Predicting the Minnesota Vikings' Toughest Roster Decisions
The Minnesota Vikings are only a little more than 10 days into their training camp and have already suffered some injuries that will shape the roster.
Likely lost for the season is rookie wide receiver Greg Childs, who injured both knees during Saturday night's practice on Blakeslee Stadium at the campus of Minnesota State University-Mankato.
Along with the loss of Childs, the Vikings are without John Carlson for most of the preseason with an MCL strain, and Geoff Schwartz, who will have minor surgery to repair a sports hernia.
While these injuries make some decisions easier, they are not what the Vikings need if they are to improve the roster and avoid a third straight last-place finish in the NFC North.
It will be interesting to see what moves general manager Rick Spielman has up his sleeve. With training camps fully in swing, additions to the Vikings roster will be castoffs from another team. It doesn't exactly make for the ideal situation for improving the team.
Still, there are plenty of battles to be waged as the team reduces the roster from 90 players to 53 by September 2.
Here's a look at predicting some of the toughest calls head coach Leslie Frazier and his staff will have to make over the next month.
Who Will Be the Backup Offensive Linemen?
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
Going into camp, Brandon Fusco from Slippery Rock was listed as the starting right guard. For the third of Minnesota's three sixth-round drafts pick in 2011, there was supposed to be a battle for the top spot with free agent Geoff Schwartz.
With Schwartz likely to miss the rest of training camp after suffering a sports hernia that will require surgery, Fusco is solidly in place to start when the season opens on September 9.
The problem is, who will back up Fusco and left guard Charlie Johnson?
Including Schwartz, the Vikings currently have 17 offensive linemen on the roster.
As of right now, the starters are projected to be:
RT: Phil Loadholt
C: John Sullivan
LT: Matt Kalil
That means there are 12 players left battling for three positions.
If Schwartz can make a fast recovery from his surgery, he will have a good shot to make the roster based on his experience as a starter in Carolina.
Joe Berger, a free agent the Vikings picked up last September, will make the roster because of his experience and flexibility. A sixth-round draft pick of Carolina in 2005, he started 14 games at center for the Dolphins in 2009. After joining the Vikings, he started seven games at three different positions in 2011.
That leaves only one position available.
The leading candidates to fill that spot will be Chris DeGeare, DeMarcus Love and Quentin Saulsberry.
The Vikings may be ready to give up on both DeGeare, their fifth-round draft choice in 2010, and Love, a sixth-round draft choice from 2011.
After starting five games his rookie season, DeGeare has not been able to make it back on the field.
Love, who had both his knees scoped in January, has not been impressive, missing most of camp so far this season.
At Mississippi State University, Saulsberry started at three different positions for the Bulldogs over his four-year career. He has the flexibility to be a solid backup for the Vikings even though the Vikings signed him as a rookie free agent.
How Many Wide Receivers Will Make the Roster?
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
The Vikings desperately need to upgrade the wide receiver over last season. That's the reason Minnesota opened training camp with a dozen wideouts on the roster.
Percy Harvin, the Vikings' most explosive player, Michael Jenkins, the player with the most experience, and Jerome Simpson, who the Vikings are hoping is the down-field threat they've been missing since Sidney Rice, are all locks to make the roster.
That leaves two or three spots up for grabs.
The biggest blow to the roster came on Saturday night. During the Vikings' practice with the stands full on Blakeslee Stadium, fourth-round draft pick Greg Childs leaped for a ball and, without being touched, landed awkwardly, injuring both knees. The early reports are he is out for the season.
The plan was for Childs to open the season in place of Simpson, who will serve a three-game suspension, as the Vikings' down-field threat.
Now, that role will be up for grabs between Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arceneaux and Stephen Burton. Two of the three will wind up on the roster, with Arceneaux the odd man looking for another team.
The wild card in all of this is Jarius Wright. Wright has the unfortunate luck of playing pretty much the same position as Harvin.
The good news for him is that he will get a chance to make the team as a returner and could split time with Harvin on kick returns. This will ensure he makes the roster.
The Vikings will open the season with six receivers: Harvin, Simpson, Jenkins, Aromashodu, Burton and Wright.
Who Wins the Battle as the Third Cornerback?
The Minnesota Vikings opened training camp with 11 cornerbacks to address one of their biggest weaknesses. It includes only four players from last year's roster, three rookies, three free agents and two practice squad players.
It would be great if the Vikings could count on both Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook to play an entire season, something that has not happened since the Vikings selected Cook in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.
The Vikings plan to limit Winfield's playing time. The oldest player on the roster at 34, the goal is to keep him healthy for the season. He will rotate inside to cover the slot receiver when the Vikings go with a nickel package. In that situation, Chris Carr will cover the outside receiver on the opposite of Cook.
The Vikings' third-round draft pick, Josh Robinson, has been slowed by a hamstring strain and only saw some significant action in the Vikings' night practice on Saturday. In a report from 1500espn.com, Tom Pelissero writes that Robinson finally made his presence felt on the field and looks to make the roster.
These four, Winfield, Cook, Carr and Robinson, are all locks to make the final 53-man roster.
Carr will start as the Vikings' third corner, with Robinson coming in dime situations.
That leaves two and possibly three spots for seven remaining corners.
The two that lead the battle are Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton, both who saw action as starters last season.
In the mix is Zack Bowman, a four-year veteran from Chicago, who led the Bears with six interceptions in 2009. That season, he started 12 games; since then, he has fallen off to only starting one game last year in Chicago.
In the end, the Vikings will stick with players they have some familiarity, and Bowman will be the odd man out.
The Battle to Back Up the Linebackers
This is the thinnest position for the Minnesota Vikings defense.
While the Vikings opened camp last week with 11 linebackers, only four of them have started a game on defense. Of those four, only Chad Greenway has started more than 16 games.
The starters will be Greenway on the strong side, Jasper Brinkley in the middle and Erin Henderson on the weakside in his second season as a starter.
Greenway has been the Vikings' leading tackler since 2007, when he broke into the starting lineup.
Brinkley's only four starts came in the last four games of the 2009 season after E.J. Henderson broke his femur. After not making a start in 2010, Brinkley missed all of the 2011 with a hip injury.
Typically, the Vikings carry only six linebackers, meaning there are five players who will not be on the active roster.
One of the backups will be Marvin Mitchell, who, in his first four seasons, played special teams for the Saints, and last season, made his first start at linebacker for the Dolphins. He is the only other player with experience.
The fate of Audie Cole, the Vikings' seventh-round draft pick, will be the same as that for Ross Homan, the Ohio State linebacker drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round in 2011.
The last two spots will be battled out between Everson Griffen, who is trying to make the switch from defensive end, Larry Dean, an undrafted rookie from 2011 who made the team as a special teams player, and Solomon Elimimian, a two-year CFL player from the British Columbia Lions. Elimimian was named the CFL's Most Oustanding Rookie in 2010.
The fact that Griffen can also backup at defensive end will allow the Vikings to retain all three.
Is Everson Griffen a Linebacker or Defensive End?
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
With Jared Allen and Brian Robison returning as the starters, the Vikings are set at defensive end.
In order to find more opportunities to put Everson Griffen on the field, he came to camp attempting to make the switch to linebacker. Weighing in at 258 pounds, he is down 15 pounds from his playing weight last season.
A relentless attacker with tremendous speed, he has been very successful rushing the passer. He, finished with four sacks last season while only playing in 25 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps.
While his speed works well on the defensive line, it could be used against him as a linebacker. The key for Griffen will be his ability to deal with the play-action pass and the discipline to stay in position to make a play.
In the end, it won't matter. Griffen will make the Vikings roster and see plenty of action on special teams, as a linebacker and on the defensive line in certain passing situations.
How Many Running Backs Do the Vikings Open the Season With?
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
This could be one of the biggest decisions the Vikings will need to make before the rosters are cut down to 53.
Since the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson in 2007, the third running back on the roster has averaged only 11.6 carries for the entire season. In fact, in 2008, only two running backs carried the ball for the Vikings—Peterson with 363 attempts and Chester Taylor with 101.
The non-quarterback with the most running attempts the last three seasons has been Percy Harvin. Since being drafted in 2008, his rushing attempts have increased each year with 52 last season.
There's no concern whether or not Toby Gerhart can handle an increased workload at the open of the season. At issue will be how effective Peterson will be and how many carries the Vikings will be comfortable to give him.
The Vikings will need at least one more running back on the roster. The role may be similar to the one Lorenzo Booker filled last season when he only had 13 carries.
Right now, the leading candidate for that role is Lex Hilliard, a four-year veteran the Vikings signed as a free agent. Last year in Miami, he carried the ball 16 times in four starts for the Dolphins.
Mainly a special teams player, Hilliard played in every game for Miami since being drafted in 2008.
If the Vikings want some extra insurance at the position, it will be up to either Jordan Todman or Derrick Coleman to earn a spot on special teams.
Todman, signed off the Chargers practice squad last December, was active for only one game last season, but did not see any action.
Coleman, a four-year backup at UCLA, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Vikings in May.
The Vikings will take a chance and go with three running backs to open the season—Gerhart, Peterson and Hilliard—but they will make sure to have at least one running back signed to the practice squad, just in case.
Do the Vikings Carry an Extra Cornerback or Wide Receiver?
The decision to carry an extra wide receiver or cornerback could come down to who wins the punt returner job.
Cornerbacks Marcus Sherels and Josh Robinson will be competing with wide receiver Jarius Wright to win the battle as the primary punt returner.
Sherels has a slight edge, having returned 33 punts and 16 kickoffs last season.
The Vikings will open the season with six wide receivers and six cornerbacks, at least through the first three games while Jerome Simpson serves his suspension.
Sensitive to the fact the Vikings finished with the worst defense against the pass, allowing a league-high 35 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions, they will opt toward adding depth at cornerback.
Once Simpson returns in Week 4, the Vikings will release one of their wide receivers from the roster to add another corner, most likely Devin Aromashodu or Stephen Burton.
The cornerback that will be added to the roster will most likely be a veteran, one of the last cuts from another roster.
Who Will Be the Starting Safeties?
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
While it's likely the Vikings will start one rookie at safety, it's not so likely they will start two.
The Vikings made the deal with the Baltimore Ravens to move up six positions in the draft in order to assure themselves they could select Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith.
Although it's only a mere six spots, the fact that Smith was taken in the first round almost demands that he starts. In a report from last Saturday in the Star-Tribune, head coach Leslie Frazier indicated that he wants Smith to win the job and has him working with the second team on defense behind last year's starter, Jamarca Sanford.
It won't take Smith long to unseat Sanford on the depth chart.
As for the other safety position, the Vikings will open the season with Mistral Raymond. Raymond started the last five games of the season after Husain Abdullah suffered a concussion.
Fifth-round draft pick Robert Blanton will get some looks, but like Raymond a year earlier, he is making the switch from playing cornerback in college to safety in the NFL.
Blanton will make the roster, but not as the starter.