EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Seeing how the Minnesota Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman attacked last week’s NFL Draft, there’s no denying the team was need-focused in improving a roster that returns nearly every key piece from last year’s playoff team.
Minnesota went with the best player available by picking defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd in the first round, ending his slide at No. 23. Yet Floyd also fills a need, bringing youth to a defensive line that will likely see much turnover by this time next year. Spielman added a potential starting cornerback in Xavier Rhodes and a possible playmaking receiver and talented return man in Cordarrelle Patterson.
And that was just in the first round.
The Vikings added depth at linebacker, though still lack an answer for their final starter. They drafted more options along the offensive line and then surprised some by showing they considered punter was a need by selecting UCLA’s Jeff Locke in the fifth round.
An offseason that included re-signing much of its core free agents, adding quarterback Matt Cassel and receiver Greg Jennings in free agency, leaves a bit of a clearer picture of Minnesota’s roster. The most glaring hole remains at middle linebacker, but the Vikings have apparently supplemented the depth at their most needed spots.
Heading into the summer of OTAs and minicamps, here’s a breakdown of Minnesota’s roster:
On the roster: McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Joe Webb
Decisions: The only choice left for the Vikings at quarterback is discovering whether Ponder is indeed the long-term answer at the position. But that’s a question that will be need to answered by putting their full support behind Ponder next season, his third in the NFL. Ponder will get every chance to prove he can be a franchise quarterback. Cassel is the veteran backup Minnesota has needed behind Ponder. The experiment with Webb might be coming to an end, and he will have to fend off Bethel-Thompson to stay on the roster.
On the roster: Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Jerome Felton, Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson
Decisions: Running back is perhaps the deepest position for Minnesota and one where the depth chart is in clear order. Peterson is the MVP running back who carried the offense at the end of last season. Gerhart is one of the better backups in the league and has proven able to carry the load part-time if Peterson is unavailable. Gerhart is entering the final year of his contract with the Vikings. Felton developed into a Pro Bowl fullback last year in his first season with Minnesota, helping to spring Peterson on many of his long runs. Asiata can play running back or fullback but might have to fend off a challenge from Banyard and any undrafted free agents.
On the roster: Stephen Burton, Greg Childs, Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Chris Summers, Jarius Wright
Decisions: Jennings is the veteran receiver who will be counted on to replace Percy Harvin’s production after the Vikings traded their leading receiver to Seattle. Jennings will be the veteran influence on a young unit undergoing a transition. Patterson is considered talented but raw, which likely means Simpson is coming back as a starter with hopes of turning into the deep threat many believed he’d become last season. Wright is a developing second-year player who could assume some of the same routes Harvin ran. Childs is no sure thing as he continues his recovery from tearing the patellar tendons in both knees in training camp last year. Burton and Summers will be fighting for spots, along with any undrafted free agents. Minnesota traded Harvin, released Michael Jenkins and didn’t re-sign Devin Aromashodu. The Vikings hope their young players can step forward to give Ponder more options in the passing game to fully evaluate Ponder’s development.
On the roster: LaMark Brown, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Kyle Rudolph
Decisions: Two spots are set with Rudolph, the starting tight end and top receiving option at the position, and Ellison, who is tough and versatile. Ellison is a willing blocker, able to line up on the line or in the backfield, and has better hands than expected. Carlson restructured his contract to give him another chance to prove he wasn’t a failed free-agent signing. He did little last year after injuries derailed him early and hopes he can become the second receiving option Minnesota thought it was getting when it signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract. Brown and Ford remain to compete in OTAs and training camp.
On the roster: Jeff Baca, Joe Berger, Travis Bond, Brandon Fusco, Tyler Holmes, Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil, Troy Kropog, Phil Loadholt, DeMarcus Love, Kevin Murphy, Seth Olsen, John Sullivan
Decisions: On the surface, the starting unit would seem set with all five starters (Kalil at left tackle, Johnson at left guard, Sullivan at center, Fusco at right guard, Loadholt at right tackle) returning. Kalil, Sullivan and Loadholt are rocks at their respective positions, but Johnson and Fusco could see challenges for their spots after underwhelming seasons. Baca (sixth round) and Bond (seventh round) are rookies but are strong and tough and both have position flexibility. Berger would seem to have a spot as the top backup with the ability to play center or guard. Love returns after an injury but hasn’t played a game in his two NFL seasons. Olsen has NFL experience as a guard. Fusco, most likely, will receive the strongest push for his starting spot for a group that would include Olsen, Baca, Bond, Kropog and Holmes. If the starting five remain the same, the rest of the players will be fighting for three to four backup spots.
On the roster: Jared Allen, Chase Baker, Christian Ballard, Everett Dawkins, Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Letroy Guion, Lawrence Jackson, George Johnson, D’Aundre Reed, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams
Decisions: This position seems set, at least for this season. Minnesota returns each of its four starters (Robison at left end, Williams and Guion at tackle, Allen at right end), along with the top two backups in Evans and Griffen. But out of the group, Guion is the only one signed through 2014. So, the Vikings added Floyd, who likely will take Williams’ starting spot next season. Ballard and Reed have done little in their two seasons and will have to show more to make the roster. Jackson was added for depth, though he’s not sure to stick. Dawkins, a seventh-round pick this year, and the rest will be fighting for limited backup roles.
On the roster: Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Marvin Mitchell, Tyrone McKenzie
Decisions: The lone starting position that doesn’t seem set is at linebacker. Minnesota let Jasper Brinkley, last year’s starter in the middle, leave in free agency when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Greenway and Henderson return as starters, though Henderson could move inside to middle linebacker depending on who fills the other starting spot. If either of the two rookies, Hodges (fourth round) or Mauti (seventh), shows he’s ready, maybe one could step in immediately. Hodges is an outside linebacker, and Mauti is a prototypical middle linebacker. More than likely, they won’t be ready. Cole will compete to start in his second year, but he’s also a seventh-round pick with limited experience. McKenzie, for now, would likely be the leading veteran option, though Mitchell is another veteran who could have more of a role in his second year with the team. He started two games on the outside when Henderson was injured last year.
The Vikings very well could see what they have during OTAs and minicamps and decide to sign another veteran to start while the young players develop. The pickings are slim. Spielman has denied any interest in Brian Urlacher. Urlacher has veteran instincts and savvy and knows the defense, but his physical skills have declined greatly. Karlos Dansby, Paris Lenon, Bradie James, Barrett Ruud, Daryl Smith, Nick Barnett and Thomas Howard are some of the other free-agent options.
Minnesota will need someone, possibly Henderson, to step up in the nickel defense as well.
On the roster: Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo, Harrison Smith
Decisions: Minnesota returns its safety crew from last season, a group that had a big turnaround thanks to a successful rookie season from Smith. Sanford started alongside Smith most of the season after Raymond was hurt and likely enters the summer with the lead on the starting position. Raymond and Blanton, though, will both be given a chance to compete. Blanton was drafted with the idea of becoming an eventual starter as the Vikings moved him from cornerback. Sanford struggles in pass coverage, but he’s made some big plays for Minnesota and is a strong run defender. The Vikings will likely stick with this group into the season, hoping Sanford, Raymond or Blanton can really solidify the spot next to Smith.
On the roster: Brandon Burton, Chris Cook, Bobby Felder, A.J. Jefferson, Jacob Lacey, Greg McCoy, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Rod Williams
Decisions: A weak position got even weaker when Minnesota released veteran Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move. The Vikings tried to re-sign him, but he chose to sign with the Seattle Seahawks, so one starting spot is up for grabs. Rhodes could very well make the position his own as a rookie. He will get competition from Robinson and Jefferson. But if Rhodes shows he’s ready, the position will become stronger with Rhodes and Cook, two tall cover corners. Robinson will try to hold off Jefferson, and Lacey, who signed this week and has started 36 games in his four-year career, as the nickel back. Time might be running out on Burton, a fifth-round pick in 2011. Felder, who was on the practice squad last year, will offer further competition.
On the roster: Chris Kluwe, Jeff Locke, Cullen Loeffler, Blair Walsh
Decisions: The Vikings say they will give the veteran Kluwe, who’s been the team’s punter the past eight seasons, the chance to compete with Locke, the fifth-round pick. Kluwe’s tenure with the team seemed ready to close when Minnesota drafted Locke. Kluwe has been outspoken, which might be causing friction with the team’s staff, but Spielman said Kluwe’s public activism isn’t an issue. On the field, Kluwe posted some of the best numbers of his career last season, but even he called his up-and-down year “average.” He struggled through the middle of the season before finishing strong. Yet it would be hard to see the Vikings not going with Locke after using a fifth-round pick on the left-footed punter.
Walsh will go into training camp unchallenged coming off a Pro Bowl rookie season. Loeffler is signed through 2014 as the team’s long snapper. Without Harvin, the team will need to find a new returner. Sherels is the incumbent, particularly as a punt returner, but Patterson’s biggest impact as a rookie might be returning kicks and punts. He was an electrifying returner at Tennessee last season. Minnesota also thought Robinson and Wright could develop into returners when it drafted them last year.