Minnesota Vikings: Projecting the Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
Although a majority of mock drafts had the Minnesota Vikings selecting one of the top three quarterbacks with their first pick in the 2014 draft, those who watch the team closely surmised that they would probably select a stud defensive player first, and then pick up a quarterback later on.
It turns out everybody was right.
New Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is a defense first guy, and Minnesota used its first pick of the Zimmer regime to select outside linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA. General manager Rick Spielman then traded back in to the first round for the second straight year and took high-profile quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville.
Those two join eight other draft picks and 15 undrafted free agents as the Vikings roster heads toward the summer with 90 players.
Here we'll take a look at where the most heated roster battles will be this offseason, both for starting positions and for spots on the final roster and the practice squad.
We'll rank the battles in order of importance based on how the results will impact the Vikings during the 2014 season. We'll consider the impact each player may have on the roster and who will be battling who for starting jobs and roster spots.
Quarterback: Matt Cassel's the Starter, Right?
The Vikings re-signed nine-year veteran Matt Cassel this offseason with the unspoken understanding that he would more than likely begin the 2014 season as the starting quarterback.
Cassel proved to be everything the Vikings hoped he would be when they signed him as a veteran backup before the 2013 season. The Vikings were hoping that Christian Ponder was the answer at quarterback, but he had shown far too many holes in his game for the team not to find a dependable veteran who could step in if Ponder faltered.
Ponder seemed to regress in his third season, and although Cassel wasn't fantastic, he was a big improvement and the team was 3-2 in games he started. Bringing him back for 2014 gave the Vikings options while trying to find their quarterback of the future.
The Vikings are now obviously hoping that Teddy Bridgewater is that quarterback of the future, but when that future begins is anybody's guess.
The company line out of Winter Park is that there is an open competition at quarterback.
The truth is that Cassel probably sits atop the depth chart heading into the summer with Bridgewater the probable No. 2 and Ponder as the third-stringer.
Considering that, the Vikings organization and all of their fans would be absolutely delighted if they opened the season in St. Louis on September 7 with Bridgewater under center.
The only way that will happen is that if Bridgewater completely outplays Cassel and Ponder over the summer and earns the job. It's not completely out of the question for a player who was considered one of the top three players in this year's draft class for the better part of a year.
Ponder will more than likely be the third quarterback in 2014. How he handles the role will go a long way toward determining his future in the league. If he proves to be a guy who can come off the bench and provide a spark, he'll have a future in a league that's starved for quarterbacks.
Summer Depth Chart
1. Matt Cassel
2. Teddy Bridgewater
3. Christian Ponder
Middle Linebacker: Audie Cole vs. Michael Mauti
It's more than likely that C.J. Mosley, the versatile middle linebacker out of Alabama, was on the Vikings' short list for defensive possibilities when considering their first pick.
Instead Minnesota opted for the high ceiling attached to outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr brings much needed speed and athleticism to the Vikings' linebacker corps and will almost certainly be in the starting lineup on opening day.
What became interesting as the draft unfolded is that Minnesota didn't draft any inside linebackers at all. That could be a good thing as the team is obviously excited about what they've seen from the two young middle linebackers on the roster, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti.
The Vikings did re-sign former starter Jasper Brinkley in the offseason, but after disappointing starting stints in both Minnesota and Arizona, he'll probably just be a depth player.
Both Cole and Mauti head into 2014 as unproven commodities. They're both late-round draft picks who are on the slow side, and neither one will wow you in any athletic measurable. What they are, however, are gritty, instinctual football players who just keep on making plays.
At 6'5", 239 pounds, Cole has ideal size for the position. He lacks a dynamic burst you'd like to see from your middle linebacker, but he's certainly made the most of every opportunity he's been given in Minnesota.
Mauti is another in a long line of Penn State linebackers who it just seems were born to play football. Mauti is a throwback type, a guy who just looks like a football player and wherever the action is on the field, you can bet he'll be in the middle of it.
The Vikings would be overjoyed if Mauti could develop into a linebacker along the lines of his fellow PSU alums, Paul Posluszny and Sean Lee.
We'll give Cole the edge heading into the summer, based on his extra year of experience, but expect this to be one of the hottest competitions in Vikings training camp.
Summer Depth Chart
1. Audie Cole
2. Michael Mauti
3. Jasper Brinkley
Left Guard: Charlie Johnson vs. Jeff Baca and David Yankey
Here's a way too early prediction: Vikings fifth-round draft pick David Yankey will open the season as the starting left guard.
The incumbent starter, Charlie Johnson, was re-signed in the offseason to a two-year deal. As ESPN.com's Ben Goessling noted on the re-signing of Johnson, he was disappointing in 2013, but there's always something to be said for continuity on the offensive line.
The Vikings were probably happy to be heading toward 2014 with Johnson battling second-year man Jeff Baca for the starting job at left guard.
They have to be a lot happier now with Yankey, who was projected by most as a second-round pick, joining the competition after falling to the Vikings in the fifth round.
At 6'5", 315 pounds, Yankey will bring ideal size to the middle of the Vikings' offensive line. A three-year starter at Stanford, Yankey brings size and smarts to Minnesota's offensive line corps.
To Johnson's credit, he's started in the NFL for seven straight seasons, but now at 30 years old, he might be better suited as a backup. Having said that, it'll be his job until someone takes it away from him.
Summer Depth Chart
1. Charlie Johnson
2. David Yankey
3. Jeff Baca
Safety: Jamarca Sanford vs. the Rest
Harrison Smith will start at free safety for the Minnesota Vikings. That's in ink.
Jamarca Sanford enters the summer as the starting strong safety. That's in lead. Very light lead.
The candidates behind Sanford include Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo and sixth-round draft pick Antone Exum out of Virginia Tech.
Exum is an exciting prospect in that he brings something that none of the returning players have in their description: ball skills.
Sanford, Raymond, Blanton and Sendejo are all very similar players, tough against the run, but below average against the pass. That just doesn't cut it in today's pass-happy NFL.
Exum is a muscular 6'0", 213 pounder who played both safety and cornerback at Virginia Tech but projects as a safety in the NFL. He's probably a better athlete than anyone he'll be competing against, but obviously he'll have to adjust to the speed and schemes of the NFL.
The Vikings defense simply has to create more turnovers for the team to get better. Their lack of interceptions from the secondary over the last five seasons has been galling, and they need players who can win the battle once the ball is in the air.
The Vikings are hoping Exum, who many thought would be drafted in the third round, will be a sixth-round steal.
Summer Depth Chart
1. Jamarca Sanford
2. Mistral Raymond
3. Antone Exum
Depth at Cornerback, Who Makes the Team?
There's really no doubt who the Vikings will have as their starting cornerbacks in 2014. Second-year man Xavier Rhodes showed great promise as a rookie, getting better and better as the year wore on and he has the look of a guy who could be a top-tier cornerback for years to come.
Captain Munnerlyn was signed in the offseason and he'll start at the other corner spot and slide into the slot in nickel packages.
It's beyond those two where the competition will be fierce for spots on the final roster.
The returners are speedster Josh Robinson, who was horribly miscast as a slot corner last season; Derek Cox, who is looking for a career resurgence in Minnesota after flopping in San Diego; and Shaun Prater, who's with his third team in three seasons.
Joining them in the competition will be a pair of rookies, Kendall James out of Maine and Jabari Price from North Carolina.
Both James and Price are undersized, but they both have plenty of speed and are very good athletes. As stated in the previous slide, the Vikings secondary needs to find more playmakers, so the newcomers will be given every opportunity to prove that they can make plays.
Robinson and Cox will probably battle for the third cornerback spot. Cox has proved that he can make plays at this level, with 13 interceptions in his five seasons, by far the most on the roster. Robinson showed some promise as a rookie and has all the speed you could ask for. He'll have to prove that 2013 was just a bump in the road.
The rookies will have to prove to have value on special teams to hope to stick on the roster.
Summer Depth Chart
1. Xavier Rhodes
2. Captain Munnerlyn
3. Derek Cox
4. Josh Robinson
5. Shaun Prater
6. Kendall James
7. Jabari Price