After finishing the 2011 season with a 3-13 record, the Minnesota Vikings went into training camp with plenty of questions that needed to be answered. They finished the season with a seven-game turnaround and a trip to the playoffs.
That success does not necessarily mean the Vikings have any fewer questions heading into this year's training camp. In fact, after either releasing, trading or allowing players to leave via free agency, the team finds itself having to replace four players who started at least eight games last season.
This will lead to some very interesting training-camp battles to ensure that Vikings put the best team on the field in order to continue the improvement seen last year.
Here's a look at the biggest battles we can expect during training camp.
With the release of Antoine Winfield, the Vikings need to find a cornerback that can step in and not only provide above-average coverage in the slot, but also a capable tackler that can help slow down the opposing running game.
Josh Robinson can make a pretty good case on being a solid tackler:
Even though the roster currently has 10 cornerbacks listed, realistically the battle will be among the following seven to determine the top-three corners who will see the most action this season.
Even though he is third in games played, Chris Cook is the top cornerback on the roster. However, the fact that he has yet to play an entire season makes him a bit of a question mark. At the very least the Vikings need to be prepared if he misses some time again this season.
On a positive note, at 6'2" and 212 pounds, Cook brings size to a position that desperately needs it. Within the NFC North he provides a physical presence against the likes of Calvin Johnson (6'5", 236 pounds), Brandon Marshall (6'4", 229 pounds) and Jordy Nelson (6'3", 215 pounds).
If we're going strictly by size, first-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes would be the next logical corner to start opposite Cook. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, Rhodes is the second-biggest corner on the roster.
Vikings' fans will be eager to compare Rhodes to Harrison Smith, another first-round pick that opened last season as a starter in the defensive backfield. Smith was an immediate upgrade at safety, finishing with 104 tackles, a sack and three interceptions—returning two of them for touchdowns.
Rhodes comes to the Vikings following his junior season from Florida State. He finished his three-year career with 140 tackles and eight interceptions and played in all 43 games, starting 38 of them for the Seminoles.
His main competition as the team's second cornerback will come from second-year corner Robinson. Last season Robinson, the Vikings' third-round draft pick, was active for all 16 games, making six starts. He picked up the Vikings' first interception of the season against the 49ers in their Week 3 24-13 upset.
While Robinson (5'10" and 199 pounds) is not as big as Cook and Rhodes, he is fast. During the 2012 NFL Combine, Robinson was the fastest player in the 40-yard dash at 4.33 seconds. That's the fastest 40-yard dash time among the Vikings' cornerbacks.
During the team's OTAs, Robinson was lining up in the slot at the nickel corner. In an article from the StarTribune Robinson was asked about playing in the slot:
I wouldn't know. I really don’t have any game-time experience with it. I think it’s something I’ll learn eventually. We’ll see.
If there's going to be a learning curve in order to replace Winfield as the slot cornerback, that doesn't bode well for the Vikings.
Still, these will be the top three cornerbacks for Minnesota. That leaves A.J. Jefferson, Jacob Lacey, Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton to battle for the last three spots on the roster. The most likely player to be cut from this group is Burton who has seen his participation drop from 10 games as a rookie to four games last season.
Sherels will make the team as the primary punt returner, and Jefferson and Lacey have the most experience after Cook.
Even with the trade of Percy Harvin, their leading receiver the last three seasons, the Vikings' receivers are already better than last season—at least on paper.
There are currently 12 wide receivers on the roster—the most players at any position—and at most, only six will make the team.
Veterans Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson, second-year player Jarius Wright and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson are all locks to make the team. That leaves only one or two spots available for the remaining eight players.
There's no doubt that Jennings enters camp as the Vikings top receiver. After missing 11 games over the last two years, the battle here may be with himself to determine how well he holds up over the season.
The following chart shows that not only have his receptions dropped off the last three years—as would be expected—but that his yards per catch have also declined each year.
One of the most interesting battles in camp will be between Simpson and Patterson at split end. During the OTAs, Patterson was taking reps as Simpson's backup—don't expect it to stay that way for long.
In an article from the StarTribune, Leslie Frazier reminds people that Patterson's early contribution will be returning kicks, and that the intent is to ease him into the lineup. There are questions about his route-running skills and the need for refinement that seem to be holding him down on the depth chart.
An explosive player with some size (6'3", 205 pounds), Patterson should break into the starting lineup rather quickly and see significant playing time.
The competition with Patterson may also be good for Simpson who is coming off a disappointing season. After setting a career high with 50 catches for 725 yards in 2011, Simpson finished with only 26 catches, 274 yards and no touchdowns in his first year with the Vikings.
The last one or two spots on the roster will be battled out by Joe Webb, Stephen Burton, Greg Childs and the five remaining undrafted rookies and practice squad players.
The Vikings are very high on Webb, and want to take advantage of his athleticism, shifting him back to wide receiver, the position they drafted him for. In his three years with the Vikings, he has actually been more effective with the ball in his hands than he was throwing it down the field.
Despite having only one career reception, Webb has the edge over Burton. The Vikings' seventh-round draft pick in 2011, Burton has only five receptions the past two seasons. Last year, when the Vikings desperately needed a receiver to step up and perform, Burton did not take advantage of the opportunity, finishing with only five receptions for 35 yards.
The wild card in this battle is Childs, one of the Vikings' two fourth-round picks from 2012. He's attempting to make a comeback after tearing the patellar tendons in both knees during training camp last year.
It's the same injury he suffered during his junior season at Arkansas. Childs has struggled to return to form that made him the Razorbacks leading receiver in 2009 as a sophomore. He is expected to participate when camp opens.
The Vikings' top draft pick this year, Sharrif Floyd, is slated to backup Kevin Williams, a six-time Pro Bowler.
As one of the top defensive tackles in the draft, it might be very difficult to keep Floyd off the field. Last season he finished with 46 tackles and led the Florida with 13 tackles for a loss. He also blocked two kicks. He was named First-Team Defense All-SEC by the AP, and a Sporting News All American.
Lead NFL Writer for B/R, Matt Miller, sees the addition of Floyd to the Vikings' defensive line as a very good move.
The battle between Williams and Floyd may be to see who moves to nose tackle. Then the battle will be among the Letroy Guion and Fred Evans to determine who the main backup is.
Guion, a fifth-round draft choice of the Vikings in 2008, finally broke into the starting lineup last season, making 15 starts. He finished with two sacks and 31 tackles. Evans, a career backup in seven seasons, also finished with two sacks and 23 tackles, making one start.
Combined, these two have a total of 21 starts over 12 seasons. Still, that gives them more experience than the remaining two players in the mix to become a backup—Christian Ballard, a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 from Iowa and Everett Dawkins, the Vikings' seventh-round pick from Florida State this year. One of these two will most likely be the odd man out.
This training camp could be a game of musical chairs at linebacker. The only certainty is that Chad Greenway will be the strong-side linebacker. Erin Henderson, last year's starter on the weak side, has already been moved to the middle and back to the weak side with the signing of Desmond Bishop.
Bishop is attempting to make a comeback after missing the entire 2012 season after suffering a ruptured hamstring that required surgery to re-attach. Right now he is penciled in as the starter.
Last year the Vikings kept seven linebackers, with nine currently on the roster there are only two that won't make the team.
Larry Dean and Marvin Mitchell are special team players that will most likely make the roster. The battle will come down to the three rookies on the roster and last year's seventh-round draft pick, Audie Cole.
Cole shined last year in the preseason. In the game against the Bills he returned two interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive plays. Still, he will have to earn a spot on the roster this season.
Penn State teammates, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds respectively by the Vikings and Nathan Williams is an undrafted free agent from Ohio State.
Prior to the signing of Bishop, Hodges was the leading candidate to take over on the weak side. Now, he will be battling for a spot on special teams. He was the Nittany Lions' leading tackler last season with 109 tackles.
Mauti is attempting to comeback from the third ACL in four seasons and the second of his left knee. He was projected as a second-round pick before suffering his latest injury.
If he can avoid the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and stay healthy during training camp he has a very good chance of making the team.
As for Williams, his best chance will be to wind up on the practice squad.
The Vikings have consistently stated that Christian Ponder is their starting quarterback. Last year he led the team to a 10-6 record despite having nine games with less than 200 yards passing—in five of those games Adrian Peterson had more rushing yards. He finished with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a passer rating of 81.2.
Last year he had Webb as his backup, someone who Frazier was reluctant to put into the game when Ponder struggled. This year, the Vikings signed Matt Cassel to be the backup. He comes to the Vikings with eight years experience—the first three backing up one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Tom Brady, from 2005-2007.
A quick look at the statistics for both quarterbacks indicates that Ponder and Cassel have performed very similarly.
The good news is that if Ponder struggles, there will be no drop off in performance. The bad news is that it's unlikely that Cassel can unseat Ponder as the starter and be the franchise quarterback the team needs.
Still, there will be plenty of attention paid to every snap the two take through training camp.
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