Minnesota Vikings: 8 Players Headed to the Practice Squad in 2012
As far as glamor positions in professional sports go, being on the practice squad of an NFL team isn't exactly like playing shortstop for the New York Yankees.
Still, recent college graduates could do a heck of a lot worse than the minimum salary of around $89,000 paid to guys wearing the weird numbers and holding the dummies at the practice facilities around the National Football League.
More importantly for the 256 or so athletes that are signed to practice squads is that the dream lives. The dream is just one injury, one suspension or one horrible performance away. Like high performing pitchers in AAA baseball, NFL practice squad players are always just a moment away from the bright lights.
For a team in full on rebuilding mode like the Minnesota Vikings, the practice squad players have a giant opportunity to become valuable commodities. The team will be very young in 2012 and with that, there will be changes from week to week as to which 46 players suit up on Sundays.
With the NFL increasing off-season roster limits to 90 this year, the pre-season chances will be even slimmer than before, so the undrafted free agents and fringe pickups will have to make the absolute most of their snaps to catch the eyes of the coaching staff.
The Vikings had a stellar draft class and signed a slew of undrafted free agents, so the competition for the eight practice squad spots will be steep. Here is a look at some players who have a great chance to land on the Vikings reserve eight.
Ernest Owusu, DE
Ernest Owusu, the 6'5", 275 pound defensive end out of Cal, is the reason NFL teams love "pro days" held at schools all over the country.
Not invited to the combine like his more highly touted teammate (and Vikings draft pick) Trevor Guyton, Owusu wowed at Cal's pro day, doing 39 reps in the bench press and running a solid 4.7 in the forty-yard dash—numbers that would have made him the strongest and among the fastest DE at the combine.
What also probably stood out for the Vikings is that Owusu was a Pac-12 first team All-Academic performer. The Vikings have been pretty outspoken in that they are looking for smart players who get it, and Owusu certainly fits that mold.
Owusu's main competition for sticking on the practice squad will probably come from Guyton (who should make the 45 man roster), D'Aundre Reed, the 6'4", 261 pounder out of Arizona who was on last year's practice squard and Eric Lattimore, a 6'6", 277 pound undrafted rookie the Vikings signed out of Penn State.
Quentin Saulsberry, OL
What Quentin Saulsberry has going for him over the other numerous offensive lineman hopefuls that will be showing up to training camp for the Minnesota Vikings is versatility.
Saulsberry is the first offensive lineman to start every game of his career at Mississippi State and the honorable mention all SEC performer did so at spots all over the line. Saulsberry started eight games at right guard in 2011 and four games at center, after also rotating between the two spots as a junior. As a sophomore, he started all 12 games at left guard following his freshman year where he started every game at right tackle.
The Vikings will bring in the 6'2", 305 pounder as a center, as he's probably not big enough to play a lot of snaps at guard. What Saulsberry brings to the table for the Vikings is an obvious versatility that might give him an edge over other offensive line hopefuls like Levi Horn, Austin Pasztor and Darrion Weems.
Tyler Nielsen, LB
The Vikings were very lucky to sign outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen out of Iowa, as Nielsen's agent had no less than 16 teams contact him after the draft.
Nielsen was expected by most to be a 4th or 5th round draft pick, but his injury history in college obviously scared teams off a bit. Nielsen was a very productive player while at Iowa, earning honorable mention All Big 10 honors after his senior season. Nielsen won the coaches appreciation award at Iowa and was a special teams terror as well.
Nielsen missed the end of his junior season after suffering a fractured vertebrae in his neck and then he played his senior season with a nagging ankle injury. Nielsen is another of the type of high character players the Vikings are hoping to stock their roster with.
Nielsen, a 6'3", 238 pounder who played both inside and outside while at Iowa, had to like the high number of Hawkeyes on the Vikings roster (Chad Greenway, Christian Ballard and Allen Reisner) as being a good selling point when he was weighing his offers.
Nielsen has a legitimate shot to make the active roster with the Vikings, but if he doesn't do that, it would be shocking if he wasn't signed to the practice squad.
Tyrone McKenzie, LB
Tyrone McKenzie's long football journey will be given every opportunity to dig a foothold in Minnesota this summer.
A member of the Vikings practice squad last season, this 2009 third round draft pick of the New England Patriots will have a couple of things in his favor as he heads to training camp. He's familiar with the Vikings system and proven to be a hard worker, and the Vikings are planning to go with the unproven Jasper Brinkley at the MLB spot, so depth at the position will be a priority when the Vikings are making their cuts.
It's been a long road for McKenzie, who played college football at Michigan State and Iowa State before heading back home to play his final two seasons at South Florida in order to be with his widowed and injured mother. After having two phenomenal seasons with the Bulls, he was picked by the Patriots, but tore his ACL in rookie camp. After being signed and cut by the Patriots, he signed with the Buccaneers and spent a year on their practice squad before being activated towards the end of the season.
McKenzie was signed by the Vikings last season after being waived by the Bucs at the start of the season. McKenzie will have a lot more experience heading into camp than the rookies around him (he's the same age as Brinkley) and would add depth to a position that the Vikings desperately need.
Bobby Felder, CB
Bobby Felder is another guy whose versatility will serve him well as he tries to land a spot on the Minnesota Vikings roster.
The undrafted free agent out of Nicholls State, is a big, physical player who excels in press coverage. Felder was also a standout special teams player in college, blocking three kicks his senior season and having returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown as a junior.
The 6'0", 200 pounder is a physical presence on the outside and even though the Vikings have brought in a ton of corners for training camp, Felder will be given every opportunity to show what he can do. Though he'll certainly be moving up several rungs on the talent level, Felder posted impressive numbers at Nicholls State: 152 career tackles, 12 picks and 25 passes broken up to go along with six forced fumbles.
Felder will have a hard time making the Vikings active roster with so many corners in house, but his potential just might land him on the practice squad.
Robert Blanton, S
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The 6'1", 210 pound defensive back out of Notre Dame was the Vikings fifth round selection in this year's draft.
A little oversized and slow for the corner position in the NFL, Blanton will be making the switch to safety at the NFL level and it will take him a while to learn the intricacies of the position. Learning a new position at the highest level of play in the world isn't the easiest thing to do, so it figures Blanton might have the longest odds of the draftees to make the opening day roster.
Now having said that, the Vikings drafted Blanton hoping he can challenge right away for a starting spot at free safety. The Vikings safety rotation last season was the worst in the league, so it's not far fetched to think that Blanton could get significant playing time at some point during his rookie year.
Depending on how fast Blanton's progression is at training camp, he could make the active roster right away. But if not, look for him to be placed on the practice squad with the biggest opportunity to move on to the regular roster.
Darrion Weems, OT
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Darrion Weems just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings, Weems checked in at 6'5", 320 pounds. Weems started out at Oregon weighing just 260 pounds and had a hard time adjusting to the size of players in college. Weems kept adding on bulk to his large frame and improving every year in college.
Weems grew up in New Orleans, but his family was there during Katrina and they were forced to relocate to California. At this point, Weems is used to relocating and uprooting his life, so his adjustment to being a rookie at the NFL level might not be as drastic as others.
Weems wasn't a star at Oregon, but was a solid contributor to one of the highest scoring offenses in the country. His potential will get him a long look with the Vikings and they might decide he is worth one of the coveted practice roster spots.
Derrick Coleman, FB
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The 6'1", 240 pound bruiser out of UCLA is another of the high character, high football IQ guys that GM Rick Spielman was intent on bringing in as the Vikings overhaul their roster.
Though Coleman's 765 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns weren't electrifying numbers, it's the two post-season awards he received at UCLA that probably helped get him his Vikings invite to camp. Coleman won the Tommy Prothro Award for outstanding special teams performer and also the Wellman Memorial Award for all around excellence from the coaching staff.
Coleman has an intriguing mix of power and speed stacked on to an impressive physical frame. The Vikings have brought a lot of fullbacks and hybrid types to camp, but Coleman, along with fellow rookie and Pac-12 alum Rhett Ellison have as good a chance to stick as any of them.
Coleman's work ethic and versatility make him the perfect type of player that teams like to add to the practice roster to see if they can blossom into solid NFL performers.
All in all the Vikings have to very happy with their 90 man roster as they begin training camp next month. Spielman had an excellent draft and signed on a lot of rookies with the high character label. The competition should be stiff all over the field, which will only make the Vikings better in the long run.