Minnesota Vikings: Top Positional Battles for the Summer of 2013

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IMay 9, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: Top Positional Battles for the Summer of 2013

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    It's been quite an interesting offseason for the Minnesota Vikings.

    The last time we saw the Vikings on the field, they were without their starting quarterback and got blown out in a road playoff loss against the Green Bay Packers.

    It was a disappointing end, but the season as a whole was a tremendous success, as the team turned things around in short order, finishing 10-6 just a year after bottoming out at 3-13.

    The offseason hit, and in a year in which it looked like the Vikings might stand pat with what they had, things snowballed quickly and Minnesota expects to have no fewer than five new starters heading into the 2013 season.

    The page was turned on the Vikings career of Percy Harvin. The mercurial receiver, who was the second best football player on the team, had clearly become too much of a headache to the Vikings coaches and front office, and he was shipped off to the Seattle Seahawks

    In turn, the Vikings then became major players in free agency, inking former Packer Greg Jennings to a huge deal to become the team's new number one receiver. The Vikings then surprised many by signing quarterback Matt Cassel to be Christian Ponder's backup.

    The Vikings let go of veterans Antoine Winfield, Michael Jenkins and Jasper Brinkley. 

    Their was plenty of excitement around the draft as Minnesota had two first-round picks and then added a third in a draft-night trade. 

    The Vikings volatile offseason continued this week when the club waived punter Chris Kluwe after spending a fifth-round pick on Jeff Locke, out of UCLA. The Vikings hope that Locke can add the same type of surge to the punting unit that rookie Blair Walsh did to the kicking teams in 2012.

    With all of that movement, there are jobs to be won in Minnesota. Let's take a look at where some of the best positional battles will take place for starting spots for the Vikings this summer.

MLB: Erin Henderson vs. Michael Mauti vs. Audie Cole

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    Barring a complete surprise, Erin Henderson will begin his sixth season in the NFL as the Minnesota Vikings starting middle linebacker. 

    At 6'3", 245 pounds and with decent speed, Henderson certainly has the size and strength to make the switch to the inside after spending his first five seasons playing outside linebacker.

    The Vikings are obviously hoping that a position switch can jump start a career that's never really gotten out of third gear. Henderson has been decent at best for Minnesota, and the team will be looking for him to pick up his production as a tackler in the middle of the defense.

    What's exciting for the Vikings this offseason is that they will have plenty of options at linebacker. Michael Mauti was a great seventh-round selection in that if he can show up to camp healthy, he could be an immediate contributor.

    The guess is that the Vikings are hoping that fourth-round pick Gerald Hodges, Mauti's teammate at Penn State, can win the outside spot vacated by Henderson. In the meantime, if Mauti is overwhelmingly impressive in camp, Minnesota would have the option of starting him and keeping Henderson on the outside.

    Audie Cole will be given a long look as well; he earned it in the preseason last year. Mauti was certainly a more accomplished college player than Cole, and, if healthy, could take away Cole's roster spot.

    Look for Henderson to start in the middle, but keep a close eye on Mauti.

WILL Linebacker: Gerald Hodges vs. Marvin Mitchell

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    Although the title of this slide is Gerald Hodges vs. Marvin Mitchell, it very well could be Gerald Hodges vs. Michael Mauti.

    If Mauti comes to camp healthy, whichever former Nittany Lion is more impressive in camp could be given a starting nod, with Erin Henderson starting at the other spot. Having said that, it's safe to assume that Hodges has a huge edge at starting as the season approaches.

    Hodges began his career at Penn State as a safety and converted to linebacker his sophomore season. The take-away from this is that Hodges will almost certainly be a huge upgrade in pass defense for the Vikings linebacking corps. 

    Hodges will have to get better at taking on blockers and being a run-stopper in the NFL, but he's a smart kid and should be able to adapt to the step-up in strength and speed at the highest level.

    The Vikings have long needed an outside linebacker who can make plays against the pass and Hodges could very well be that guy.

Strong Safety: Jamarca Sanford vs. Mistral Raymond vs. Robert Blanton

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    The good news for the Vikings is that they will have plenty of options when it comes to picking a starter at strong safety. The bad news is that while they have three pretty good players to choose from, none of them are good enough to separate themselves from the pack.

    This just might be the most intense competition for a starting spot the Vikings will have in training camp.

    Raymond and Sanford battled all camp long last summer, with Raymond winning the job by a nose by playing with just a bit more ferocity than did Sanford. Blanton spent all of last season learning a new position after playing corner at Notre Dame.

    Sanford ended up starting a majority of games in 2012 after Raymond was injured and he played decent football. Both safeties showed huge improvements from 2011, when neither looked like they might last in the league.

    A vocal leader on the Vikings defense, Sanford is well liked by his teammates. Of course, that only gets you so far—just ask Antoine Winfield.

    All three players are above-average tacklers and all three are slightly below average in pass coverage. 

    This will be a serious competition for these three from the get-go and whoever makes the most plays will end up next to Harrison Smith when the season begins.

Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes vs. Josh Robinson

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    Cornerback became a position of need for the Vikings after they didn't re-sign Antoine Winfield this offseason.

    The Vikings were thrilled when Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes was still on the board when they had their second of two first-round picks at No. 25. 

    Josh Robinson had a very good rookie season for the Vikings, making 56 tackles to go with two interceptions. Robinson is a speed demon who can stay with any receiver in the league, but at just 5'10", he can be at a disadvantage when going up for the ball.

    In a division that includes Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall four times a season, the Vikings were elated to get the 6'1", 217-pound Rhodes into the system. Rhodes is a very skilled press corner and could develop into one of the better man-to-man corners in the league.

    Rhodes is a clear favorite to start on opening day, but that doesn't mean that Robinson will get any fewer snaps than he did last season. The player who will probably see less time with the arrival of Rhodes is A.J. Jefferson.

    If Robinson makes a progression from his rookie season, the Vikings could have three players who are good enough to start at cornerback, and in the pass-happy NFL, that's a good thing.

Wide Receiver: Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Jerome Simpson

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    The Vikings made a bold move when they traded four draft picks to the New England Patriots in order to get back into the first round.

    They took wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

    Was it worth it? Traditional draft-value charts call it a wash, with the Vikings giving up just nine more points than what they got back.

    Charts aside, the Vikings need only to look to last year to see the value in getting another first-round talent on the roster. Minnesota will never regret moving back into the late first round to get Harrison Smith, who was probably a top-15 talent.

    So into Winter Park comes Cordarrelle Patterson, a rookie who might lack polish after only playing one year at Tennessee, but who also might have as much talent as anyone in the draft.

    There has been much talk of how raw Patterson's skills are, but the same argument could have been made against Percy Harvin. Patterson is an elite football player, and the Vikings will find a myriad of ways to get him the football, much like they did with Harvin.

    The Vikings also took another low-risk gamble on Simpson and hope that it was the injuries he suffered in 2012 that kept him from ever getting a chance to show what he could do. What Patterson and Simpson will both bring to the field for the Vikings is speed, which should stretch defenses a bit and open things up for Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright and Kyle Rudolph.

    Patterson might have been the Vikings third pick of the first round in April, but he just might have the biggest impact of any of the Vikings rookies. 

Quarterback: Christian Ponder vs. the NFL

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    Christian Ponder has been completely mediocre in his first two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. 

    For every glimpse of looking like he was figuring things out, Ponder would make a throw or two where he looked completely clueless.

    In all fairness, Ponder, as a rookie quarterback on a terrible football team, was thrown to the wolves in 2011. In his second year, he was given a disastrous receiving corps.

    Ponder's defenders have always had some pretty good built-in excuses for his play. That ends in 2013. It's time for the training wheels to come off and for Ponder to prove he can be an accomplished starting NFL quarterback.

    The Vikings have acquired too much talent to be bogged down at the most important position in professional sports.

    General manager Rick Spielman's recent quote to the NFL Network that Ponder deserves just as much credit for the Vikings' playoff push as Adrian Peterson was completely absurd, but the bottom line is that Ponder was the quarterback of a 10-6 team that went to the playoffs.

    The Vikings added three first-round draft picks to a 2012 team that saw a huge talent upgrade from the year before. The pieces are in place, now the Vikings just have to find out if Ponder is the guy to make them better. 

Guard: Charlie Johnson vs. Brandon Fusco vs. Jeff Baca vs. Travis Bond

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    The Vikings starting guards in 2012 were Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco, both of whom were inconsistent at best.

    Like every other team in the NFL, the Vikings are always looking for depth along their offensive line, and in April's draft they selected guards Jeff Baca out of UCLA and Travis Bond from North Carolina

    Like both Johnson and Fusco, Baca was a sixth-round choice, and the massive Bond was a seventh-round pick. 

    Offensive line is a tricky position to predict in the NFL. Every year there are three or four draft picks whom you can pencil in as long-time successes, and after that it's almost a crapshoot. All-Pro teams over the years have been littered with late-round offensive linemen who are smart enough to apply their skill sets to NFL play.

    Both Baca and Bond are intriguing candidates for the Vikings' offensive line. Baca was a four-year starter at UCLA and plays with a tenacious edge that scouts love. Bond is 6'6", 330 pounds, and if he can figure out how to harness all that size on the inside of the line, he could excel.