With the Vikings preparing for their first football action since a demoralizing exit from the playoffs back in January, the organization and its followers have been optimistic but uncertain about their prospects for 2013.
There are perceived improvements, but serious questions remain, as Vikings fans contemplate the weaknesses their team has at middle linebacker, wide receiver and potentially quarterback. The Vikings have a lot to figure out if they want to return to the playoffs this season.
The first preseason game won’t begin to answer the questions they have with the starters, but it could reveal how the Vikings have addressed depth concerns, particularly at the shallow cornerback and linebacker spots.
The Texans have intriguing players of their own that will be fun to watch against the Vikings, so the Friday game should at the least get the football juices flowing.
On offense, the Vikings will see many (but not all) of their starters play in the first two series. In those series, the offense shouldn’t merely put points on the board, but test themselves and attempt an explosive play or two. Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports the Vikings are willing to play a deeper passing game than before, and the first time they can showcase it will be on Friday.
Like last year, the offense may not unveil any new wrinkles to their game, so scouting for offensive tendencies won’t be helpful. Further, the Vikings are likely to limit Adrian Peterson, so it won’t be a complete litmus test for the offense. But at the very least, it should do a decent job of testing the passing game.
The defense will be playing against one of the most committed play-action offenses in the league, which shouldn’t just test their play-recognition capability (at every level of the defense) but their comfort at all levels of the game.
They shouldn’t just limit the play-action shot plays that the Texans are known for, but find ways to bottle the zone-running that Houston has become known for. Aside from Arian Foster and Ben Tate, undrafted running back Dennis Johnson looks to be Houston’s Bradley Randle—a shifty 5’7” runner with some toughness.
Without Desmond Bishop (who was taking second-team snaps in camp, anyway) or Jared Allen in the starting lineup—and perhaps limited looks for Erin Henderson, who had a minor issue at camp—there won’t be a complete test of what the defense can do. They can, however, begin to address concerns fans have developed in the offseason.
The Vikings are fairly set at wide receiver, and fans are understandably excited about a roster invigorated by Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, a potentially healthy Jerome Simpson and an emerging Jarius Wright.
But at the bottom of the depth chart, things are hardly settled.
The disappointing play of Stephen Burton puts his roster spot in question, and the transition of Joe Webb to receiver adds drama to the storyline.
Not only that, hometown hero Adam Thielen has looked impressive in camp and will probably delight with a few highlight catches. Perhaps drawing hasty comparisons to Cris Carter, it looks like his adjustment to the ball and hands are his greatest strength, although he’s dropped a pass or two as well. He needs to showcase his physical capability and hide his relative lack of technical refinement compared to other NFL receivers.
Rodney Smith is a 6’5”, 225-pound receiver from Florida State that never really lived up to his potential, having never put together a season of over 600 yards despite playing with two different first-round pick quarterbacks throughout his career. Known more as a height/weight/speed prospect, Smith has to put it together to grab a roster spot.
Luckily, his camp has looked good as well, so he should provide an interesting challenge to Joe Webb and Stephen Burton.
There isn’t a lot of ambiguity over the starters at cornerback—Xavier Rhodes will be expected to start, with Chris Cook across from him and Josh Robinson in the nickel.
But behind them is a gray area.
Jacob Lacey was expected to be the second-team nickel corner, but has been rotating with Bobby Felder and Marcus Sherels at practice. Greg McCoy and Roderick Williams haven’t been expected to compete for a roster spot, but both have made a push to move up—Williams more than McCoy.
Brandon Burton has been working on the outside as well, but has struggled in practices as of late. A.J. Jefferson would be the primary backup on the outside, but he’ll be out because of an injury sustained during practices.
There’s definitely a lot of upside to be had with the backups on the roster—Burton is an intelligent player, and Jefferson has been making great strides in camp. Williams has a natural instinct for coverage, while McCoy is an athletic receiver with returner capability.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Marcus Sherels has looked like an NFL-worthy cornerback, and in several practices to boot.
While grabbing a few interceptions, it looks like he’s a better fit to play defense this year than last. If he can put it together in the preseason, he’ll likely earn a spot as the backup corner, as well as punt returner.
The Vikings have two rookie linebackers, Penn State alumni Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, as well as a draft pick from the previous year in Audie Cole. Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie have only one more year of experience than Cole.
With so many new linebackers in such a short span of time, there’s reason to believe that chemistry could be an issue. They haven’t put together the type of resume that speaks to their NFL capability, and this preseason game will test them as much as anybody.
Fans should expect to see quite a lot of them, as they’ll be competing for scarce space. Last year, the Vikings kept seven linebackers on the roster and could choose to keep six this time around. Ten players, including the recently re-signed Stanford Keglar, will be competing for those spots. With Desmond Bishop, Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson functionally guaranteed three of those spots, the competition looks even stiffer: seven competing for three or four spots.
Larry Dean is a quick, somewhat undersized special teams standout, while Marvin Mitchell has taken the first team’s spot at weak-side linebacker as Bishop learns the defense.
Tyrone McKenzie is expected to make his way on to the roster as a special teamer as well, although he might be the first casualty of keeping both middle linebackers Audie Cole and Michael Mauti.
Mauti has been well-documented at this point, as a high-rising draft prospect whose stock plummeted after a third ACL injury. Audie Cole is a bit of a fan favorite whose splash plays in the preseason drew a lot of attention. After having had most of his reps in camp as the second middle linebacker on the roster, he could be considered a lock—but he needs to prove he’s more than his scouting report.