Early Observations from Vikings Training Camp
With a week of NFL training camp in the books, writer and fans have speculated endlessly about the impact practices have had and what can be gleaned by the 20 or so snaps they've seen of the starters and the 10 they've seen from over 60 backups.
It's difficult to nail down anything concrete from a few days of training camp, particularly when it's difficult to even determine what the coaches or players are trying to do.
If a quarterback throws a lot of interceptions on deep passes, he might only be testing what his receivers can and can't do on 50/50 passes.
Nevertheless, even early sessions of practice can reveal critical details that will have long-standing implications throughout the NFL season.
The Vikings have allowed observers to take away several conclusions about the nature of the scheme that they will run this season.
I was able to make a number of observations while at Vikings camp, posting some as part of my daily training camp notebook, but it's easy to lose track of the larger takeaways in the shuffle.
Vikings fans anticipating the season can be sure of at least a few things as we take a look at a few training camp takeaways.
1. Greg Jennings Is the Real Deal
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Signing Greg Jennings late into the offseason well after the wide receiver market had been set could have been viewed as a desperate move for a player at a position of need who was on his last legs because he's "injury-prone" and aging.
There's value in being critical of signing big names, but the perception hides the truth.
Jennings played for one of the most injury-prone teams in the league and is moving to one of the least such squads over the past few years despite well-publicized injuries to Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson.
More than that, Jennings still played in over 85 percent of his games and produced 68 yards in receptions per game. In the past five years, he ranks 10th overall in receiving yards per game, making him a top-tier talent in the NFL, something many seem to have forgotten among the talent around him.
Watching Jennings in training camp has shown that the Vikings may have found their best pure receiver in quite some time, Randy Moss' brief tenure in 2010 aside. While Harvin may be the better football player, Jennings' brief time at camp has proven that he's a better undiluted receiving talent.
For a beleaguered corps that sorely needed a boost, Jennings' signing has already paid off in big ways. He's worlds apart from the other receivers at camp as a route runner, and that's not a criticism of the receivers on the roster. A young group, the Vikings' receiving talent will find its own development curve accelerated by Jennings' example and mentoring.
Given that there have been 45 1,000-yard receiving seasons for players older than age 28 in the last five seasons, there's also a good chance that his age concerns are overblown.
Jennings is the real deal and may help give quarterback Christian Ponder some of the weapons he was sorely lacking just a year ago.
2. The Secondary Has Improved
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In the small amount of time that the Vikings have convened in Mankato, Minn., for practice, they've already fielded a secondary group that has displayed more awareness, confidence and development.
At the same time last year, the secondary outside of Antoine Winfield was tentative and prone to error. Learning defensive coordinator Alan Williams' scheme wasn't necessarily complicated, but did require that the young corps develop more chemistry as they learned each other's assignments.
From that group, first-round pick Harrison Smith blossomed, putting together an excellent rookie year and looking to reinforce his growing reputation with an even better performance in 2013. The bigger surprise was Jamarca Sanford, who had a bad 2010 season and didn't even win the starting job in camp.
However, an injury to Week 1 starter Mistral Raymond put him on the field and he performed far above expectations.
Nevertheless, the Vikings were a middling pass defense, both by traditional measures and more complicated ones like Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which adjusts defensive efficiency for the opponents that a team plays.
But the defense has been on-point, and not entirely because the passing offense has been questionable thus far. While a good number of their splash plays have been because of poor decisions or poor throws, a number of forced turnovers for the Vikings have been generated by the defense due to heady play, despite missing their top cover corner from last year.
Chris Cook is playing more aggressively and taking calculated risks while Josh Robinson has massively improved in his footwork and receiver reads in a short amount of time. First-round pick Xavier Rhodes has some clear flaws, but should still help the team immediately while backup A.J. Jefferson has finally been able to convert his excellent intuition against receivers into ball awareness, deflecting even well-placed throws.
A confident group that has been playing with more comfort and skill is something the Vikings need if they want to win on the back of a strong defense and running back.
3. The Quarterbacks Still Need to Answer Questions
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No one expects a quarterback who's been facing questions to answer them in training camp, especially not the first week.
But other than a solid performance on Wednesday, the Vikings quarterbacks have been extremely bad. A questionable, but excusable, start to camp was followed by a worse performance and then capped with an ugly clinic on how to throw interceptions.
Whether it was a bad read or overthrowing a receiver on a simple crossing route, the turnovers piled up, becoming too numerous to count.
One bad day doesn't condemn Christian Ponder or the rest of the cast, but it does reinforce the worries that a number of Vikings fans have had entering the 2013 season.
Exiting last season with remarkably poor rate and volume statistics, Ponder couldn't silence detractors even with a 10-6 playoff run. More than that, a number of seasoned experts and smart evaluators felt that Ponder had not yet passed the eye test.
These concerns are more than fair and Ponder likely has one last season to prove he's a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL. So far in camp, he hasn't looked like he's shown progress and that's creating some worries.
4. The Vikings Are Adding New Offensive Concepts
While the defense has stayed fundamentally the same conceptually, the Vikings have added different wrinkles and innovations to their offense, the most obvious of which are snaps from the pistol formation—made famous for its easy read-option packages with Washington, San Francisco and Seattle.
They haven't practiced many read-option plays, which the pistol is known for, but that's not even the core of the offensive concept, just an extremely effective addition.
More importantly, it plays to one of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's biggest strengths—creativity and innovation. While they've had many plays in different or unusual formations for the NFL, the Vikings can employ some of the same concepts in the pistol formation, including modifying their already-effective "full house" or "diamond" formations to set the quarterback up five yards back, as pictured above.
They've also been working on more aggressive passing angles by encouraging tougher throws from Christian Ponder that will be more difficult to defend. While the Vikings are still maintaining an offensive philosophy that is designed to stress a particular zone or player in coverage, they are finding new ways to do so.
Perhaps this additional creativity will manifest itself in a more unpredictable and effective offense or propel Ponder forward in the passing game.
The Vikings have made aggressive schematic moves in training camp and are adding to one of the most creative running offenses in the NFL, despite not having a "running" quarterback.
5. Rookies Will Be Forced to Earn Their Spots
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The Vikings don't implicitly trust rookies.
They firmly believe the mantra that the NFL is a "prove-it" league. Even first-round draft picks consistently have to prove that they deserve to start, going back to finding a veteran quarterback and drafting Christian Ponder.
Harrison Smith moved his way up from third string on a notoriously poor secondary to becoming an impact starter. Among rookies in the Leslie Frazier era, only Matt Kalil started his first day in training camp with the first string.
Right now, Sharrif Floyd is taking snaps with the third team while Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson are with the second team.
There's been some movement since the first day of camp, and in the most recent session, Rhodes was alternating with Josh Robinson on the first team, serving as an outside corner in the first team's nickel snaps.
Floyd has looked explosive in drills, but the Vikings won't be comfortable moving a lineman up the chart until they see more snaps from him in pads.
That demonstrates accountability and reinforces to rookies that they can't coast because they haven't played a down of NFL football yet.
6. Erin Henderson Is Slowly Proving He Can Play Middle Linebacker
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Erin Henderson has been dogged with questions ever since the Vikings announced before organized team activities that he would play the middle linebacker position.
Not only would this be a transition from what many thought was Henderson's "natural" position at weak-side linebacker, but he hadn't really impressed observers with his play in pass coverage, a more-important responsibility than normal in the Vikings' scheme for their middle linebackers.
But camp has been marked with Henderson's explosive plays and tackling in the backfield, along with more than one pass deflection from the eager linebacker.
Henderson has been making a consistent impact at training camp and all indications are that this will translate to his play during the season.
More than that, he's demonstrated the responsibilities that come with manning the most important position on the defense at middle linebacker, making the calls and adjustments that the defense coordinator calls for and displaying on-field leadership.
There are still concerns that will never fully be addressed until the season starts, particularly because Desmond Bishop—the projected starter at outside linebacker—isn't up to speed on the system and will need to develop chemistry with Henderson as soon as possible.
But for now, Henderson has eased some concerns so that Vikings fans can feel at least a little more confident in filling one of the biggest holes of their defense from last year.