Last season, like the rest of the teams in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings went into a truncated training camp without knowing many of their key issues, thanks to the lockout and the lack of an offseason.
Minnesota might have been heading to the bottom of the NFC North anyway, but lack of preparation and a big question at quarterback led to an ugly 3-13 record. Entering this season's start of training camp Friday, the Vikings have no lack of issues again, including whether Christian Ponder is ready to be the answer at quarterback. But the offseason program has at least given Minnesota a chance at being more prepared to answer its major questions.
The offense has had a second season with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Ponder, and the other 2011 rookies, have finally had an offseason of development. Even the defense has gotten an initial look at new defensive coordinator Alan Williams' schemes and style.
The good news for the Vikings? They've had time to work together. The bad news? There is still plenty of work to be done before the season begins in trying to turn around a franchise that has stumbled from 12-4 and a trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2009 to 6-10 in 2010 and then to last season's humbling 3-13 mark.
The health of Adrian Peterson and his availability for the start of the season on Sept. 9 is one of the biggest issues, but Minnesota has to simply be patient and wait for its franchise running back to be return to health. In the meantime, here are five things the Vikings need to accomplish in training camp, with practices starting Friday in Mankato, Minn.
1. Find a way to keep Percy Harvin happy, if he isn't already.
Harvin surprised everyone at the start of minicamp by expressing his displeasure with "a couple of things" and said they needed to be resolved before he would appear at training camp. Harvin then reportedly requested a trade and missed one day of the mandatory camp before returning for the final day and practicing fully. He ended three-day adventure by tweeting that he was "clueless on the crazy reports" and would be at training camp.
The Vikings have to hope so. And if there are issues to be worked through, it's in the best interest of the team and the receiver to figure it out. Harvin is the one true, established threat for Minnesota at receiver and will be vital to Ponder's development. The Vikings signed Jerome Simpson, and he had an encouraging offseason for Minnesota, but he will miss the season's first three games and is still somewhat unknown heading into his first NFL training camp with a team other than the Cincinnati Bengals.
Harvin is coming off his best season in the NFL and last season established himself as an elite playmaker while Peterson was out of action. Harvin is an emotional player, and maybe the training camp bluster was just an emotional release and everything is truly better now as Harvin and coach Leslie Frazier made it seem at the end of minicamp. Regardless, the Vikings need a happy, invested Harvin and his practice habits will be keenly watched, especially at the beginning of camp.
2. Find out if Jasper Brinkley can be the starting middle linebacker, and if he is healthy enough to be.
The Vikings committed to Brinkley early in the offseason and still don't know if he is ready to assume the starting role at middle linebacker left vacant after the team chose not to re-sign longtime starter E.J. Henderson. Brinkley, who missed all of last season after hip surgery, declared himself ready to go at the start of the offseason program. But when organized team activities began, he was slowly getting worked in. He also missed much of training camp with what Frazier called a groin injury. Brinkley said the issue was still resulting from his hip and it wasn't a groin injury. Frazier seemed concern with his linebackers' constant injury woes and lamented the lack of depth at the position. General manager Rick Spielman reportedly expressed his concern as well.
Brinkley will need to be ready because the Vikings, for now, have only Marvin Mitchell, Tyrone McKenzie and rookie Audie Cole as backups. Brinkley has to prove he is healthy, and can stay that way but also prove he's ready to become a full-time starting linebacker. Brinkley was fighting for a starting spot last training camp with Erin Henderson on the outside. Brinkley had hip surgery and Henderson went on to develop into strong starter. Brinkley now has his chance.
In regard to his skillset, Brinkley is similar to the outgoing E.J. Henderson. He's strong in run support and will need to prove his worth in covering downfield in the pass defense. First, though, he must show he is healthy. If he isn't, Minnesota may use its high waiver wire spot to address the position later in the summer as teams make cuts.
3. Decide on a starter at right guard on the rebuilt offensive line.
Minnesota enters training camp with possibly only one starting job open on the offensive line. The right guard spot will likely come down to a competition between second-year player Brandon Fusco and free-agent signee Geoff Schwartz, though the Vikings say Chris DeGeare is also part of the competition.
Right guard is the final piece to a makeover on the offensive line that will have three starters either new or in a different position. The Vikings became younger and more athletic by releasing starting guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera. They drafted Matt Kalil No. 4 overall and immediately named him the starting left tackle. Last year's left tackle, Charlie Johnson, has embraced a move to left guard, a position line coach Jeff Davidson feels better suits Johnson's talents. Only center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt remain in the same spots.
Kalil and Johnson should improve the line overall, but Minnesota is also pleased with what it has at right guard. Fusco dedicated himself in the offseason to a better training regimen and is in much better shape and much stronger. He likely has the inside track at the starting job after being drafted in the sixth round last season. Originally a center, he started receiving reps at guard last year and has worked with the starting unit in OTAs and minicamp.
Schwartz is a former starter on the Carolina Panthers and has the ability to play guard and tackle. He is well-versed in Davidson's schemes, working under Davidson when the two were with Carolina. Schwartz has been eased into the mix after missing all of last season due to hip surgery, but he and the Vikings hope he is ready to compete fully for the job in training camp. Schwartz worked mainly with the backups in minicamp. But, like Fusco, he's strong and is ready to compete. Both players have some versatility and will be valuable backups if they don't win the starting job.
4. Decide on starters at both safety spots.
The spot where there is still the most indecision is at safety, where both starters are yet to be determined. Minnesota used the OTAs and minicamp to work in different players with the starting unit and will likely continue the tactic early in training camp.
Harrison Smith was expected to earn one of the starting spots from the moment the Vikings drafted him in the first round back in April. Smith has an all-around game that should help Minnesota's beleaguered secondary, but the coaches insist he's going to have to earn the spot. Still, it's hard to believe Smith won't be in the starting lineup for the season opener on Sept. 9. He has the skills to develop into a longtime starter, and he was working more with the first team as minicamp continued.
Both of the starters at the end of last year, Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford, return. They could be battling with each other for the final starting spot. Raymond, who was pressed into action last year as a rookie, is rangy and fits the Vikings philosophy of getting younger. Sanford needs to show better coverage and ball skills to hold on to his starting spot after starting every game last season. Frazier said Sanford must improve his open-field tackling as well. Both might just be holding the starting spot warm until Robert Blanton is ready. Blanton, drafted in the fifth round in April, is making the transition from cornerback and needs time to adapt.
5. Find out of Blair Walsh can be a competent NFL kicker.
Minnesota surprised many by selecting a kicker in the sixth round of the draft, but it was a plan months in the making. Minnesota has staked a lot to Walsh, releasing veteran Ryan Longwell shortly after the draft instead of letting the two compete in training camp.
In fact, while Longwell is still unsigned, the Vikings aren't bringing any competition to training camp for Walsh. They want the rookie kicker to gain confidence and develop a rapport with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and holder Chris Kluwe. Walsh has a strong leg and has kicked long field goals and will be an asset on kickoffs. But he has to prove he can be consistent.
Minnesota says it believes there was a mechanical issue with Walsh while he was at Georgia last year, where he was 21 of 35 on his field-goal attempts. The Vikings think Walsh was too quick to the ball and have worked on slowing him down. Kicking in actual games, and even training camp in front of stands full of fans, will be different than kicking at Winter Park in closed practices and Minnesota might not even know what it has until the regular season begins. Walsh seemed to struggle a bit during OTAs but did look better as minicamp progressed. Minnesota is putting a lot of faith in the rookie kicker after using a draft pick on Walsh and releasing Longwell.