NFL team preview: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings arrived in Mankato for training camp with big expectations.
Coming off a heart-breaking loss to New Orleans in the NFC title game, Brad Childress' team appeared to be missing only one piece to the puzzle -- and that was expected to be a short-term situation.
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Brett Favre, who had joined the Vikings in mid-August in 2009, was again absent in late July when practices began but it was considered more of a charade than a reality that he was debating whether to play a 20th NFL season.
Otherwise, all of the Vikings starters from last season were back, with the exception being that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be ready because of a torn ACL suffered against the Saints.
If everything went according to plan, Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and Joe Webb would take the snaps in Mankato and Favre would be at Winter Park when training camp broke.
And that's how it went -- sort of.
What the Vikings couldn't have anticipated was all the distractions they would have to endure. One was caused by Favre in early August when he began texting teammates and Vikings officials to say he wouldn't return.
Favre's teammates convinced him to change his mind but his wavering ways continued even after the Vikings left southern Minnesota. Finally, on Aug. 16, Childress dispatched veterans Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson and Ryan Longwell to go to Hattiesburg on a private plane and come back with Favre.
They did, and so the Vikings will have the Hall of Fame quarterback for a second consecutive season. That's huge considering Favre had one of his best seasons in 2009, throwing for 33 touchdowns with a career-low seven interceptions and a career-best 107.2 passer rating.
But there are still some questions on offense the Vikings did not anticipate. In fact, Childress has taken to describing the offense as being in flux.
It's hard to argue.
Wide receiver Sidney Rice arrived at camp with a sore hip and underwent surgery that is expected to sideline him for the first half of the season. Wide receiver Percy Harvin lost his grandmother on the second day of camp, left the team and did not return for an extended period because of his issues with migraine headaches. Harvin is back, but his availability has to be considered a week-to-week issue at this point.
But the reality is Rice's loss could be huge, given the success he and Favre had last season. Rice had a team-leading 83 receptions for 1,312 yards with eight touchdowns.
Then there is the issue at center. John Sullivan has spent most of the preseason sidelined because of a calf injury and did not play in the first three preseason games. The Vikings are making contingency plans to have right guard Anthony Herrera play center and rookie Chris DeGeare, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest, take over at guard.
Even if everything went according to plan, it's going to be difficult for the Vikings to repeat the success of last season. Can Favre really achieve that level of play again as he nears his 41st birthday (Oct. 10)? The schedule also appears to be much tougher, with the Vikings opening against the Saints in New Orleans.
The last thing Favre needed was for the key components around him to go down.
Favre's main point, really since the day he arrived in Minnesota, has been that Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson is going to have to be the guy who carries the load. To do that, Peterson must overcome his fumbling issues and also prove he can be effective in pass protection.
Favre, meanwhile, swears he will ride off into the sunset after 2010 and not look back. We've heard that before, but this time he says he's serious. That gives him one more shot to get a second Super Bowl title on his resume.
At this point, it doesn't look like that will be easy -- a fact Favre knows all too well.
"The expectations are high here, as they should be," he said.
"From my standpoint, I can't make any guarantees, never would. I'm just going to do everything I can to help this football team. The bottom line is winning. I'm not here to set any records. People say, 'You can do this, you can do this.' I've done it all. There's nothing left to prove. I'm here to have fun and help these guys win. I really enjoy this group of guys like you wouldn't believe. I think the feeling is mutual. Once again, it's really about these guys."
COACHING: Brad Childress, 5th year, 5th with Vikings (37-30).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 12-4 (1st in NFC North); lost in NFC Championship Game to Saints, 31-28 in overtime.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record 10-6 (2nd in NFC North; lose in divisional round.)
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Sidney Rice sidelined for at least the first half of the season after hip surgery -- Rice was placed on reserve/PUP, meaning he could miss the first nine weeks -- and Percy Harvin's availability a continuing question mark because of migraines, the Vikings looked to add depth at wide receiver.
Veteran free agent Javon Walker was signed last week, and Greg Camarillo was obtained in a trade with Miami for cornerback Benny Sapp. The Vikings do have Harvin back for the time being and he said there has been progress in trying to find an answer for his migraine issue.
That would be great news for the Vikings, who would at least like to have Bernard Berrian and Harvin atop the depth chart.
--CB Asher Allen has likely won the nickel job now that CB Benny Sapp has been traded. Allen has worked inside with the first team in the nickel package during the preseason and appears comfortable in that role.
--CB Chris Cook appeared to be on track to win the starting right cornerback job after an impressive preseason, but he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee in the third preseason game and is expected to be sidelined at least two weeks. That means Lito Sheppard likely will start at right corner against the high-powered Saints offense on Sept. 9.
--WR Greg Camarillo caught a team-high four passes for 47 yards last Saturday in his first game with the Vikings. The sure-handed receiver could become one of Brett Favre's favorite targets.
--RB Toby Gerhart suffered a knee injury against the Seahawks that kept him out for one practice this week. He returned on Tuesday.
--CB Cedric Griffin continues to rehab from an ACL injury suffered in last season's NFC title game and it's not certain if he will remain on the physically unable to perform list to begin the regular season or be active. The knee injury to CB Chris Cook makes it more likely that Griffin won't be placed on PUP because that would mean he would have to miss six weeks.
--RG Anthony Herrera has been getting work as the first-team center with John Sullivan sidelined because of a calf injury that has cost him much of camp. The Vikings could open the regular season on Sept. 9 with Herrera at center and rookie fifth-round pick Chris DeGeare at right guard.
--DT Jimmy Kennedy missed the Seattle game because of an undisclosed injury suffered on Aug. 22 against San Francisco. Kennedy has yet to practice this week.
--QB Joe Webb has seen playing time in each of the Vikings' preseason games and it remains to be seen if the team will try to get the sixth-round pick from Alabama-Birmingham through waivers and onto their practice squad or keep him on the 53-man roster. Webb is raw as a quarterback, but his athletic ability might be hard for another team to pass up.
--CB Antoine Winfield appears to be completely recovered from the broken foot that slowed him last season. He will begin the year as the starter on the left side. Winfield ended up having to play in the slot late in 2009 because the injury slowed him after he returned.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 2/34, CB Chris Cook, Virginia -- He has impressed with his play through all of the preseason and has a chance to be starting right cornerback to open the season while Cedric Griffin continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Rd. 2/51, RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford -- Running back is still learning on the job but is going to get every chance to serve as Adrian Peterson's backup. Whether he can play on third down remains to be seen.
Rd. 4/100, DE Everson Griffen, Southern Cal -- Hasn't shown much in the preseason but figures to stick because of his potential. He likely will be inactive on a frequent basis as a rookie unless the Vikings suffer injuries on the line.
Rd. 5/161, G Chris DeGeare, Wake Forest -- Has proven he can play both guard spots and eventually might get a shot as a backup tackle. Has good size, 6-4, 335 pounds, and could move into a starting role at right guard sooner rather than later.
Rd. 5/167, LB Nate Triplett, Minnesota -- Appears to be a long shot to make the roster, but is hoping to stick based on his special-teams play.
Rd. 6/199, QB Joe Webb, Alabama-Birmingham -- The Vikings' original intention was to move the college quarterback to wide receiver, but that is no longer the plan and the Vikings could keep the raw but athletic Webb on the 53-man roster in hopes of developing him.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Brett Favre. Backups -- Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels, Joe Webb.
Favre will attempt to replicate the magic of last season when he came out of retirement to play for the Vikings in mid-August and led the team to a 12-4 record, a second consecutive NFC North title and the conference championship game. Favre's 33 touchdown passes were his most since 1997 and his seven interceptions were a career low. He also posted a career-best 107.2 passer rating. Favre already has warned that it's going to be extremely difficult to do that again, and the fact he will turn 41 on Oct. 10 and has a suspect left ankle won't make it any easier.
Meanwhile, Jackson appears to be the likely No. 2 quarterback again even though Rosenfels has been sharper in the preseason. Jackson held the backup role last year and clearly is the preferred choice in the eyes of coach Brad Childress. There also is the issue of the extremely athletic Webb and whether or not the Vikings could get him through waivers and onto the practice squad. Webb isn't ready to play quarterback in the NFL, but the Vikings might not want to risk losing him to another team.
Peterson rushed for 1,383 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and yet many were disappointed with his performance. How come? Well, part of it is Peterson's continuing issues with ball security. He has 20 fumbles (13 lost) in three regular seasons and also had two fumbles (did not lose either) in the NFC title game. Peterson took responsibility for a third that did result in a costly turnover deep in Saints territory late in the first half, although it was charged to QB Brett Favre. Peterson must show he can hang onto the football and also has to take a step forward in terms of his abilities in pass protection.
Chester Taylor, who left for Chicago as a free agent in March, had been the third-down and two-minute back, but the Vikings will need Peterson to prove he can handle those roles if they are to get maximum efficiency from this position. Gerhart, a second-round pick from Stanford, appears to have a ways to go in his development, although he could end up No. 2 on the depth chart. Young could see action as the third-down guy if Peterson has issues. Asking Gerhart to play the third-down role would be putting a lot on the rookie's plate. Reynaud was moved from wide receiver to running back this offseason and figures to make the roster based on his abilities as a return man.
Shiancoe caught a team-leading 11 touchdowns last season and was third on the Vikings with 56 receptions. He figures to be a go-to-guy for Favre again this season, especially with Sidney Rice sidelined for at least the first half after undergoing hip surgery. Kleinsasser remains a superb blocking tight end, although Favre isn't afraid to throw the ball to Kleinsasser or Dugan. Kleinsasser's 10 receptions last year were his most since 2005 and Dugan caught a career-high two touchdowns in 2009. Mills has good hands but that might not be enough for him to make the roster.
Sidney Rice has been lost for at least half the season after having hip surgery and Harvin's availability is a day-to-day proposition until it can be proven his issues with migraine headaches are under control. This means Berrian is going to have to emerge as a consistent threat, just as he was two years ago when he led the NFL by averaging 20.1 yards per reception. Berrian battled injuries to both hamstrings last season but appears to be healthy and has the ability to stretch the field with his speed.
Harvin is a dynamic player and a nightmare for defensive coordinators when he can play. The 2009 NFL offensive rookie of the year was second on the Vikings last season with 60 receptions for 790 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games. He can line up either in the slot or split out and also has the ability to shift into the backfield. The rest of the depth chart has yet to play itself out with newcomers Walker and Camarillo still trying to make positive impressions. Lewis caught only eight passes last season but one of those was the miraculous last-second grab in Week 3 that lifted the Vikings over San Francisco at the Metrodome. A workman-like player, Lewis is the type of guy coach Brad Childress likes to have on his team.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups -- G/T Ryan Cook, C Jon Cooper, G Chris DeGeare, T Drew Radovich.
The Vikings want to get more consistency from this unit, and it should help that Hutchinson and Herrera figure to be healthy after having shoulder issues in 2009. Loadholt also now has a year of experience. The biggest immediate concern is that Sullivan has missed most of the preseason because of a calf injury creating uncertainty at center. The Vikings are experimenting with having Herrera play center and DeGeare, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest, play left guard. This is interesting because it makes the line much bigger as a whole and actually sets it up to create a power running game for Adrian Peterson. Sullivan is listed at 6-4, 301 pounds; Herrera at 6-2, 315; and DeGeare at 6-4, 335.
One of the Vikings' biggest concerns has to be the backup jobs on the line. Veteran Artis Hicks, who left to sign with Washington as a free agent, was extremely valuable as the top reserve at both guard and tackle spots. DeGeare will become the top backup at guard, but it's unclear what will happen at tackle. DeGeare could get at shot there as well. Cook and Radovich also could stick as the Vikings look to sort out what they have behind McKinnie and Loadholt. If something were to happen to McKinnie, it would not be surprising if Loadholt moved to left tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Ray Edwards, DT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups -- LE Brian Robison, LE Jayme Mitchell, RE Everson Griffen, NT Jimmy Kennedy, NT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion.
The front four remains one of the best in the NFL as the Williamses anchor one of the league's best run defenses and Allen provides pressure from the right side. The Vikings made a huge investment in Allen two years ago and it has paid off in a big way. The Pro Bowl end has 29 sacks in that time, 14.5 each season, and his presence helps to benefit Edwards. Edwards had a career-high 8.5 sacks last season and led the NFL with four sacks in the playoffs. Robison is a valuable backup as he has the versatility to replace Edwards at end and also shift inside to provide a pass rush in passing situations. Griffen, a fourth-round pick from USC, figures to be a project but is likely to make the 53-man roster.
Kennedy is effective playing as a backup and gives the 37-year-old Pat Williams some rest. Guion, a fifth-round pick in 2008, has shown improvement in camp and figures to get more playing time as a result. The Vikings like Evans, but it will be interesting to see if his job might be in jeopardy because of the numbers game at this position.
The story here is the return of E.J. Henderson, who suffered a broken femur last December in Arizona and looked as if his career might be finished. Henderson has been on the field since the start of training camp and his workload has been gradually increased. In the Vikings' third preseason game, Henderson was used in the base defense and remained in the game in nickel situations with Greenway. He appears to be ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener at New Orleans. Greenway and Leber are both steady forces on the outside. Greenway led the Vikings with 127 tackles last season -- the second year in a row he has done so -- and had a team-high six takeaways (three interceptions, three fumble recoveries), which was tops among NFL linebackers. Leber led Vikings linebackers with 2.5 sacks and tied for the team lead with nine passes defensed.
Erin Henderson, E.J.'s little brother, has made strides in his third NFL season, and could stick. Erin has played some backup middle linebacker for the first time this preseason, but Brinkley is going to hold down that job. Brinkley stepped in for E.J. Henderson last season as a rookie and received favorable reviews from the coaches while learning on the job. Farwell and Onatolu are special-teams standouts.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Tyrell Johnson, FS Madieu Williams, RCB Chris Cook. Backups -- CB Asher Allen, CB Lito Sheppard, SS Jamarca Sanford, SS Eric Frampton, FS Husain Abdullah.
Winfield is back after missing six games and being slowed for much of last season because of a broken foot. The veteran's presence at the left corner should go a long way toward stabilizing things, assuming he can hold up over the long haul. Cook appeared to be the favorite to win the starting job at right corner before suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in the Vikings' third preseason game. That job was open because Cedric Griffin continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered in last season's NFC title game at New Orleans. Sheppard could begin the season as the right corner but Griffin might replace him sooner rather than later.
The Vikings need Johnson and Williams to be more aggressive and certainly would like to see the pair combine for more than the one interception they had a year ago. Johnson was challenged in training camp by Sanford but it looks like the 2008 second-round pick will hold onto his job. The recent trade of Benny Sapp to Miami makes it almost certain that Allen will assume the nickel role. Abdullah and Frampton have been contributors primarily on special teams.
Longwell remains extremely reliable on field goals -- the veteran made 26 of 28 attempts last season -- but it still isn't clear if he will lose his role on kickoffs. The Vikings signed Lloyd to handle kickoffs after he was let go by Carolina, but he hasn't impressed in the preseason and that's a valuable roster spot he would eat up. Kluwe had the top net punting average of his career last season at 37.8 yards, the fourth-best mark in team history. Loeffler is one of the NFL's most reliable long snappers. Harvin made the Pro Bowl last season as a rookie after averaging 27.5 yards and scoring two touchdowns on kickoff returns. He, however, could be limited in that role this season if the Vikings want to keep him away from the hits that kick returners often take in order to try to cut down on his issues with migraines. Reynaud's value comes through the fact he's the Vikings only consistent punt return man and can return kickoffs if Harvin isn't used in that role.