Training camp opens up on Friday and camp battles are sure to be as interesting as ever. In previous seasons under Leslie Frazier we went into it knowing the coach favored certain players and that Frazier’s sense of loyalty to certain players (ahem…Ponder) would override logic. This year with Mike Zimmer and his new staff taking over, training camp should be much less predictable. While there may be many battles, mostly for the back end of the roster, there are three that matter the most.
Right at the top of the list is the battle for two of the three linebacker positions, middle and strongside. Chad Greenway is all but assured his spot and is coming off of playing most of the season with a broken wrist and is expected to look better in a make or break year for him.
Middle linebacker is a little more uncertain. Veteran Jasper Brinkley figures to be a slight favorite at the position but Audie Cole will have the inside track backed up by his play in 2013 that exceeded expectations. Middle linebacker could very well end up being the most important battle in camp.The linebacker and defensive back units were without a doubt the two worst units on the team last year. The Vikings addressed the corner position with the signing of Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox and moving Josh Robinson to the outside. However, less certain action was taken with the linebacker unit.
The strong side spot is uncertain at this point. Anthony Barr certainly should be capable of nailing down that spot but there are questions about how exactly the Vikings intend to use him. One of the reasons he was predicted to be a top ten pick was that he had natural pass rushing and athletic abilities. The downside is that he is very raw from a technique point of view and only has two years of experience playing linebacker. There is also talk that he could move around the front seven, sometimes on the strong side as a linebacker and sometimes lined up as an edge rushing OLB in a 3-4 formation. This could mean that he may not actually spend the majority of snaps on the strong side
The Vikings could leave camp with Greenway, Brinkley and Cole as the starting linebackers, but heavily using Barr in certain pass rush packages and rotating in on the strong side. A note should be made that Brinkley is much less flexible than Cole, who could play on the outside. If Brinkley looks capable in training camp and preseason (and Cole as well) they may be in a situation where they would have to cut Brinkley so Cole can start in the middle or relegate Cole to a backup role.
Cole and Brinkley are polar opposites in some ways. Cole showed himself to be capable in coverage while Brinkley is basically a downhill smash them in the mouth run stopper. Cole suffered against the run, Brinkley looks completely out of his element in space. Should the Brinkley experiment not workout, keep an eye out for Mike Mauti who is said to have impressed coaching staff last year in practice and has looked good in OTAs. Ideally, Barr would step right in and solidify the strong side and then the Vikings could choose from Brinkley, Cole in the middle which would be a better option than possibly having to move Cole to the strong side.
The cornerbacks were by far the worst unit on the team last year, but they have addressed the issue with adding Munnerlyn and moving Robinson back to his more natural position. The Vikings have also signed Derek Cox who not long ago was a very good corner and he will compete with Robinson for the third corner spot.
Xavier Rhodes and Munnerlyn have spots secured, but who comes in and lines up on the outside in nickel while Munnerlyn takes the slot is up for grabs. Top contenders are Derek Cox and Josh Robinson. Cox was a third round pick by the Jaguars in 2009 and then played a total of 18 games the next two season before signing a big contract with the chargers. In all honesty, I cannot understand what the Chargers saw in him to hand him a big contract. He was consistently rated among the worst corners in the NFL throughout his career. His only saving grace was that he was able to nab interceptions but I don’t feel that it made up for the otherwise poor play. I have seen it said that Cox was a victim of not fitting the Charger’s system but he wasn’t all that impressive before joining the chargers.
Vikings fans know very well the struggles of Josh Robinson. He was asked to move to a position in nickel his style of play that relies on speed and working the sideline. The slot requires a corner to be a little bit like a safety, linebacker and corner all in one and tackling in open space and just working in space at all are not his strong suit. I’m not suggesting he’s going to be the long-term answer on the outside, down the line from Rhodes, but I think he is going to be much more capable on the outside. Robinson should be considered to be the favorite to win that job.
Everyone knows that when a team drafts a QB in the first round that they are expected to be able to play soon. However, the Vikings want to take a slower approach with Teddy Bridgewater. I think they are prepared to have him sit the whole season, but it is almost certain that Matt Cassel will falter at some point.What does this mean for training camp?
Bridgewater will have to perform so well that the Vikings have no choice but to play him. It is sort of like in boxing when they say, “you have to knockout the champ”, not that Cassel is a champ but I think he’s going in tabbed as the opening day starter until forced to do otherwise. Bridgewater will have to look not just good, but great to start the season as the starting QB.
Cassel earned the starting job by being able to get the ball downfield and making fewer big mistakes than Christian Ponder. Bridgewater has a history of great throwing accuracy and making great decisions, limiting mistakes. I believe that came from Bridgewater knowing the system inside and out. The potential problem Bridgewater could have in training camp is that Norv’s systems, while very effective, are notoriously difficult systems to learn quickly. Add the difficulty of learning the system to the fact that he is a rookie and it could be difficult for him to beat out Cassel.
There is no reason to believe that Bridgewater will be the opening day starter at this moment. It will take Cassel looking terrible in preseason and Bridgewater looking outstanding and even then it might not happen. My gut feeling is that Bridgewater has a good chance of starting by game seven but will almost certainly start at some point this year.
Others Training Camp Battles to Consider
There are several other battles to watch, but the above are the most important ones in my eyes. The battle for the left guard will be very interesting. Charlie Johnson a very poor year last year and got pushed around most of the time. Jeff Baca and Vlad Ducasse will certainly get the chance to compete for the job and also have good flexibility with the ability to play guard or tackle. David Yankey, the 2014 5th round pick also will have a legitimate shot of winning the job as well. This may be another situation where the experience player (Johnson) gets a chance to keep his job but when he falters I would like to see Yankey get a shot.