NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – INSIDE SLANT
Unlike a year ago when the Vikings returned every starter from a team that had lost a heart-breaker in the NFC title game at New Orleans, Minnesota enters this season with plenty of question marks.
Can an offense now run by new coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterback Donovan McNabb get on track without having had any type of offseason in which to work together? Will the secondary be able to stay healthy and show improvement?
Can an offensive line that already was deemed suspect entering training camp protect McNabb despite the fact left tackle Bryant McKinnie was cut only a few days into camp after he showed up at nearly 400 pounds?
The good thing for the Vikings is that coach Leslie Frazier has done an excellent job of bringing stability to a franchise that lacked it for much of the four-plus seasons that Brad Childress ran the show at WInter Park.
Frazier navigated the Vikings through some extremely rough times last season after being promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach when Childress was fired following a 31-3 loss to Green Bay on Nov. 21.
Among the issues Frazier dealt with after taking over was the collapse of the Metrodome roof in December after a snowstorm — that forced one “home” game to be moved to Detroit and another to be moved to TCF Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Gophers play their home games — and a trip to Philadelphia that turned into a three-day stay because the game was postponed due to the threat of a storm.
Frazier remained calm through all of this and he did the same when McKinnie arrived grossly out of shape. A quick decision was made to cut him, creating a definite hole for the Vikings, but also removing the circus-like atmosphere that had surrounded this team the past two years as Childress waited for Brett Favre to decide whether he wanted to play another season.
“When you’re trying to build a championship team, it’s hard if you’ve got a lot of other things you’re dealing with other than football,” Frazier said. “Nothing against anything that we’ve ever done — it’s just my mindset is we’ve got to be focused on the now and what we have to get done to win a championship.
“That’s not to say that we’re not going to have to deal with some issues along the way, but not to the point where hopefully it becomes a distraction to what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
The reality is that this Vikings team almost certainly isn’t going to get into the playoffs, let alone make a run at a championship.
But no one associated with the franchise is upset about the lack of respect they are getting. Instead, the Vikings almost seem to embrace being under the radar after entering last season with such high expectations and falling flat.
That’s why Frazier seems to be the perfect coach for this team. He’s a guy who is perfectly happy to fly below the radar himself and has little interest in attracting attention.
“As players, we appreciate it, and I think we knew what were getting with Coach Frazier, and that’s what we really expected,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “He’s as consistent and steady as they come, and he’s going to expect that from his players, and he’s going to make decisions according to that, and he’s going to hold himself to that as well.”
Frazier quietly does remain confident that the Vikings are not a rebuilding team and that they can be much better than many expect. A lot of that will depend on how McNabb does as Favre’s replacement.
Coming off a disappointing season in Washington, McNabb does have the advantage of working with Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson and operating in an offense where he will be given plenty of say in how things operate.
One of the key things will be how Charlie Johnson does as McKinnie’s replacement. Johnson was signed as a free agent from the Colts. He spent the past two seasons protecting Peyton Manning’s blindside but was going to be moved to guard.
McNabb is going to turn 35 in November — he has a one-year contract with the Vikings — and if he can remain upright throughout the season then he could have a chance to rebound with a strong performance.
If McNabb takes too many hits, however, the Vikings would be forced to use first-round pick Christian Ponder at quarterback and then there would be little doubt the rebuilding phase would be starting in Minnesota.
COACHING: Leslie Frazier, first year, first with Vikings (3-3 as interim coach to finish 2010 season).
REMEMBERING: 2010 record: 6-10 (4th in NFC North)
PREDICTING: 2011 regular season record: 7-9 (4th in NFC North)
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – NOTES, QUOTES
The Vikings are running a promotion through their website that offers approximately 1,000 tickets in the upper deck of the Metrodome for 50 percent off for their first two regular-season games. Nonetheless, a team official said the Vikings are confident the home opener on Sept. 18 against Tampa Bay will be sold out and thus televised locally.
–Cornerback Antoine Winfield left Saturday’s exhibition game against Dallas after suffering a stinger in his right shoulder. The injury provided the Vikings with a scare. “Oh, baby,” Winfield said, laughing. “(It’s) stiff. I came in and hit (tight end Jason) Witten. He’s a big guy. My whole right side went numb. But I’m good to go now.” Winfield is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Witten is listed at 6-6, 263 pounds.
–LB Erin Henderson left last Saturday’s preseason game against Dallas because of a helmet malfunction. That forced David Herron to play one snap with the first team, despite being signed only one day earlier.
–Fourth-string quarterback Rhett Bomar was among the 10 cuts the Vikings made to get their roster to 80 players. Bomar, signed off the New York Giants practice squad late last season, did not take a snap. “It was frustrating because all I wanted was an opportunity to show the coaches what I could do in a (preseason) game,” Bomar told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Unfortunately, it never worked out that way.”
–QB Christian Ponder said new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has asked each quarterback which two plays they like most in special situations on the call sheet. The quarterbacks rank them and then Musgrave makes the calls based on what he has been told by that specific quarterback.
–Musgrave on how much difference there would be if Ponder is the No. 3 quarterback, as opposed to the No. 2: “I don’t know. We’ll have to look back on that in the future. but we’re not really into thinking too much long-term. We want him to play well tomorrow at practice and then Thursday in the game. We’re always on the gas every day, being demanding on him whether he’s first, second or third or fourth string.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 — Number of quarterbacks the Vikings have drafted in the first round in their history. The Vikings, who entered the NFL in 1961, took Tommy Kramer with the 27th overall pick in 1977, Daunte Culpepper with the 11th overall pick in 1999 and Chrsitian Ponder with the 12 overall pick last April.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “It is something that we do work on and he’s been working on. He’s conscious of (it). We just have to continue to work to where he’s consistently good in that area. Hopefully that will happen. We’ll just get to the point where it’s not an issue over time.” — Vikings coach Leslie Frazier when asked about the fact center John Sullivan’s shot-gun snaps seem to have a bit too much loft on them at times.
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Vikings remain shorthanded at cornerback with Asher Allen expected to miss Thursday’s preseason game against Houston. That means he will have missed the final three exhibition contests. Chris Cook, meanwhile, also has been slowed by what is considered a minor problem with his hamstring.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams continues to be slowed by plantar fasciitis in his left foot but did practice this week.
–QB Donovan McNabb was not expected to play in the Vikings’ preseason finale Thursday night against Houston. That move enabled starter Christian Ponder to start. He was scheduled to be followed by Joe Webb. Those two are battling for the backup job to McNabb.
–TE Visanthe Shiancoe did not play in the preseason because of a hamstring injury but the Vikings are confident he will be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against San Diego.
–RB Lorenzo Booker is suffering from a back strain but is expected to be ready to go against the Chargers. Booker will be the third running back behind Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart but he could be used regularly on kickoff returns.
–LB Jasper Brinkley was expected to see a specialist for a hip flexor issue he has been dealing with since last season. Brinkely was not hitting like he normally had during camp as the hip issue clearly was holding him back.
–DE Everson Griffen is going to get some work at weak-side linebacker as the Vikings look for a way to get the 2010 fourth-round pick on the field and also fill a hole left by the free-agent departure of Ben Leber. Erin Henderson had worked at the weak-side throughout camp but Griffen could provide some competition. Griffen also could end up being used in certain situations at linebacker, if the experiment works out.
–DT Christian Ballard, a fourth-round pick by the Vikings last April, was expected to play some defensive end in the preseason finale. Ballard play both inside and outside at Iowa and has impressed the Vikings in training camp.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:
Rd. 1/12 QB Christian Ponder, Florida State — Still learning on the fly after not getting any offseason work at the Vikings facility because of the lockout, Ponder is expected to spend this season learning and then potentially take over in 2012.
Rd. 2/43 TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame — Could make an immediate impact, especially if Visanthe Shiancoe continues to be bothered by a hamstring injury. Rudolph needs work on his blocking but has very good hands.
Rd. 4/106 DT Christian Ballard, Iowa — Has made an immediate impression in the preseason and very well could see regular duty playing inside in nickel situations. Has the ability to provide a pass rush.
Rd. 5/139 CB Brandon Burton, Utah — Has shown flashes in the preseason but is still raw. Nonetheless, the Vikings might hesitate to cut him given that he could be claimed off waivers and never make it to their practice squad.
Rd. 6/168 OT DeMarcus Love, Arkansas — Has shown enough in the preseason that the Vikings also might hesitate to try to sneak him through to the practice squad. Love appears to have a real upside and with Bryant McKinnie now gone the Vikings might feel as if they can’t afford to cut any potential left tackles.
Rd. 6/170 S Mistral Raymond, South Florida — The Vikings aren’t exactly deep at safety and Raymond appears to have plenty of confidence and some skill. Wouldn’t be a shock if he saw playing time this season.
Rd. 6/172 C Brandon Fusco, Slippery Rock — A project who likely will end up on the practice squad but eventually could be this team’s starting center.
Rd. 6/200 LB Ross Homan, Ohio State — The Vikings will weigh whether to keep him so he can contribute on special teams.
Rd. 7/215 DE D’Aundre Reed, Arizona — Has shown some skill in training camp and is a candidate to spend the season on the practice squad.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Donovan McNabb. Backups — Christian Ponder, Joe Webb.
McNabb, who will turn 35 in November, is going to be the starter this season unless he gets injured. That will give Ponder, the 12th pick overall in the April draft, time to learn the offense and take it slowly after not being able to be around the coaching staff during the offseason because of the NFL lockout. Ponder and Webb are battling for the No. 2 job but with teams now allowed to dress and play 46 men on game day it’s possible Webb could end up as the third-string quarterback but still be used in a variety of packages. McNabb is attempting to rebound from an extremely disappointing one-year stint in Washington in which he threw a career-worst 15 interceptions.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Adrian Peterson. Backups — RB Toby Gerhart, Lorenzo Booker.
Peterson remains the most important piece of this offense and is sure to be featured by new coordinator Bill Musgrave. Peterson had 283 carries in 15 games last season and rushed for 1,298 yards and 12 touchdowns. That was enough to earn him his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl in as many seasons but Peterson figures to put together a bigger season in 2011. Part of the reason is because it’s expected Peterson will be a bigger part of the passing game. His career-high reception total is 43 (set in 2009) and he should approach or surpass that number. Gerhart seemed to get more confident as his rookie season progressed last year and he should be the first guy off the bench when Peterson needs a breather. Gerhart seems far more confident in himself and his abilities entering this season. Booker could contribute on offense but might end up mainly returning kickoffs.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Visanthe Shiancoe. Backups — Jim Kleinsasser, Kyle Rudolph, Jeff Dugan.
Shiancoe did not play during the preseason because of a hamstring injury and it remains to be seen if that will bother him entering the regular season. The Vikings certainly want to see Shiancoe at 100 percent, given how much the tight end is expected to be used in this offense. Musgrave was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta before joining the Vikings and brings with him a system that relied on tight end Tony Gonzalez to catch plenty of passes. Gonzalez was second on the Falcons last season with 70 receptions and six touchdowns. Rudolph was taken in the second round out of Notre Dame and, like Shiancoe, has very good hands. He should be used in two and three tight end sets. Kleinsasser hasn’t had more than 20 catches in a season since 2005 but that could change. The 13-year veteran also is an outstanding blocker and can lineup as an H-back. Dugan can do the same and also is a quality blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins. Backups — Devin Aromashodu, Greg Camarillo.
Berrian is coming off a disappointing season in which he did not catch a touchdown pass and then was asked to restructure his contract. But he figures to have a chance to turn things around with McNabb now throwing him the ball. Brett Favre just never seemed to look Berrian’s way and that has changed so far in the preseason. Berrian still has speed and it’s very important that he can present a down-field threat because that loosens up things for Peterson. Harvin is one of the game’s best slot receivers but also can play outside and Jenkins is very familiar with this system. Jenkins was released by Atlanta after the lockout and quickly signed with the Vikings. He is expected to catch plenty of passes on intermediate routes. Aromashodu was signed as a free agent from the Bears, two years after having a career-high 24 receptions. Camarillo provides depth as a slot receiver and is a steady veteran. He also can return punts.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Charlie Johnson, LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups — T DeMarcus Love, G Seth Olsen, C Jon Cooper, G/T Chris DeGeare.
The biggest x-factor here is Johnson, who was signed as a free agent after the lockout and then quickly replaced Bryant McKinnie after he showed up to training camp weighing nearly 400 pounds. Johnson spent the past two seasons with the Colts protecting Peyton Manning’s blindside but Indianapolis was going to move Johnson to guard and the fact of the matter is Manning gets rid of the ball far quicker than McNabb. Johnson’s play was shaky at the outset but did seem to improve as the preseason progressed. Hutchinson will turn 34 on Nov. 1 and while still a very effective player is no longer the dominant guard he once was. Herrera is coming off ACL surgery and the Vikings are hoping he will be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener. Sullivan was bothered by calf injuries last season but is back to 100 percent and should be improved. Loadholt, meanwhile, needs to cut down on mental mistakes but he did come to camp in excellent shape and should rebound from an up-and-down second season.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups — LE Adrian Awawom, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, UT Christian Ballard, DE Everson Griffen.
Robison, who was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million contract just before the lockout began, will take over for Ray Edwards. Edwards, who was second on the team with eight sacks last season, signed with the Falcons as a free agent. Nose tackle Pat Williams also was allowed to walk, and Ayodele was signed to replace him. That means Kevin Williams and Allen are the two guys returning. Allen had a team-leading 11 sacks in 2010 after posting 14.5 the previous season. Kevin Williams has been battling plantar fasciitis during training camp and that could slow him to start the regular season. So could a potential suspension related to the StarCaps case that the NFL prevailed in after a lengthy legal fight. It’s possible Williams could be suspended for four or two games to open the regular season. If that happens, look for Guion to start in his place. Ballard, a fourth-round pick from Iowa last April, has been impressive in camp playing inside and could end up being used as a pass-rusher in the nickel defense. Griffen looks to be improved in his second season and is going to get a shot at outside linebacker, as well as playing behind Robison.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, WLB Erin Henderson. Backups — SLB Heath Farwell, SLB Kenny Onatolu, MLB Jasper Brinkley, WLB Ross Homan.The Vikings made little attempt to retain Ben Leber, who had been their weak-side linebacker, meaning that Erin Henderson is expected to take over that role. Griffen is going to get some snaps on the weak side but it’s hard to believe he could win the job at this late date. Erin’s big brother, E.J. returns to the middle and Greenway will remain on the strong side. Greenway is playing this season under the one-year, $10 million plus franchise tag and is considered a vital part of this defense. Farwell and Onatolu are considered extremely important special teams players. Brinkley has been battling a hip flexor injury, meaning the Vikings’ depth at linebacker might not be where they want it.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Husain Abdullah, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups — CB Chris Cook, CB Asher Allen, CB Brandon Burton, CB Marcus Sherels, FS Mistral Raymond, SS Jamarca Sanford.
Griffin has undergone reconstructive surgery on both his knees in the past two seasons to repair torn ACLs but it looks as if he will be able to play in the opener. The issue is that the Vikings don’t have much depth at corner. Winfield, Griffin and Cook will be used in the nickel, but if any of those three go down there could be a significant drop off. And that’s assuming Cook rebounds after he torn the meniscus in both knees last season. Allen has battled a toe injury in camp and Burton, a fifth-round pick, remains raw. Sherels has value because he can return punts and play in the slot in the nicke