Minnesota Vikings: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp

Bill HubbellContributor IJuly 14, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings will begin training camp in Mankato, Minnesota, at the end of next week. And although all eyes will initially be on brand-new head coach, Mike Zimmer, there will be plenty of other storylines to follow.

    The team's most important player will once again be Adrian Peterson, the workhorse running back who remains the biggest difference-maker on Minnesota's roster. While it's true that the need for having a star running back has lessened over the last decade, having one like Peterson can still win you some ballgames.

    Peterson is the starter at running back and the team's fulcrum, no questions asked. 

    The next most important player for Minnesota will be the quarterback, whoever that might be. The Vikings will enter training camp with veteran Matt Cassel penciled in as the starter.

    But as reported by ESPN.com's Ben Goessling, Minnesota's coaches have stressed that it's an open competition for the starting job between Cassel, rookie Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder.

    While the battle for the quarterback spot will garner the most attention, there are several other positional battles that are wide open as the Vikings get set to begin camp.

    Here, we take a look at each position that will have an open competition for the starting role, and how things might shake out by the time Week 1 rolls around.

Quarterback: The Veteran, the Rookie and the Borderline Bust

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Vikings haven't had a quarterback ranked in the top 20 in almost any meaningful statistic since Brett Favre's glorious 2009 season.

    Minnesota drafted Christian Ponder in 2011, hoping that he would be the long-term answer at quarterback. After three seasons, it appears that not only is Ponder not the answer, but he also doesn't understand the question.

    Barring anything completely unseen at this point, Ponder will be the third-string quarterback at the beginning of camp and throughout the season.

    That leaves the battle for the starting quarterback job between nine-year veteran Matt Cassel and rookie first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater. 

    It's not exactly an even competition. Bridgewater will have to clearly demonstrate that the team has a far better chance of winning football games with him on the field than anybody else. That's not exactly easy to do in the course of one training camp and exhibition schedule.

    But it's certainly doable.

    Cassel can be a very solid quarterback, but he's not a star. He has a career quarterback rating of 80.5, which is nothing more than middling. When he's played on good teams with great players around him, he's done very well. On bad teams, he's been below average.

    Bridgewater will come to camp as the fan favorite because he's the unknown. Door No. 3 is always the most exciting option when you've already seen what's behind the first two doors, and neither one of them is that great.

    Bridgewater probably has a better chance than most rookies to excel right off the bat because he's a football junkie. He's a student of the game who soaks up everything around him. The daunting learning curve faced by anyone jumping from college quarterback to the NFL won't be quite as severe for Bridgewater.

    He's never taken long to earn the starting quarterback job, either. He started as a sophomore at a powerhouse high school in Miami and took over the starting role at Louisville just three games into his freshman season. Of course, you could say all of those things about Matt Barkley, too.

    The best thing the Vikings have going for them as far as their quarterback battle goes is that the decision-makers, Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner, have seen it all before and will judge the players with discerning eyes. They'll pick a starter simply based on what's best for the team.

    The guess is that Cassel will at least hold off Bridgewater through training camp and begin the season as the starter.

    Fair or not, however, Cassel will be judged on every performance. If his play falters at all along the way, and Bridgewater looks better and better in practice, the coaches won't hesitate to give the rookie a chance.

Strong Safety: Who Can Go Get the Ball?

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    ANDY CLAYTON-KING/Associated Press

    Turnovers change football games. Giving your offense an extra possession or two during the course of a game can often be the difference between winning and losing.

    The Vikings secondary simply just hasn't generated enough turnovers over the last five seasons. Last year, Minnesota's defensive backs had six interceptions on the season. The Seattle Seahawks secondary had 22. 

    Harrison Smith will start for the Vikings at free safety. Who starts next to him is anybody's guess heading into training camp. As ESPN.com's Ben Goessling reported in May, Mike Zimmer will be looking for players who can defend the pass.

    The incumbent starter is Jamarca Sanford. Sanford is one of the vocal leaders on the Vikings defense and is very strong against the run. He's certainly not a liability against the pass (see the above link), but he has just two interceptions in 70 career games. That's just not good enough.

    Battling Sanford for a starting safety spot will be a slew of other players, who all have similar qualities. Tough against the run and a bit below average against the pass is a fitting description for all of the following: Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Kurt Coleman and Andrew Sendejo.

    Coleman leads the group with seven career picks, but he's never had more than five passes defended in a season. And he didn't have any in 15 games for the Philadelphia Eagles last year.

    Minnesota drafted Antone Exum in the fifth round this May with the hope that he can be the type of playmaker the Vikings have lacked in their secondary.

    Exum played cornerback last year at Virginia Tech but has safety experience. He has a muscular frame and can hit like a safety, but he also has ball skills that are better than the rest of the group against which he'll be battling.

    This positional battle will be nothing less than a free-for-all at training camp. All of the players will be given plenty of opportunities to show what they can do. With all of them being very similar against the run, the guy who can make some plays against the pass will have the edge.

    Sanford and Blanton are probably the front-runners to win the job heading into camp, but that could change from practice to practice. The situation is pretty simple: If you want the starting job at strong safety, then go out and get some picks during training camp.

Middle Linebacker: Who Can Help Set Up 3rd-and-Long?

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    We spoke of running backs being marginalized over the past decade in the NFL. The same can be said for middle linebackers as well.

    With nickel and dime packages being so prevalent in a league where defenses have to concentrate on stopping the pass first and foremost, the idea of the old-school, Ray Lewis-type middle linebacker is one that's fading.

    Obviously, the league still has stars at the position like NaVorro Bowman, Luke Kuechly and Paul Posluszny. Not only are those guys tackling machines, but they defended an eye-opening 24 passes combined in 2013.

    Minnesota will have a three-man battle for their starting middle linebacker spot between Jasper Brinkley, Audie Cole and Michael Mauti. Brinkley was the Vikings starter in 2012 before heading off to Arizona where he had a disappointing season as a backup.

    Cole and Mauti are similar players in that neither one of them is going to knock your socks off with their athleticism. But both of them just seem to have a knack for knowing where the ball is going and how to disrupt plays. They have what all good linebackers at any level have: great football instincts.

    While all three players were late-round draft picks, Mauti might have the best pedigree of the three. He was a tackling machine at Penn State, but a series of knee injuries dropped his draft stock. If he can stay healthy, he might be the best bet to win the starting job.

    It'll be interesting to see how much rotating Zimmer does among his linebackers. The bet is that Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr see the most snaps among the group and are joined by Gerald Hodges and whomever of the three guys listed here can separate themselves. 

Left Guard: Can the Veteran Hold off the Rookie?

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    When the Vikings plucked Stanford guard David Yankey early in the fifth round of May's draft, the universal reaction was: "That's a steal." 

    Yankey had been projected as a second- or third-round talent heading into the draft.

    Yankey, a three-year starter at Stanford, is a smart, dependable player, who at 6'5" and 315 pounds, has nearly ideal size for an NFL guard.

    He played all over the line at Stanford but spent most of his career, including all of his senior season, at left guard.

    It just so happens that left guard was the weakest spot on the Vikings offensive line in 2013. Veteran Charlie Johnson's play declined to the point where he might not be good enough to start in the NFL anymore.

    Johnson will begin camp as the starter, but look for Yankey to prove pretty quickly that he's the better player.

    Yankey, a captain at Stanford, should be able to adjust to the professional level fairly soon and could be an ideal piece between center John Sullivan and left tackle Matt Kalil.

    For Johnson to hold on to his starting spot, he'll have to show in camp that he can bounce back from a subpar 2013 season. The smart guess is that his experience and savvy won't be enough to hold off Yankey's superior talent and younger legs.

The 3rd Corner Spot

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    The Vikings know exactly who their two starting cornerbacks will be: second-year man Xavier Rhodes and free-agent signee Captain Munnerlyn.

    Where things get interesting, though, is who will be the next corner on the field. Minnesota is bringing 10 cornerbacks to camp and they all have a variety of skills and attributes, which should make for a torrid competition among the other eight players.

    When Minnesota goes to nickel and dime packages, which is likely on more than 50 percent of snaps, Munnerlyn will slide into the slot corner position. With his compact, muscular frame, Munnerlyn is a natural fit for the slot and will remind Vikings fans of Antoine Winfield's stellar play at the position.

    On paper, it would seem the most likely candidate to be the third corner is Derek Cox, the five-year veteran the Vikings signed to a free-agent deal in March after he was waived by the San Diego Chargers

    Cox had three total four-interception seasons while with the Jacksonville Jaguars and was signed to a mammoth deal by the Chargers before the 2013 season. But he was a huge disappointment in San Diego.

    At 6'1" and 195 pounds, Cox has good size and has proved he has good ball skills during his career. Just as we said at safety, the Vikings are looking for players who can make plays on the ball and generate turnovers. If Cox can shake off last season, he could be a free-agent steal for Minnesota.

    Josh Robinson will try to live up to the promise he showed early in his rookie season in 2012 when he had two interceptions. Robinson is one of the fastest players on the Vikings roster, but he'll have to put the 2013 season behind him when he failed miserably trying to play the slot corner.

    The Vikings have two 2014 draft picks, who should both compete for roster spots. Kendall James, a sixth-round pick out of Maine, and Jabari Price, a seventh-rounder out of North Carolina, both have enough upside to stick.

    James might be the best athlete the Vikings have at the position, but at just 180 pounds, he'll have to prove he can handle the physical demands of the NFL.

    Price is a rough-around-the-edges prospect, who can hit and play the ball in the air. One would think that either of these two could land on the practice squad if they don't make the active roster.

    At 5'10" and 175 pounds, Marcus Sherels probably has no right to be an NFL player. He's an undersized punt returner who lacks ideal speed. He's been on the "probably going to be cut" list during every one of his four seasons in the league. 

    All of which only highlights what a phenomenal season Sherels had in 2013, setting a Vikings record with a punt-return average of 15.2 yards.

    Sherels has shown marked improvement every year in the league, both as a returner and as a corner, and it would be a complete surprise if he didn't make the final roster.

    That leaves Shaun Prater, Julian Posey and Robert Steeples as the long shots to make the team.

    However, as anyone who's watched Minnesota over the last five years knows, this is a team that's starved for interceptions. Any player who can make plays against the pass in training camp will have a shot at making the team.