Coming into camp, the Minnesota Vikings know one position is completely sealed heading into the preseason. Adrian Peterson will not have anyone hanging on his coattails, but many of his teammates could potentially be on the hot seat with the new coaching staff in place. A new order is a welcomed addition to The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, and some new faces inserted the line up may provide the jolt the Vikes desperately need to get back into NFC North contention. The hot topic at the moment is the quarterback position. Former first round pick, Christian Ponder, has seemingly dropped to the bottom of the depth chart, while newly drafted Teddy Bridgewater is making an adamant case for a potential starting gig. Quarterback may be the more popular battle to pay attention to, but the Vikings have many holes to fill before Week One kicks off in September. Here are some of the other key position battles to keep an eye on as the preseason progresses.
Quarterback Extravaganza – Matt Cassel remains the chiseled veteran, the unquestioned leader, and the stop-gap for his future predecessor. Unfortunately for Cassel, that gap has closed at a rapid pace. Teddy Bridgewater is gaining quite a bit of steam heading into their first preseason game. The Vikings 2011 first round pick, Christian Ponder, has found himself in the position of clipboard holder in Minnesota, giving way to the 2014 first round quarterback. It has been reported both Cassel and Bridgewater have been splitting the first team reps in practice, and head coach Mike Zimmer has also been quoted to saying that Bridgewater will play with the first team in preseason. The starting gig will not be handed to Bridgewater on a silver platter, but Teddy would not want it any other way.
Safety Help – Getting help for Harrison Smith would go a long ways in repairing a defense that was completely torched by the pass game last year. Competition will be at an extreme at this position for the Vikings as safeties Jamarca Sanford, Robert Blanton, Antone Exum, Andrew Sendajo, Kurt Coleman, and Mistral Raymond will all be vying for the coveted strong safety spot. Zimmer has given the nod to Blanton so far this offseason, due to injuries nagging last year’s starter Sanford and Andrew Sendajo. It is no secret that in the NFC North division, cover safeties are just as important then a good cover corner, but Minnesota lacked at both positions last year down the stretch. Blanton has the lead so far, but expect Sanford and Sendajo to compete as well. This, along with numerous other positions, will be decided by the end, or during, preseason.
The Nickel Cornerback Position – This position has become more and more important with each passing year, with a lot more teams using numerous three and four wide receivers sets. This has become quite the pass happy league, and Minnesota is doing itself no justice by not keeping up with the times. Captain Munnerlyn will slide down into the slot when the three or four wide receiver sets hit the field, but who will cover his outside corner position opposite of Xavier Rhodes? Last year’s underachieving corner, Josh Robinson, will be in the mix, along with the likes of Derek Cox, Marcus Sherels, Shaun Prater, and a pair of rookies. Cox performed admirably well for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but was widely inconsistent in his sole year with the San Diego Chargers. Josh Robinson was not much better, as Minnesota moved him to the slot position, where he struggled the entire season until he suffered a season-ending injury. Rookie Kendall James has all the makings to be decent cover corner in this league, but he does lack the build and size to sustain the physical nature of the season for 16 games. Robinson and Cox have separated themselves a bit from the pack, but faulty performances in the preseason could just as easily send them to the back of the line.
Solidifying the Linebacking Core – This is a must have for Zimmer’s defense. First round pick, Anthony Barr, has shown that he could be an absolute terror in his first season. The young rookie has used his quick burst on multiple occasions to break up plays, and has thrived in learning all the multiple facets the coaches plan on using him in. The rest of the linebacker core is a complete blur from there on out. There could be a variety of different looks that they may provide, pending on the down and situation. Jasper Brinkley is known for his thump-er like playing style, but not known for playing too well in passing situations. Chad Greenway has been a defensive stalwart for years with Minnesota, and could play all positions if needed. Then there are wild card players like Audie Cole, Michael Mauti, and Gerald Hodges. It will be interesting to see what Zimmer has planned for them. There are two things for certain though: both Greenway and Barr are practically a lock at two positions, with Barr possibly moving to defensive end during passing situations. That leaves one spot open, and it is wide open for the taking.
Depth at Key Positions – Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright may battle it out for that third wide receiver spot, but the dark horse is Adam Thielen, whom has seemed to impress the coaching staff just about every day in practice. The running back position is still as strong as ever, even with the departure of Toby Gerhart. Jerick McKinnon has caught the eyes of many, including Adrian Peterson, since joining the team. Norv Turner has been equally complementary of McKinnon as well as Asiata, which could lead to quite the intriguing back up battle. Other players worth noting in battle are A.C. Leonard and his uphill struggle to find a place with the tight ends, and the possibility of rookie David Yankey giving Charlie Johnson a run at his starting left guard spot.
With the day off and picking things up right where they left off on Monday, Wednesday should be another pleasant day with pads popping away. The preseason is right around the corner. Expect things to heat up in Mankato for the Minnesota Vikings.
Commentary by Justin Huffman
Follow Justin’s coverage of Minnesota in the SKOL Notes section