Minnesota Vikings Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
Without question, this new era of Minnesota Vikings football we are about to usher in is exciting.
General manager Rick Spielman has done his part in giving this roster another shot of confidence. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been chosen to solve all of the Vikings offensive troubles, while linebacker Anthony Barr's freaky athleticism could make him the NFC North's next big thing on defense.
But what about all of the other rookies? How have they fared?
As training camp continues to move along, we have gotten the chance to see all of these young men in action. Using a bevy of media reports and countless information we've accumulated from some of the top analysts out there with boots on the ground, it's now time to unveil our rookie progress reports for 2014.
LB Anthony Barr
Coach Zimmer is looking for Anthony Barr to do his best Von Miller impersonation this season, and why wouldn't he?
Barr was the one defensive prospect not named Jadeveon Clowney to come out of the 2014 draft with the highest ceiling. At UCLA he flashed amazing potential. He was aggressive, constantly successful got after the quarterback and clearly had all the physical features you'd want in a "new-age" linebacker.
It may have been a blessing that the Vikings elected to jump back into the first round of the draft and take Teddy Bridgewater. The quarterback position will always command more attention than any other, which has spared Barr from the wrath of the mainstream media.
Without that spotlight shining down, Barr has been impressive during camp. Coach Zimmer appears to be infatuated with the potential of his rookie pupil.
Brian Hall of Fox Sports North wrote, "The No. 9 overall pick in the draft, Barr has a 'strong' chance to start in Week 1, Zimmer said."
"Anthony has so many good things going for him," Zimmer told Hall. "He's extremely smart. He hardly ever makes the same mistake twice. He takes unbelievable notes, and he's a great athlete. He's got great size, great speed, great acceleration."
The real fun begins during the preseason. Watching him try to get after the quarterback is just one part of what fans will be looking for. Another major element is going to be figuring out how exactly Zimmer is going to use him.
We talked about him becoming Von Miller—a 4-3 linebacker who rushes the quarterback—but with Barr's athletic prowess, Zimmer may choose to get even more creative with him.
Barr's progress report so far has been stellar. Going by Zimmer's comments, all signs are pointing to the rookie having a big year.
QB Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy Bridgewater is being tested in camp. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is using those tests to find out exactly what this young man is made of.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Bridgewater has been sharing first-team reps with Matt Cassel. As is the case for most rookies, No. 5 has gone through his ups and downs. Despite that, Turner isn't concerned.
"There's a lot of things we're doing with Teddy that we would never call in a game," Turner told Ben Goessling of ESPN.com. "We're trying to find out where he's at in terms of what he can do. I think he's playing at an awfully high level."
The ceremonial passing of the torch from Christian Ponder took place when Bridgewater was drafted in May. Cassel may be listed as the team's starter right now, but in today's NFL, rookie quarterbacks aren't sentenced to the bench for long periods of time.
Like Barr, the preseason will be the first chance to catch a glimpse of the Bridgewater Era. Though it won't tell the whole story, we will start to get a feel for Turner's offense and how the young quarterback fits into it.
Bridgewater may not bring the house down like fellow rookie signal-caller Johnny Manziel, but for Vikings fans, he is the most important piece of the team's 2014 draft.
If training camp is any indication of the progress he's made, we could see TB take the field sooner rather than later, and he's just fine with that. "I've been playing football since I was five years old. I've just been waiting on this moment," he told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press about getting to see his first live game action.
DE Scott Crichton
The first true "hand-in-the-dirt" edge-rusher to be drafted during Zimmer's tenure as head coach was Scott Crichton out of Oregon State.
"Like Robison, Crichton isn't an elite athlete, but he takes full advantage of the traits he does possess and plays with a terrific motor. At worst, he should emerge as a quality member of the rotation early in his career and could develop into a quite effective complementary pass-rusher," Rang wrote.
Based on the information that's been spilling out during camp, Rang's initial report seems to be on the money—especially the part about him being in the rotation early. "He is a very try-hard guy, which I like that. He hasn't made a lot of mistakes...He has a chance to get into the rotation," Zimmer mentioned, per Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press.
"He thinks I'm going to be in the rotation? That makes me feel good," Crichton said when he found out what Zimmer told the press about his play on the field.
Crichton has a way to go before he can become a starting edge-rusher, and that's fine. Being selected in the third round of the draft gives him the luxury of being eased into that role. But no matter who you talk to, he's looked strong this summer.
Eric J. Thompson of the Daily Norseman attended camp and shared his thoughts on Crichton:
This guy did one thing as good as anyone in camp: get around the edge in a hurry. He has an amazingly quick first step and is a nightmare for any tackle trying to stop his speed rush. But he still needs to add more moves to his repertoire if he wants to get serious playing time. NFL teams will be able to just let him run outside and past the play unless he can sharpen his technique. That said, his potential is incredibly exciting.
Crichton's development is a major part of this youth movement taking over the defensive line. Lucky for him, he can't have a better guy in his corner than Zimmer to show him the ropes.
RB Jerick McKinnon
Jerick McKinnon gets the honor of being named the most surprising pick of the Vikings 2014 draft class. He was a difficult player to judge coming out of Georgia Southern because he played some option quarterback as well as halfback.
But under Coach Turner, the pieces of the McKinnon puzzle have finally started to assemble, leading the way for a little more clarity in all of our lives.
Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com reported that McKinnon has started to show signs of becoming a complete runner: "The inside running ability has indeed been impressive. He scored two touchdowns in a goal-line period during the Vikings' first evening practice and consistently displays good vision when approaching the line and choosing a hole through which to dart."
Turner has historically gotten running backs involved in the passing game. Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse wrote a brilliant piece, detailing how Turner has always used halfbacks to catch passes and rush the ball successfully wherever he's coached.
That bodes well for McKinnon. His speed and ability to make defenders miss in the open field should allow him to thrive in the passing game—assuming Adrian Peterson ever comes off the field.
We knew because of his lack of experience playing the position that McKinnon would have some work to do when it came to shoring up his pass protection. That still seems to be an ongoing issue.
Coach Zimmer told the media, per Wobschall, "We’re obviously working very hard on him in pass protection because in some of the situations they’re going to try to get big guys on him. He’s going to have to muscle up and be good in protection."
These opening weeks of training camp have basically been what most people expected to see out of McKinnon. He's raw, has a ton of athletic talent and is competing to take carries away from Matt Asiata on the depth chart.
The one tidbit that has emerged from Mankato, Minnesota, is the news that he's been working on special teams as well, per Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN.com.
OG David Yankey
David Yankey is one rookie who couldn't get a jump on his career with the Vikings until a bit later during the whole rookie process.
Why, you ask? Well, as Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star Tribune highlighted, Yankey missed time because he was finishing up final exams at Stanford.
That news is disappointing if you're a Vikings fan who has had to endure the pain of Charlie Johnson over the years at left guard. Johnson may get praised because he's a veteran, but if you go by what Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has to say, he's struggled with his consistency.
Rookie camp has been a learning process for Yankey as he tries to embrace the playbook and hone his technique. Coach Zimmer is aware of this, telling Tesfatsion, "He’s not making many mental errors as far as who to block and things like that. He’s got to do a better job in the technical part of the game of what we’re teaching. That may take a little time."
As a fifth-round pick, he's soaking up everything he can from Johnson—who is sitting comfortably ahead of him on the depth chart.
"I’m just learning from him as much as possible. He’s a great player, very underrated, really technical; one of the oldest O-linemen and a lot of respect for him," Yankey told Tesfatsion.
Yankey is learning, and that's fine. As times passes, hopefully he can move up the depth chart and contribute to the cohesion of this line.
DB Antone Exum
You knew from Day 1 that the Vikings had a deep draft class. After the Yankey selection, they were able to land defensive back Antone Exum in the sixth round.
Exum was a great value pick considering the round he was selected in. Prior to the draft, NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki projected him going between Rounds 3 and 4, saying Exum is a "big, strong cornerback with appealing size, field speed and press-coverage ability."
We understand now that he will be transitioning over to the role of safety in Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards' scheme.
Eric J. Thompson of the Daily Norseman shared a few interesting notes on what he saw out of Exum during his visit to Vikings camp:
I feel kind of bad for Exum. He can't do the one thing he's known best for in camp, which is hit like a freight train. He looked pretty solid against the run. His coverage was OK but sometimes it looked like he'd rather hit the guy than cover. I hope he gets some good playing time in Friday's preseason game because I don't think we've really seen what he can do yet.
Game action always supersedes anything we see in camp.
Will Exum be able to step up and make a play for the starting role? That's difficult to imagine. Going by the first depth chart the team released, per Arif Hassan of Vikings Territory, Exum is buried behind Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Chris Crocker.
CB Kendeall James
You can never have too many quality cornerbacks in a pass-happy league like the NFL. The current administration in Minnesota understands that, which is why the team used the draft to select Kendeall James in Round 6.
At 5'10" and just 180 pounds, he doesn't really look the part of a starting cornerback. His size and frame make him more of a nickel-type of defensive back who will need to find a place on special teams during the early stages of his career.
James isn't guaranteed to be around by the time September comes. His lack of size and the fact that he's already buried on the depth chart don't bode well for his chances. But again, this league is all about chucking the pigskin, and James' job description gives him value.
As far as camp goes, it looks like he's going to be in for an uphill battle. James' play in the coming weeks will be the deciding factor on his long-term roster spot.
DT Shamar Stephen
The first seventh-round pick the Vikings used this past May was on defensive tackle Shamar Stephen.
An interior run-stuffer who played his college ball at UConn, Stephen entered camp will a tall order placed in front of him. His mission remains the same: to make the team and beat out veterans like Fred Evans in the process.
It's crazy to look back and see that analysts like Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com actually had given Stephen a third-round grade based on his tape from his days in Connecticut. That just goes to show you that Spielman has a knack for landing high-quality targets during any stage of the draft.
A relatively quiet camp doesn't necessarily mean Stephen won't make the final roster. Similar to a lot of these late-round picks, he will need to make his mark during the preseason if he wants to wear the purple and gold well into 2014.
CB Jabari Price
Kendeall James wasn't the only cornerback the Vikings went after during draft weekend. Ex-North Carolina Tar Heel Jabari Price has been doing big things ever since he walked into training camp.
"When coach Mike Zimmer was asked to name the under-the-radar guys who have impressed him most, the first player he mentioned was Price," Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote.
On tape, Price was a physical player in college who was fluid and could track the ball well. But as he told Brian Hall of Fox Sports North, what drives him to stand out is the fact that he was a seventh-round pick:
This staff definitely saw something in me that they gave me a chance that no one else did. So, it's important for me to go out there and put it all out there on the line for them and this team, make this team a better place and try to find a role on all four phases of special teams, whether it's defense, whether it's nickel, whatever it is, I got to find a role.
Like James, Price's roster spot isn't a sure thing. The good news is that he has done remarkably well in camp. Assuming he keeps up that pace, Price should be able to make a serious run at the final 53-man roster.
LB Brandon Watts
Jabari Price and Brandon Watts have more in common than just being seventh-round picks. These two guys were also listed as backups on the initial depth chart—Watts is slugged right behind Chad Greenway at weak-side linebacker.
We all know that depth charts can change quickly, but that doesn't mean Watts hasn't earned his spot. During his time at Georgia Tech, he was a strong, athletic player who could close quickly on the football mainly due to his speed—speed that will be coveted at the NFL level.
One of the biggest trends over the years has been the extensive use of sub-packages within the confines of NFL defenses. Danny Kelly of SB Nation put together an amazing piece explaining how this trend has taken over the game.
As the league moves more toward that way of thinking, having fast linebackers becomes important. That could be one reason why Watts has managed to climb so far up the depth chart.
During his weekly mailbag, Vikings.com writer Mike Wobschall even hinted that Watts could actually be considered as an option to be the starting middle linebacker when camp is all said and done.
Obviously, it's been a great camp to date for this young man.
OT Antonio "Tiny" Richardson
Antonio "Tiny" Richardson was by far the biggest—in size and talent—undrafted free agent to join the Vikings for training camp.
A mauler of a left tackle, Richardson was projected to be a second- or third-round pick back in May. For Spielman and the coaching staff, it had to be a no-brainer to ink a 336-pound man who stands at a towering 6'6".
With Matt Kalil currently holding down the left tackle position, Richardson is trying to stick around as his backup.
Although he hasn't made waves, Tiny has been solid. According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, Zimmer said he was "doing a pretty good job at left tackle."
Listed right now as the No. 2 option on the depth chart, it's tough seeing him lose that spot unless something dramatic happens.
The biggest news to date on Richardson was that he was forced to leave practice early on Day 9 after he hurt his leg, via ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. Luckily, it was just a scare, and as Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune mentioned, he returned to practice the next day.