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Minnesota Vikings: Players Climbing the Depth Chart This Offseason

Bill HubbellContributor IJune 11, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Players Climbing the Depth Chart This Offseason

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    As the calendar creeps well into June, there are 90 players currently on the Minnesota Vikings roster. By the time the team opens the regular season in September, 29 of those players will be gone. 

    What happens over the course of the next two-and-a-half months will not only decide who gets those coveted roster spots, but who lines up where on the depth chart come opening day.

    A few of the players on the Vikings' current roster are complete long shots and realistically have very little chance of sticking. There are also 14 or 15 players who pretty much know they're going to be starters once the regular season rolls around.

    For the other 65 or so players on the roster, the battles for spots on the depth chart have already begun. The nice thing about being on a team that was 5-10-1 the previous year is that there are plenty of roster spots available.

    New head coach Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff bring fresh eyes to Minnesota, so everybody on the team will have to prove they belong all over again. June's OTAs won't see much movement on any positional charts, they're more just an acclimation period where everybody can get accustomed to faces and schemes.

    Things will change at the mandatory minicamp that will happen June 17-19. That's when the real jostling for position on all the depth charts will really start to take shape.

    For now we'll look at a few players we expect to make quick moves up the depth chart. The Vikings have plenty of intriguing positional battles lining up for this summer, and we'll take a look at who might have the inside edge in some of those battles. 

Linebacker Anthony Barr

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to play his way into the starting lineup. Although a first-round pick, Bridgewater has veteran Matt Cassel ahead of him on the depth chart, and unless Bridgewater is able to completely dominate the quarterback competition, he'll begin his career as a backup.

    A tie will go the veteran, Cassel.

    The same can't be said for Bridgewater's fellow first-round pick, linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA. 

    Barr was Minnesota's first pick in May's draft, the ninth overall selection, and he was drafted to step into the starting lineup.

    Barr's attributes are a mirror image of the characteristics the Vikings woeful defense was lacking in 2013. He's a speed linebacker and an edge-rusher who can put fear into defenses with his versatility. Jared Allen was the Vikings best pass rusher for years, but offenses at least always knew where he was and where he was trying to get to.

    With Barr, it will be a guessing game. He'll blitz often and from several different positions on the field. At 6'5", 255 pounds, with quickness and speed, Barr is a true hybrid player who will be capable of double-digit sacks and can be equally effective dropping into coverage.

    A former running back, Barr has exceptional football instincts, and although still relatively new to defense, he'll be counted on to immediately become an impact player on the Vikings defense.

    Fellow Vikings draft pick David Yankey, who faced Barr while playing for Stanford, had this to say to the Pioneer PressChris Tomasson:

    He's an awesome player. He's obviously a freak athlete. His first year at defense was both of our junior years. Since then, he's gotten so much better. You see those instincts and all that stuff, so it's really cool to see him develop.

    The Vikings know who two of their starting linebackers will be: Chad Greenway, the oldest player on the defense, and Barr, who will be the youngest starter.

Cornerback Derek Cox

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Vikings cornerback Derek Cox is hoping to turn his football story, which currently stands as a cautionary tale, into a redemptive success story in 2014.

    Signed to big money by the San Diego Chargers after four successful seasons in Jacksonville, Cox was a free-agent bust in San Diego, getting burned too many times and eventually getting benched late in the season.

    The Chargers thought they were getting a high-impact corner, who'd had four interceptions in three different seasons with the Jaguars. San Diego thought enough of Cox that they gave him a four-year, $20 million deal, with over $10 million guaranteed.

    Cox found himself in an unfamiliar system with the Chargers and never figured things out. The Chargers released him after the 2013 season.

    The Vikings, in desperate need for cornerback help, swooped in and signed Cox to a one-year "prove it" deal that will only cost them $780,000. That's chump change for a player whose 12 career interceptions immediately make him the career leader on the Vikings defense. 

    As Ben Goessling reports on ESPN.com, Cox is ready to redeem himself with the Vikings. 

    Cox will probably find himself in a positional battle with third-year man Josh Robinson, who had a decent rookie season but regressed badly in 2013 after trying to learn the slot corner position. Cox has experience and a resume on his side. Robinson is among the fastest players in the NFL, but he'll have to prove that he can utilize that speed into becoming a productive player.

    The Vikings' two starting cornerbacks will be Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn, but Munnerlyn will slide into the slot in nickel and dime packages, leaving plenty of snaps for a third cornerback.

    Cox is still just 27 years old, and Minnesota would love to see him return to the playmaker he was for the Jaguars. Reputation and resume won't win him the job, though. Making plays all summer will.

Guard David Yankey

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The Vikings may have gotten a real steal with fifth-round pick David Yankey, a 6'6", 315-pound road-grater out of Stanford. Yankey was projected by most draft prognosticators as a second-round talent, with the third round probably being as far as he would fall.

    Drafts are funny things, though, and Minnesota was delighted to see Yankey fall to them with the 145th overall selection. Yankey played left guard at Stanford in 2013, and that just happens to be the one offensive line position that Minnesota could use a big upgrade at.

    Incumbent Charlie Johnson will begin training camp as the starter, but look for Yankey to be pushing him for the starting spot pretty quickly.

    According to Ben Goessling at ESPN.com, Pro Football Focus had Johnson as the only Vikings offensive starter rated as "below average." 

    Yankey was a team captain at Stanford and brings the size and smarts that you love in offensive linemen. Make no mistake, Yankey will have to prove that he's the better player to beat out Johnson for the starting role, but we fully believe that he'll do so by September.

Wide Receiver Adam Thielen

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Last August, two rookie wide receivers shared a training camp room in Mankato, Minnesota with the Minnesota Vikings. One was Cordarrelle Patterson, the can't-miss first-round pick who lit up the NFL in his rookie season.

    The other was Adam Thielen, an undrafted free agent, who just happened to play his college ball in Mankato at the Division II level.

    While Patterson's athletic gifts put him in the tiniest percentage of the upper echelon, even among professional athletes, Thielen's fight to earn a roster spot with the Vikings is more of an everyman's struggle.

    Obviously, Thielen is no everyman, as very few football players ever get paid to play at the highest level. 

    But Thielen's struggle to make a name for himself in the NFL continues to be a long shot, after spending his first year on the Vikings practice squad. Thielen's work ethic, attitude and growth potential impressed the Vikings brass enough that he's on the roster again this summer and has a legitimate shot to make the team.

    That Thielen has made it even this far is impressive, considering his small-school background. Thielen had to pay his way to a regional combine last year, where he was picked to move on to super regional, as reported by Mark Craig, of the Star Tribune.

    Hard work and attitude are one thing, but if you can't play at the highest level, you're gone. Thielen is still with the Vikings and will be a part of a fierce battle for the fifth wide receiver spot on the roster that was held by Joe Webb in 2013.

    Thielen and fellow second-year man Rodney Smith, along with perhaps rookie free agent Kain Colter are the favorites to earn the spot. Thielen might be the leader in the clubhouse among the three, as he's proved to be a good route-runner with sure hands.

    Minnesota has enough downfield threats with Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright on hand. Thielen could fill the role of the dependable, possession receiver who excels at working underneath coverages.

Tight End A.C. Leonard

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Rookie free-agent tight end A.C. Leonard will be one of the more interesting players to watch as the Minnesota Vikings summer progresses.

    The 6'2, 250-pound Leonard opened plenty of eyes at the scouting combine, where he posted the fastest 40-yard dash time for tight ends, with a 4.50 run, including a very fast 1.51 10-yard split, per NFL.com

    Leonard played at Tennessee State, which isn't exactly the big time, but he was a highly recruited prep and spent a year at Florida before being dismissed after a misdemeanor battery charge. 

    What Leonard brings to the table for the Vikings are pass-catching skills. He's fast, knows how to get himself open and has soft hands. Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall reported that Leonard flashed right away at the rookie minicamp in May.

    Leonard will be behind the eight ball when it comes to blocking at the NFL level. He's undersized as it is and clearly didn't have to block NFL-caliber players at Tennessee State. 

    Kyle Rudolph is the Vikings' starting tight end. Behind him sit hybrid Rhett Ellison, who'll almost surely make the team, Chase Ford, who filled in nicely last season, and Allen Reisner, whose been through two training camps with Minnesota.

    While the three players behind Rudolph are all solid players, none of them have the ceiling that Leonard has as a pass catcher. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the Vikings will have a more complex passing offense, and Leonard might bring enough pass-catching ability to earn himself a spot on the team.

Safety Antone Exum

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    For the most heated positional battle on the Minnesota Vikings this summer, look no further than strong safety, where returning starter Jamarca Sanford will have to fight off an array of players looking to take his job.

    Lining up behind Sanford will be Mistral Raymond, who actually beat out Sanford for the job in 2012, before losing the job after an injury, Andrew Sendejo, who played tough down the stretch filling in for Harrison Smith, veteran Kurt Coleman, third-year man Robert Blanton and sixth-round draft pick Antone Exum.

    It's been written in almost every evaluation of the Vikings' defensive woes that they absolutely have to generate more turnovers. While Sanford, Raymond, Sendejo and Blanton have all proved to be tough players against the run, none of them have shown that they can be difference-makers against the pass.

    Enter rookie Exum, a converted cornerback out of Virginia Tech, who should end up challenging for a starting role by the end of the summer. 

    Exum was a highly regarded player before suffering a knee injury in January 2013. He only played in three games for Virginia Tech last season, which hurt his draft stock considerably.

    Healthy and a member of the Vikings now, Exum has the potential to be a late-round draft steal that every NFL team longs for. A muscular 6'0", 213 pounds, Exum should have no problem with the position switch and might thrive at strong safety.

    Where he'll be able to separate himself from the pack in the Vikings clogged up safety competition is in his pass defense. If he can make plays on the ball, he'll shoot up the depth chart.

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