Minnesota Vikings: Training Camp Sleepers to Watch
Training camp starts Friday. Players arrive on Thursday.
The storylines are numerous for this Vikings squad entering 2012.
Can the secondary improve? Who’s the starting middle linebacker? When will Adrian Peterson be back? Is Percy Harvin happy? Can Christian Ponder take the next step?
But a different storyline that’s apparent for every NFL training camp is finding the diamonds in the rough. Every NFL team is looking for that player who can be had for cheap (a late draft pick, an undrafted player or a cheap journeyman free agent would suffice).
This is the focus of our time together here.
Tyler Nielsen, Linebacker
Despite his undrafted status, Tyler Nielsen has a legitimate opportunity to make Minnesota’s 2012 roster.
He's a talented player with NFL skills.
Nielsen is a tall (6’3”) linebacker who started all 12 games of his senior season at Iowa and the eight games he was healthy for his junior season.
It sounds as if his style of play will fit right in with the Vikings: He's strong against the run and struggles against the pass.
Don’t look for Nielsen to come near serious playing time in 2012, but given the lack of depth at the position, he should have every opportunity to make the 2012 active roster.
Brandon Fusco, Guard
The presumptive starter at right guard is free-agent signing Geoff Schwartz. Schwartz was projected for a breakout season prior to the 2011 campaign, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Schwartz started every game for the Carolina Panthers in 2010. Minnesota gave him a one-year contract, so it's not as if the franchise has great faith in him. It wants him to validate that his "breakout" talent is real.
Either way, don't discount Brandon Fusco.
Minnesota drafted him in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He played in three games last season and showed potential. He knows Minnesota's offense better than Schwartz, and is apparently in (or near) the best shape of his life, according to Brian Hall of Fox Sports.
If Fusco and Schwartz impress, don't be surprised if Phil Loadholt is on the hot seat because Schwartz played right tackle while at Oregon. Loadholt's regressed the previous two years after a strong rookie showing in 2009.
Zack Bowman, Cornerback
Any combination of Chris Cook, Antoine Winfield and Chris Carr is expected to start at cornerback for Minnesota on Sept. 9.
Beyond that, there's a big question mark as to what Minnesota has in its cornerback cupboard.
Zack Bowman is a corner with a strong skillset who signed with Minnesota this offseason.
In 2009, he recorded 66 tackles with six interceptions and a forced fumble in 16 games with the Chicago Bears. Since then, his career has spiraled downwards.
He's been an inconsistent performer throughout his four-year career but has the size (6'1" and 195 pounds) and speed to be a difference maker for Minnesota.
He worked with the third-string defense in OTAs, but if he's healthy, he has the potential to move up that ladder.
Robert Blanton, Safety/Cornerback
Don't expect Robert Blanton to be a starter for the Vikings at any defensive back position to start the season, but I am very curious to see what he can do in training camp. He should make all defensive backs around him better by making things more competitive.
Blanton was a fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL draft. He has the size (6'1" and 200 pounds) and strength to be a physical defensive back. He's not very fast (4.66 40-yard dash) but can make up for a lack of speed with his intellect.
By the end of the season, he could be a starter at either safety position. He won't start the season as a starter, but what he does in training camp will give everyone insight as to whether or not that is a realistic possibility.
Everson Griffen, Linebacker/Defensive End
Everson Griffen is a trendy pick for a breakout performance in 2012 not just by Minnesota followers, but by the national media too.
Through ESPN, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders listed Griffen as one of the NFL's top-25 prospects. Griffen is doing his part to make that a reality.
He's down to 263 pounds from 273 last season and is expected to compete for a linebacker position in training camp, according to Tom Pelissero and Dean-Berhow Goll of 1500ESPN.com.
The decision to try out Griffen at linebacker is in an attempt to get Griffen more playing time. That same 1500ESPN story reported Griffen played in a mere 16.1 percent of Minnesota's snaps during the first two seasons of his career, which makes sense given the presence of Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Ray Edwards during that time. But Griffen still recorded four sacks in 2011 (half as many as Robison, who had a starting position).
The expected move to linebacker should afford Griffen more playing time, and with more playing time, there should come more sack opportunities. Between Griffen, Robison and Allen Minnesota could have three players post double-digit sacks in 2012.