The biggest play of the Minnesota Vikings first preseason game was a 61-yard touchdown that brought undrafted rookie Zach Line immediate attention in his longshot attempt at a roster spot.
Line broke the initial tackle on a short outlet pass from quarterback Matt Cassel. Yet, one of the most important aspects of the play for Minnesota’s coaches was how Line was led down the sideline. There was third-year receiver Stephen Burton — fighting for his own roster spot — blocking a Houston defensive back for 20 yards and essentially eliminating two defenders on the play as Line cut back in for the touchdown.
Plays like Burton’s block help decide roster spots when NFL teams cut down to 75 and then 53 players from the 90-man training camp roster and no team asks more from their receivers from a blocking aspect than the run-dominated Vikings.
“I like blocking,” Burton said this week. “It’s part of the game. You can’t shy away from it. If they need you to block someone, especially if you can help the team out in any way, blocking is a big part, especially when you’ve got one of the best running backs in the league.”
Burton’s blocking ability isn’t new. It’s been the key to his playing time in two NFL seasons, particularly last year when he played in 12 games and started once. He caught only five passes last season and what Burton did earlier in Minnesota’s preseason game last Friday might define his chances of holding onto his roster spot in a suddenly crowded receivers group.
Burton caught a pass from Cassel on a deep crossing route, stopped and spun back outside on his way to a 56-yard catch and run. He finished with three catches on three targets for 67 yards. Burton has been one of the head-turners at training camp, from his slightly new physique to his plays on the field and his versatility throughout camp.
Burton is getting a shot as a kickoff and punt returner, as well, in his attempt to make the Vikings’ final roster. The competition at receiver has become increasingly tougher with the arrival of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Joe Webb’s offseason move to receiver. With Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Patterson basically set, Burton is competing for one or two spots between seven players.
“I think it will begin to clear up after this ball game and after the third ball game,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Those guys will get some opportunities in these next two weeks, and even the third preseason game where we will still need to make some tough decisions. It’s too early right now, we want to get some more game situations under our belt. These next couple of weeks as well as the final preseason game will help create some clarity for us in that area.”
Special teams, particularly if Burton could win the team’s punt-return job, could secure a job for Burton. In the first preseason game, he had one punt return for 11 yards and two kickoff returns for a 27-yard average.
“I think Stephen’s having a solid camp,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “He’s really improved. His confidence is sky-high compared to what it was the first two years, especially the first year he was here when he couldn’t catch punts. And now he’s catching punts, he’s catching kickoffs clean. He almost broke that one the other night, did a great job bouncing outside when they cut off the inside. I think he’s just more confident. And I think a guy like Stephen being more confident means he’s going to play more up to his ability.”
Priefer said play in the preseason games, especially from the returners, is important in the evaluation. He said Burton “passed the first test” last week against Houston. Burton will get more chances on Friday at Buffalo to return kickoffs and punts.
Burton said he feels comfortable returning and knows special teams is one area he can prove his worth.
“Let’s just say I’m a special teams player, where I can play pretty much multiple positions,” Burton said.
A seventh-round draft choice out of West Texas A&M in 2011, Burton believes his speed — a 4.38-second, 40-yard dash in pre-draft evaluations — is coming out because he feels more comfortable in his third season and is able to process what he sees on the field quicker.
He also changed his body this offseason to improve.
“I felt like I could improve myself in certain ways, mainly being faster and more agile,” Burton said. “I had to lose a couple pounds, I felt. That was a personal decision to lose a couple pounds and try to help the team as much as possible by making myself better.”
Burton is trying not to dwell on the increased competition in camp, but he can’t help himself.
“Every now and again you kind of wonder,” Burton said. “It’s just human nature I guess, wondering what’s going to happen with the last cuts and everything. Like I said, I just focus on what I can do and hopefully my performance on the field is what keeps me to stay around.”