Thoughts of the day
There's nothing notable about the beginning of the day, other than the fact that it's a little cold and there's the threat of rain. Once more, practice starts with special teams and it seems like no one is questioning it this year, despite that fact being a bit of a buzz last year. No other team, as far as I know, does this.
At a fundamental level, I think this is how a lot of football decisions are made. Last year, it worked. Using a measure called DVOA, which was developed by Football Outsiders to test performance after adjusting for opponent (and has been tested continuously for it's ability to predict or explain wins), one can track special teams progress.
The Vikings ranked 27th in DVOA for special teams in 2011, but 5th last year. Along with that, Mike Priefer deservedly won the Special Teams Coach of the Year award for coaching a unit to a record-breaking kicking season as well as the best kick return season since 1967.
Before Percy Harvin's injury, Minnesota ranked second in special teams DVOA.
It's fairly clear that Priefer cares about detail and is willing to share what he knows with players and the media, from the angle of the drops on the punt to the length of stride he wants his kickoff coverage unit to take.
Priefer's a good coach, and I wouldn't be surprised if he turns out to be interviewed for a head coaching job-two special teams coordinators were interviewed for such a job last year and the Super Bowl Champions were commandeered by former special teams coordinator John Harbaugh. Marv Levy and Mike Ditka were special teams coordinators as well, so it's not an extraordinary thought.
At the same time, I'm not so comfortable with ending the logic with "it worked last time, it will work now" simply because it is difficult to separate the influence of putting special teams first and stocking the special teams units with excellent contributors like Percy Harvin, Blair Walsh, Cullen Loeffler, Andrew Sendejo and Tyrone McKenzie.
With such offensive struggles, I think a better tack would have been to start with regular team walkthroughs (if this sort of framing is important).
I'll start off with special teams this time.
The closest thing to a depth chart is below.
Kickoff, first team: Marcus Sherels, Jamarca Sanford, Rhett Ellison, Larry Dean, Desmond Bishop, Christian Ballard, Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton, Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie, Josh Robinson
Kickoff, second team: Bobby Felder, Mistral Raymond, Joe Banyard, George Johnson, Gerald Hodges, LaMark Brown, Zach Line, Matt Asiata, A.J. Jefferson, Roderick Williams
Kickoff, third team: Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen, Toby Gerhart, Collins Ukwu, Brandan Bishop, Rodney Smith, D'Aundre Reed, Chase Ford, Joe Webb, Brandon Burton
Notable absences: Stephen Burton, Chris Summers, Erik Highsmith, Greg McCoy, Jerodis Williams, Bradley Randle, Colin Anderson
There weren't a lot of running back spots to go around, and simply not enough spots on the edge for receivers and defensive backs, so the odd ones out will have to watch out.
Kickoff return first team: Christian Ballard, Jerome Felton, Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton, Matt Asiata, Joe Berger, Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenzie, Rhett Ellison
Kickoff return second team: Toby Gerhart, Seth Olsen, George Johnson, Joe Banyard, D'Aundre Reed, Darius Eubanks, Mistral Raymond, LaMark Brown, Gerald Hodges, Brandon Burton
Kickoff return third team: Christian Ballard, Chase Ford, Jeff Baca, Everett Dawkins, Josh Robinson, Marvin Mitchell and others I didn't catch
Notable absences: This is incomplete for two reasons-1) many of the folks not listed in kickoff return were returners (listed below) and 2) I just missed half of the third KOR team. As it is, I can confirm that Bradley Randle, Erik Highsmith and Roderick Williams were missing.
Presumably some on the third and second team are just placeholders for players who do not make the team as a returner but would stick on the roster as special teamers.
Kickoff Returners: Cordarrelle Patterson, Marcus Sherels, A.J. Jefferson, Stephen Burton, Josh Robinson, Greg McCoy
Punt Returners: Stephen Burton, Bradley Randle, Cordarrelle Patterson, Bobby Felder A.J. Jefferson, Josh Robinson, Greg McCoy, Marcus Sherels, Jerodis Williams
The kickoff returner order is their "order" on the "depth chart" for kickoff returners, but that is not true for the punt returners. I have mixed it up randomly to reflect that.
I'll address the specific things I saw in players for special teams play in their respective position groupings below.
I paid more attention to the offense today, so I have a more accurate depth chart. Once again, the receiver positions are very fluid (they rotate in people with the first and second team to get reps with other QBs), so those are a bit more subjective on my part, but still rooted in who I see take the most snaps with a particular set of players.
QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Vandenberg
HB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Joe Banyard, Jerodis Williams, Bradley Randle
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, Rodney Smith, Chris Summers, LaMark Brown
LT: Matt Kalil, DeMarcus Love
LG: Charlie Johnson, Jeff Baca, Tyler Holmes, Kevin Murphy
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Camden Wentz
RG: Brandon Fusco, Seth Olsen, Travis Bond
RT: Phil Loadholt, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog
The caveat about FB/HB applies again. Asiata took snaps at HB while Line took second team FB snaps. Also moonlighting there were a number of tight ends.
Travis Bond also took second team snaps at right tackle in place of Brandon Keith, who took a few snaps at right guard. Kevin Murphy took some of Baca's second team snaps at left guard, but I listed him fourth because he did not get on the field until the second set of reps.
Cordarrelle Patterson took the first slot snap instead of Jarius Wright today, but I'm not reading too much into this unless it happens more often.
The only reason I'm not raising a big stink about the quarterbacks is because it's early and they had a limited sample of bad throws. Sometimes units have bad days, and this might be an example of that. On the other hand, consistently miserable performances will be inexcusable.
The consistent theme is that Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel overthrew their receivers and a number of their passes were easy interceptions. Some of the interceptions were dropped, but the point remains the same: the decisions and throws were bad.
At least two of the interceptions weren't overthrown balls, but bad decisions. One of them was a good play by the defense (Bobby Felder's interception, the last play of the day) against the third team, with McLeod Bethel-Thompson at quarterback. For the most part they were on the QBs.
Cassel made slightly better decisions than Ponder, but worse throws (if you can parse the throws from the decisions to throw them, an admittedly difficult task). It's not much of a difference to report, but it's there.
Of note, the common refrain has been not to read too much into it because the "defense is ahead of the offense" early on. Not only am I not certain that's true (check the offensive explosion at the beginning of 2011, when there was no camp), but I'm also not sure the defense is normally this far ahead of the offense if it is true.
The only reason I'm playing this performance down is because there has been a limited amount of throws and people will have bad days, not that the defense is usually ahead. If this continues for two more days, I will be worried despite that common aphorism.
I didn't watch any of the one-on-one drills today, so my evaluation from yesterday should stand. Here, this means that the "best" offensive lineman from drills was Kevin Murphy, although I didn't see much of the first team the last time around anyway. The "worst" was Seth Olsen.
There wasn't too much pressure given up during scrimmages, although I'll note that the first team OL was not as good against the first team DL as the second team OL was against the second team DL. Still, nothing looked too worrisome, but I wasn't paying as much attention there.
I spent almost the entire day looking at wide receivers.
Cordarrelle Patterson was a bit of a mixed bag. I'm not so sure he's using his explosive ability throughout the route and would like him to show the "definitive step" that Greg Jennings praised not too long ago. I think if Patterson can develop effective deception techniques that the other parts of route running will be less important.
Naturally timing is still an issue and running routes at the wrong depth will hurt the offense, but if he can generate separation and give himself space to make one move before a defender gets to him, then he can still be dangerous while raw. Those depth problems have translated, in two consecutive days, into what look like poorly placed passes but instead are examples where Patterson gives himself too much work.
Patterson doesn't have that yet and the defensive backs can do a decent job figuring him out, although not all of them can use this knowledge to their advantage. At the very least, Patterson is picking up on positioning, although he hasn't mastered that either.
Greg Jennings did not participate as much as would have been enjoyable to watch, but he's still an extremely talented route runner and fun to watch.
Jarius Wright is another receiver I didn't see too much of. What I did see looked a bit rough, and the routes that break horizontally are not consistent and drift too far. His post routes look OK and his outside plant is useful.
For the second day, Jerome Simpson didn't exude the same enthusiasm and charisma he had last year. It's a bit odd, but not really a concern when his play is concerned. Simpson has a number of problems, but definitely is the kind of guy who is getting things done.
One thing I like about him is that he at least maintains the advantages he gains, unlike a number of other receivers who don't know what to do with the positioning, leverage or spacing advantages they worked so hard to get. Robinson got him once with good recovery, but generally Simpson won when he found a decent advantage and prevented CBs from recovering.
If Simpson could more consistently work at getting that advantage, he would be a very good receiver. As of this moment, he looks like the type of receiver who will simply happen to have good or bad games based on who he's matched up with.
Stephen Burton ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine and a 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He looked closer to the second time today than the first, and it's easy to forget that he's a fast guy. Out of curiosity, I dug an old scouting report on Burton out. Here's what Draft Insider had to say:
Positive: Nice-sized underneath receiver with reliable hands. Has good quickness, sells routes, and is sharp into breaks, getting separation from defenders. Nicely adjusts to the errant throw and displays strong hands as well as eye/hand coordination. Looks the pass in, easily makes the reception in stride,and quickly transitions from making the catch to running after the reception. Shows toughness and a willingness to go over the middle and make the difficult reception in a crowd. Finds the open seam in the defense and shows some elusiveness running after the catch.
Negative: Does an adequate job blocking but really does not show a killer mentality for a big receiver. Unnecessarily lets the ball get inside him at times. Leaves his feet for no reason to make the reception. Lacks a burst and deep speed. Benefited from a four-receiver passing offense at West Texas A&M.
Analysis: Burton is a solid prospect with enough skill to make it as a fourth receiver in either a West Coast offense or a system that asks him to run underneath routes.
Generous, but sure. He's a quicker guy than I gave him credit for, I suppose. Incidentally, the part of the scouting report that said "leaves his feet for no reason to make the reception" is true and happened twice today in drills. He has to cut that down, or he'll kill YAC opportunities and be more vulnerable to having the ball popped out.
I didn't see a lot of Adam Thielen today and decided to concentrate more on Erik Highsmith and Rodney Smith. Once again, Smith is outperforming my UDFA favorite at wide receiver, Erik Highsmith, and could jostle him out of a spot early. He had more problems than yesterday—notably with making sure he contains his stride and maintaining balance—but aside from a few reps, he was clean.
Highsmith isn't standing out, no matter how much attention I want to pay to him. I didn't note major mistakes and he looked relatively fluid, but I also don't see him generating separation. He seems to have good instincts, so I'll pay more attention to him in the coming days to see if I missed something or if he improves. The one thing I did not was that he was allowing the ball to get to close to his body on in-breaking routes.
I saw even less of Chris Summers, but I like what I saw the other day.
I continue to be impressed by Joe Webb, who at the very least exhibits the unteachable receiver skills I had so often worried about before. That's not to say he's done—he doesn't look natural out there and he has a lot of body control issues to work out. Nevertheless he tracks the ball well, adjusts to it in the air and has good body control throughout the catch.
He still has to develop an arsenal of moves to create separation, which means he could easily be a developmental project for quite some time.
Once again, the "worst" receiver in drills was LaMark Brown. He had less of a problem getting out of the release (it's still there), but didn't always hold on to the ball, turn his head around quickly enough or catch away from his body. Combined with subpar route running, I'd wager that Brown is in the first round of cuts.
I didn't spend much time, again, with running backs. Adrian Peterson ripped off a fun looking run in scrimmages, Felton is Felton and Line was functional when he took second team fullback snaps. Asiata returned to a halfback role and didn't demonstrate patience, but did catch a pass and create yardage.
Randle has a bit of an advantage in blocking drills and knows it. He punches well and sets a good base. Jerodis Williams seems to be getting more looks from the coaches and he earned the passes thrown his way.
Joe Banyard is the favorite right now for the third RB position, but that could change. He dropped three passes in practice today, and with limited reps that's fairly deadly. His strength is play in the passing game, so that will hurt him significantly.
Again, an area I didn't pay much attention to. Chase Ford and Colin Anderson both saw more action than I expected today. Anderson had a dropped pass, but also a very impressive catch over the top of Brandon Burton that he was able to haul in (due to simultaneous possession rule. Touchdown Seahawks!).
Chase Ford drew the praise of tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson (not that one) more than once today. His place on the special teams units might change the equation and would be a reason that the offensive depth chart above isn't completely accurate.
Anderson seems to create more receiving options for the Vikings, and I saw him running receiver routes instead of only running tight end routes, which was interesting to see. If that's his bread and butter, the Vikings will take it.
Ha ha ha I'm just copying the depth chart from yesterday.
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
Didn't see a thing. Will report back on Monday.
But Priefer had a comment about Floyd vis a vis special teams.
"[Floyd] can be a guy who can help on field goal protection and field goal block, maybe on punt return depending on who we match up against, because he's such a great speed. Doing all the drill work we were doing, watching it on tape, his feet are unbelievable."
A lot of 9 v. 7 work that saw the defense work on run fits. The first team defense—Erin Henderson, Marvin Mitchell and Chad Greenway all seemed very comfortable here, and I noted no major errors. These drills were very difficult to gauge, given that they were in the hardest field to access (the middle) and there were a line of players blocking the media's only view. Also, there were a number of fans with sideline access who made things a bit difficult, but I won't begrudge them that.
If anybody on the first team defense received any instruction, it was Marvin Mitchell, but that would have been minor at best.
Instead, in drills, Erin Henderson shined, with an interception against Christian Ponder, breaking to the ball well (making it distinct from the mistakes Ponder made with the overthrows, as Erin was proactive in grabbing the ball) in zone coverage.
A field day for the secondary in scrimmages, although I would prefer Sanford not drop his interception opportunities, which would make it the second day in a row for him. You could take heart in the fact that he was in position for the interceptions, but one was a tipped pass and the other an overthrow to Jennings.
I didn't see much of Harrison Smith, except for having the first interception of the day.
Mistral Raymond had a good day, breaking up one pass and intercepting another off of a tipped pass by Cassel. Overall good positioning.
Josh Robinson did not look very good returning kicks, and takes longer than most other players to secure the ball. To his credit, he's still moving forward as he does this, so it theoretically doesn't take time. But it's not ideal.
On the other side of the special teams balls, Robinson was one of the best coverage players in either kickoff or punt coverage drills. Priefer didn't praise a lot of players in those drills, but Robinson stood out (the others were Joe Webb, Jarius Wright, Roderick Williams, Adam Theilen, Darius Eubanks and Collins Ukwu) in particular. He had a good understanding of his force responsibilities and an ability to close the seam.
Interestingly, he graded out as the Vikings' worst special teams player by Pro Football Focus. I'm not so sure it's all that important, given how spottily those grades could be given out, but it's an intriguing factoid in the very least.
Robinson did fine in coverage today, and showed off his relatively strong frame by pushing some receivers around, and recovered well on a pass to Simpson where he should have been beat, like I mentioned above.
Greg McCoy was not impressive in kickoff returns, and I didn't see much of his coverage, although I got the sense he was beat more than once. Still, he definitely tipped a pass that became a turnover.
In kickoff returns, he chose to cut laterally instead of working up the field. The same is true of Bobby Felder, who didn't look natural returning any kicks, but played coverage well and finished the day with an interception to his credit.
I didn't see any of Jacob Lacey today, although he may have been a cornerback who tipped a pass. Unfortunately I was unable to ID the player, who also could have been Rod Williams or A.J. Jefferson.
Jefferson had a good outing. Not only did he break up a few passes in drills, he moved Patterson off route and imposed himself physically upon a couple of receivers in a surprising way.
Brandan Bishop also picked off Christian Ponder, but was otherwise quiet and didn't necessarily matchup well to tight ends. Wright burned him on a move to make him fall down, but the pass never came Wright's direction.
Robert Blanton had a quiet day, but displayed solid fundamentals, once again doing well in one-on-one drills.
Brandon Burton had good coverage of tight ends, but as I mentioned, Anderson was able to get on top of him for the ball. While he won the positioning battle, Burton should have attacked the ball sooner so that Anderson couldn't have gotten to it.
Random and Inconsistently Awarded Accolades
Bubble player of the day: Joe Webb continues to make highlight catches, and despite the fact that he's clearly learning, he is showing flashes of why he was initially encouraged to declare as a wide receiver.
#90: LaMark Brown, so far, has not shown many positive qualities besides size.
Eat Crow: Highsmith is not displaying the fundamentals I had thought he had in college.
I Called It: Brandan Bishop is an instinctive dude.
As Expected: Greg Jennings knows how to get open
Step Up: Christian Ponder. Nothing else needs to be said here.
Pleasant Surprise: Blair Walsh hit a 60-yard field goal with the wind that could have cleared 75 yards. The wind was strong.
Uh Oh: Guion is reportedly receiving a X-Ray for an elbow issue.