Minnesota Vikings: 8 Players on the Bubble to Watch For in the Preseason Finale
In order for that to happen, the rookies and veterans battling for roster spots will need to show talent, not just in the Aug. 31 preseason battle against the Houston Texans, but all season long.
Before they can be reliable depth, however, these warriors on the bubble need to prove they deserve to be on the team.
Eight of these players could provide that depth, so long as they find ways to impress and make the team.
The Houston game will be critical, because the following Monday will see 22 additional players leaving the roster.
While not every player in the following list will make the roster, the intrigue they'll provide will surely excite fans even as they anticipate the return of regular season football.
CB Reggie Jones
Reggie Jones has had an excellent offseason. After a couple of camp highlights, including more than one interception, Jones was relatively quiet entering the first preseason game.
In his few snaps, he didn't do very well, and missed a important tackle.
After that game, he lit it up, and proved once again why he made waves as a camp body.
Not only did he have an extremely impressive pass deflection against Micheal Spurlock (who was otherwise shredding the secondary) in the Chargers matchup, he excelled in tackling at the line and taking correct angles in both of the previous two games.
Jones has caused quite a stir among the Vikings faithful, and he could provide much-needed depth to a roster that had been lacking in talent just the previous year.
But, Reggie Jones isn't a lock to make the roster, even with one more good performance.
Competing with him for a spot are fellow camp standout Bobby Felder, return specialist Marcus Sherels and veteran Zackary Bowman. Reggie Jones has also performed well as a punt gunner, although has not recorded any tackles. He has forced return men out of his lane, which is always valuable.
Because the other competitors can bring something to the table, Jones is in a tough spot and will need to continue his stellar run of play.
Fortunately for Jones, he'll receive such an opportunity in Houston.
FB Matt Asiata
Matt Asiata is a surprise; a depth signing that wasn't expected to make waves, he's impressed in the preseason.
Nominally a fullback, he's generally expected to be a lead blocker, especially in the modern NFL.
Instead, Asiata has been atop the Vikings leaderboard in rushing yards, with 91.
He has shown not just the powerful running style one expects from a fullback, but deceptive agility. He's been able to make decisions on the fly very well and fits well into Minnesota's zone blocking system.
Given good blocking, Asiata can generate good yardage on the ground. He has shown the ability to shed tackles and runs well up the gut.
More than just a ball-carrying fullback, the undrafted sophomore out of Utah has shown pass blocking and run blocking capability as well. He has held up well in pass protection, and has even served as an example in offseason practices for having good technique.
Matt Asiata has had a typical NFL journey for unheralded players. In Utah, he averaged 4.5 yards a carry, and scored 24 touchdowns.
He spent a brief amount of time signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, but then signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, eventually making it to the practice squad. He was cut in early 2012, but has signed once more with the Vikings in hopes to make the squad.
Naturally, he hopes to crack the squad again, but if he doesn't, he's going to play in the NFL for another team—the Vikings won't be able to stash him on waivers.
Competing for a fullback spot are presumed favorite Jerome Felton and fellow practice squad holdover Ryan D'Imperio. Asiata's skill as a runner have given rise to rumors that he may compete as a halfback, in which case he would be the underdog against Jordan Todman, who will take a significant number of snaps against Houston in place of the underperforming Lex HIlliard.
WR Michael Jenkins
Veteran receiver Michael Jenkins was a big piece of the 2011 Minnesota Vikings offense, and received Christian Ponder's first NFL pass. He's been reliable and is known for his solid route running, but shortened his season with a knee injury in late November.
Since then, he's been thoroughly underwhelming.
Slow in offseason workouts, Jenkins has suffered a notable regression in his skills. While his hands are sure as ever—some of the best hands in the NFL—he cannot create separation. This is a result both of reduced speed and poor burst.
He cannot generate a good release off the snap, or plant his feet strongly enough to explode out of cuts.
Still, he knows the offense better than perhaps anyone on the roster, having spent the better part of his career working in the same offense as Musgrave in Atlanta.
Jenkins took a pay cut with the Vikings to the tune of $1 million. This cut, it's widely acknowledged, was critical to allowing the Vikings to keep Jenkins on the roster, given expectations of poor play.
The fact that Jenkins agreed to the salary reduction indicates that he, too, is worried about his level of play and his future on the roster.
Nevertheless, the Vikings are extremely thin at wide receiver, particularly for people who can play as split ends. Despite the fact that Jenkins does not have the skill set to fully execute the split end position, his knowledge of the position does provide him a small advantage over other receivers, like Stephen Burton.
Look for him to justify his spot on the roster against the Texans. He seems to have a hold on it, but you never know.
TEs Allen Reisner and Mickey Shuler
Both tight ends Allen Reisner and Mickey Shuler provide fantastic depth to an evolving offense, one that hopes to take advantage of the growing skill at the position.
While it's a given that Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Rhett Ellison have guaranteed spots on the roster, the final tight end spot is creating an interesting matchup between two relatively well-matched and skilled backups.
Reisner had the better game of the two in last Friday's outing, with 4 receptions for 47 yards n 5 targets. Shuler was targeted once for a completion of ten yards.
The young Iowa product had one more reception than Shuler did against the Bills as well, netting 22 yards on two completions.
Finally, Reisner blanked out Shuler in San Francisco, with a reception to Shuler's none.
That doesn't mean Shuler's out of the running.
He has done extremely well as a run-blocker, and displays excellent ability to seal the outside tacklers on stretch plays. He's got a pretty good intuition of the ball once it's in the air and is a decent pass blocker. At drills, I couldn't do much to separate the two, but Shuler struck me as more athletic. He clearly has a number of advantages going for him that could push him over the top in the Texans' games.
The 4th TE spot is relatively important, and not just because of the two tight end sets.
The Vikings intend to use the tight ends on their rosters in several ways, from the primarily pass-catching Rudolph and Carlson, to the versatile H-back Rhett Ellison. If Shuler can offer more in the way of offensive game planning, he'll take this spot from Reisner, regardless of reception totals.
S Andrew Sendejo
Andrew Sendejo has spent time on the Vikings practice squad, and wasn't expected to challenge for a spot.
Right now, Eric Frampton should be looking behind him, because his spot is certainly in jeopardy.
Sendejo hasn't been dazzling as a Vikings player, and certainly won't be challenging Harrison Smith for a starting job any time soon, but it looks like he may be a better depth option than special teams ace Frampton.
Frampton has been great for the Minnesota Vikings special teams, but when confronted with a depth problem in their secondary, including at safety, the Vikings did not see fit to play Eric for a single snap in 2011.
The Vikings may be turning a corner on Frampton, and his play at safety in the preseason and camp hasn't been wonderful.
If the Vikings choose to keep five safeties, Sendejo will look to take that fifth spot behind Mistral Raymond, Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford and Robert Blanton.
The third-year safety had spent time on an active roster with the Dallas Cowboys and has been on three practice squads.
Not coming in with a stellar resume, Sendejo has nevertheless outperformed Frampton on the field of play and has done good work in special teams, displaying good patience with the kickoff unit to grab a tackle, and a generally good intuition for how the run develops.
His better-than-average special teams play and serviceable safety play might supplant Frampton's excellent work with the kickoff and punt units, but mediocre showing as a safety.
In order to beat Frampton out, Sendejo will need to show intelligence and skill at both special teams and safety responsibility. Houston is the perfect place for it.
RB Jordan Todman
Scatback Jordan Todman has yet to see a preseason game, but remains one of the more intriguing players on the roster.
The quickest running back on the roster, Todman provides options as a "change-of-pace" running back, or a running back that takes advantage of the timing changes in the play that comes with a faster ballcarrier. The Raiders used this concept to great effect with Michael Bush and Darren McFadden last year.
Todman was a soft favorite among pundits for the third spot, but injured his ankle early in camp. Lex Hilliard, a free agent signed from Miami, has been taking the majority of the third team snaps in Todman's place.
Hilliard had a good offseason, but is looking thoroughly unimpressive in preseason play. He's been averaging 2.2 yards per attempt, and has fumbled once.
More than that, he also hasn't flashed the blocking ability that he displayed in camp, particularly when picking up blitzes.
When running, Hilliard displays OK zone reading, but cannot generate the burst at the line that makes running backs powerful and elusive. Hilliard can neither avoid tackles nor create big pile pressure, which brings into question his utility.
Todman, on the other hand, is blessed with agility and quick decisionmaking. While we don't know what he'll be like on his return from injury, his pre-injury form certainly excites talent evaluators.
Look for Todman to take a lion's share of the snaps against the Texans, so that the Vikings can see where he's at and if he's a fit. It's his last—and only—chance to impress them.
LB Audie Cole
Audie Cole is a study in contrasts—while having a terrible training camp, he has been arguably the most electric player this preseason.
He had a strong showing in his first preseason game, with three tackles—one for a loss—and a sack. Added to that total is one quarterback hit.
But it was his second game that catapulted him into preseason consciousness, for whatever that's worth.
While not recording any tackles, he did record two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns.
On back-to-back plays.
To some, this answered some serious questions about Cole's play—his coverage skills have been a real worry for many fans following the Vikings closely.
It wasn't just reports coming out of practice, either: that had always been Cole's biggest knock. At North Carolina State, he only recorded one interception in his four years there.
His biggest advantage has been his field intelligence and excellent positioning, which played a big part in the second interception of the night—he read the quarterback and the receiver, then jumped the route, helped in part by sloppy route running from Namaan Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, his speed and agility gave rise to further issues that scouts had with his otherwise excellent play with the Wolfpack. So far, he's been able to use his other assets to mask his speed issues.
He did not do as well in his limited snaps in San Diego, incidentally. While the stat sheet shows a tackle for a stop at two yards, and another tackle for loss, the first tackle was a product of luck. Cole read the play correctly and got into position for a run out wide by Edwin Baker, but Baker beat him out left and he was burned.
Or rather, he would have been, had Baker not tripped and fell.
The second tackle occurred as San Diego was running out the clock to seal the win. The offense ran it up the middle and the defense shut it down. Nothing really to Cole's credit.
At any rate, Cole is still on the bubble and accountable for his bad offseason, and will be fighting for a roster spot on Thursday. Whether or not he's on the outside looking in or fighting for a spot he just gained, he'll need to play at his best in order to supplant Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean and Marvin Mitchell.