Vikings spin a crowded QB carousel
Make no mistake, most attention and probably all the hype will be focused on the quarterback situation when new head coach Mike Zimmer leads the Minnesota Vikings in their first training camp practice July 25 at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Former starter Christian Ponder may have sunk to the bottom of a three-man depth chart that includes steady veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the May draft.
There was chatter about bringing Bridgewater along slowly, but that seemed to dissipate somewhat when Zimmer raved about the rookie’s performance in OTAs and minicamp.
While that high level drama plays itself out, here are a few other items of importance the Vikings must mull in Mankato:
n Linebacker: If not the weakest position, it will be at least suspect unless or until first-round draft pick Anthony Barr proves himself. Even if Barr does contribute immediately, the unit is thin and so far there are more questions than obvious answers.
Nine-year veteran Chad Greenway is steady and healthy, but can he keep pace and do all of the things head coach Mike Zimmer will ask of him as a three-down player at age 31? Will Barr be able to transform freakish physical tools into a productive NFL linebacker? Can Jasper Brinkley play well enough to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker? And who among the several intriguing but unproven prospects — Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, among others — will step forward to provide reliable depth and/or push Brinkley and Barr?
Player with most to prove
n Everson Griffen, DE: Most eyes are on the team’s quarterback position to see how long temporary starter Matt Cassel can hold off rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater. But Griffen has the biggest shoes to fill as he transitions from a physically gifted athlete with unlimited potential to Jared Allen’s replacement as starting right defensive end.
Allen walked away from the Vikings without so much as an offer after six stellar seasons because the Vikings chose instead to invest in Griffen, who, at 26, is six years younger than Allen. Griffen, who has 17.5 career sacks and just one start over four seasons, was given a five-year, $42.5 million deal. If that’s not enough pressure to produce, Allen and his 128.5 career sacks stayed within the NFC North when he signed with the rival Bears.
Key position battle
Nickel cornerback: The starting cornerbacks are set, but in the pass-crazed NFC North, a reliable nickel corner to play alongside starters Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn is vital.
Eight corners currently are competing for that nickel-back spot, which needs an upgrade if coach Mike Zimmer is to turn around the 31st-ranked pass defense. Third-year pro Josh Robinson, who was unimpressive when given the chance to be a starter last season, and free-agent acquisition Derek Cox, who slumped in his only season in San Diego a year ago, are the primary contenders. The dark horse is Shaun Prater, who showed good instincts after signing as a street free agent during last season. Rookies Kendall James and Jabari Price, both Day 3 selections, also are worth watching.
Best longshot rookie
n Brandon Watts, OLB, Georgia Tech, Round 7/223rd overall: At 6-foot, 225, Watts lacks ideal size, but possesses the kind of speed and coverage ability that will add depth at a position of weakness and help bolster one of the league’s better special teams units.
With sideline-to-sideline speed and the knack of being able to shadow running backs and tight ends in man coverage, he should be a piece of the rebuilding project at linebacker. NFLDraftScout.com projected Watts as a seventh-round pick as the 23rd best outside linebacker in the draft.
n Minnesota Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson does not let a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a 29th birthday slow him down. So why would he worry about a bunch of sports writers speculating that an unfriendly salary cap figure may cause him to be released before the team opens its new stadium in 2016?
Because that is his own reality check.
Peterson talked with USA Today this week about the reality that comes with playing in the NFL, regardless of one’s star status. He should know, since he watched the Vikings trade Percy Harvin and allowed Jared Allen to walk via free agency in back-to-back offseasons.
“If that’s going younger or trying to save money, that’s what it boils down to, no matter what type of talent you are,” Peterson said. “It’s really the unfortunate part of the business, but I’m blessed to still be around, and hopefully, it doesn’t happen to me one day. If it does, then, oh well. I’ll go on and do something different with my career.”
Peterson is the only running back in the league with a salary-cap figure of at least $10 million. After next season, the Vikings could release him without taking on any dead money from a salary-cap figure that will have ballooned to $17 million.
Of course, what few people seem to realize is Peterson also could have his contract redone with a signing bonus that would maintain the compensation level while lowering the cap figure. So it’s not exactly an either/or situation the Vikings face with Peterson in a year or two.
Assuming he maintains his career-long level of production, Peterson has a hard time picturing the Vikings releasing him.
“I think the organization would take a heavy hit — for real — more so from the fan base,” Peterson told USA Today. “I don’t think it would be like a LeBron (James) situation where they’re burning my jersey, this, that and the other. They might be doing (the opposite) and not buying some season tickets.”
After Thursday’s final minicamp practice, Peterson was asked to react to another running back claiming to be the best running back in the league.
Chris Johnson used to be that running back. Now, it’s LeSean McCoy.
“It really don’t bother me,” Peterson said. “Since I’ve been in the league, every year there’s been a guy that’s better than me. When I came in I had the same mentality. I’m the best, just try to put in the work and go out there and prove it.
“I understand where he’s coming from. I play this game for one reason and that’s to be the best, obviously to win a championship, but personally to be the best player. So I love his mentality.
“You are what you think, but you’ve got to put in the work as well. You think that you’re the second-best, you’re going to remain in that position. But he’s going to have to work extremely hard to surpass me.”
Peterson ran for 2,097 yards less than a year after suffering a torn ACL. So, yeah, he thinks he’s kind of unique. And that goes for his approach to turning 30 next offseason.
“It’s the same thing I thought when they say ACL, you’ll never come back from it,” Peterson said. “It is what is. It doesn’t apply to me. I have a totally different mindset and mindframe, so I’ll just stay in my lane and let everybody else say what they have to say. Because it’s just the way it is.
“So I don’t really get into it and try to prove anything to people. I just go out there and control what I can control and go out there and try to perform every year.”
Asked what age applies to him, Peterson said, “Well, I was talking to (former quarterback Brett) Favre. Forty sounds a good number.”
Peterson also was asked where he should rank when it comes to the NFL Network’s Top 100.
“One,” he said. “I feel like I’m the best. Peyton will be one, of course. But, yeah, one.
“I’d be one still. 1B.”
Take a close look at Peterson this offseason and you’ll see a guy who understands how well other great backs — Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson to name two — have performed in Norv Turner’s offenses. Coming off groin surgery, Peterson looks as fit and trim as ever and is as eager as ever despite being upset initially by the firing of Leslie Frazier and most of his coaching staff after last season.
“He’s an ultimate pro to me,” said Turner, the team’s offensive coordinator. “He’s come in here and he understands that there’s a change. I think he’s taking the approach that we as coaches took. You do have to get out of your comfort zone a little bit. It’s new, you have to put time in, and he’s done all of those things. (Wednesday), he was outstanding and I think that’s what happens.”
It’s also clear that Turner will at least try to use Peterson as a receiver out of the backfield more than any other coach has during Peterson’s career. Others have tried as well, but Peterson never has looked comfortable catching the ball.
Turner said that’s not what he has seen this offseason.
“He’s got good hands,” Turner said. “I think he’s comfortable with the routes that we would ask him to run. I think he’s intrigued by it, but you would have to ask him. I think he’s doing really well with it. It’s certainly not the lead part of what we’re doing.
“We threw a screen to him that was as nicely set up as you could ask for and the linemen got out in front. If we can get him in space like that throughout a game, throughout the season it will help all of us.”
n Vikings first-round draft pick Anthony Barr isn’t a big fan of the NFL rule that prevents rookies from participating in any team activities other than the rookie minicamp until their class graduates from college.
“I was real bored,” said Barr, the ninth overall draft pick who missed all of the team’s organized team activities (OTAs) because UCLA is on the quarters system.
“It was the longest four weeks, really. But it was a good time for me to kind of decompress a little bit and get my mind right for this.”
Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer flew out to Los Angeles to tutor the ninth overall draft pick in the team’s new defense. But there’s only so much book work and individual drills that a man can do before he needs to actually see how his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame will be put to good use.
Finally able to participate during this week’s mandatory three-day minicamp, Barr’s versatility was put into play immediately. He played strong-side linebacker in both the base and nickel packages.
He also did something he’s never done since moving from running back to linebacker just two years ago: Put his hand in the dirt as a pass-rushing defensive end.
“Right now, we’re kind of just working at different skill sets, different positions and where his skill sets go,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “So, systematically, we are flexible enough that we can take his skill set and put him in positions where hopefully it helps us, most advantageous, whether rushing the passer, whether it’s dropping in coverage.”
Barr’s skills are vast, but his lack of experience caused coach Mike Zimmer to refer to him as a “fawn” on draft day. Well, the so-called fawn knew that if he was going to fall down this week, he was going to do it full bore.
“There’s a little bit of a learning curve missing OTAs, but it kind of is what it is,” Barr said. “I knew I was going to make mistakes.
“I just had to make sure I did those at full speed. Not many nerves, just a lot of excitement, and I’m just happy to be here.”
n Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer says he is not worried about the soon-to-be-released independent investigation into charges that he used anti-gay remarks in team meetings and discriminated against former punter Chris Kluwe because of Kluwe’s support of gay marriage rights.
“It’s been one of those things where I come to work every morning and I’m excited about the direction of this football team,” Priefer said Wednesday during Day 2 of the Vikings’ three-day minicamp. “I really like our coaching staff and I’m excited about our new players and excited about the guys we retained and came back. So my focus has been totally on football.”
In early January, Kluwe blasted Priefer, general manager Rick Spielman and former head coach Leslie Frazier in an article for Deadspin. Most of the venom was directed at Priefer, whom Kluwe called a bigot.
Kluwe, who was released before the 2013 season, also accused Priefer of using anti-gay remarks during the 2012 season and pushing for Kluwe’s release because of Kluwe’s highly-visible support of Minnesota’s gay marriage rights. That caused the Vikings to launch an investigation headed by former Minnesota chief justice Eric Magnuson and former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Chris Madel.
Results of the investigation could come as early as this weekend, although they’ve been expected for a couple of months.
Priefer deflected questions about Kluwe’s accusations on Wednesday, preferring to keep the focus on football. However, shortly after Kluwe’s article appeared, Priefer did deny the charges. In a released statement, he said:
“I vehemently deny today’s allegations made by Chris Kluwe. I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals. I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member.
“The primary reason I entered coaching was to affect people in a positive way. As a coach, I have always created an accepting environment for my players, including Chris, and have looked to support them both on and off the field.
“The comments today have not only attacked my character and insulted my professionalism, but they have also impacted my family. While my career focus is to be a great professional football coach, my number one priority has always been to be a protective husband and father to my wife and children.
“I will continue to work hard for the Minnesota Vikings, the Wilf family and all of our loyal fans.”
n There is no area in which the team’s new coaching regime didn’t look to improve when it took over in January. And that includes what the players eat while at team headquarters or in next month’s training camp.
For instance, the Vikings have removed bacon, fried items, mayonnaise and creamy-based sauces from their menu.
Coach Mike Zimmer said the approach is helping the team. He claims the team has lost a combined 170 pounds of fat and gained 70 pounds of muscle.
“It’s a collective effort,” Zimmer said. “The strength coaches and trainers brought it to my attention. So, heck, I think even (general manager) Rick (Spielman) said he’s lost some weight.
“I think I’ve actually lost weight too, but I think that’s from stress. I’m eating fish every day for lunch. That’s a change for me too.”