thought would be an issue.
“I think in the six-to-eight weeks we’ve had him on the field, I think he’s been put in a position where’s he’s had to make most of the throws he would have to make. I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.”
Zimmer said he has a date in mind for when he wants to name his starting quarterback. After watching Bridgewater handle OTAs and minicamp, it appears that decision might not be the foregone conclusion that so many expected.
Players report: July 24.
First practice: July 25
Camp ends: Aug. 14.
n At 58, Mike Zimmer is making his first run as an NFL head coach. Through 5 1/2 months, he sounds like a man who thinks things are going pretty well.
“It’s been a good five months,” he said July 19 after sending his players off from their final minicamp practice to five weeks of vacation before the start of training camp. “Honestly, I’ll probably miss these guys for five weeks.”
Zimmer said he likes what he’s seen since getting to know his players a little better since being hired in January.
“I learned that we have got good guys on this team,” he said. “I think that (general manager) Rick Spielman and the scouts have done a good job of getting quality people in here. I learned that they want to win. I learned that they work real hard. They get along with each other pretty well for a bunch of guys from different backgrounds and different places. I learned a lot about their personal lives, but to me it’s about how hard they work, how hard they study. It’s impressive to me.”
n It’s been an unusual offseason for Vikings linebacker Michael Mauti. For starters, he’s not rehabbing from ACL surgery for the first time since 2011.
“Right now, I feel great physically,” said Mauti, a seventh-round pick in 2013.
He’s only 24 years old, but Mauti already has torn three ACLs. And neither knee was spared the serious injury during his career at Penn State.
“I had a full offseason just to work out and get my legs right and not have to rehab anything, which is great,” Mauti said. “I feel like my body is back to where it was. I haven’t felt this good in a couple years now, which is a great thing because I don’t have to worry about where I am physically and I can just go out and play.”
Mauti is a grinder with a tremendous work ethic. A year ago, the Vikings used him as a special teams player in 14 games. This year, he has been running behind Jasper Brinkley at middle linebacker and Chad Greenway, the starting weak-side linebacker.
“Last year, being a rookie, there were just so many things (to learn),” Mauti said. “It wasn’t just the knee necessarily. I felt good enough to play and I made some plays last year on special teams. Mentally, you got that first year under your belt and you can start to get more comfortable. You’re not the new guy anymore. Now it’s just learning the defense and putting all my focus into that.”
n Team strength: Running back.
Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league. He’s healthy after offseason groin surgery. And he’s got that same me-versus-the-world mentality going now that people are starting to question his age (29) following what was a down season by his lofty standards. The last time everyone assumed the worst for Peterson, he ran for 2,097 yards eight months after ACL surgery. The fact he ran for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season - six of them with the groin injury - should be a sign of his greatness, rather than a red flag that he’s on the downside of the traditional career path for a running back.
Peterson also should benefit from his first season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who obviously is a significant upgrade over Bill Musgrave. Look for Peterson to have more room to run because of a better conceived attack as well as Peterson’s increased role in the passing game.
Toby Gerhart, Peterson’s dependable backup the past four seasons is gone. But rookie third-round draft pick Jerick McKinnon is the change-of-pace back that Gerhart wasn’t and Turner covets for his passing attack. McKinnon isn’t big, but he’s very strong and shifty, which will help him in pass protection and on passes out of the backfield.
n Breakout player: Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Yeah, he was an All-Pro as a rookie. But that was as a kickoff returner. Look for him to break out as a receiver this season. One of the more head-scratching aspects of last season’s collapse was the coaching staff’s inability or lapse in judgment when it came to getting Patterson more involved in the offense. By the time that happened, the season was lost and the coaching staff’s fate sealed.
Patterson has a year’s worth of experience and is now working under Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner’s work with Josh Gordon in Cleveland last season has Patterson 100 percent on board with whatever Turner says. Also, unlike last season, when the Vikings flip-flopped through three starting quarterbacks, Patterson should benefit from what’s expected to be more stability at quarterback.
n Fantasy football reality check: Tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Rudolph isn’t exactly under the radar, but he’s also probably not among the first few tight-end names that roll off the tongue of Fantasy Football players. He also hasn’t been seen since breaking his foot while catching a 31-yard touchdown pass against the Cowboys in Week 8 a year ago. Turner likes to use his tight ends, and Rudolph is a giant target with a huge catching radius and soft hands. He had only three touchdowns last year, but posted nine in 2012.
Strategy and personnel
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Cassel. Backups - Teddy Bridgewater, Christian Ponder.
The assumption is the 32-year-old Cassel, an inconsistent 10-year journeyman, will begin the season as the starter and hold onto the job for one season or until his production is surpassed by the rookie Bridgewater’s promise and progress. If Cassel maintains ball security - a big if, given his history - and the Vikings win early - an even bigger if considering their first five opponents - then Bridgewater can be groomed slowly out of the spotlight by offensive coordinator Norv Turner. If Cassel plays like he did while going 10-5 as a Pro Bowler in Kansas City in 2010, the Vikings have a delightful problem going forward in 2015. If Cassel is the turnover machine he was while going 1-7 in Kansas City in 2012, he’ll be benched and the future will begin early with Bridgewater’s promotion. Selecting Bridgewater with the 32nd overall draft pick - the Vikings’ second pick of the first round - buys a comfortable level of patience, assuming Cassel isn’t a drag on the offense. The good news is Ponder has been dispatched to No. 3, where he has more value as an experienced and mobile insurance policy than he does as trade bait. Of course, if injuries were to strike other teams, the Vikings certainly would listen to all trade offers for the guy who will be out of the picture after his contract expires at the end of the season. Bridgewater already looks more poised, more decisive and more accurate than Ponder has looked, even in practice, in three-plus years. Pre-draft concerns about Bridgewater’s arm strength appear to be a non-issue because he’s already shown he can make all the throws necessary in Turner’s offense, and do it with accuracy, proper trajectory and pace. Although he’s not the favorite to win the starting job for opening day, he did make enough offseason progress to push Cassel in training camp and the preseason.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, FB Zach Line.
Well, you know you have a special running back when a “down” year is rushing for 1,266 yards in 14 games, six of which were played with a groin injury that required offseason surgery. But that’s the height of the bar Peterson has set for himself. He’s healthy, lean and strong as ever, and he’s got Norv Turner as his new offensive coordinator. Part of Turner’s plan to unclog the line of scrimmage is to get Peterson more involved in the passing game. Look for more of his touches to come as receptions. He should surpass his career-high of 43 catches set in 2009. McKinnon, a rookie third-round draft pick from Georgia Southern, replaces Toby Gerhart as Peterson’s primary backup. McKinnon will fill that role in a much different way as a smaller, shiftier third-down back that Turner likes to use. Asiata is a straight-ahead grinder with limited side-to-side moves. He also can take some of the pounding off of the now 29-year-old Peterson. Felton made the Pro Bowl two years ago and is as solid of a fullback as there is. But don’t rule out Line just yet. The younger, cheaper second-year player is a favorite of the coaching staff and the front office. He came out of nowhere to make the team as an undrafted rookie a year ago. Only one fullback will be kept, although TE Rhett Ellison also can serve as a fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner, Chase Ford, AC Leonard.
Tight ends are among the weapons Turner has elevated to stardom in past seasons. Rudolph has always been in good shape, but he heads into his fourth training camp bigger and leaner than ever in part because he’s excited about what Turner has meant to the careers of tight ends such as Jay Novacek and Antonio Gates. Rudolph is a large target with long arms, soft hands and deceptive speed, although he’s not a burner. A broken foot in the eighth game last season derailed what could have become his most productive season and also contributed to the team’s downfall. Ellison might be the hardest-working player on the team. He’s limited as a receiver, but is a valuable blocker in space and at the point of attack. Reisner and Ford are former undrafted rookies who have shown soft hands and a knack for finding soft areas in a defense. Leonard, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee State, is an intriguing prospect in that he looks like a receiver in a 250-pound frame.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings. Backups - Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Rodney Smith, Adam Thielen, Kamar Jorden, Kain Colter, Donte Foster, Erik Lora.
Patterson should follow his All-Pro kickoff return season with a breakout offensive season under a coordinator who won’t let his many talents rot away on the sideline. Jennings has a much better rapport with Cassel, a veteran he respects, so he’s happy that the Ponder experiment is essentially over. Simpson returns on a third consecutive one-year, prove-it deal. If he can ever stay out of trouble off the field, he’d be a dependable asset as a leaper who can stretch the field. Wright is the most underrated player on the team. He’s built for the slot, but has deceptive speed and a standout double move that’s sneaky. The fifth receiver last year was former quarterback Joe Webb, who left via free agency. The bar isn’t high. Smith looks the part, but drops too many passes. Thielen, a practice-squad player as a rookie last year, made greater strides than any other Viking during the offseason. He’s a hard worker with speed, good hands and improving body control down the field.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - C Joe Berger, LG Vladimir Ducasse, RG Jeff Baca, LG David Yankey, LT Kevin Murphy, T Pierce Burton, T Matt Hall, C Zac Kerin, G/T Mike Remmers, LT Antonio Richardson, G Austin Wentworth.
Kalil, the fourth overall pick in 2012, took a step back as a second-year player. He’s also coming off knee surgery that sidelined him throughout most of the offseason work. He needs to play with more desire and consistently after a season that saw him whiff too often. Johnson likely will retain his starting job, but it won’t be handed to him after a poor season. Same goes with Fusco, although he played better than Johnson did a year ago. The Vikings signed Ducasse in free agency and drafted Yankey in the fifth round. They’ve also spent a year grooming Baca, a sixth-round pick last year, so they’re looking for more options at guard. And the team retained offensive line coach Jeff Davidson from Leslie Frazier’s staff, so there is continuity there. Sullivan also struggled last season, particularly with blitz and stunt packages. Loadholt is improving his consistency and is in the prime of his career at 28. Berger is a quality backup who can play all three interior positions at a temporary starting level. Murphy is Kalil’s primary backup, but the Vikings are intrigued by undrafted rookie Richardson, a mountain of a man who would have been drafted relatively high if not for a history of knee injuries.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Brian Robison, NT Linval Joseph, UT Sharrif Floyd, RDE Everson Griffen. Backups - LE Scott Crichton, NT Fred Evans, UT Tom Johnson, RE Corey Wootten, NT Chase Baker, E Rakim Cox, NT Kheeston Randall, E Spencer Nealy, T Shamar Stephen, E Justin Trattou.
The Vikings certainly got younger up front. But let’s not assume they’ll be better. Not when two of the three departing starters are named Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Robison is the only returning starter. He’s 31, but still in his prime and getting better. He actually played better than Allen did last season. Joseph is the first legitimate nose tackle the Vikings have had since Pat Williams in 2010. If Joseph recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, as the team says he will in time for training camp, then he’s a major upgrade over Letroy Guion. Floyd starts out as the starting under tackle, the spot Williams handled superbly for many years. Floyd did very little to get excited about as a rookie first-round pick a year ago. The pressure is on him to display the quickness that made the Vikings jump on him when he fell to No. 23 in the draft a year ago. If he can’t cut it, look for the Vikings to turn to former Saint Johnson. The pressure also is on the 26-year-old Griffen, maybe more than any other Viking. He was handed a big contract while Allen was allowed to walk away without any negotiations. Griffen is a freakish athlete who has excelled as a multi-dimensional pass rusher. But can he produce the consistent sack totals that Allen did year after year? The most intriguing under-the-radar player is Stephen. The Vikings were thrilled to get a player with that kind of size (6-foot-5, 310) and quickness in the seventh round of this year’s draft.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Chad Greenway, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Anthony Barr. Backups - WLB Brandon Watts, WLB Larry Dean, SLB Gerald Hodges, SLB Audie Cole, MLB Michael Mauti, MLB Mike Zimmer, MLB Dom DeCicco.
By far the most unsettled and intriguing area to watch in training camp. Barr, the ninth overall draft pick this year, will start and be a major weapon in coach Mike Zimmer’s attempt to revive the worst scoring defense in the league a year ago. But what will his exact role(s) be? Barr has the length and speed to run with fast tight ends down the seam. But he also has the agility and instincts to rush the passer. He’ll most likely play strong-side linebacker, which is the primary rush linebacker position in Zimmer’s defense. Greenway’s role also will be interesting to watch unfold. After eight seasons in the same Cover 2-oriented, read-and-react defense, Greenway is playing in an aggressive scheme for the first time. The defense will be more flexible with schemes based on opponents and individual matchups. Greenway likely will be the weak-side linebacker, but could shift inside to the middle if Brinkley doesn’t impress. Brinkley, who started in the middle for the Vikings in 2012, returns after spending last season in Arizona. He’s a two-down run stopper who is extremely limited when it comes to pass coverages. The backup battles will be interesting as well because there are some intriguing prospects who could become starters quickly. Cole is a tall, rangy, fast player who surprised everybody when thrust into the starting middle linebacker job later in the 2013 season. Mauti is an overachiever whose knees are finally healthy. Hodges has speed but needs more polish. Watts, a seventh-round pick this year, also has the kind of sideline-to-sideline speed the Vikings have lacked at linebacker in recent years.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Captain Munnerlyn, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups - S Brandon Bishop, S Robert Blanton, SS Kurt Coleman, CB Derek Cox, CB Kip Edwards, S Antone Exum, CB Kendall James, CB Shaun Prater, CB Jabari Price, FS Mistral Raymond, CB Josh Robinson, SS Andrew Sendejo, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Robert Steeples.
Munnerlyn was a vital free-agent pickup. It allowed the Vikings to draft a linebacker (Barr) rather than be forced to take a corner (Justin Gilbert) they didn’t think was worthy of the top 10. Munnerlyn also gives the Vikings a 26 year old who is a tremendous upgrade over Chris Cook in terms of talent, instincts and reliability. And, finally, Munnerlyn also fills the huge void created when Antoine Winfield was released for salary-cap purposes in the spring of 2013. Like Winfield, Munnerlyn is able to slide into the slot in nickel coverages. Robinson tried to do that last season and failed miserably in his first attempt at playing the slot. Although Munnerlyn upgrades the secondary, the Vikings still need a third corner to step forward. Rhodes is a star-in-the-making if he can stay healthy. But the No. 3 corner position is up for grabs among veterans who have struggled recently (Robinson and Cox in San Diego) or rookies who were Day 3 draft selections (Price and James). At safety, Smith also is a future star if he can stay healthy. A broken foot cost him most of last season and played a huge role in the team’s defensive collapse. At strong safety, the Vikings want an upgrade but might have to settle for Sanford, a career overachiever with a knack for beating out players with better pedigree. Coleman and Sendejo will push Sanford the hardest. Coleman was a quiet free-agent pickup from Philadelphia. Sendejo, mainly a special teams player, turned a lot of heads as a big hitter when Smith went down last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, LS Cullen Loeffler, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, PR Marcus Sherels.
Walsh missed four of 30 field-goal attempts last season and it was considered a down year. That’s how high the strong-legged second-year player set the bar during his All-Pro rookie season. After making an NFL-record 10 of 10 field goals of at least 50 yards as a rookie, Walsh went 2 of 5 from that distance last season. It’s too early, however, to worry about Walsh. He’ll be fine. Plus, he’s one of the best in the league when it comes to kickoffs. Locke was inconsistent as a rookie, but has the leg strength and focus to progress under special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Loeffler, the team’s elder statesman, has been around since 2004 because he’s as steady as they come. Patterson is coming off an All-Pro rookie season. As Patterson’s role in the offense expands, the Vikings will look to take some of the kickoff return duties off his plate. One option is Sherels. Never a lock to make the team, the overachieving Sherels usually proves too hard to cut. He barely survived as a backup corner/punt returner a year ago. Then he set a franchise record for punt-return average (15.2) and held his own at corner when injured bodies began to fall all around him.