EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier knows the key to an improved defense will be the health of the team’s starters.
With just over two weeks remaining in the preseason, expected starters Letroy Guion and Chris Cook are still out of practice. The two are expected to be key contributors as Frazier hopes for more versatility and depth on defense this season. At least for now, Frazier doesn’t believe either injury will linger into the regular season.
Guion returned to practice Monday from a sprained posterior cruciate ligament wearing a brace on his knee, but he aggravated the injury in practice Tuesday and was held out Wednesday. Frazier said Guion had another MRI, which revealed no further damage than the sprained PCL, and that there was no structural damage.
“It flared up again, so we just need to give it a little more time before we put him back out there again,” Frazier said. “He’ll get this week in and a few days next week as well.”
Guion is being counted on as a full-time starter for the first time in his career, and nose tackle is key to Minnesota’s run defense. Guion had worked exclusively with the starting unit next to defensive tackle Kevin Williams before the injury in the preseason opener against San Francisco.
“We were encouraged by his work and the way he had come back with his attitude,” Frazier said. “He had his weight in a great position, which he has maintained. The attitude was terrific. We’re pleased. It’s just unfortunate that he is missing all these reps. We really needed him to get those reps at that position. It’s somewhat of a new position for him, so it’s tough, but that’s the way it is right now.”
Frazier and the other defensive lineman have talked about the importance of Guion’s development and how the nose tackle is critical to what the defensive line wants to do against the run. Veterans Jared Allen and Kevin Williams have talked often about the void left when the team decided not to re-sign Pat Williams following the 2010 season. The nose tackle position last year was a revolving spot held by failed free-agent signee Remi Ayodele, Guion and Fred Evans.
Frazier believes Guion can end the rotation and be a fixture in the middle after developing his game the past four seasons in Minnesota. A fifth-round pick in 2008, Guion just needs to show he can stay healthy.
“We need a guy who can demand a double-team at that position,” Frazier said. “We’ve lacked that a little bit. That’s what helps our defense to be more successful, especially against the run. If they have to double-team, it just frees up our linebackers to make some plays. He needs to show that he can do that and when he’s single-blocked he can make those plays and make people have to double-team him. If they can block him with a center or guard, we’ve got problems. We think he has the ability to demand that double-team. We’ll see once we get him back on the field.”
Cook, a starter at cornerback, hasn’t returned from a concussion, though Frazier said he hopes he will return soon.
“Today he cleared just about everything that needs to be done,” Frazier said. “They have one more test that they have to do this afternoon. They feel like he’ll be cleared by the end of today.”
Chris Carr is expected to get the start in Friday’s preseason game in place of Cook, and rookie Josh Robinson will likely get snaps as the third cornerback.
Tight end John Carlson (knee), offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz (sports hernia surgery) and Bridger Buche (knee), and receiver Kamar Jorden (broken hand) were out of practice on Wednesday, and Frazier said they wouldn’t play in Friday’s preseason game.
Carlson and Schwartz are working during practice with trainers on the side fields. Frazier hopes Carlson can return to practice next week. Schwartz’s timeframe after surgery on Aug. 7 was four to six weeks, putting him near the opener on Sept. 9 for his earliest return.
Frazier wasn’t sure about the status of safety Robert Blanton (hamstring), linebackers Larry Dean (shoulder) and Solomon Elimimian (hamstring) for Friday’s game after each participated in at least part of practice Wednesday. Dean suffered a shoulder sprain during last week’s preseason game against Buffalo.
Simpson as a returner: In recent practices, wide receiver Jerome Simpson has taken reps at punt and kick returner, two positions that are still unsettled. But Frazier confirmed that it was just Simpson getting some extra work.
“No, no, no; that’s something he wanted to do,” Frazier said. “I guess he’s done it in the past. But no, we’re not looking at him being our punt returner or kickoff returner. The more you can do, it doesn’t hurt anything.”
Simpson could just be attempting to get extra practice as Minnesota scales back his practice and game reps at receiver in preparation for his three-game suspension at the start of the season.
Sanford gets another starting shot: After saying earlier in the week that the Vikings would approach the future with Mistral Raymond starting at safety along with rookie Harrison Smith, Frazier sounded as if the plan had changed Tuesday. Last year’s 15-game starter, Jamarca Sanford, could receive the start at safety Friday with Smith.
“We’re going to give Jamarca another shot just to see how he does,” Frazier said. “He’s had a great camp, and he has busted his tail just to compete and fight for a job. And we want to give him another shot, but we still want to keep Harrison in there and Jamarca may end up starting it off on Friday night. We are going to talk about that when we go in.”