The 8 Biggest Storylines Heading into Vikings Training Camp
The Minnesota Vikings have a number of intriguing and unique storylines as they enter the preseason training camp in 2013.
Aside from the classic drama that plagues many teams in the league—and they have that as well—the Vikings feature some of the game's best players and curious position battles.
Fans looking to watch practices, which start on Friday, July 26, will want to keep track of all of the interesting plots and important developments throughout the month of camp.
Given that the Vikings are hoping to repeat a playoff performance for the first time since 2009—itself a milestone after a 10-year drought of repeat appearances—they've hit a turning point that should grab more attention from local fans than they've had in quite some time.
As a result, there should be several gripping narratives that will play themselves out throughout camp.
1. Can Christian Ponder Turn into a Franchise Quarterback?
Perhaps the biggest concern heading into training camp revolves around Christian Ponder’s development. Despite the team's appearance in the playoffs, fans are right to question Ponder’s ability and leadership.
With a litany of problems plaguing Ponder, the young signal-caller has much to improve on in little time to prove he can be a consistently effective quarterback in the NFL.
Aside from being one of the worst statistical passers in the league (ranking 31st in yards per attempt, and 34th in net yards per attempt), he also had a subjectively poor game. Ponder often locked onto one receiver, floated dangerous passes and placed the ball in awkward spots for his receivers.
Whether it’s his performance on play action (only averaging 0.3 yards per attempt better than other attempts, per ProFootballFocus)—worst in the league, despite all-world running back Adrian Peterson—or his inability to correctly sense pressure in the pocket, Ponder has a variety of areas he needs to improve if he ever wants to be a consistently viable passer in the NFL.
He’s had bright moments in his short time with the Vikings, but he needs to alleviate concerns about his many dim moments as well.
2. How Well Will Joe Webb Transition to Wide Receiver?
Joe Webb has been one of the more interesting players to put on the purple jersey in the past few seasons, and few can deny that he has athleticism and vision to spare.
The Vikings have struggled to find ways put Webb on the field, and have sometimes resorted to embarrassing schemes in order to take advantage of his otherworldly physical talents, including the oft-maligned “Blazer” package.
But with the Vikings deficient at wide receiver, they have the perfect opportunity to see if Webb truly has translatable football talent. With a prototypical wide receiver’s build and the physical capability to take advantage of the position, he seems primed to take advantage of the position switch.
But wide receiver is one of the most difficult positions in football to learn despite the relative ease that top-flight pass-catchers display when playing.
Given the uncertainty of the position and the natural questions that come about when switching roles in an offense, fans will be watching Webb’s development as a receiver—on and off throughout his career with the Vikings—to see if he can learn quickly enough to make an impact.
3. Will Rick Spielman’s Eye-Popping Draft Pan Out?
The Vikings made waves with their draft, grabbing three players in the first round—a steal, a good fit and a classic boom/bust prospect.
Grabbing the attention of every NFL draft analyst, the Vikings could very well turn out to have the best draft of 2013—or the worst. At this point, the coaching staff will be more important than the scouts when it comes to bringing out the talents of the young team the Vikings have built.
Training camp will be a critical time for both evaluation and teaching, as the rookies won’t just put their talents on display, but will also undergo the biggest growth period of their football lives.
Each of the picks has concerns heading into camp. For Sharrif Floyd, the Vikings will need to be confident that the reasons for his fall weren’t because of evaluations from better scouting departments.
Xavier Rhodes will need to prove he can operate in any system, while Cordarrelle Patterson will need to refine his game to an NFL level on a team that desperately needs a wide receiver.
The question they’ll all be answering is whether or not they can pay back the faith the Vikings have put in them, and with a bigger spotlight than most rookie classes, they’ll be a critical investment for the Vikings in the future.
4. Can Key Vikings Recover from Injury?
While the Vikings were remarkably lucky in avoiding injury in 2012—the second-healthiest team in the league, despite the midseason loss of Percy Harvin—they may not have the same luck again.
Therefore, it’s important that the Vikings proceed with injury recovery with the usual expertise that the training staff has displayed in the past.
Greg Jennings suffered from an injury-ridden 2012, but recovered at the end of the season to have productive games, including a 120-yard, two-touchdown performance. He’ll need to sustain that health if he’s to be an important contributor and avoid re-injuring his groin or knee.
Another wide receiver, Jerome Simpson, also played through injury problems. A pinched nerve in his back sidelined, then inhibited him throughout the season.
Of course, the poster child for a Vikings receiver hurt by injury is Greg Childs, who underwent surgery on both of his knees after a bilateral patellar tendon tear in training camp the previous year.
Knee injuries are common. Sharing knee issues with Childs is incoming rookie Michael Mauti, a linebacker from Penn State. After he tore both ACLs in previous years at Penn State, he re-tore his left ACL his final year and missed much of the season.
Mauti and Childs could both be big difference-makers for the Vikings, as both were talked about as first- or second-round picks before their injuries.
Even veterans like John Sullivan and Jared Allen aren’t immune. One of the NFL’s best centers had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason, and it isn’t an easy recovery. Jared Allen had a knee surgery as well, although the larger concern should be a shoulder injury that may have been responsible for limiting his production the previous year.
Mistral Raymond and Rhett Ellison had leg injuries this offseason, although they should be fine for training camp.
The Vikings are in somewhat of a precarious state, as those injured players either play a key role or could very well be critical in the near future for the Vikings. If a few players are slow in their recovery or re-injure themselves, their fortunes could turn south.
5. Who Will Grab Which Linebacker Spots?
The Vikings have an interesting battle for their linebacker spots.
Chad Greenway has the strong-side linebacker spot nailed down, but the middle and weak-side linebacker spots are nearly open season.
Erin Henderson was the presumed starter at middle linebacker before Minnesota signed Desmond Bishop, but even without Bishop’s move over to Minnesota, Henderson’s grip on the spot was tenuous.
Theoretically, whichever linebacker of the two doesn’t secure the middle linebacker spot will have the Will spot on the defense, but the rookies that the Vikings have signed are certainly intriguing.
If Mauti recovers quickly, his incredible talent might allow him to push for a starting spot, most likely in the middle.
His teammate at Penn State, Gerald Hodges, showed quite a bit of adeptness at pass coverage in his years in college and could find himself replacing a player at the middle linebacker—although he can play in the middle in a pinch.
With four capable linebackers potentially vying for two spots, the linebacker battle at camp is sure to be a compelling one.
6. Does the Secondary Continue Its Improvement?
In 2011, the Vikings ranked last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense ranks, based on their proprietary DVOA metric. This was a critical problem the Vikings needed to solve, and 2012 saw an improvement both because of increased talent and fuller participation from their starting players.
But that didn’t mean the defense was great either.
This past season, the Vikings ranked 24th in pass defense. Hardly impressive, but it shouldn’t be surprising, given that they allowed the 13th-most touchdowns per pass and grabbed the third fewest interceptions per pass last year.
Certainly, the addition of Harrison Smith and the improvement of Jamarca Sanford helped, as did Antoine Winfield's and Chris Cook’s increasing presences.
But with Winfield gone and questions with Josh Robinson, the Vikings will want Xavier Rhodes to have a big impact as soon as possible, especially since Chris Cook has yet to show his full potential or play a full season.
Josh Robinson will need to step up as well and prove that he can be more than just the flashes he’s shown so far.
Behind Cook, Robinson and Rhodes is Jacob Lacey, who looks to be an excellent nickel corner that could be critical depth for the Vikings.
Aside from those four, there are issues at cornerback, and Brandon Burton or A.J. Jefferson will have to look more comfortable or lose their spots on the team.
Marcus Sherels is a good punt returner, but he’ll be pushed by newcomers Roderick Williams and Greg McCoy as well as Bobby Felder, who was on the practice squad last year.
At safety, Jamarca Sanford could retain the starting spot after his good performance the year before, but Mistral Raymond figures to battle for the spot, as he was named the starter at the beginning of the previous season.
Harrison Smith’s former teammate, Robert Blanton, looked good in his limited time on the field. His transition from cornerback looks to be working smoothly, and he could lock down the fourth cornerback spot.
Behind him is special teams standout Andrew Sendejo, who earned a spot off the practice squad.
Undrafted free agent Brandan Bishop from North Carolina State should be able to challenge him for that spot, as should Darius Eubanks from Georgia Southern.
7. Will Adrian Peterson Repeat His Historic Season?
There are very few people who don’t believe that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in football. Even so, it should be difficult to repeat his 2000-plus-yard season.
No running back in history has repeated a 2000-plus-yard season, and that list predictably includes some of the NFL’s best runners in history. To say that Peterson is a lock for a repeat would be blinding oneself to history.
Nevertheless, Peterson’s extraordinary physical talents, determination and importance in the Vikings offense make it a possibility.
In order for the Vikings to give Peterson the opportunity to run at the record again, he would need to be closer to his 2012 average than his career average. At 5.0 yards a carry (his career total), he would need exactly 400 carries to get to 2,000 yards, a total he was closest to last year with 348.
If he’s closer to 5.5 yards a carry, he would still need just over 363 carries—a tall order (but exactly how many carries he had in 2008).
At camp, he’ll be scrutinized to see if he’s retained the patience he’s grown to have in these past few years as well as his fantastic vision.
But beyond that, fans and journalists will be looking to see if players like Toby Gerhart, in his contract year, get a greater share of the load, or if the offense will feature more passing than before.
From looking at the personnel sets to seeing the plays run most often out of practice, there will be dozens of small hints that will speak to Peterson’s ability to repeat. And Adrian himself has to look impressive again as well.
8. Who Will Step Up at Wide Receiver?
On offense, the Vikings look settled at every position but wide receiver.
It remains a fact that Greg Jennings has a starting job with the Vikings, but beyond that, the future looks murky.
Injury concern Jerome Simpson looks to have a spot among the top three wideouts, but that could easily change with significant improvement from the still-young Stephen Burton or a surprising return from Greg Childs.
Jarius Wright also looks to have a soft spot as a significant rotation receiver, but he is battling for a spot anywhere between the fourth receiver and the second receiver on the roster.
And controversial first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson will have to prove he has what it takes to bring his game to the next level despite only one year of top-tier college football.
If not Patterson, then Joe Webb might be able to step in and finally find a natural position as an NFL player. Otherwise, the team will have to look at their undrafted rookies to fill the gap.
With so much uncertainty at the position, the Vikings will need at least one player to step up and overcome the perception he's developed as a player.
It’s no guarantee that the Vikings' receiving corps has improved, and more than ever it looks like anything could happen.
There might not be anybody sure of the final receiver corps after all the smoke clears.