Training camp is just over two weeks away and we’re all itching to see some semi-real action. We all should know by now that there is a quarterback battle going on between Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and Teddy Bridgewater. But, there will be roster battles at nearly every position and there are only 22 starting jobs to go around on offense and defense. Let’s take a look at some of the other important player battles for the Vikings heading into the new season.
Current Starter: Charlie Johnson
Fighting for the job: Vlad Ducasse, David Yankey
We all know what we’re getting with incumbent Charlie Johnson. A steady, average veteran player willing to do what he’s asked to do to the best of his abilities. Johnson is a smart player who can play multiple positions. He not a prototype guard, he’s not very strong or quick for an NFL lineman, he turned 30 in May and is on the backside of his career. It makes sense for the team to look for an upgrade here as this has been the weak link on an otherwise strong O-line. Johnson would be a solid backup, but is no longer starter material in today’s NFL.
Ducasse, formerly of the Jets, is a big (6’5” 325) nasty blocker who had shown flashes of strong play but has been far too inconsistent to be relied upon as a starter. He only started four games last season before being benched in favor of rookie Brian Winters, who did everything in his power to give the job back to Ducasse. A former second round pick, Ducasse is looking to rejuvenate his career in Minnesota.With a strong camp, he could see himself getting reps with the first team. With a poor camp, he could see himself looking for work.
Yankey is a rookie 5th round pick out of Stanford. He is viewed as a steal in the fifth round because he is big (6’6” 315), strong and smart. He was viewed by many as a second round prospect leading into the draft. He’s a strong player and has the ability to pull, which I’m sure Adrian Peterson wouldn’t mind. He’s not going to blow defensive linemen off the line, but he should generally get the job done.
Week 1 Starter: Charlie Johnson
Turner has traditionally liked using bigger linemen but Johnson gets the nod due to his familiarity with the rest of the starting linemen. He will be on a short leash, however, and could be replaced at the first opportunity.
Harrison Smith’s job is safe. Barring injury he should be one of the better safeties in the league and will be looked upon as a team leader during his third season in the league. He is a hard hitter who can knock the ball loose. He also has the coverage skills to be able to catch the ball himself. Not to mention he has shown that he can turn an interception into a touchdown. He WILL be starting and he will be expected to be a playmaker.
Jamarca Sanford is one of the Vikings’ best draft picks in recent memory. A seventh round pick out of Mississippi, Sanford worked his way up from special teams duty into a starting role. He is a strong run stopping safety who can force fumbles. He’s a bit of a liability in coverage, but he has shown improvement over the course of his career. With that said, it is his job to lose and his job the competition will be gunning for. Look for him to show he can make plays in coverage in camp.
Kurt Coleman was once a seventh rounder like Sanford. He developed into a starter in Philadelphia before Chip Kelly arrived. A new defensive scheme left Coleman on the bench, posting career lows across the board. During his time as a starter, Coleman had been a productive player, grabbing 7 interceptions in his first three years in the league. He is a hard worker who will come in ready to play should Sanford prove that he isn’t up to the task in Mike Zimmer’s new aggressive defense.
Robert Blanton is a former fifth round pick from Notre Dame in the same draft that the Vikings picked up Smith. Blanton played cornerback in college and has been transitioning to safety ever since. He has seen some playing time at cornerback last season due to injuries and a lack of depth and played as well as could be expected. He is another smart player who might lack athleticism to make up for any mistakes made. He can be the best coverage safety on the team, but he needs more experience to get to that level. He will likely try to show that he has the coverage skills that this team has been lacking over the last few years.
Week 1 Starters: Sanford, Smith
Sanford has always had strong training camps. He makes big play after big play in scrimmages and preseason games, once the season starts though, those big plays become less frequent. Look for him to show up strong in camp to impress coach Zimmer and retain his starting role to start the season. Once the season starts though, he could see himself in a rotation with Coleman and/or Blanton depending on the gameplan for that week.
This is probably the most wide open position of them all. Greenway could move to any of the 3 spots and lead the team in tackles. The competition will decide where Greenway plays, although he will likely stay at the strong side. If Hodges has a stellar camp at OLB, then its possible that Greenway moves to the inside. If Brinkley, Cole or second year player Michael Mauti prove capable of handling the job, Greenway would stay outside. If Barr struggles to pick up the defense, Hodges and Greenway could start at both OLB spots. There really is no telling how this will go, there are so many possibilities
Greenway has been one of the top defenders in the league during his career. He had a down year last season, but what defensive player for the Vikings didn’t? He is now the elder statesman on a team that has seen veterans Antoine Winfield, EJ Henderson, Jared Allen, Pat Williams, and Kevin Williams all move on in recent years, and he seems ready for the task. Greenway will be starting this season. If not for his on field production, but for lack of better options.
Barr was a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft and is expected to start this season as the team’s weakside linebacker. He is a gifted athlete who can run down most anybody. He still has a lot of learning to do about playing linebacker at the pro level after starting his college career at UCLA as a running back.He will make mistakes from time to time as most rookies are prone to doing. Unless injury strikes or he shows a severe shortcoming in picking up the defense, Barr will be starting the season at OLB.
Brinkley is a one dimensional player who will likely only play 2 downs as a run stuffer in the middle. He is a solid tackler who can put a hurting on a running back over the course of a game. He is a major liability in the passing game, and in today’s NFL, that doesn’t add up to regular starter material. He’s shown the NFL what he can do and that is that he is a limited athlete who can punish a runner who comes his way. He’s 28 and is good at pounding runners. That’s what he will be used for. Luckily for the Vikings, most of the downs played will be with extra defensive backs and Brinkley (or whoever is starting at MLB) would come off the field in obvious passing situations.
Gerald Hodges is a second year player who had limited playing time last season with the defense. He was a solid special teams contributor but is looking to increase his role in the defense. Hodges is a former safety who moved down into the box early in college at Georgia and has shown that he can be a good coverage linebacker. He has good speed and overall athleticism and great upside. A strong camp could push him into a starting role early in the season. He has to show he is mature enough to be trusted with a starter’s role. He was said to have some issues with his work ethic last season. Maybe he will change that with coach Zimmer.
Cole had a chance to start a couple games last season and really made the most out of his opportunity, notching 42 tackles in 4 starts. He started week 16 against Cincinatti, but left early due to an injury. He showed he had a nose for the ball and was an improvement in pass coverage. He is limited athletically, and could use a bit more muscle, but he is a football player pure and simple. You can’t teach instincts. Look for him to get a good hard look with the first-team in camp.
Week 1 Starters: Greenway, Barr, Cole
Cole has proven he can make plays and that is what this defense needs. Not to take away from Brinkley, but he hasn’t shown the type of playmaking ability the Cole has thus far in his career. Barr will have a learning curve, and he will take his lumps along the way, but for a defensive athlete like him, the best way to learn is by doing. Greenway will continue to be a team leader on and off the field and I expect him to rebound from a poor 2013 campaign.
I listed three starters here because most of the defensive snaps will be played with extra defensive backs. This is because many teams will run with three or more wide receivers a majority of the time.
Xavier Rhodes is one of the Vikings’ three first round picks in 2013. He improved significantly as the season went on and will be relied upon heavily this season to cover the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson for 6 games this season. He is a big (6’1” 210), strong, physical player who had his share of lapses last season, but seems to learn from those mistakes quickly. He will be starting on the outside this season
Captain Munnerlyn is a free agent pickup from Carolina. A former seventh round pick, Munnerlyn has shown an ability to make plays as evidenced by his five interception returns for touchdowns and three forced fumbles in his career. He is most often compared to former Viking, Antoine Winfield. He’s small (5’8” 195) but scrappy and more than willing to tangle with the big boys. He is the Napoleon Complex personified. He will likely start on the outside and move inside to play the slot receiver in the nickel package.
Josh Robinson is entering his third year in the league. His first year in the league showed a lot of promise as a serviceable cornerback. He regressed in his second year. Asked to play in the slot, he often seemed confused and out of place. He was benched late in the season in favor of Marcus Sherels and safety Robert Blanton. He seems to be a much better fit on the outside. Hopefully, coach Zimmer will make the former third round pick from Central Florida his next reclamation project at cornerback. He has great upside with his physical ability, but if he can’t learn to read and react, he could be seeing a lot of time on the bench this season.
Derek Cox was once a highly sought after free agent. He left Jacksonville and went to San Diego last offseason with a big contract and big expectations to go with it. He struggled mightily and was cut after the season after a result. Now on a one year contract with the Vikings, he’s hoping to show San Diego that they made a mistake in releasing him. He is a playmaker at corner with 13 career interceptions. at 6’1” 195, he is a strong candidate to play opposite Rhodes in the team’s nickel packages. If he can pick up the defense and regain the ability he showed in Jacksonville, he could be looking at another big money contract this offseason.
Marcus Sherels is your classic underdog story. Every year he seems to be on the cusp of being cut from the team. Yet, every season, there he is producing on defense and special teams. He’s undersized and often overmatched on paper, but he still gives it everything he has every play. He’s now an experienced player with 6 career starts and 49 games played. He is a gritty effort type of player that every coach loves to have. He’s basically a more physically gifted, University of Minnesota version of Rudy, who actually goes to the pros (then sticks with a team and becomes a productive player and a familiar name).
Week 1 Starters: Munnerlyn, Rhodes, Cox
Rhodes and Munnerlyn are pretty much locked in. They’ve both shown that they can be top players at their position. They must show consistency and an ability to stay on the field. They both have had injury problems in the past, so depth will be important. Cox will step in and use his smarts to outplay Josh Robinson this preseason. Both will get plenty of playing time, but Cox will be the first option off the sidelines for coach Zimmer. Sherels will continue with his punt return duties (15.2 avg return in 2013) and will have spot duty with the defense.
Fighting for the job: Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen
Again, I listed three starters here because I’m expecting coach Turner to use three or more wide receivers on a regular basis and there is a difference between a slot receiver and a wide out.
Greg Jennings is the veteran of the group who can do it all. He may not be as young and fast as he once was, but he is a student of the game and an obvious leader to the younger players on the team. He has good speed, great hands and great route running skills. He will be starting Week 1 this season and he will be a good safety valve for whoever is starting week 1 at quarterback.
Cordarrelle Patterson is the playmaker of the bunch. He is freakishly athletic. He reminds me of a bigger version of Percy Harvin (minus the headaches and “play when I feel like it” mentality). He can do it all, play slot, outside and in the backfield. Much has been said about his improved route running skills this offseason and many expect him to be a top 5 WR in their fantasy football leagues. He has to show he can put together an entire season of productivity to enter the upper echelon of receivers, but the potential is there for him to hear his name mentioned in the same breath as Jake Reed and Ahmad Rashad. Heck, let’s make the Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
Jerome Simpson faces a possible suspension for the first four weeks of the season due to a drunk driving arrest in November. Once he comes back, he will provide a legitimate deep threat, or at the very least, pass interference bait. He has a knack for letting passes hit the ground, but he also is a flopper capable of teaching LeBron a thing or two, enabling some of those drops to turn into automatic first downs. He is a productive player when he isn’t the primary focus of the defense. He can get open and is another freak of an athlete (remember the front flip touchdown he had when he played in Cincinnati?) the Vikings will use to help the QB make plays.
Jarius Wright is another guy who can make defenders look foolish if they’re caught sleeping on him. He’s a model slot receiver, quick but not fast, good hands and ability to get around defenders for a couple extra yards. He’s been known to get behind a safety or two from time to time. If only there was a QB on the roster who could throw a ball deep down the field. Look for him to step up during camp and really push Simpson for playing time.
Thielen is another undrafted local who will push for a roster spot. He has good size, speed, and hands. I haven’t seen him drop a pass in my time watching him during training camp or while playing at Minnesota State – Mankato. He is a good athlete, not great, with a good head on his shoulders and toughness to boot. While he isn’t great at any one thing, he is a good all around wide receiver capable of doing the job asked of him. He won’t break many tackles or outrun many cornerbacks, but he will get open and catch the ball. That, to me, is better than having a guy with 4.3 speed who can’t catch (Troy Williamson, anybody?). Rodney Smith or Josh Cooper could push Thielen for a roster spot, but I think Thielen is too good of a football player to let go.
Week 1 Starters: Jennings, Patterson, Wright
Jennings and Patterson are unquestionably the two best receivers on this team. Wright gets the nod over Simpson due to his suspension, but I don’t think Wright will let go of the starting gig once he gets his hands on it. He’s been productive when given the opportunity and he’s coming into his third year as a pro, the year wide receivers are supposed to come into their own. Thielen will see some opportunities over the course of the season. It is possible the Vikings start the season with six receivers on the roster with Simpson’s potential suspension. Smith (6’6”) would be a great redzone option, while Cooper is another slot player.
There you have it. These are the camp battles I will be watching while the Vikings are in Mankato.
What do you think? Is there a battle you think I missed out on, besides the quarterbacks?
Let me know in the comments below!