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Toughest cuts may come on defense

FS North’s Brian Hall forecasts who will be in and out on the Vikings’ final 53-man roster.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ offseason youth movement will show in the final 53-man roster.


Once one of the most veteran teams in the league, Minnesota could be among the youngest after Friday’s final cutdown to the 53-man regular season roster. With several spots still undecided, any close calls could come down to a matter of which player is the youngest and offers the most potential for the future. A majority of the roster could be comprised of players with less than three years of NFL service, and 19 draft picks from the past two seasons could be part of the final roster.


There is one preseason game left to evaluate players as the Vikings travel to Houston on Thursday for the preseason finale with many jobs on the line. Less than 24 hours after the completion of that game, by 8 p.m. CT Friday, the team must trim the roster from 75 players to 53.


Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman and his staff will also be studying the waiver wire, with the third-highest priority in the league, and possibly making new additions after Friday as other teams make cuts.


Add everything up and the Vikings’ roster is a work in progress, but it’s not too early to predict who will still be wearing Minnesota purple Friday night.


QUARTERBACKS (3)


In (order of expected depth chart): Christian Ponder, Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels

Out (in alphabetical order): McLeod Bethel-Thompson

Analysis: The hierarchy among the quarterbacks is clearly defined. Ponder is the unquestioned starter, and the Vikings insist they are happy with Webb as his top backup. Ponder enters a big season to prove he is the franchise quarterback and future at the position. He finally had a full offseason and has seemed more comfortable running coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense in the second year. Better offensive line play and the addition of receiver Jerome Simpson should aid Ponder’s development. He’s still prone to mistakes at times, such as his interception last week, but Ponder has also shown growth and should have a better year than he did in 2011. Consistency is a key. Webb is an amazing athlete who is still behind when it comes to being a quarterback. The only intrigue remaining is whether Rosenfels, the veteran, can hold off Bethel-Thompson, an undrafted rookie. Rosenfels is with Minnesota solely as a veteran influence on Ponder and Webb. Bethel-Thompson has flashed a strong arm but it still raw. He will got a majority of the preseason finale to show whether he deserves to beat out Rosenfels.


RUNNING BACKS/FULLBACKS (4)


In: Adrian Peterson, Jerome Felton (fullback), Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata

Out: Ryan D’Imperio (fullback) Lex Hilliard, Jordan Todman

Analysis: This is the strongest position on offense. Peterson will be one of the top backs in the league if he can return to form after surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments. Gerhart is a quality backup and has shown he can handle the load if Peterson isn’t ready. Peterson has made an amazing comeback from surgery and could be ready to start at the beginning of the regular season. Regardless, the two will probably split time as Peterson is eased back in. Gerhart will probably have a bigger role than he had in his two NFL seasons. Felton is a veteran fullback, a good blocking option who can catch the ball. Asiata is the surprise here, beating out veteran Lex Hilliard and speedy Jordan Todman. Asiata entered camp as a fullback but was given a chance to get carries while Todman was nursing a sprained ankle. He leads the team in rushing during the preseason. Asiata also plays special teams, which was Hilliard’s edge over Todman. Todman’s injury really hurt his chances. D’Imperio was the starting fullback at the end of last season, but Felton’s arrival likely signaled his time was done.


WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


In: Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, Stephen Burton, Jarius Wright (Jerome Simpson, suspended for first three games, does not count toward the active roster)

Out: Emmanuel Arceneaux

Analysis: Simpson will be a starter when he returns, and he’s given the Vikings everything they hoped for when the signed him. But they knew a suspension was likely, and now they must work around it. Harvin has turned into a star, an elite playmaker who is versatile in the many ways he can affect a game. Jenkins has been slow to recover from knee surgery last year, but he is a veteran, sure-handed receiver who Ponder has developed a rapport with. Wright, a fourth-round draft pick, is a slot receiver, but likely won’t get many chances on offense during the regular season because he does similar things to Harvin. He will be given a chance to win a job as a returner. The final spot likely will come down to Aromashodu, Burton and Arceneaux, and filling Simpson’s role for the first three games will be a consideration. Aromashodu was the second-leading receiver down the stretch for Minnesota last season and has the experience edge. Burton was a seventh-round pick last year who flashed talent early in the offseason but has dealt with his share of injuries. Arceneaux has made one big play this preseason and might not have shown enough to stay. No matter who stays, another receiver will likely be released when Simpson is activated.


TIGHT ENDS (4)


In: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner

Out: Mickey Shuler

Analysis: Rudolph is going to see a lot more passes thrown his way in his second season, and his chemistry with Ponder is even better than it was when both were rookies. Carlson was signed to a five-year contract in the offseason to give the Vikings two strong receiving tight ends. The plan again is to use two-tight end sets often. Carlson has missed most of the preseason and training camp with a knee injury and will have to get up to speed quickly. Ellison is a tenacious blocker and could also be used in the multiple-tight end sets. He can also slip back and play halfback as well and has shown good hands. The final spot will come down to Reisner and Shuler, with a slight edge to Reisner, who is probably a better receiver at this point.


OFFENSIVE LINE (9)


In: Left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco, right tackle Phil Loadholt, Joe Berger, Geoff Schwartz, Patrick Brown, DeMarcus Love

Out: Chris DeGeare, Tyler Holmes, Kevin Murphy, Austin Pasztor, Quentin Saulsberry

Analysis: The starting offensive line is set and should be improved. The group is certainly more athletic than it was in 2011. Kalil is the big new addition and should wall off Ponder’s blind side in his rookie season. He has good athleticism and long arms but has struggled a bit with speed rushers, something he says will come as he learns the offense better. Johnson was moved to guard after playing tackle last season, and his skills fit his new position better. Sullivan is the leader of the line. Loadholt is still holding down the right tackle spot and needs to show more consistency. Schwartz was expected to challenge Fusco for the starting right guard spot. Sports hernia surgery took Schwartz out of the running, and Fusco has won the job. Schwartz will be a valuable backup who can play guard and tackle. Berger is another versatile backup, able to play center and guard. Brown and Love will be reserve tackles. Brown has a little more experience. Love is a developing player who dealt with an injury in the preseason. At least one of the players released will likely be signed to the practice squad, possibly Saulsberry.


DEFENSIVE LINE (8)


In: Left end Brian Robison, nose tackle Letroy Guion, under tackle Kevin Williams, right end Jared Allen, Fred Evans, Everson Griffen, Christian Ballard, D’Aundre Reed

Out: Chase Baker, Jeff Charleston, Trevor Guyton, Nick Reed

Analysis: The strength of the defense, the line is set assuming Guion (knee) can be ready for the start of the regular season. Evans and Guion could end up splitting time at nose tackle and Evans will be a valuable reserve. Allen and Robison are as good a set of ends as there is in the league, and Williams has shown he is still going strong after a slow start last season. Griffen has been moved back to end after a tryout during training camp at linebacker. He’ll have a similar role to last year in which he comes in as a pass rusher on passing downs. He can move around, even playing linebacker and on the interior of the line as a pass rusher. Ballard and Reed are second-year players looking to continue their growth. Guyton might be the last person on the cut bubble. A seventh-round pick this year, he could very well make the active roster, but the Vikings may elect to keep one more cornerback instead. If so, the Vikings will probably try to pass Guyton to the practice squad.


LINEBACKERS (6)


In: Strongside Chad Greenway, middle Jasper Brinkley, weakside Erin Henderson, Marvin Mitchell, Tyrone McKenzie, Audie Cole

Out: Larry Dean, Corey Paredes

Analysis: Greenway is one of the team’s top tacklers, but he admitted last year he needed to make more big plays. After a slow start in his return from hip and groin injuries, Brinkley has come on and has regained the coaches’ trust after last week’s preseason game. He’s a downhill run stuffer who needs to show he can cover the middle of the field in pass defense. Henderson’s first season as a starter went largely unnoticed last year, but he got better as 2011 went along and he’s back on a one-year contract looking to have a big season and cash in next year. Mitchell is the top backup, a versatile veteran. Cole was a seventh-round pick and is more of a project, but he has made some big plays during the preseason and Minnesota will probably want to keep him around to see if it can develop him. McKenzie makes the team for now as another versatile linebacker and Brinkley’s top backup. This is a position that could definitely see change after the Vikings scour the waiver wire following Friday’s cuts. Dean, a special teams standout, is likely out because he doesn’t project as anything more than a special teamer.


CORNERBACKS (7)


In: Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook, Chris Carr, Josh Robinson, Brandon Burton, Zack Bowman, Marcus Sherels

Out: Bobby Felder, Reggie Jones

Analysis: This is perhaps the toughest position on the team to predict. The top four spots are set and represent an upgrade after last year’s troubles. Winfield is back, though his snaps could be limited if Carr and Robinson prove they can play big roles. Cook’s return is important. He’s tall and is the type of cover corner the team needs in the NFC North. Carr is a veteran who will get the first chance at the nickel back role. Robinson is a rookie with great speed and potential as a cover man. Burton will stick in his second year but must show development to stay longer. Bowman is another veteran signed in the offseason who has experience at cornerback and is also a quality special teams player. He’s no lock to make the final roster either, though. Sherels stays, for now, but not because of his ability as a cornerback. He’s the team’s most sure-handed returner. Reggie Jones flashed early in training camp and could be a candidate for the practice squad if he doesn’t make the final roster.

SAFETIES (4)

In: Harrison Smith, Mistral Raymond, Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton
Out: Eric Frampton, Andrew Sendejo
Analysis: Now that rookie first-rounder Smith has made his way into the starting lineup, the decision comes down to starting Raymond or Sanford. Coaches have said they would like to have one player win the job and be the full-time starter and not have the competition turn into a rotation. Raymond is a second-year player who has good range. Sanford started 15 games last year but struggles in pass coverage and is better at stopping the run. Sanford is also a standout special teams player. Raymond could win the starting spot with an eye to the future. Blanton is a rookie who has been slow to get back from a hamstring injury, but Minnesota probably wouldn’t expose the fifth-rounder to waivers in an attempt to get him to the practice squad. Frampton’s run with the team could be over. He’s a strong special teams player but hasn’t played much on defense in the past.

SPECIALISTS (3)

In: Kicker Blair Walsh, punter Chris Kluwe, long snapper Cullen Loeffler
Out: None
Analysis: The specialist jobs were never in doubt. The Vikings didn’t bring in competition for Walsh, Kluwe or Loeffler. They signed Loeffler to a long-term deal last year, and he’s one of the league’s best long snappers. Kluwe is still an effective punter and is the holder on kickoffs. Walsh has a strong leg, which is key for Minnesota in its attempt to get more touchbacks and have better kick coverage units. The rookie must show consistency on field-goal attempts, however. Sherels, if he makes the roster, will be the top punt returner and the kick returner when the coaches decide to rest Harvin for use on offense. Harvin is the team’s best kick returner and he could be used more this season in that area than he was last year, but he won’t be the full-time returner. Sherels should make the team because he’s sure-handed, and securing the ball is the most important thing to coordinator Mike Priefer. But the Vikings would probably like Wright and/or Robinson to prove they can be effective returners and show good ball security.


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