Minnesota Vikings Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
The start of training camp is an exciting time for any fan of the Minnesota Vikings.
It marks the beginning of a fresh season—a chance for this team to get back to the top of the NFC North and hopefully compete deep into the playoffs.
As reported by the folks over at Vikings.com, for the 49th time in a row, the team will be hosting their annual training camp in Mankato, Minnesota.
What's normally home to Minnesota State University, the Vikings will bring their entire roster with them, as they look to build a new brand of "post-Leslie Frazier era" football.
Head coach Mike Zimmer's first camp should be as entertaining as it is informative.
The task ahead of the 2014 Vikings isn't an easy one. The NFC North has become a hotbed for competition. The Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are juiced with talent and each franchise has an established quarterback leading the charge.
Searching for their own answer at signal-caller, the Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round of May's draft. Will he be the guy starting under center from day one?
It's time now to check out five storylines to watch for during training camp. From Bridgewater being named the starter to deciphering how the team's redesigned defense will function, it's going to be one intriguing summer of football in Mankato.
Kyle Rudolph and Norv Turner
It's easy to get lost in the sea of new faces that have taken over the spotlight since the Vikings' 2013 season ended.
But of all the names that have come over either via the draft or in free agency, tight end Kyle Rudolph may be the one who makes the biggest impact this season.
With Norv Turner taking control of the Purple and Gold's offense, Rudolph's role should drastically increase.
To get a feel for what we might see with Rudolph this year, let's quickly examine Cameron's impressive 2013 campaign through the eyes of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Adding up the total times PFF counted that Cameron was thrown at—109 times—if you divide that number by 16 games, the talented tight end averaged about 6.8 targets a game.
Compare that total to Rudolph's 2012 season—which resulted in a Pro Bowl appearance—and his average targets per game were around 5.3.
You can make the argument that these two guys are different types of tight ends. Rudolph is a bruiser who is a threat in the red zone, while Cameron is a unique athlete who has the ability to stretch part of the field.
Still, Turner's history with the tight end position is far too rich to ignore.
Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk put it best when he wrote, "The group of tight ends that Turner has coached to big seasons has a range of sizes and styles and he's been able to put them into the right spots to make the best use of their abilities."
Rudolph should be one of the team's biggest focal points on offense. His emergence not only will give whoever plays quarterback another big target to enjoy, but also could make the former Notre Dame standout a lucrative commodity in the world of fantasy football.
Watching how he's deployed in training camp will be a critical storyline for the future of this club.
Mike Zimmer's Defense
Coach Zimmer's biggest imprint on this team aside from changing the culture will be the knowledge he brings with him to the defensive side of the ball.
Zimmer processes football with a defensive pair of glasses draped over his eyes. He created a brutal unit during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals that finished last year as the league's No. 3 defense and No. 6 the season prior.
The Vikings desperately need a shot of confidence in that area. Last season was a total catastrophe that resulted in PFF (subscription required) dishing out their defense an atrocious minus-70.3 grade.
There is no survival in the NFL without a competent defense. Zimmer has been in this league long enough to understand that.
Unlike last season, the 2014 Vikings will be more eccentric and diverse. In his own camp preview piece, Vikings.com writer Mike Wobschall detailed one major difference we'll see when it comes to the defensive line in particular:
Personnel is not the only change the Vikings defensive front is experiencing in 2014, though. The group will use a new approach, as well. Previously, players such Allen, fellow end Brian Robison and Williams would play upwards of 80% of the defensive snaps. With new head coach Mike Zimmer's defense, expect more of a rotation to be used. Zimmer's defense will also ask players to be more versatile. Robison may stand up, [Everson] Griffen may slide inside, there will be snaps with just three down linemen instead of four, etc.
Adjusting the way this defense thinks is just as important as how it performs on the field. Setting the tone during training camp will be Zimmer's first real work of art heading into September.
The Anthony Barr Experiment
Teddy Bridgewater has been the recipient of all the media's hype, which has relegated the other first-round pick, Anthony Barr, to the back burner.
Even though he was selected 23 picks before Bridgewater, Barr's expectations have been somewhat tempered. But taking Barr No. 9 overall means that this coaching staff believes he can be a game-changer.
Physically, Barr has everything you'd want in an edge-rusher. He's explosive off the line of scrimmage, he has a great sense for getting after the quarterback and his 6'5" frame gives him enough size to cruise by offensive linemen and create big plays.
What's exciting about Barr isn't the skill we've seen him display during the time he spent with coach Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA. It's the fact that he's still an ultra-raw prospect, which means his ceiling is remarkably high.
If you watched Barr on film, you'd realize his most effective point of attack was engaging the quarterback from a standing position. Despite being more than athletic enough to put his hand in the dirt, Barr looked very comfortable as a 3-4 edge-rusher.
Maybe that's why Zimmer has vowed to keep him mostly in an upright position early on. All indications are pointing to the former Bruin becoming the Vikings' very own version of Von Miller.
Experimenting with Barr and finding ways to utilize his abilities is going to be a big part of Zimmer's success. He now has a guy in his stable who possesses a rare combination of size and speed.
Once he's groomed and developed the right way, it's not crazy to think that Barr will be the most awe-inspiring defensive player this franchise has seen since Jared Allen.
Adjusting to the Outdoors
Saying farewell to the Metrodome was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
The Vikings faithful who poured into that stadium countless times since it's inception in 1982 saw a lot of quality football played in that building.
Randy Moss' electrifying performances, Cris Carter crafting a Hall of Fame-worthy career and, of course, Adrian Peterson's rise to greatness were just part of the Metrodome's legend—as was 8 billion pounds of snow caving in the roof.
As they wait for a new stadium to be completed, the Vikings will spend the next two seasons playing outdoors in the frigid Minnesota air at TCF Bank Stadium.
The weather won't be an issue from September through the end of October, but once November comes rolling around, temperatures start to dip.
AccuWeather.com allows you to look at the historical averages for each November day. You'll notice on the calendar that the temperature can be a 10-degree difference from the end of October to the middle of November.
Around the league, cold weather is just part of the game. But when you have a team transitioning from playing indoors for such a long time, there naturally has to be some sort of adjustment period.
Seeing how the coaching staff prepares this club for that transition is an "under the radar" storyline to watch for this summer and well into the fall.
Will Teddy Bridgewater Start Right Away?
As fans, we've fought our way through the Christian Ponder years and last season endured Matt Cassel as our quarterback.
Cassel was serviceable, and his veteran experience is important to have in the locker room, but what fans really want is a true franchise quarterback.
It gets tiresome looking at the other three teams in the NFC North division and having to come to terms with the fact that they all have quality QBs leading their respective teams.
Teddy Bridgewater is now the next man up to bat. The former Louisville leader, who at times displayed everything you'd want in a prospect, saw his stock battered leading up to the 2014 draft.
Once perceived as the top quarterback in his class—and Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller's No. 1 overall player—Bridgewater wound up being selected after Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel—No. 32 overall.
As a first-round pick, it's difficult to imagine him not starting at some point this season. The real question is, will he start right away?
There's going to be an open competition at camp, that much we know. Coach Zimmer has gone on record telling the media, "From the day I walked in here, I said I want tough, intelligent, smart football players and I want competition at every position. To me, we're still competing, everybody's still competing for jobs," per Brian Hall of Fox Sports North.
The situation also appears to be a delicate one. "That's something I don't feel comfortable talking about," Bridgewater told Tom Pelissero of USA Today about dealing with the quarterback gauntlet ahead of him.
Even if Cassel is the favorite to retain the job, the biggest storyline during training camp is going to be about Bridgewater's ascent to the throne.