Vikings will seek to solidify roles early in training camp
The Vikings' top priority in training camp might be finding a leader to replace Antoine Winfield.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
This is the 12th in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S PREVIEW: 5 THINGS TO ACCOMPLISH IN CAMP
Coming off a surprise playoff appearance last season, Minnesota seems to have less questions to resolve in training camp this season than last year. The Vikings appeared to have holes and starting spots up for grabs in 2012, but answered those questions before the season started and stayed healthy, two big keys in being able to begin the season with a 4-1 record.
Being in similar position for a quick start this year would be big, with a tricky schedule at the beginning of the season. At first glance, the opponents wouldn't seem to cause too much trouble. But Minnesota opens with two road games at NFC North opponents, Detroit and Chicago, before the first home game of its final season in the Metrodome against the Cleveland Browns. From there, the Vikings "host" the Pittsburgh Steelers in London and have a bye week before the schedule toughens in the middle of the year.
Minnesota needs to solve these five things before the regular season opens on Sept. 8, and it gets its chance to start finding answers with training camp practices beginning Friday, July 26 in Mankato:
1. Fill the big shoes of the little guys
Receiver Percy Harvin, at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, and cornerback Antoine Winfield, 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, are small in stature but had been big pieces of the Vikings for a few years. The two might also be the best players in the league in the slot, offensively and defensively, respectively and are gone for different reasons. Harvin, the team's leading receiver each of the past three seasons, seemingly wanted out of Minnesota and caused enough issues to lead the Vikings to trade the talented, versatile receiver to the Seattle Seahawks. Harvin led the team with 62 receptions last year even though he missed the final seven games of the season. He also averaged 35.9 yards per kickoff return last season, which would have led the league with enough chances to qualify. Of course, Minnesota went on its playoff run, in winning the final four games of the season, without Harvin and added receiver Greg Jennings in the offseason.
Jennings should fill the void as the team's top receiver, a veteran with proven skills though he tallies his production in different ways than Harvin. Jennings should help quarterback Christian Ponder's development. Harvin, for all his skill, was used more as a short, run-after-the-catch receiver. Jennings is a good route-runner and could extend the defense. Replacing Harvin on kickoff returns appears a little more difficult. The Vikings did draft Cordarrelle Patterson, who can help fill Harvin's shoes as a receiver and returner, but he's inexperienced and unproven. Patterson demonstrated talent with the ball in his hands in the open field in college and Minnesota hopes he can at least fill some of Harvin's big-play ability on returns.
Replacing Winfield might prove to be even more difficult. Winfield ended up being a salary-cap casualty, released on the first day of free agency as the Vikings saw the price tag for right tackle Phil Loadholt rising. Winfield was the leader of the young secondary and was as valuable for his experience and intelligence on the field as his coverage ability. He might have been small, but Winfield was tough and the defense was at its best over the past few seasons when Winfield was on the field. Winfield was fifth on the team in tackles last season and tied for the lead with three interceptions. Without Winfield, the leadership in the secondary falls on cornerback Chris Cook, who has played in just 22 games in his three seasons, second-year safety Harrison Smith and the longest tenured player in the secondary, safety Jamarca Sanford, who is entering only his fifth season and will have to fight off Mistral Raymond for the starting spot. Winfield's coverage responsibilities will likely go to rookie Xavier Rhodes -- who was selected in the first round with the pick acquired in the Harvin trade -- and second-year cornerback Josh Robinson. The two are competing with A.J. Jefferson for Winfield's starting spot and his role as the slot cornerback in the nickel defense.
2. Decide on the starting linebackers and where they'll line up
Pro Bowler Chad Greenway is set as the strongside linebacker and has led the team in tackles for each of the past five seasons. He's also one of two linebackers that are on the field in nickel situations. Erin Henderson has started the past two seasons and re-signed with the team after the start of free agency. When Minnesota signed Desmond Bishop shortly after mandatory minicamp, it seemed to solve the question of who would start with Greenway and Henderson. Apparently it hasn't answered where they will play.
Bishop missed all of last season with a hamstring injury, though he says he's completely healthy and will be ready to go for training camp. If he returns to his previous level, in which he once led the Green Bay Packers in tackles, Bishop would seemingly start. But without any practices to see Bishop healthy and alongside his teammates, there are no guarantees. Before Bishop, the competition existed between veteran Marvin Mitchell and rookie Gerald Hogdes, with maybe Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie and Michael Mauti trying to force their way into the conversation. With such a big question, and Bishop choosing the Vikings over other teams like Kansas City, he's likely slated to be given a starting spot in Minnesota's 4-3 defense.
But even after signing Bishop, who has played inside most of his career, the lineup still wasn't set. Henderson, who has started the past two years on the outside, moved to the middle this offseason from the weakside and has been adamant that he will be the starting middle linebacker. The belief was Minnesota could find the best option for the third linebacker and then shift Henderson to whichever position wasn't filled. But early reports said Bishop will see time in the middle and on the outside and there weren't immediate plans to move Henderson back outside. Instead of logically keeping Bishop at his natural inside spot and moving Henderson back to weakside, there will apparently be a competition of sorts in training camp.
3. Keep Adrian Peterson healthy
Staying healthy in training camp is the goal of every team, sure. But this is the MVP of the league we're talking here and we saw last season what Peterson can do even if he misses camp. Peterson doesn't like to sit out, but maybe the Vikings can talk him into taking it easy in camp and preseason games after the experience last season. Recall last year, coming off his reconstructive knee surgery, Peterson worked hard down in Mankato but most of it was on the side by himself with trainers. Peterson saw very little practice time with the team, even less contact and didn't play in the preseason. He followed that with perhaps the best season by a running back in league history while coming off major knee surgery.
Backup Toby Gerhart has been a capable backup and even had some good games in place of an injured Peterson. But Gerhart is not Peterson and the offense would take a step -- maybe 10 -- back if Peterson were out. Gerhart can handle the preseason load for Peterson and it would give more carries as Minnesota tries to decipher who wins the final running back job on the active roster between holdover Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Zach Line, Bradley Randle and Jerodis Williams. We know Peterson doesn't need the preseason work. He's been working out hard again this offseason and wouldn't need much to get up to game speed. There are few positives that could come from Peterson facing much contact. Keeping the reigning MVP healthy outweighs any potential preseason risk.
4. Acclimate the offense
This could also be defined as getting Ponder as ready as possible. Peterson is the MVP, but Ponder is maybe more important to determining Minnesota's success and its future. Because of the presence of Peterson, when Ponder took care of the ball and made just enough plays in the passing game, the Vikings won last season. When Ponder turned the ball over, it usually led to losses. Quarterbacks are the most vital position in the NFL and it stands that Ponder needs to be at his best for Minnesota to reach its goals.
With that in mind, the Vikings made moves to give Ponder more options in the passing game with the signing of Jennings and the drafting of Patterson. Minnesota drafted Matt Kalil last year and re-signed Loadholt this year to protect Ponder. The Vikings also re-signed Jerome Simpson and are hoping for more from tight end Kyle Rudolph and second-year receiver Jarius Wright. John Carlson, last year's big free-agent signing and bust, also needs to add more.
Getting Ponder and Jennings on the same page, and incorporating Patterson as a raw rookie as much as possible is what training camp is all about. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave also must continue to develop in his role and adapt to his new pieces. Getting all of them working together, to go with Peterson and the elite running game, could make the Vikings a dangerous team. Minnesota has talked about having more balance this season and it would only help all involved. Ponder's progression and work with the new receiving options -- and thus the future of his career -- is vital.
5. Show why they made a punting change
The Vikings chose to cut outspoken punter Chris Kluwe and, while they say it was purely for performance reasons, the natural question of their reasoning came with the decision. Did they move on from the best statistical punter in team history because of his public persona and political stances? Regardless, Kluwe is now with the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota is riding with rookie Jeff Locke, whom it drafted in the fifth round.
There won't be any grand conclusions about the decision to draft Locke and release Kluwe in training camp. The transition is one that will be examined all season long. But it's up to the Vikings to get Locke ready for his first season in the NFL. Locke has a strong leg and is known for having good hang time on his punts. Minnesota and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are making minor tweaks to Locke's punting, including getting him to eliminate any extra steps. They've worked on the technique all summer and will use training camp to make sure he's ready for the regular season. The team isn't bringing in competition, so it's up to Locke to prove the Vikings made the right decision and his first exposure in the public eye comes in Mankato.