Today marks the opener for the Minnesota Vikings preseason, and after a long wait, fans can barely restrain themselves from speculating and planning on whom to watch and what to look for. There are seven names that they'll want to remember as the first teams step off the field and the rest play for their jobs.
1. Everson Griffen - 97
Most hardcore Vikings fans are familiar with Everson Griffen by now. Out of USC, Griffen was considered a talented, but lazy defensive end who could play like a first-rounder, but was too risky there. The Vikings capitalized on his fall and have fallen in love with his athleticism.
Not only was he a defensive end agile enough to play gunner on punt teams, he's been good for four sacks in his 144 pass-rushing snaps, many of them as a stand-up defensive lineman, rushing from the second line like a linebacker.
While he's not talented enough at defensive end to beat out solid starter Brian Robison, the Vikings have wanted to get this explosive player on the field. His agility and natural football talent have convinced them that he could play as a linebacker, and complete the transition that the coach's scheming in 2011 implied.
To that end, he lost 20 pounds and became even faster. Reports out of camp are that he's raw and mistake-prone at linebacker, but he certainly has caught the eye of journalists and coaches with his playmaking ability. Look for that when he takes the field against the Vikings' preseason opponents.
2. Rhett Ellison - 40
A surprise pick in the fourth round of the NFL draft, Ellison has largely been dubbed as the successor to the ever-popular Jim Kleinsasser, who retired at the end of the 2011 season.
Lofty aspirations aside, there was good reason he was a surprise pick. He recorded some pretty terrible stats for what teams expect of a tight end, and he wasn't on most people's draft boards at all—not even his own.
He wasn't considered a threat in ball-handling situations and had merely "average" athleticism. Nevertheless, the indications from camp are that Ellison has been a surprisingly good pass-catcher and is delivering as a blocker.
A surer route-runner than scouts gave him credit for, Ellison might be more versatile than Kleinsasser. That might need to be his calling card, because Jim had some big shoes to fill.
Look for Ellison to be required to deliver in all phases of the game: run-blocking, pass-protection, pass-catching and special teams.
3. Stephen Burton - 11
Unheralded out of West Texas A&M (a Division II school), Burton was limited to four targets and two receptions in 2011. Drafted in the seventh round, he wasn't even a lock to make the team as a rookie, spending time on the practice squad early in the season.
Despite the dismissal of Bernard Berrian, Stephen wasn't given very many opportunities, and only saw the field for 47 snaps. Most Vikings fans didn't know who he was and expected him to be cut.
That may very well have been the case had it not been for dramatic improvements in Burton's sophomore year. He impressed the coaching staff with his route-running and catching ability, as well as an apparent ability to generate separation during the minicamps.
After returning from a minor injury during training camp, Burton impressed wide receivers coach George Stewart with his completeness, particularly as a run blocker.
Burton isn't particularly fast, but look for him to take advantage of his quick feet and hip fluidity to make people miss after the catch, as well as his ability and willingness to get downfield and block for other receivers. If Burton can develop separation consistently, he may find himself as an important contributor for the Vikings offense.
4. D'Aundre Reed - 91
D'Aundre Reed was a bit of a surprise when he was picked in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, shortly before they picked Burton in the compensatory stage of the seventh round. Reed was surprising not because he was projected to be less talented than a seventh-round pick, but because the Vikings had waited this long to pick a defensive end at all to start opposite Jared Allen after Ray Edwards' exit.
While it seems to have paid off to have given Brian Robison faith, Reed's presence still puzzles casual fans—surely the Vikings can do better with their first backup end than a seventh-round project.
If they could, they might have the deepest defensive end roster in the league.
D'Aundre Reed has been impressing at camp. He hasn't had a single outstanding day, but has had consistently solid performances from one day to the next. He's worked his way past veterans Jeff Charleston and Nick Reed on the depth chart and is using his bull rush from both the defensive end and defensive tackle positions.
Reed has clearly progressed over the previous year and the Vikings may have struck gold—or at least silver—with their pair of 2011 seventh-round draft picks.
Look for Reed to use his bull rush to knock linemen back to the quarterback, both from the tackle and end positions. Reed had always needed to improve his edge rush, so see if he has developed a wider menu of move-sets to use on opponents.
5. Tyrone McKenzie - 58
Tyrone McKenzie was a well-regarded linebacker prospect coming out of South Florida, and was a third-round pick for the New England Patriots. A collision with a running back in minicamp tore his ACL and he's bounced around injured reserve lists and three practice squads since then, including the Vikings'.
McKenzie was only on an active roster for a brief time in 2010 and still has yet to play an actual down of seasonal football in the NFL.
Recently, McKenzie is displaying the instincts that made him a third round pick in 2009. He's got a good intuition for reading the run and stuffing backs at the line, and has impressed a number of coaches with his heady play in goal-line packages.
Beyond that, McKenzie has also grabbed an interception or two in team drills while displaying better-than-expected coverage skills overall. McKenzie won't stay stride for stride with most receivers, but he manages his smaller zones well and can even come away with a few good plays in cover.
Look for McKenzie to play his gap responsibilities well. He could line up as a middle linebacker or an outside linebacker, so his gaps may change over the course of a drive—if he can maintain discipline while also displaying consistency in his game, the Vikings would be extremely happy to come away with much-needed depth.
6. Reggie Jones - 29
To devotees of the Vikings, Reggie Jones is fast becoming a flashy name and one of the reasons that the team now seems to have the inverse of the problem they faced the previous year: They now have too many quality defensive backs and not enough roster space.
Jones isn't likely to be a Pro Bowl player, but he is making himself well-known to players and coaches alike.
It isn't difficult to compile links with praise for the hard-working cornerback from Portland State, as he's now had several good practices for the Vikings. Brian Robison even called him a future star.
He's been burdened with adversity but has bounced back well. Not only that, he's found different ways to improve despite not seeing playing time. He's gained bulk since graduation, and has become a much more physical cornerback than he ever was at Portland State. In practice, he's done a good job rerouting receivers and managing to stay with them.
He hasn't had a lot of opportunities to become a complete cornerback, but seems to be well on his way to developing all the skills.
Look for good press coverage skills, and try to determine if he's lost speed with his extra muscle mass. He likes to play underneath routes, so you might see a bit more gambling than you're used to from a Tampa-2 corner. Most importantly, take a look at his tackling. It hasn't been tested in quite some time, so there could be some legitimate questions about those fundamentals.
7. Bobby Felder - 31
Felder is another CB vying to make the roster, and sits behind a well of more accomplished players. While Felder has had fewer splash days than Jones, he's had remarkably consistent play nevertheless. Right now, he's more well-known for having gone to the same school—Nicholls State—as Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, but he hopes to make a name for himself soon.
He put up good numbers against weak competition, and was seen as an outside shot to make the roster. He had flashes in camp, and has been able to make a number of heads-up plays. Having since faded, Felder's stock might be falling, but he could make up for it in preseason games.
He runs well with receivers, but does best with the ball in the air. He's had an ability to adjust to the thrown ball and can come down with it well. He's got good body control, but doesn't consider it an extraordinary part of his game.
Felder can play physically, but considers much of the NFL game to be oriented around execution and the ability to grasp the complex level of play in the NFL. He also has strength to reroute receivers, and has more scheme discipline than many corners. His strength might lie in his good communication with the rest of the secondary.
Felder will have to make big plays as a corner or as a gunner on special teams in order to make the roster.
Look for him to play safe coverage and force quarterbacks to look off the receiver. He's got a good understanding of bracketed coverage, so an efficient use of space might be his marker.
He'll be a harder one to watch because he'll get less playing time than other defensive backs, and because he won't be in a position to make as many plays, given how he covers. He plays well physically, so that's not an issue.
Comment below about who you'd like to watch!