Minnesota Vikings: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
There is clearly a new vibe at Vikings training camp, as new head coach Mike Zimmer has immediately put his stamp on the proceedings. There is an energy and an expected raised level of intensity at a camp where so many starting positions and roster spots are on the line.
With a new coaching staff in place, even entrenched veterans are putting their best foot forward, because everyone wants to impress their new coaches.
Minnesota has spent four seasons mired in below-average play, struggling to a 24-39-1 record since losing in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
Zimmer's arrival has been the shot of adrenaline the franchise needed after the laid-back approach employed by former head coach Leslie Frazier.
The Vikings are a team with more questions than answers at this point, so with just over a week of training camp in the books, here are some things we've learned about them so far.
Zimmer's Coaching Approach Is a Welcome Change
Nothing against former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, but his laid-back, cognitive approach to NFL football wasn't working in Minnesota.
Under Frazier, the Vikings roster was top-heavy, with a few superstars and too many positions where the talent level was below average. A roster like that needed a proverbial "kick in the butt," and that's just not Frazier's style of coaching.
That doesn't seem like it will be a problem with Zimmer and his staff.
From day one in Mankato, there's been a sense of urgency that might have been lacking under the previous regime. Zimmer's style is more hands-on than Frazier's ever was, and the fact that he's willing to scream a little bit, along with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, has turned the intensity up at training camp, and that's never a bad thing.
It obviously doesn't hurt that there is competition all over the field for the Vikings, from the starting quarterback position to the last spot in the secondary, the position battles make for a spirited atmosphere that brings out the best in everyone.
Zimmer told Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune before camp opened that he wanted to leave camp as a, "disciplined and tough" team, and every practice in Mankato sees the Vikings headed in that direction.
Obviously there is a long way to go before Minnesota starts playing games that matter, but early indications out of training camp are that the Vikings will be a much more accountable team than they've been for the past four seasons.
The Starting Quarterback Is TBA
The Vikings' quarterback competition, regardless of what was said in June, has always been a two-man race between veteran Matt Cassel and rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater.
Early on in camp, Christian Ponder received fewer snaps and was relegated to playing with the second and third teams. Minnesota, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling, decided to admit that it was a two-man competition for the job last week.
Cassel has continued to get most of the first-team reps through camp, but Bridgewater has had more than his share, and to this point, neither has taken a clear lead in the proceedings.
As we've said here all along, with all things being equal, the job is Cassel's to lose. The only way Bridgewater will begin the season as the starter is if he proves without a doubt that the Vikings are a better football team with him under center.
What's been encouraging so far is that Bridgewater is much further along than might be expected from a rookie quarterback. Bridgewater has proved a quick study and will be given an equal opportunity to show what he can do with the first team during exhibition games.
As reported by Jonathan Lintner of The Courier Journal, NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly said, "Bridgewater looks good enough to start now."
The temptation is always to go with the youngster in situations like this. Bridgewater is clearly the Vikings' quarterback of the future, but it remains to be seen if he's their best option to start the season.
The good news for the Vikings is that with veteran coaches like Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner, you can be sure the coaches will take their time in evaluating both Cassel and Bridgewater and that they will start the guy who gives the team the best chance to win.
Anthony Barr Looks to Be a Difference-Maker
So while it remains to be seen if Bridgewater will open the season as a starter, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Vikings' other first-round pick, Anthony Barr, will start right away.
Minnesota practiced under the lights on Saturday night, and KFAN.com's Aj Mansour wrote that Barr was "easily the most impressive player on the field."
At 6'5", 255 pounds, with both speed and quickness, Barr stands out as a physical specimen on a football field. Most had Barr rated as a top-10 talent before the draft, but he began to fall on some boards the closer the draft got because he was thought of as too raw, having only played linebacker for two seasons at UCLA.
The Vikings, however, saw Barr as the answer to a lot of what lacked on their defense, and they were thrilled to select him with their first pick, the ninth overall selection in the first round.
Having been in Mankato, it doesn't take long to notice Barr. He's big, fast and moves with the athleticism of a skill position player (he began his college career as a running back). Barr has shown he can either outmuscle blockers or simply blow past them with his superior quickness.
Barr is a rookie, and he'll make mistakes, but he is clearly a player who will stand out on the Vikings defense. Minnesota has been slow at linebacker for far too long and lacked players who can make the "wow" plays that help set a defensive tone.
Yes, we're only a week-and-a-half into Barr's first training camp, but the top-10 pick looks to be a player with superstar potential and could be the backbone of the Vikings defense for years to come.
The Secondary Is Going After the Football
Whether it was a schematic deficiency, a lack of talent or just plain bad luck, the Vikings defensive backs have been terrible at generating turnovers over the past five seasons.
The Vikings secondary has intercepted just 21 passes over the last three seasons. The Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman has 20 picks in that time. Suffice it to say, that's an area new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knows needs to be fixed to help repair the Vikings defense.
Minnesota has ditched the Tampa 2 defense employed by the former regime and instead will use a variety of different schemes and looks under Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards.
Look for the secondary to be far more aggressive in coverage than they've been in the past. With Harrison Smith, Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes all in the starting lineup, Minnesota has three very active players who aren't afraid to mix it up against the run and have shown a nose for the football.
Smith has five career interceptions in just 24 games and Munnerlyn has seven career picks, and while Rhodes didn't make an interception as a rookie, he played the pass very well, getting better as the year wore on.
Competition for both starting positions and roster spots can be a very good thing in training camp. The Vikings secondary candidates are well aware that the team is eager to find players who can defend the pass, so making plays on the ball is a high priority for everyone in camp.
Rhodes made perhaps the best play of training camp so far on Saturday night, stretching full out for an interception, according to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com. Marcus Sherels, Derek Cox, Audie Cole and Chad Greenway have all made interceptions over the past four days as well.
The competition is still wide open to fill out Minnesota's secondary, and it's the players who can come up with the football who will separate themselves from a crowded field.
There Will Be Some Surprising Cuts
It's a new coaching regime in Minnesota, and with that will obviously come some sweeping changes.
Among those changes will be some personnel moves that will probably come as a surprise. It happens every summer at almost every training camp in the league: Some players will get cut that will surprise everybody.
For the Vikings, one player who seemingly might have been in trouble as camp opened was returning starting left guard Charlie Johnson. So far, Johnson doesn't seem to be in trouble at all, as he's taking all of the first-team reps and seems to be performing just fine.
All football coaches are keen on continuity in their offensive lines; it simply makes sense. When you know what the guy next to you is capable of and what his tendencies are, you can go about your own tasks with more confidence.
The Vikings have had the same five starters on their offensive line for consecutive seasons, and so far that doesn't look like it will change in 2014.
However, as reported by Derek Wetmore of 1500 ESPN, Norv Turner has expressed an interest at seeing what some of the younger linemen can do as training camp wears on.
Two players who would be pretty surprising cuts are fullback Jerome Felton and wide receiver Jerome Simpson. However, as reported by Aj Mansour of KFAN.com, both of them aren't getting the number of reps you would assume in training camp, which could be indicative of things to come.
Felton would surely be a casualty of a schematic change, where Minnesota might be looking for a fullback with a little bit of versatility to his game. He is purely a lead blocker. Simpson, on the other hand, could be facing a league suspension, and with that looming, the Vikings coaches might be looking to see if some other receivers on hand could be worth keeping instead.
Again, we're just over a week into camp. There are plenty of surprises to come.
The Kicking Game Is Ready to Go
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman used a pair of draft picks in 2012 and 2013 that might have raised some eyebrows at the time but look like very astute moves in retrospect.
In the sixth round in 2012, Minnesota took kicker Blair Walsh, who'd struggled during his senior season at Georgia. Walsh was spectacular as a rookie, making 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including 10 of 10 from beyond 50 yards. Walsh was 26-of-30 last season, including five more from beyond 50 yards.
The Vikings then took punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round in 2013, and after a slightly rocky start, Locke was excellent during his rookie season, averaging 44.2 yards per kick and putting 23 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
With the Vikings playing outdoors at home for their next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium, Walsh and Locke will be integral in the Vikings having an advantage in field position. Walsh's ability to hit deep field goals can certainly be an advantage, but he'll still have to prove he can do it outdoors while dealing with more elements.
Vikings.com writer Mike Wobschall reports that both kickers were in fine form during Saturday night's practice. Walsh was 8-of-8 with plenty of room to spare on every kick, including one from 53 yards. Locke was equally impressive, booting three 50-yard punts from deep in his own end zone.
Obviously things will be quite a bit different this year for Minnesota's kicking duo. TCF Bank Stadium will pose more problems than kickers ever had to deal with inside in the dome.
Spielman literally saw which way the wind was blowing over the past couple of drafts, and his two late-round picks have the Vikings successfully set up for the near future.