Minnesota Vikings Veterans Who Have Been Put on Notice This Offseason
All you have to do is look at the 2014 Minnesota Vikings and you'll immediately recognize that this isn't the same team that hobbled to a 5-10-1 record a season ago.
For the first time in years, there's been a dramatic shift in the team's culture. Rookie head coach Mike Zimmer has come into this organization and shaken things up.
Make no mistake about it, this is a fresh start for the Vikings.
The sanctuary they called home for years is now nothing but shards of concrete and memories. Instead, this team will venture out into the crisp Minnesota air and play their next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium.
Thanks to free agency and the draft, the Vikings starting lineup won't look anything like it did last season.
Louisville signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater is poised to take over as the next franchise quarterback, while Zimmer has quietly come up with a way to terrorize his foes in the NFC North—it starts with an abundance of pass-rushers.
Positional battles in camp should reign supreme as long-time veterans have now been put on notice. Here's a look at five guys who will have to compete in the coming months if they want to keep their starting jobs.
QB Matt Cassel
The Vikings' quarterback situation has finally been resolved—at least on paper.
Rick Spielman's decision to trade back into the first round of the draft for the third year in a row brought Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater to Minnesota.
Once considered the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback in the entire 2014 draft class, Bridgewater's stock tumbled during the offseason.
NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock went from putting Bridgewater ahead of guys like Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles during the 2014 combine, to ranking him alongside Zach Mettenberger as the fifth-best quarterback prospect right before the draft got underway.
How Bridgewater turns out as a pro could be just as compelling of a story as Manziel. But for now, all we know is that Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel has officially been put on notice.
This offseason, the front office put an end to the whole Christian Ponder experiment when they chose to re-sign Cassel to a two-year deal, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
Cassel was never going to be a permanent fixture for the Purple and Gold. However, his previous experience made him the ideal stand-in candidate until the next franchise quarterback came rolling through the front door.
That door has now been blown open and Bridgewater is the man walking through it.
Even if you believe in your heart that Cassel's experience makes him the team's No. 1 option heading into the season, head coach Mike Zimmer isn't exactly sold on that theory.
Talking to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune, Zimmer said, "Teddy will play when we feel like he's ready, if he's the best guy, which we hope that he will be."
Training camp's biggest storyline right now is going to be watching Cassel try to delay the inevitable: Bridgewater taking over as the team's starting quarterback in 2014.
CB Josh Robinson
Last season, the Vikings shifted cornerback Josh Robinson from covering guys on the outside over to the slot.
Replacing the iconic Antoine Winfield, Robinson was not only forced to learn a brand new position, but he was also asked to fill the void the veteran defensive back left behind.
The result of that experiment was tragic.
Robinson was constantly harassed by defenses like Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. the McMahon family. To add insult to injury, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he finished last season as the 99th-worst cornerback in the NFL.
How do you grade out that low? By allowing opposing wide receivers to catch 84.7 percent of their passes for 716 yards and three touchdowns over the course of just 10 games.
The plight of Robinson has been well-documented.
To replace him in the slot, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman brought in free-agent cornerback Captain Munnerlyn earlier this offseason.
Even though Robinson is back where he belongs, his snap count is going to depend on how some of the other cornerbacks on this roster perform.
Robinson will have to make a serious charge this summer if he wants to get his career back on track. Any sort of lingering issues from last season may finally bring an end to his time as a member of the Vikings.
OG Charlie Johnson
The Vikings have all of the components necessary to be one of the most effective and dominant offensive lines in the NFL.
It's starts with a talented pair of tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt and transitions over to center John Sullivan and guard Brandon Fusco.
There is, however, a weak point.
Left guard Charlie Johnson—a converted tackle—hasn't been the sturdiest member of the Vikings offensive line since joining the team in 2011.
Using PFF as an index, Johnson has spent back-to-back seasons with negative grades in both pass and run-blocking situations.
Hitting the free-agent market this offseason could have given the Vikings a graceful way out of the whole Johnson situation. Instead, they decided to re-sign the veteran to a two-year deal worth $5 million, per Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.
The problem with Johnson is always going to be his lack of production. Don't get me wrong, continuity is great. But being the weakest link on a potent offensive line makes you stand out like sore thumb on tape.
Luckily, the Vikings brass may have found his replacement in Stanford rookie David Yankey.
Yankey fell into the fifth round before Spielman decided to make a run at the 6'6", 315-pounder. If you believe in comparisons, you're going to love what Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t CBSSports.com) had to say about the former Stanford Cardinal.
Brugler believes that Yankey resembles New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs. "Yankey and Grubbs are comparable due to their natural abilities to open up holes in the run game and make it look easy with athleticism and strength," Brugler wrote.
Yankey turning into Grubbs would be a dream come true for this offense.
Of course, that's not a given.
The battle at left guard will be one of the highlights to watch this summer. Can the rookie outwork the veteran? Or will Johnson once again find a way to hold down his position for another year.
S Jamarca Sanford
There's been a common misconception when it comes to Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford.
Granted, Sanford may not be the same type of player that his counterpart Harrison Smith is, but the notion that he can't contribute has been overblown.
If you take the time to dig deeper into what Sanford has actually done on the field, those criticisms should be reduced to a dull roar.
According to PFF, in 2013, Sanford was out there for 83.7 percent of the team's defensive snaps. He also finished last season as the PFF's 34th-ranked safety, just a few grading points behind Aaron Williams of the Buffalo Bills and long-time Oakland Raiders veteran Charles Woodson.
The most surprising statistic of all comes when you compare him to New Orleans Saints rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro.
Even though Vaccaro was shifted around, thanks to the creative hand of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Vaccaro and Sanford wound up positing identical grades in pass defense—a positive-2.3 mark.
Sanford isn't an All-Pro caliber safety by any means. But he's a willing contributor who played well at times last season.
The problem for Sanford right now is going to be how well rookie Antone Exum performs in the coming months.
Exum is a bit of an anomaly. His skill set allows him to line up as a nickel cornerback as well as safety.
The former Virginia Tech Hokie explained how the Vikings want to use him this season to Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune:
They see me as a hybrid type guy. I am just ready to get on the field and contribute in any way I can with whatever they want me to do. It is primarily going to be safety, if that is what they need me to step in and do, then that is what I will do. I am just trying to get on the field as quickly as possible and help us win games.
Sanford is still a valuable piece. Especially when you consider that he restructured his contract to make about $750,000 less than he was scheduled to, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Figuring out who gets to play alongside Smith is going to be another battle to watch for in camp.
DE Brian Robison
Brian Robison is an absolute gamer. He's proved time and time again that he's willing to go out, put his hand down in the dirt and compete.
Robison's efforts were rewarded last season when he signed a four-year extension worth $28.3 million, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today.
It's important to remember two things about the deal. For starters, Spielman signed him when Leslie Frazier was still in charge of the roster. Secondly, the Vikings added pass-rusher Scott Crichton from Oregon State in Round 3 of the draft and Corey Wootton during free agency.
That doesn't mean Robison's time in Minnesota is over—far from it. It just means at 31 years old, his role could be reduced when Crichton and some of the other guys start to get familiar with Zimmer's defensive scheme later in the year.
Speaking of a new scheme, according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Robison will remain at left defensive end this season.
For now, look for Crichton and Wootton to be used more in "NASCAR" packages—"NASCAR" is a type of speed package that usually results in four defensive ends lining up as the team's down linemen in passing situations.
Robison has been a staple of the Vikings defensive line. That's why this is more of a long-term notice that's being tacked up on his locker.
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