Vikings training camp preview: 5 things to accomplish in camp
JUL 22, 2014 6:00a ET
This is the 12th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 25 start of camp.
TODAY'S PREVIEW: 5 THINGS TO ACCOMPLISH IN CAMP
Mike Zimmer will head to Mankato for his first training camp as a head coach and will continue to implement his ideals, policies and schemes in his first year with the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota returns to Mankato in a much different situation than last season when it was coming off a playoff appearance, had Leslie Frazier as head coach and seemingly had some comfort at quarterback.
This time around, the Vikings have a lot to work on and a bit to figure out personnel-wise. The old coaching cliche comes in to play, that all the players are fighting for their jobs. While the saying might not be completely true, Zimmer and his coaches will be making decisions based on what they see in Mankato.
Here are five things Minnesota needs to accomplish in training camp:
1. Further acclimate to the changing schemes
Training camp will be a continuation for the process started in the offseason for Zimmer and his coaching staff. The Vikings have worked for the past three months trying to learn and acclimate themselves to Zimmer's defense and offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense.
The defensive players are excited about the changes in Zimmer's schemes and have been working hard. Veteran linebacker Chad Greenway said he hadn't studied as much as he has this offseason in years. There has been a lot of technique work, particularly with the defensive backs. Zimmer and his coaches have gotten as fine as working on how defensive backs react to cuts made by receivers and how they recover. Time is needed for many of the technique changes to become second-nature.
Zimmer's defense, while still rooted in the 4-3 base, varies greatly from Frazier's preferred Cover-2 system. The defensive line, in particular, has many new responsibilities under Zimmer. That group will continue their acclimation during training camp.
The offense really had its work cut out for it. Turner's offense is more complex than what Bill Musgrave featured last year. The options are considerably more varied and everyone has to learn the many different options.
Turner's playcalling is a numbers system, which many of the Vikings had never seen before. Offensive players talked about how confused they were in the early going, but said they've started to grasp the concepts and play-calling.
2. Decide on a quarterback
During minicamp last month, Zimmer stated he hasn't made a decision on his starting quarterback and Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater are all in the mix. So, the most important decision to come in training camp will be deciding on a starter for Week 1 at St. Louis on Sept. 7.
Turner will play a role in the decision, as well, as he tries to find the right quarterback to lead his offense this year. While Zimmer stated the competition is between all three quarterbacks on the roster, the minicamp snaps showed a bit of a difference. Cassel, the veteran who re-signed this offseason with the hope to start, took the majority of the first-team repetitions during minicamp. Bridgewater, the rookie first-round draft pick, also saw some time with the starters and was usually running the second-team. Ponder trailed well behind in the number of snaps he saw during minicamp, often times taking a near complete backseat to Cassel and Bridgewater.
Cassel would appear to have the edge coming into training camp, and the decision would make sense. Cassel provided the Vikings steady play at the position last year and would give Bridgewater the chance to develop without being forced into the lineup. Bridgewater might force his way in though if the offseason is any indication. Bridgewater didn't seem overwhelmed by anything he saw during the summer and he displayed, perhaps, the strongest and most accurate arm of the group.
Bridgewater was considered the most pro-ready of all the quarterbacks in the draft and his time will come. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Bridgewater starting at some point this season. However, out of training camp and into Week 1, it's likely Cassel will be the one taking snaps from starting center John Sullivan.
3. Decide on the starting linebackers and where they'll line up
In some ways, this is the exact same situation as last year. Greenway is the only linebacker certain to be in the starting lineup. Last year, Erin Henderson was changing positions and Minnesota was deciding between Marvin Mitchell and Desmond Bishop as the other starter in the base defense. Henderson, Mitchell and Bishop are all gone and more choices need to be made.
One change is Greenway isn't slated to line up in his familiar strongside linebacker spot. Greenway is expected to move to the other side and could even see time in the middle. Jasper Brinkley, who returned to the team after one year in Arizona, could start in the middle, but he will have competition as well from Michael Mauti and possibly Audie Cole.
Cole took most of the first-team reps at the other linebacker spot during the offseason program, but rookie first-round pick Anthony Barr was still finishing school. Barr will have a role and is a likely starter. Perhaps, as Barr continues his adjustment, the job could go to Cole early while Barr fills a specialist role as a pass rusher. Barr will push to be the starter, at some point. After all, the No. 9-overall draft pick has talent, speed and had 23.5 sacks, 41.5 tackles for loss and 10 forced fumbles his last two years at UCLA.
Another decision to come is who plays with Greenway in the nickel defense. Barr could be a possibility there as well. His pass-rushing talents set him apart from the rest of the linebackers and the Vikings believe he will be able to handle any pass-coverage responsibilities. It's clear Zimmer wants speed at the position. Instead of Cole or Brinkley filling the role next to Greenway during the summer, it was second-year linebacker Gerald Hodges. Rookie Brandon Watts is also full of speed.
4. Establish a partner for Harrison Smith
Perhaps the only position other than linebacker where Minnesota is trying to settle on a starter is at safety alongside Smith, the third-year budding star. Because of a leg injury, reporters weren't able to see how incumbent starter Jamarca Sanford works in Zimmer's defense or how he's seen by the coaches. Sanford missed out on valuable time during the offseason program as he dealt with the injury, never being able to participate in practice.
In his place, Robert Blanton received most of the time with the starting unit. Zimmer has stated he wants a player with coverage ability with Smith and Blanton has previous college and NFL experience as a cornerback. The Vikings also drafted Antone Exum, a former college cornerback and safety. Minnesota signed Kurt Coleman as a free agent, and also has Mistral Raymond and Andrew Sendejo, both of whom have started games for the Vikings.
The competition at safety might be one of the most intriguing of any position at training camp, and fans could see some unexpected cuts or significant change from past seasons. Sendejo also dealt with an injury in the summer, limiting his exposure. Raymond might have one final chance with Minnesota and will be trying to deliver for a new coaching staff. Sanford, if he's not a starter, could still make the team as a quality special teams' player. A few days before camp opens, the position is really wide-open.
5. Get, and stay, healthy
Like Sanford and Sendejo, there were a few important players missing for all or part of the offseason program. Left tackle Matt Kalil had knee surgery and didn't return to full team drills. The same goes for new defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who had offseason shoulder surgery. Cornerback Josh Robinson was also limited, but had returned to full participation by the end of minicamp. Running back Adrian Peterson returned, but is also coming off surgery for the third consecutive offseason.
All of them will have a chance to play prominent roles for Minnesota this season and the team will need to keep them healthy. Monitoring Peterson's workload is becoming an annual camp tradition and should continue. Peterson showed he doesn't need much work in training camp to make an impact on the season. He was very limited in 2012 coming off major knee surgery and won the league MVP award. Peterson isn't needed in August. He will be needed as, still, the first option offensively in September and beyond.
Of the others, the situation with Kalil, Joseph and Sanford are all worth watching. All three are potential starters and haven't been able to go full-go with their teammates this year in the new offensive and defensive systems. Joseph, in particular, is trying to acclimate to a new team and new defense, and is a key part of Zimmer's system as the new nose tackle. Kalil, at least, returns to a line which has started all but two games together the past two seasons. Sanford will be fighting for a starting spot, and maybe an NFL job.
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