Lex Hilliard bursts away from defensive end D'Aundre Reed during minicamp
In order to effectively understand the 2012 Minnesota Vikings, fans need to know how they've changed since their 2011 season.
They've changed in some big ways.
The 3-13 performance demands tactical diversity from the Vikings as well as different personnel strategies. The Vikings have embraced this call wholeheartedly.
What follows is a list of the five most significant things to take away from Vikings camp, culled from camp reports as well as direct observation.
If it wasn't immediately obvious from their sixth-round draft pick, the Vikings have resolved to improve field position on offense and defense.
Not only have they drafted an enormous leg to replace the waning Ryan Longwell, they have spent the first half hour to hour of every practice session—morning and afternoon—working on special teams.
The Vikings didn't have a terrible special teams unit last year, but they don't impress, either. Despite punting a relatively average 77 times in 2011, they ranked sixth in total return yards allowed.
Last year, Minnesota learned how important field position was and is clearly striving to improve it. Of Minnesota's 13 losses, nine of them were within seven points. Some of these games could have been swung with effective special teams play.
Some recent statistical research indicates that limiting one's opponent to poor field position is extremely important. The correlation between win percentage and average opponent field position is 0.73.
Much of this is due to positive turnover differential (which accounts for the Vikings generating the fourth-worst opponent field position), but the point remains that limiting an opponent's starting field position is extraordinarily important.
Not only has every practice session started with special teams installation, the attention to detail is painstaking. Special teams coach Mike Priefer and his assistants have spent significant time going over the extremely technical details of downfield blocking, footwork in gunning and the wedge formation with even the most marginal players in an attempt to extract every advantage he can in special teams play.
Even the personnel acquisition strategy has been geared toward maximizing field position. Aside from drafting a kicker who can apparently knock back 60-yard field goals against the wind, they've signed free agent Zack Bowman, some say in an attempt to get information on the strategies used on the highly successful Chicago Bears squad.
They also signed Marvin Mitchell, a special teams ace who has played for the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints. He is currently taking second-team snaps, and many expect him to make the final roster.
The Vikings have made it an official stance—not at odds with most NFL teams—that every player not on the first team is expected to be a special teams performer. What is unusual is how much commitment they have to that philosophy and the amount of resources they are willing to invest in it.
Expect the Vikings to improve in special teams play next year.
When offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was initially hired by the Minnesota Vikings, the organization lauded Musgrave's experience running a two tight end offense and the multiple fronts he would provide.
Unfortunately, partially due to the player lockout, Musgrave did not run an offense often featuring two tight ends, with only about 30-40 percent of offensive snaps with a personnel package carrying two tight ends (often referred to as 02, 12, 22 and 32 personnel packages, the second digit always refers to the number of tight ends).
This year, the Vikings offense features tight ends heavily.
Not only did the Vikings invest in another tight end in the fourth round of the NFL draft with Rhett Ellison, but they also wooed veteran John Carlson away from Kansas City, signing him to a five-year, $25 million deal.
The Vikings have been running an extraordinary amount of two tight end sets, with a lone running back in the backfield, often called an "ace" formation.
The reliance on tight ends has created opportunities for Kyle Rudolph—who has been receiving rave reviews for his camp performance—enough that Greg Rosenthal at the NFL Network isolated him as one of their six training camp leaders.
The vast majority of morning walk-through installations have involved two tight ends, with a particular reliance on tight end motions to reveal defensive schemes, create mismatches and confuse defensive playcalling.
Despite the injury to John Carlson, the Vikings have remained committed to the two tight end offense. They have rotated in Rhett Ellison, Mickey Shuler and Allen Reisner at the second tight end spot, and are expected to keep four tight ends on their roster.
While the Vikings have also been installing three wide receiver sets, they are more likely to empty their backfield by lining up their running back on the line and keeping two tight ends. That shows a level of reliance on their tight ends, as well as an emphasis on deception in the offensive personnel package.
This emphasis on deception is further underlined by the fact that offensive playcalling in the preseason game against San Francisco will be dialed back and will not contain many of the elements of the playbook that are being installed in the camps, unlike the Vikings' defensive playcalling.
Training camp has revealed a heavier emphasis on the tight end in 2012 than in 2011.
The Vikings' 3-13 record was marked by offensive inefficiency and defensive ineptitude.
The defensive performance in many ways was due to poor depth, and the Vikings were left to play in a secondary featuring less-than-stellar names like Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and Tyrell Johnson.
While the Vikings have focused on improving their secondary through draft picks Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and Robert Blanton, they've also made sure to scour the free-agent market for value, grabbing veterans Zack Bowman and Chris Carr.
To make room, the Vikings have either chosen not to re-sign or have let go a significant number of their previous players, with Tyrell Johnson, Asher Allen, Jarrad Page, Benny Sapp and Hussain Abdullah leaving space open in their depth charts.
While the drafted rookies have yet to prove their readiness in an NFL environment, they've impressed staff and observers, and have been moving up the depth charts, an indicator that the Vikings see greater talent at their position than they had before.
Robinson and Blanton have had some trouble getting on the field, as they both have had hamstring injuries, but the limited time Robinson did see the field, he impressed observers, coming away with a few pass breakups and excellent coverage. Before Blanton's injury, he also looked good, grabbing an interception or two in individual drills.
Blanton's move to safety solidifies the safety depth the Vikings were lacking before, and with improvement from Mistral Raymond, the Vikings look better than ever in their secondary. The additional surprise developments from Reggie Jones and Bobby Felder have been icing on the cake.
The Vikings have developed more than just secondary depth, however. The front seven has also rounded out more than last year.
New acquisitions Marvin Mitchell and Tyrone McKenzie have both been impressive in camp and have seen significant snaps in the second string as of late. McKenzie in particular had been playing above the level of the third string offense, grabbing interceptions and stuffing running backs at the line. Larry Dean has also improved from last year and will be looking to make an impact on special teams.
Vikings fans have legitimate worries about their depth at linebacker: E.J. Henderson has not been re-signed, and Audie Cole has been looking unimpressive in camp, but these don't represent net losses in depth. Jasper Brinkley, who couldn't participate on the Vikings' active roster, has replaced E.J. on the depth chart and is being capably backed up by McKenzie and Mitchell.
Everson Griffen's move to weak-side linebacker further shores up the position—he has flashed extraordinary potential but is still extremely raw and has made a number of significant errors. At the very least, he's been an excellent pass rusher and run stopper while running with the third team.
The defensive line of the Vikings has still been a big focus, and their line depth is greater than before as well. Seventh-round draft pick Trevor Guyton has been playing above his pick, doing well in one-on-ones and even seeing time with the second team.
More importantly, D'Aundre Reed is doing quite well and has registered sacks against the first and second offensive lines. He has developed good push and expanded his menu of pass-rushing moves.
With Griffen rotating along the line, as he has in some practices, and Christian Ballard improving as well, the Vikings have an even deeper defensive line than before. Ballard has gained weight and shown improvement in undertackle play, while Fred Evans is the same as ever as a backup—very talented, but also inconsistent.
While aging may reduce the lethality of the top-tier defensive line for the Vikings going into next season, they have a better base to fall back on than before.
Overall, the Vikings have resolved some of their biggest problems from last year as well as strengthened their biggest asset, making their roster better by leaps and bounds.
Time and again, teams will consistently espouse the value of camp competition, but will almost always award spots before camp to unproven rookies.
The Vikings have only given one starting spot to a rookie, and they didn't have much choice—the other left tackle is the injured DeMarcus Love.
Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and every other draft pick have started out taking second- and third-team reps instead of with the first team. This isn't an indication that the Vikings think Smith is worse than Sanford or Raymond, who are getting the reps on the first team—merely that rookies have to prove they can play with NFL-caliber players.
The Vikings are ready for constant roster evaluation and have given themselves the latitude to make tough or important decisions as the season progresses.
This has led to chances for rookies drafted in the later rounds—including Trevor Guyton—as well as given evidence to which drafted rookies may not be doing as well as the Vikings had hoped.
These spots on the roster have been operating in a meritocracy, with players who make consistent plays moving up to take some of the positions.
For the most part, the Vikings have been operating this way, moving Everson Griffen from second-team defensive end to third-team linebacker, and waiting until he improves. He recently asserted himself with some spots on the second team, and the Vikings couldn't be happier.
Marvin Mitchell and Larry Dean have staved off competition for their second-team spots with surprisingly good play.
Brandon Fusco was all but guaranteed the starting right guard spot when Geoff Schwartz left for surgery to repair a sports hernia, but the Vikings have been rotating Chris DeGeare and swingman Joe Berger in on some occasional first-team reps in order to make sure Fusco is the best choice.
The Vikings have also been switching players in and out of the split end position on the first team to determine who would take Simpson's spot in the first three weeks—something they were doing before Greg Childs' unfortunate injury.
Even A.J. Love and Kamar Jorden have taken an occasional rep with the first string, simply to make sure that their player evaluations are correct.
Robinson and Smith have both been put a team below what people expected, which was the third team and second team, respectively.
The team has been doing this consistently for all positions, and it gives undrafted players a fair shake while also punishing underperformance from bigger names.
There's no question that the Vikings' emphasis on roster competition has produced results.
Regardless of how well a team has done the previous year, they've found value in undrafted free agents, late-round picks and castoffs from other teams.
To fantasy players, the most familiar player who meets this criteria is Arian Foster, a productive running back for the Houston Texans. Regardless, the key point is that all teams will find vital players from unexpected locations.
As a team with many more needs than other elite teams, the Vikings will need even more to maximize value wherever possible.
For many observers, the Vikings seem to be doing just that.
The Vikings have taken a number of low-risk gambles in the free-agency market, targeting players who have shown signs of high upside but whose price tag has taken a hit for whatever reason. Jerome Simpson has been impressing at camp, displaying good route intuition and excellent adjustment to thrown balls.
Similarly, John Carlson had been doing well before his MCL injury and is expected to return to form by Week 1, if not earlier.
Some balk at his contract, which averages out to $5 million a year, but the Vikings have protected themselves by creating exits and elevators in the contract, instead of front-loading it.
Chris Carr has been a good veteran in camp, and the Vikings were able to put him, Simpson and Bowman on one-year "prove it" contracts. So far, Carr and Simpson have (as far as we can tell in camp).
The team has also done well identifying potentially good journeymen like Tyrone McKenzie and CB Reggie Jones. They've made an impact, and both of them have been able to take second-team snaps instead of splitting third-team reps.
We already know about McKenzie, but Reggie Jones deserves some attention as well. Over the past several days at camp, he may have been the most surprising and has recorded several interceptions against the second team and pass deflections against each offense.
He has been able to change his cornerbacking style since his time at Portland State, and he is much more physical than many expected.
Only the Vikings' newfound depth in the secondary and Sherels' skill as a punt returner prevents Jones from making the team.
The Vikings have a pair of undrafted rookies that have been doing well, and will certainly find themselves working for a professional team in 2012, even if it's not the Vikings.
DE Ernest Owusu is on the outside looking in, but he has been impressive in one-on-ones as well as against the third string. His high motor has served him well and drawn some praise from observers.
The other undrafted free agent is CB Bobby Felder, who has shown good positional sense as well as skill with punt returns. Felder hasn't seen as much time as Reggie Jones on the second team, but he has taken a rep or two there while being fairly impressive as a third-stringer.
The Vikings are still waiting for a wide receiver to emerge from the undrafted ranks, and they have their eye on talented return man Bryan Walters and speedy Nick Taylor. While neither might be considered gems at the moment, they've been showing good form for undrafted rookies.
At times, both of them have rotated through second- and first-string snaps and have beaten some of the mid-level members of the Vikings secondary to make plays. They are certainly performing above their predicted talent, and the team did well to sign them.
Finally, the Vikings have been doing a good job of identifying starting-caliber players late in the draft. Many questions are asked of fifth-round draft picks Letroy Guion and Jasper Brinkley, but both have gained more focus in this camp than they have in previous camps, and have made good plays—plays we did not expect a few years ago.
Trevor Guyton and D'Aundre Reed certainly look like they're panning out, and despite what look like misses with late-round linebackers, the Vikings have turned out better than not.
For the most part, the Vikings seem to be hitting with the low-risk prospects and that has been evident as camp moves forward.
The Vikings will need to continue to find surprisingly talented players in low-cost situations if they want to maintain success in the long-term.
They've started off on the right foot.