Antoine Winfield laughed and admitted he couldn’t go too deep into analysis of other cornerbacks who are now with the Minnesota Vikings because he didn’t know their names.
“I’m not familiar with names. I can’t go there,” Winfield said with his signature chuckle. “I’ve got numbers.”
In the first week of the team’s organized team activities, that was a prevailing sentiment. See a play of note and check the roster to see the name that fits with the corresponding jersey number. It’s a sign of the rebuilding times at Winter Park, but perhaps no two positions better personify the roster turnover taking place than wide receiver and cornerback.
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Less than six months ago, the 2011 NFL season ended for the Vikings. Their 3-13 record was tied for the worst in the franchise’s 51 years of existence. Much went wrong along the way, as the close losses mounted, but the so did the injuries. They may not have been playoff contenders even with a fully healthy roster, but by the end of the season the two positions most often associated with speed — wide receiver and cornerback — were testaments to backups trying to play the role of starters because of injuries and other issues.
The Vikings entered the 2011 season hoping that Bernard Berrian would become the receiver they had handsomely paid him to be, but when they realized how foolish that notion was they finally gave up on him on Oct. 25. A month later, another receiver they had high hopes for, Michael Jenkins, was placed on injured reserve. Two weeks later, so was promising rookie Stephen Burton, who was just starting to get his chance with a promotion to the active roster in response to Jenkins’ season-ending injury.
Three months from now, when the roster has been trimmed to 53 players for the 2012 season, the questions will be answered, but it’s possible that only one of the receivers — Percy Harvin — on the active roster at the end of the 2011 season will be part of the team in 2012.
Devin Aromashodu and Emmanuel Arceneaux are back fighting for a spot, but Greg Camarillo wasn’t re-signed in free agency and his NFL career could be over. As a 2009 first-round draft choice, Harvin is easily the veteran of the Vikings roster at receiver. Every one of the other 11 possibilities was acquired in either the 2011 or 2012 offseasons.
At the start of last year, the Vikings had five receivers on their active roster. Among those, Harvin is a lock for the top option and Michael Jenkins is likely to see a contributing role as well. But, if five is the receiver limit again this year, they might be the only two holdovers. Jerome Simpson, who is suspended for the first three games, is expected to be a top deep-threat target and fourth-round draft choices Jarius Wright and Greg Childs should part of the mix, as well. That leaves Burton, Aromashodu and Arceneaux, among others, fighting for what could be the final spot for the first three weeks while Simpson serves his suspension.
“We all are different types of players. Jerome is a great player, comes to work every day, but we’ve all got different types, got different styles,” Childs said. “We’ve got different receivers that do many different types of things,” Childs said. “It’s just us trying to complement one another.”
The players trying to cover those receivers in practice have change quite a bit, too, since last year.
In September 2011, Winfield and Cedric Griffin were the starters, but Winfield made just one start after the fourth game of the season before neck and collarbone injuries landed him on season-ending injured reserve. Griffin struggled throughout the season in his attempt to come back from surgery to repair anterior cruciate ligament tears in both of his knees over the previous three seasons.
By the end of last season, with Chris Cook away from the team for the final 10 games while dealing with a felony domestic assault charge, the depth chart looked much different, leading in part to the Vikings’ immense struggles to defend the pass. A frustrated and frustrating Griffin was trying to hang on and Asher Allen was once again called into starting duty. Behind them were Marcus Sherels, Benny Sapp and Brandon Burton.
Of the five cornerbacks on the active roster at the end of the 2011 season, Burton might have the best chance of remaining with the team. Griffin surprisingly received a well-heeled contract from the sultans of free agency, the Washington Redskins. Allen informed the team last week he was retiring. Sapp remains a free agent and likely won’t be signed by any team before the season. And, with an influx of new talent and the return of Winfield and Cook, Sherels appears to be a roster longshot unless he secures the punt-return job, essentially by default.
The Vikings signed Chris Carr, Zack Bowman and former Florida International point guard Nick Taylor in free agency and drafted Central Florida speedster Josh Robinson in the third round.
The Vikings started the 2011 season with six cornerbacks on the active roster. Two (Winfield and Cook) of the top four are returning, and three of the final four reserve spots after Winfield and Cook could be occupied by Carr, Bowman and Robinson, leaving only one spot to be fought over by the remaining six cornerbacks on the roster.
No matter who ends up occupying the reserve cornerback roles — Carr and Bowman are veterans but new to the Vikings — there will be a lot of learning taking place. That means leaning on Winfield, the veteran of the system.
“Antoine is a great cornerback, as we all know. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can while I can,” Robinson said. “Whatever role this team wants me to play, I’m trying to make sure that I talk to the guy that’s been playing it, just so I can make sure I get better so I can learn everything I need to know because they’ve done it. There’s nobody else that I can talk to rather than them.”
Putting it all together will be challenge, but the Vikings are through the first week of organized team activities before their three-day minicamp in the middle of June.
“Words cannot express how good this feels to be able to go through an offseason, to be able to plan things and see them come to fruition, and time will tell how beneficial it is for our team and for our staff,” head coach Leslie Frazier said. “But in my mind, it is tremendously beneficial and we hope to show the fans that when the fall rolls around how beneficial this offseason has been.”
The Minnesota makeover is now in full force, and nowhere will that be more apparent than the two positions, receiver and cornerback, where speed is at a premium.