For every day I'm at camp, I'll be publishing a notebook on my observations at training camp and do the best I can to keep a running depth chart. These notebooks will be broken down by position grouping and include some daily features, like Longshot of the Day and Play of the Day.
My initial impressions of camp, based on what I've read of other camps, is favorable. The Vikings once again seem to be emphasizing special teams with a significant amount of time devoted to nailing down technical details of coverage.
Last year, positions coaches were very active in instruction and correction. That was in the second week of camp, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but that didn't seem as much the case this time around.
It's not so much that they would hold back on correcting poor habits or behaviors, but seemed insistent on the use of repetition to teach rather than a longer conversation—players making mistakes almost always repeated the drill immediately. Players within the same position group would often speak up to correct poor habits.
Once again, the emphasis on execution over winning individual matchups was on display, and I think this is a significant and important part of what it means to create a coaching culture.
It's easy for us to say things like "professional athletes shouldn't need to be motivated" or dismiss the silly coaching aphorisms and motivational signs that we seem, but the point isn't that any specific set of words or signs will motivate a player. It's the idea that there are core values that an organization will prioritize and implement in order to achieve their goals.
No different from a corporate culture, it's something that we overlook until we see issues crop up on other teams, like the Bengals. It's why I think the Vikings were able to have 100 percent participation at OTAs and why we don't see as much discussion about how important it is to win your matchup in training camp—bettering oneself and your teammate is a more important long term goal than winning a short-term matchup.
Vikings practices have a lot more ambient noise than other camps, and much of that is due to the constant chatter of the players, a practice encouraged by coaches. Keeping the atmosphere relaxed, but the conversations football oriented accelerates the pace of learning and ease of transition.
The looks I had at wide receiver surprised me the most, and it seems like the battle for the fifth (and sixth?) spot will be a bit more tenacious than I initially thought, given the small sample of performances I saw from receivers I didn't expect much of, including Adam Thielen, Chris Summers and Rodney Smith. More on that when I touch on receivers.
I didn't find the practices to be at the pace I think is optimal, but neither am I a football coach or have any experience with this sort of thing. It is a reasonably fast camp that has a little bit of room to be faster.
Versatility seems to be a key theme this year. Aside from the receivers running a variety of routes on offense, I see a number of players on the defensive line and offensive line taking snaps in drills outside of their natural or expected position. Nose tackle Chase Baker, for example, was an edge rusher against Phil Loadholt. I also saw Marquise Jackson rush inside.
There isn't anything significant I can saw about scheme at this point, and I made a point to watch more of the individual matchups than track movement or formation. Today, I focused far more on defense. Tomorrow, I expect I'll see a lot more of the offense.
Obviously these will change over the course of camp, but these were where the first snaps were taken. Some things change—for example, Rhodes would occasionally step in in place of Robinson on first team base snaps—but these are for the most part where people took snaps.
RDE: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, George Johnson, Collins Ukwu
NT: Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Anthony McCloud
UT: Kevin Williams, Christian Ballard, Sharrif Floyd, Everett Dawkins
LDE: Brian Robison, Lawrence Jackson, D'Aundre Reed, Marquis Jackson
CB: Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson, Brandon Burton, Bobby Felder, Greg McCoy
CB: Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, Jacob Lacey, Marcus Sherels, Roderick Williams
WLB: Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop, Gerald Hodges
MLB: Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti
SLB: Chad Greenway, Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenzie
S: Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo
S: Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Darius Eubanks, Brandan Bishop
That's the best that I can do, although the order of Sherels, McCoy and Williams is speculation. I did not see which round of third-team snaps they took. The rest is accurate as I saw them, except Ukwu and Jackson may be switched around.
There's nothing too interesting here, except that Floyd was taking third-team snaps instead of second-team snaps. But this is not entirely worrisome either; no rookie is taking first team snaps except Xavier Rhodes in a way. By the time training camp ends, we'll see some significant movement.
The most impressive non-starting defensive linemen was not Griffen or Evans, like I expected, but Chase Baker. He played with more speed than I remember from last year and availed himself well in one-on-ones. Floyd also looked very good, while Griffen was surprisingly lackluster. Anthony McCloud moved with much more bend than I expected and rushed with both power and speed moves.
The least impressive defensive lineman was Marquis Jackson, who couldn't generate pressure against any of the offensive linemen and found himself stonewalled fairly often.
An interesting battle here will not just be at base cornerback between Rhodes and Robinson, but also at nose tackle, where the Vikings have indicated in some part that Guion's spot is nowhere near secured. Evans can overtake it at any time. Particularly intriguing to me is the battle between D'Aundre Reed and Lawrence Jackson. The Vikings may only carry four defensive ends, and if they do the cut will be between those two.
Perhaps most surprising to the people I talked to was that Mitchell was taking first team snaps at weak-side linebacker instead of Desmond Bishop, who most expected. At Frazier's presser, he did indicate that there would be a lot of rotation here, and we might even see Hodges take first-team snaps before the position has settled (he may already have and I've just missed it).
More than anything, it seems like Bishop hasn't had the opportunity to learn as much as Mitchell and the others have about the position, which is what Frazier indicated was part of the decision to have him play as an outside linebacker in the first place. Things will likely change once Bishop learns the defense, but without OTAs (or minicamp), he's a little behind.
Audie Cole (now with less hair) and Michael Mauti are easy fan favorites, and both took charge of their respective defenses. Nothing of note from a play perspective, as I mostly watched walkthroughs, but the two of them had command of the defense and were in charge of adjustments.
There is a small possibility that there could be more blitzing from linebackers based on what I saw, but that could have just been a focus of the particular play being walked through.
The battle for starting cornerback is both interesting and boring. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that Rhodes is going to start on the outside, and he's already taking some of the first team reps away from Robinson to do so. None of the cornerback corps has stood out to me quite just yet, but I also didn't spend a lot of time looking at them yet. The rare instances of matchups, like during scrimmages, didn't turn out too favorably for the unit as a whole.
Of note, Xavier Rhodes did seem to give up a deep sideline catch to Joe Webb, but I won't put too much weight into this one way or the other.
A member of the secondary that did stand out, however, was Robert Blanton. In individual drills, it was pretty clear he had the capability to read receivers and sharpen his angles in order to accommodate that. I'm not sure who he was covering for the interception he recovered, but it was Ponder who threw the ball.
This shouldn't be extraordinarily surprising, given that he looked good in his limited time on the field last year and spent his college years as a cornerback, but his instinctive understanding of leverage, as well as the trust he had in his read of the receiver was nevertheless notable. Were he wrong, he would have given up an easy touchdown.
The other standout was Andrew Sendejo, but not because he looked great in drills (he did look good). He simply was very comfortable with the defense and on point in correct adjustments and calling out checks (along with Michael Mauti). That familiarity is to be expected, but third-team defenses rarely act with such confidence.
On special teams, I was consistently impressed by Greg McCoy as a gunner. Looked crazy good, but that could have been a function of the blocking. Perhaps unfortunate, however, as McCoy did not look to be on top of coverage when asked to defend in base snaps.
Roderick Williams did a very good job in the very few snaps that I saw. He diagnosed a play correctly, and popped the ball out of Rodney Smith's hands. To both players' credit, neither stopped the play. Smith positioned his body well so he could re-catch the ball, bobbling it twice before securing it. Unfortunately for him, Williams kept forcing him out and the catch was ruled incomplete.
I wasn't there for most of the offense, so this depth chart is largely speculative, and in some part rooted in what I saw in scrimmages. Unfortunately, scrimmages involve a lot of rotation, so it won't be perfect. I'll pay more attention to this tomorrow.
QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Vandenberg
HB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Bradley Randle, Joe Banyard, Jerodis Williams
FB: Jerome Felton, Matt Asiata, Zach Line
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Colin Anderson, Chase Ford
FL: Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Joe Webb, Stephen Burton, Adam Thielen, Erik Highsmith
SE: Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Summers, Rodney Smith, LaMark Brown
LT: Matt Kalil, DeMarcus Love, Tyler Holmes
LG: Charlie Johnson, Jeff Baca, Troy Kropog
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Camden Wentz
RG: Brandon Fusco, Seth Olsen, Travis Bond
RT: Phil Loadholt, Kevin Murphy, Brandon Keith
The FB/HB designation is because I noticed Asiata in second-team fullback, so I did not list him at halfback. He could still very well also be the "third" running back on the roster.
The offensive line was largely determined by looking where they lined up in line drills, not in scrimmages. This will be more accurate tomorrow. John Sullivan didn't take the majority of the first-team snaps at center, just the first ones. Frazier had already indicated that he would be taking fewer training camp snaps in light of the surgery.
Travis Bond also took drill snaps at right tackle.
The wide receiver designations are fluid and a number of receivers rotated in for first and second team snaps, particularly when switching to "11" personnel or different groupings. Jennings and Wright primarily played slot in those instances.
I wish I had more to say here, but I don't. I've decided not to keep track of quarterback statistics in training camp this year because I don't think it productively adds to the discussion. I explore the reasons a bit further in the podcast, but suffice to say I do not think the statistics provide a good proxy for development or growth.
What little I saw of Christian Ponder wasn't great. There wasn't enough adjustment to the wind and he walked into a touch sack more than once. Poorly thrown balls seemed to litter practice, but he also happened to do a decent job moving the chains in drills and accomplished much of what he needed to in the third down drill.
There are also clear issues with the wide receiver corps at this point, and Ponder has not developed the timing necessary for the offense to function. Nearly every receiver drifted off route and was imprecise in his depth. More on this later, but some of what looked to be inaccurately placed throws were actually the result of receivers breaking too early or moving out of place.
That's not to say chemistry is the overriding reason for this early performance. If anything, it's simply rust and getting back into the game.
Matt Cassel didn't look good either, although I'm not so sure chemistry is as big a controlling factor. Like Ponder, Cassel is testing the limits of the receivers, but I'm not so sure Cassel is putting the ball in good places for the receivers even knowing that. His passes had to be saved more than Ponder's, which led to some highlights that didn't need to be highlights.
I noted one poor decision by McLeod Bethel-Thompson and one poor throw, but didn't see enough to form an opinion. I didn't see any of James Vandenberg
The receiver corps was largely disappointing. Greg Jennings flashed some incredible route-running at times (it's truly a pleasure to watch) but also dropped a few catchable balls. I've noticed that he doesn't really secure the ball until late in the process, and it's a bit loose before that. I'd hesitate to say that he's 'body-catching' in the sense that he presses the ball against his pads, but he's not using his fingertips in catches, which lead to some of the throws bouncing out of his hands.
I imagine this is not too much of an issue because this problem is generally exacerbated with quarterbacks who fire with a lot of velocity, like Brett Favre. It wasn't an issue in the past, so I'm not worried about it.
Jerome Simpson was actually good to watch and I didn't note any problems other than a fumble during drills. He's the type of player that is good during camp and without the pads on, but we've yet to see it translate into on-field play. This year he's not as loud or jovial, although that may be because it's the first day. He also didn't have a highlight reel to speak of but largely executed.
Cordarrelle Patterson had an impressive play that people are talking about, but clearly lacks refinement. Impressive about that play was his ability to create exclusive real estate by generating leverage as soon as he gained position, by using his arms to maintain space. Most surprising to me on that play, however, was that his release off the snap was excellent, given that that is an area marked as a weakness for him coming out of college.
There is a limit to this type of praise, however, as the player he beat was Andrew Sendejo, neither the team's best example of a cover player nor actually a cornerback. Patterson's rough route-running is killing his timing with Ponder, who's throws look off target and create trouble for Patterson, who has to adjust backwards in the route to catch the ball.
Sharing this problem was Jarius Wright who also drifted off of routes and made more work for himself by forcing himself to work back to the ball when he didn't have to. He's still an impressive and explosive player and his release off the snap is among the best in the camp.
Joe Webb shocked me with his play today. From far away, his route running looks good and he caught the vast majority if not all the passes thrown his way. Up close, I noticed a number of problems I didn't see from further away that could complicate his ability to get on the field as a receiver. He makes every move look like a lot of work and doesn't have an ease of transition.
His footwork is a bit cluttered and he needs to work on his handwork throughout the route. None of this should be surprising or even taken as that much of a criticism, and it's fair to say that Webb seems to be learning the position quickly. Also, beating Xavier Rhodes is no easy feat and he did that at least once.
Of the rest of the receivers, the plainly most interesting was Adam Thielen, who caught my attention during special teams drills. He initially started off as a punt gunner working too hard to get downfield, but quickly improved. His technique was good but he needed to generate more speed off the snap.
It didn't take long for him to do that, and he generated separation to move downfield, even pulling in a quick and wicked inside move more than once to beat the blockers. Pretty good stuff.
The only receiver I had significant and consistent problems with was LaMark Brown, who didn't look refined or athletic. There's a hitch in his release that isn't very good and means he gets into his route half a second later than other receivers. Chris Summers looked smooth and I was impressed with Rodney Smith's awareness and technique, something I've consistently knocked him for in the past.
I didn't see enough of Burton or Highsmith to form real opinions of them, but I would have liked Burton to show more precision when running his routes.
I didn't see very much of the running backs today. I saw virtually none of Adrian Peterson other than a good run and a dropped pass. All I saw from Toby Gerhart was a dropped pass. Matt Asiata didn't look that great and didn't exhibit the patience needed to expose a defense.
I saw some of the backs in blocking drills, and Asiata was the only one who didn't look on point, blocking a little high. Randle might not be able to block high, but he was nevertheless stout. Line did well, as did Felton. AD and Gerhart did not participate in the drills I saw.
As a gunner, Randle was weird and unnatural, not consistently driving forward. He has to learn this fast if he's to make the team. I liked that he didn't look small, just short. I'd wager he weighs much more than the 189 pounds he weighed in at during his Pro Day, and I approve. This would suit his running style better, anyway.
I saw nothing of the tight ends, other than a dropped pass by Colin Anderson and John Carlson lining up at fullback. Carlson hit the line awkwardly on a play-action pass and popped up instead of driving forward, eliminating himself as a checkdown on the play or becoming a pass protector. I don't think he should continue to line up here.
Nothing of note here as the only thing I saw were the one-on-ones. Seth Olsen looked consistently bad against multiple players. Jeff Baca played with more strength than I thought but was beaten once. Loadholt needed to move better against Brian Robison. Brandon Fusco is simply overmatched by Kevin Williams. Didn't win once.
Kevin Murphy surprisingly stonewalled Everson Griffen. Camden Wentz needs to show more, but Fred Evans isn't a fair matchup. Evans also later beat Joe Berger.
Sharrif Floyd looked explosive, using edge moves and power moves to beat Seth Olsen and Travis Bond.
I've already written about the special teams performances of many of the players, so I'll just list the punt unit's first, second and third lines as far as I could tell. This is important, as this will determine in a big way who makes the team.
First punting unit: Andrew Sendejo, Desmond Bishop, Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Tyrone McKenzie, Rhett Ellison, Larry Dean, Audie Cole. That is missing one player I do not know. Naturally, Cullen Loeffler was the long snapper and Jeff Locke was the punter.
Second punting unit: Toby Gerhart, Christian Ballard, Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole, Matt Asiata, A.J. Jefferson and others.
Third punt return unit: LaMark Brown, John Carlson, Darius Eubanks, D'Aundre Reed, Desmond Bishop, Jerodis Williams and others.
First punt return unit: Chris Cook, Andrew Sendejo, Desmond Bishp, Rhett Ellison, Tyrone McKenzie, Matt Asiata, Larry Dean, Christian Ballard, Robert Blanton, Marquis Jackson.
Punt returners: Marcus Sherels, Cordarrelle Patterson, Stephen Burton, Jerome Simpson, Greg McCoy, Joe Webb, Josh Robinson. Those are in no particular order.
Jeff Locke looked great, but the wind was really killing the chemistry between Loeffler and Locke, which still needs work. On short punts, Lock averaged 4.3 seconds of hang time, and so needs a little bit of work there. That is not as bad as it sounds, though, as one punt ruined the average at 3.2 seconds. On long punts, he averaged 4.7 seconds, which is very good. He also had a good directional sense and a strong leg.
Random and Inconsistently Awarded Accolades
Bubble player of the day: Adam Thielen looked incredibly good in special teams and in team drills, catching a highlight pass to make up for Matt Cassel's overthrow.
#90: Marquis Jackson was the worst player I saw today, although I did not see everybody. I suspect the offensive line will change my mind. If so, it might be Seth Olsen.
Eat Crow: This goes to both Joe Webb and Rodney Smith, who both significantly outperformed my expectations
I Called It: Patterson isn't the body-catcher we thought, but I feel better about calling Desmond Bishop at the Will spot, even if it was for entirely none of the reasons I predicted (which actually shouldn't count, but this is my notebook, not yours).
As Expected: Nothing to say about the vets, but Jerome Simpson did as well as I expected him to, which is good, but not great.
Step Up: Asiata is better than what I saw.
Pleasant Surprise: No new injuries. Rhodes had to walk off the field after a ding to his knee, but returned with full force.