Vikings’ passing game has much to prove

The Minnesota Vikings have spent two weeks working in the intense sun of Mankato, Minn.

The players have been in pads for the warm afternoon practices for a week and a half. After a mild skirmish with receiver Percy Harvin on Wednesday, rookie safety Harrison Smith admitted the Vikings are looking for someone to hit other than teammates.

Minnesota finally will get the chance Friday when it opens the preseason schedule with a road game against the San Francisco 49ers, who the Vikings also play in Week 3 of the regular season.

“Definitely, after a while you kind of get sick of competing against each other,” Smith said. “We’re supposed to be teammates. So, you want to hit somebody, but you don’t really have a choice.”

Coaches have spent two weeks evaluating their players and the myriad changes made during the offseason and are ready to see how the team looks in a game situation.

Bill Musgrave wants to see the progress his offense is making in his second season as coordinator. Defensive coordinator plans to use the preseason games to  get an idea of which players will fit his system in his first year in his new position with the Vikings.

And Minnesota is ready to have a clean slate after last year’s 3-13 record.

Five things to watch when the Vikings kick off their preseason at 8 p.m. Central Friday:

1. How have Christian Ponder and the offense progressed?

Secure as the starting quarterback, Ponder has spent the offseason working with Musgrave and says he is more comfortable and confident in the offense than he was as a rookie. His performance in training camp has been inconsistent, but Ponder and the offense have looked immensely better than they did during training camp last season when most of the players were lost while adapting to Musgrave’s offense in a short period of time.

Ponder will need to be better in Year 2. Running back Adrian Peterson’s status is still in doubt, even though Toby Gerhart has proven to be a capable fill-in. There seems to be better targets in the passing game in receivers Harvin and Jerome Simpson and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, but Ponder has to get them the ball. Musgrave and coach Leslie Frazier isn’t sure how much the starters would play in Friday’s game, but having some sense of success will ease a lot of minds.

Everyone has said there has been a distinct difference in camp this season; now they can show it in a game situation.

“It will be against different people, a different scheme of what we’ve been facing his spring and summer, so we want to be able to handle that and still execute effectively,” Musgrave said. “That’s our goal.”

2. Which wide receivers will separate from the pack?

Harvin is the biggest returning playmaker and is a proven commodity. Simpson has sparkled in the offseason and in training camp, but he is suspended for the first three games. Behind those two, there are numerous players trying to win roster spots. Michael Jenkins is the veteran option. Jarius Wright was a fourth-round draft pick, so his position is likely safe. After that, it’s been a mix of players all throughout training camp, and the coaches have had players up and down the depth chart to see how they respond.

Friday is just the one game, but it’s the first impression of 2012 for receivers such as Devin Aromashodu, Stephen Burton, Kerry Walters, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Bryan Walters and A.J. Love. There could be as many as three roster spots up for grabs this preseason. Any of the receivers could play their way on, or off, the roster.

3. Which cornerbacks can step up and win jobs?

Like the receivers, the secondary was another big weakness last year. Minnesota tried to address it in the offseason with several new bodies. Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook have returned and are expected to start. Chris Carr was signed in the offseason and has been the third cornerback in training camp. Zack Bowman was a free-agent signee but is known more for his special teams’ prowess. Josh Robinson, a speedy third-round draft pick, has been slowed by a hamstring injury. Brandon Burton and Marcus Sherels return trying to win spots, and Reggie Jones has been active in camp.

As many as four roster spots could be decided in the preseason. The corners will need to show cover ability, ball skills — Minnesota tied for a league-low with eight interceptions last season — and the ability to play disciplined and within the system.

“I want to see competitiveness,” Williams said. “Not really just from the corners but from everybody. I want to see that they execute and hustle at a high level. That they play fast and physical and that they can finish plays. As I mentioned before, operate within the scope of the defense, alignment, assignment and technique. I want them to play situational, smart football. Every situation is different and I want to see if they recognize the situation that they are in and operate.”

4. What does kicker Blair Walsh look like in an NFL game?

Perhaps no move has been more scrutinized this offseason than the Vikings’ decision to release Ryan Longwell and replace the veteran with the rookie Walsh, drafted in the sixth round. Walsh has a strong leg, but his accuracy coming out of Georgia was a big concern. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer believes it was a mechanical issue and has slowed down Walsh to strong results in training camp.

But game situations are much different than practice, especially for kickers. Minnesota has tried to pressure Walsh as much as it can in practice, rushing him on during team drills for field-goal attempts, having teammates yell during his attempts and using Walsh to end practices. Now the Vikings want to see him in games, the truest test yet for Walsh even though the preseason won’t add the pressure of the regular season.

5. How does the new-look offensive line look?

The receiving corps and secondary went through many changes this offseason, but the most impactful changes might be along the offensive line. Three players are either starting for the first time or moving positions on the line.

Left tackle Matt Kalil, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, will receive the most attention and is an important piece in protecting Ponder’s blind side and matching up with the top pass rushers in the league. But the line as a whole should be improved and more athletic. Charlie Johnson moves from left tackle to left guard, replacing Steve Hutchinson, and second-year player Brandon Fusco is the leading candidate to start at right guard in place of Anthony Herrera. Center John Sullivan is the leader in the middle of the line and is a holdover along with right tackle Phil Loadholt, who needs to display more consistency.

Frazier said the starting offensive line might play longer than usual Friday so the new parts can be evaluated. The extra time together will also help the cohesiveness for a group ushering in three new pieces. San Francisco, one of the top defenses in the league last year with elite pass rushers Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, will be a good first test, even if it is the preseason.

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