Minnesota Vikings 2013 Training Camp: Day Five Notebook

Fifth set of recorded notes about training camp, from Arif Hasan

Thoughts of the Day

One of the most difficult obstacles that coaches and executives have to work around when designing a procedure and schedule for a training camp is having to deal with conflicting goals. Teams are not only going to teach their players new wrinkles or new schemes, they have to train the players to be fundamentally better at their responsibilities.

But another cross-pressure exists as well-they have to evaluate the players that they have, particularly the rookies. In evaluating those players, they have to determine two things: 1) Whether or not a player should make the team and 2) Where on the depth chart that player should go.

Further complicating things, the coaching staff and front office has to determine how many roster spots to allocate to each position, meaning that players are not just competing with their peers in their position group, they're competing with players in totally unrelated positions.

If the Vikings have six very good defensive ends and seven very good tackles, but only three good cornerbacks, then they may be forced to make a tradeoff that decreases the overall talent pool of the roster while still helping the team out more. Naturally, the ability to trade away players will help relieve this pressure, but it still creates fuzzy values with difficult calculations.

Right now, there's some talk of how the Vikings will manage this pressure with the bottom of the receiving corps possessing so much potential, as well as a promising young fullback who could do a lot more for the Vikings in the future even if his use value is limited now.

That probably means cutting players from the team who are very close in skill and value to players who end up making the team, a difficult process.

That calls for evaluation, obviously, but the only way to really evaluate a player well is to put him on the field and see how he does. Unfortunately, because the players that coaches want to learn the most about are often the players that will see the least amount of time on the field come Sunday, it trades off with their desire to teach and develop players at the top, who are the most important.

After some thought, I've come up with the following rough model to describe this pressure for each individual player.

Rep_tradeoff_medium

Every individual rep will provide a different amount of value in whichever function you're looking at. For a generic player, the first rep will provide a lot of help in learning the plays and scheme, as well as developing talent.

The next rep will offer a little less, and each rep will providing a diminishing amount of learning value thereafter.

But the other function of plays on the field is that it allows a coach to see how good a player is. The first rep will tell someone basically nothing about a player for a few reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that it's simply not that much information. How do you know that the block he missed was because he's a bad player and not just bad luck?

The second reason is because the player doesn't know what he's supposed to do, because he hasn't taken any reps yet!

So, each consecutive rep will provide more information, and getting a larger sample size of reps to work with gets more and more valuable, as will the fact that you know how the player will perform once he knows what he needs to do-as he theoretically will on Sunday.

After a point, of course, there's only so much more information that a rep can provide. Think about seeing the 600th snap after seeing 599 previous snaps. You won't be changing your opinion of that player because of that snap. In fact, it might take 75 more snaps before you start changing your conclusions about what you saw and 50 more after that before you confirm that changed opinion.

Even more complicated is the fact that those graphs are different for each position, and different for each player within that position.

Quarterbacks, for example, have a lot to learn about quarterbacking at the NFL level. In addition to that, there's more value in developing a rhythm with receivers and offensive line than there is with, say, a defensive lineman.

There's a good chance that a quarterback's "marginal learning curve" would decline a lot slower and wouldn't be that steep. Conversely, the "marginal evaluation curve" would be pushed to the right, and the peak of what you can know about a quarterback will be later on in his career, after you've seen a thousand snaps.

Not so for other positions, both because they have less to learn and because you can know sooner if they have what it takes.

Another wrench in that basic equation is that coaches want to "coach up" the top (make the best players better) but evaluate the bottom. So the value calculations work at even more difficult odds.

This is why, with rare exceptions, competition at the quarterback position is not necessarily a good thing even with two good quarterbacks (ignoring the oft-true saying that "if you have two quarterbacks you have none").

Competition undoubtedly makes players better (and the cultural ties that football has to capitalism would make it a truism among coaches even if that weren't true), but there's a risk that the first team reps that you would alternate in order to evaluate a player would trade off with a player's ability to build chemistry-some of those "value" curves for certain positions means that it takes both a lot of snaps to evaluate a player and a lot of snaps to start making them better.

Unfortunately, because these players are switching off the snaps they take, they get half the available snaps and limit a coach's ability to develop and scout-and it takes twice as long to accomplish the goal.

The Vikings currently have this problem with their receiver corps. They need to rotate the bottom of the roster at receiver so they know who they have, but they'll severely limit the development of the players who need it. At the same time, they still want to give as many reps as possible to a player like Cordarrelle Patterson because they know he will make the roster but he has to learn a lot (he would have a flat or downward sloping evaluation curve but a shallowly sloping learning curve for this offseason).

There's one cheat that nearly every team in the league is beginning to embrace, which is simply to speed up the time between reps by having the first and second team set up on opposite sides of the field and run them as quickly as possible-one team will set up while the other goes through the play.

But there's only so much time in a day, especially because the CBA says so.

Competition is good, but only absolutely true in a vacuum. Reps should be treated like a valuable and finite resource that teams dispense with caution and they will want to maximize their return.

Depth Charts

Defense

RDE: Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, George Johnson, Collins Ukwu, Marquise Jackson
UT: Kevin Williams, Christian Ballard, Sharrif Floyd, Everett Dawkins
NT: Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Anthony McCloud
LDE: Brian Robison, D'Aundre Reed, Lawrence Jackson
CB: Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, Jacob Lacey, Roderick Williams, Greg McCoy
CB: Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson, Brandon Burton, Bobby Felder
SLB: Chad Greenway, Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenzie
MLB: Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Michael Mauti
WLB: Marvin Mitchell, Desmond Bishop, Gerald Hodges
S: Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo
S: Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Brandan Bishop, Darius Eubanks

Nickel First Team

RDE: Jared Allen
UT: Kevin Williams
UT: Sharrif Floyd
LDE: Brian Robison
NCB: Josh Robinson
CB
: Xavier Rhodes
CB: Chris Cook
SLB: Chad Greenway
WLB: Erin Henderson
S: Jamarca Sanford
S: Harrison Smith

Defensive Line

I didn't record most of the defensive line, but I will note that Allen won the matchup (as I said above) with Kalil a little more than he lost and he's been successfully throwing Kalil off guard, although not consistently.

Brian Robison is doing a good job of getting low and dipping past Loadholt, but he needs to practice his other techniques in order to gain ground.

Everson Griffen is devilishly good, and shines even more in practices than on game day—and he's fun to watch when there are cameras nearby.

Aside from the three of them, I only noticed Floyd, who was able to generate pressure against a superior offensive line than the one he's been facing and even batted down a pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

Kevin Williams is getting skinny and into the backfield as well.

I didn't see Fred Evans get moved off the ball, but I did see Letroy Guion struggling to keep ground. Not so sure why Evans isn't the starter.

I'll get more of the defensive line today.

Secondary

Usually a good day by the offense is also a bad day by the defense. I didn't sense that, but I didn't think it was a stellar day, either. Rhodes is still uncomfortable away from the line, but should thrive when the Vikings implement a press/zone concept like the Seahawks do. This isn't a new wrinkle so much as it is not heavily implemented. I think they will implement more.

I haven't seen Rhodes move up the chart yet, and it looks like Robinson may simply be the better corner at this point. He has good fundamental position but needs to trust his read a little bit more.

Josh Robinson looked good as well and even covered Cordarrelle Patterson with some deftness. He obviously doesn't have the physical chops of the other defensive backs, but he's powerful for his size and quick. He seems to be picking up on the slot responsibilities well, but I'd like to see him against Wright or Jennings more often in slot situations.

Chris Cook was neither impressive nor unimpressive. He should have done more to force receivers in difficult positions on the sideline routes and looked a step slower than usual. Nevertheless, he was still hitting his landmarks and his keys.

Jamarca Sanford didn't have the best of days and couldn't take advantage of bracketed coverage, where Wright was able to make the catch despite Sanford's quick close. He wasn't necessarily the butt of the joke for the offense, but I'm sure Ponder didn't mind Sanford.

I did not catch Harrison Smith's contributions.

Brandan Bishop ended the session with good pass defense and a pass breakup, but that's more of a highlight film type play, as it did not affect any outcomes. He's a smart player that knows what he needs to do, and that's why he recorded a couple more deflections that day.

The other defensive backs did not make it into my notebook.

Linebackers

Erin Henderson had another encouraging day, although I saw less of him than I would have liked to. It looks like his new responsibilities on the run are much friendlier to him and his style of play, because he reads the blocks well enough to attack.

Chad Greenway took fewer evaluable snaps but has been looking steady in pass coverage. He mugs up to the line well and can drop back with speed, making sure he can get to his landmarks with time to spare. I would still like better hand work in coverage, but no one's perfect. He plays the force responsibility well and has an established chemistry with Erin Henderson.

It looks like the Vikings are not too concerned with making sure he "gets the scheme down" as he's very familiar

Gerald Hodges didn't have the best day, as he's still playing linebacker like he's in college. That's not really a worry, given that he's a backup with the cerebral and physical skills to succeed as a starter in a few years' time, but he's learning now. But he had good moments, where he prevented cutback lanes in zone runs and generally moved the running back to where the rest of the team was. He still might be playing with too much depth and that could affect his ability to hit his landmarks.

More than that, he needs to anticipate the throws better and break on the ball.

I've been down on Tyrone McKenzie in the past but both he and Larry Dean did a good job spilling into open gaps and finding ways to make their plays count. Dean is still surprising the second team offense with his speed, although he's a very light linebacker that might be limited to special teams.

Desmond Bishop isn't afraid to be physical in pass defense, and will attempt to disrupt routes running backs or tight ends as they enter his zone—he generally succeeds. The press-zone technique is pretty difficult, but Bishop seems to be hitting his drops.

Audie Cole had a surprisingly good day in pass coverage, not only lining up well against tight ends in drills, but deflecting passes in full scrimmages. It's not something he is well known for, so it's good growth. On the other hand, he did abandon his gap in 9s and got overrun for a big play.

Michael Mauti looked much more willing to stick himself in there and attack bodies at the line. I didn't see much of his pass coverage, but he did do a good job shedding blockers and getting to the running back. In one instance he misread a play, over-reacted, and then recovered in enough time to make the tackle and hold the running back to minimal gain.

That's extremely encouraging, because every defensive player will be out of place sometimes, and recovery speed is an impossible skill to teach.

Offense

Depth Chart

QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Vandenberg
LT: Matt Kalil, Kevin Murphy, DeMarcus Love
LG: Charlie Johnson, Jeff Baca, Tyler Holmes
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Camden Wentz
RG: Brandon Fusco, Seth Olsen, Travis Bond
RT: Phil Loadholt, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Colin Anderson
HB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle, Jerodis Williams
FB: Jerome Felton, Matt Asiata, Zach Line
SE: Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Stephen Burton, Rodney Smith, Chris Summers
FL: Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Joe Webb , LaMark Brown, Adam Thielen, Erik Highsmith

In short time, I may move Asiata out of the "FB" designation and back into the "HB" designation as he's taking more and more snaps running the ball. This would push Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle and Jerodis Williams down the depth chart, but move Zach Line up.

"11" Offense First Team

QB: Christian Ponder
LT: Matt Kalil
LG: Charlie Johnson
C: John Sullivan
RG: Brandon Fusco
RT: Phil Loadholt
TE: Kyle Rudolph
HB: Adrian Peterson
SL: Jarius Wright
SE: Jerome Simpson
FL: Greg Jennings

"11" just refers to the personnel set where the Vikings have one tight end and one running back on the field, and therefore three wide receivers. While not the base package, it was their most common and reliable package last year.

It's hardly a surprise, but it is worth pointing out that Patterson has not yet cracked subpackages yet. Regardless, he'll get heavy rotation here even if he's not a starter in any game in 2013.

Quarterbacks

Christian Ponder had an excellent day. The entire day was filled with difficult NFL routes, from sideline throws to out routes, and the difficult passing angles as well as the extended flight of the ball demand both excellent ball placement and velocity. It's not enough that the ball gets to the receiver, it has to get to the receiver where only he can get it-a much easier task on other routes, but difficult in the smaller passing angles.

More than that, floaters here are more dangerous for several reasons. The first is that the relative proximity of defensive backs and the deceptive length the ball must travel simply give the defensive back much more time to break on the ball and make the play. The second reason is that any interception here is much more likely to be returned for a touchdown.

He put a lot of velocity on the ball and was relatively consistent with a few errors. The errors he made were typical of the problems he's had (in particular, anticipation and ball placement) but nothing alarming.

The fact that Ponder was asked to take more risks throughout the entirety of practice and make more difficult throws while delivering was a good sign of progress. This is also an example of how Ponder has arm strength but does not always deliver it.

From here, he needs to habitualize the throw. The problem is that making a change in throwing motion and mechanics is historically difficult. Quarterbacks historically are difficult to change once they get into the NFL from a mechanics perspective and will often make strides, only to revert (examples: Tim Tebow, Matt Stafford) fairly quickly to their old habits. Ingraining new actions into muscle memory takes time, and trying to defeat 10 years of development prior is possible, but an uphill battle.

He needs to make those throws look simple.

Matt Cassel was not nearly as successful and threw a few floaters himself. He's clearly better at anticipating receivers and bringing the ball to areas they will be before the break of the route, but it's not enough to displace a player like Ponder given the advantages that Ponder has over him. Cassel did a good job bringing the ball over defenders and dropping it into space, but he couldn't make many of the throws asked of him.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson was evidently very good when I wasn't watching him, which is a pity. He threw long strikes to Adam Thielen and LaMark Brown, who also apparently looked good on those catches as well as a few zingers in receiver one-on-ones.

I didn't see those. What I did see were some surprisingly tepid passes against air when drilling the new route concepts and receivers were forced to adjust. Other times I saw passes travel too quickly and bounce off the numbers by the time the receiver turned his head around.

But if MBT looks better against defensive backs than against air, that's only a good thing.

There's another dude wearing a red jersey on this roster, but he's not a quarterback.

Wide Receivers

I'll start saying more about Greg Jennings if I get more of a feel on whether or not he has a unique role or something that would be really cool to mention, because it's getting tiring writing about how he still looks great and is an amazing route runner. He is and he will be.

Jarius Wright didn't have the amazing practice that he had a few days ago, but he looks refreshed from knowing he's had it. It was a good day for him and he wiggled open on a few routes that looked pretty cool to watch. I paid a little less attention to receivers in order to get notes elsewhere, but there were things that should excite Vikings fans.

I don't think it's surprising that a lot of fans have a feeling of dread when it comes to Jerome Simpson. He may have hit his ceiling with Cincinnati in having 725 yards on 50 receptions in 14 starts. That could be true, but he certainly doesn't look bad out there. It's difficult to define exactly why, but Simpson doesn't look like the type of receiver who would generate 1000 yards for any system.

That's fine, 600 yards wouldn't be bad if Jennings, Wright and Patterson picked up some serious slack, but I don't think Simpson has the vision or lateral agility to become a good returner or YAC guy, and I don't think he'll ever be a precise enough route-runner to truly thrive in the system.

In some ways, he would do better in a more complicated, read-oriented offense. Making decisions based on what he sees the defense do is his strength, and he's not given as much latitude as he could use.

I've waffled a lot on Stephen Burton over the past few days and during practices. The middle ground of those opinions is where he probably is. He has moments where he can display speed or power, and has even better moments where he demonstrates vision enough to sit in areas where the defense is uncovered, but he's not bringing a lot of those things together and still is inconsistent as a route runner, flashing precision on some occasions and sloppiness at other times.

Perhaps Webb's worst day, he dropped two passes that I saw and perhaps one more that I didn't. There's some responsibility to split (Ponder underthrew the pass on his first drop for example), but even if a receiver gets turned around, they should be expected to make the play.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that Adam Thielen will have a difficult time getting on to the roster, as he is definitely behind LaMark Brown on the depth chart. This might in some part have to do with Brown's proficiency as a special teams player. He may be slow for a receiver, but he's fast for his size-a great trait for a special teams standout.

Both Thielen and Summers were disappointing in the route-running drill, although Thielen looked to have a good day at camp. Fans were perhaps too excited about his highlight catches as one or two of them were highlights only because he made them more difficult for himself (by falling down mid-route and by drifting). On the other hand, some of his highlights were not because he did a poor job elsewhere. And knowing he can make the catch if he gets thrown off route is good, too.

Fundamentally, Thielen is good at tracking the ball in the air and making adjustments with his body after it's thrown. It's not a natural or easy skill to teach, so it might be the type of specific habit that keeps a player on a practice squad or even the team.

Erik Highsmith needs to work back to the quarterback in scramble drills, and there's a possibility that he's the only receiver that's not doing it right now on a consistent basis.

Offensive Line

Once more, I'll have to get a better look at the interior players by seeking them out, because I was only able to evaluate tackle play.

Matt Kalil is a smart player who is much stronger than his frame. Did a good job against Jared Allen, but couldn't blank Allen entirely. Allen got what would have been a sack as well as some significant pressure. But Kalil moves his feet well and has a very good understanding of leverage.

Phil Loadholt isn't looking as good as he did last year during the season. I'm not so sure it's too concerning, but it is something I'd think about if I were the Vikings. He's never been the fleetest of feet, but getting popped by both Brian Robison and Everson Griffen is more than just having slow feet. Loadholt didn't use his size or extension well and needs to play within himself again.

He's reading who he needs to block much better in the zone running plays, which is good given that that was one of his only weaknesses as a run blocking tackle.

Brandon Keith played better than I expected, even when simply lined up against Lawrence Jackson or D'Aundre Reed.

It is also unfortunate that I did not get any notes on Kevin Murphy.

Tight Ends

Kyle Rudolph is continuing to make tough catches over covered players and bring them down in the end zone, where he's known for his production. He should be fine.

John Carlson had a pretty good day lining up in a lot of situations regardless of the play. He's still an uncomfortable player at fullback, but these other positions are good to him. Carlson has great hands, but some poor route-running still. Nevertheless, he's doing a better job getting open than he has in some time. Good day from him.

Colin Anderson had another bad day in live practices, and can add another drop to his repertoire. His best value is as a backup long snapper, which is also a position that NFL teams don't tend to carry. The Vikings also already have a backup long snapper in Jared Allen, who they've used in the past in emergency situations.

Chase Ford looked good and physical and should not be too concerned with Anderson beating him on the depth chart. I don't think he's good enough, however, to make the roster proper.

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson is still very good.

Toby Gerhart is also still good. I have a feeling he's difficult to evaluate simply because the second offensive line is not as good as the second defensive line, which is probably the secondary reason that he took snaps with the ones. The primary reason, of course, is that there's no reason to expose Peterson to too much injury.

When he had that advantage, he was doing a better job gaining yards and making plays, but doesn't have the lateral agility that you want in a feature back unless you run a zone-run only scheme, which is not fortunately the case for the Vikings who are more complicated in their looks.

Matt Asiata played out of his skin for a little bit, doing a little bit of what made him so impressive last preseason. Given his versatility as a backup fullback, he has more added value that will make it difficult for others to beat him onto the roster. It might take a bad preseason game to get him out of the third RB/second FB spot.

Jerome Felton came back and popped some linebackers in the teeth. He also has a few different blocking techniques, it seems, for stoning linebackers. Generally asked to square up his blocks, the zone runs give him leeway to use leverage and momentum, which is already a base blocking concept in zone running anyway. He does a good job redirecting blockers and even came out ahead more often than not against Greenway.

Zach Line also looked good as a blocker, although he should stick to squaring up for right now. He is fluid as a blocker already and can smoothly get underneath pads. Obviously, he'll need more reps here to impress enough to earn the practice squad, but I would think he's there right now.

Joe Banyard is keeping pace with Bradley Randle's developments and isn't necessarily matching him highlight for highlight but always does enough to maintain confidence. He's always doing something I didn't know he could do, although it's generally a pretty minor thing. In Day 5, it was a stop-start ability at the line.

Bradley Randle looked good only in pass catching drills and needs to power forward better in the running game. That said, some of his work on screens and underneath routes is fun to watch, and I heard more than one comparison to Sproles on the sideline.

Special Teams

Depth Chart

First Punt Unit: Josh Robinson (g), Rodney Smith (g), Gerald Hodges, Desmond Bishop, Toby Gerhart, George Johnson, Matt Asiata, Mistral Raymond, Audie Cole

Second Punt Unit: Xavier Rhodes (g), Rodney Smith (again - g), D'Aundre Reed, Brandan Bishop, Zach Line, Michael Mauti, Collins Ukwu, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Darius Eubanks

g stands for gunner.

First Punt Return Unit: Chris Cook, Robert Blanton, Josh Robinson, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean, Rhett Ellison, Christian Ballard, Andrew Sendejo, Matt Asiata, Marvin Mitchell

Second Punt Return Unit: Xavier Rhodes, Adam Thielen, LaMark Brown, Mistral Raymond, Audie Cole, A.J. Jefferson, Desmond Bishop, Zach Line, D'Aundre Reed, George Johnson.

Random and Inconsistently Awarded Accolades

Bubble player of the day: Brandan Bishop will have a hard time knocking Sendejo out of his spot on the roster, but he's making some moves.

#90: James Vandenberg makes a repeat appearance

Eat Crow: Ponder had a good day!

I Called It: Nope.

As Expected: Floyd is powerful

Step Up: Christian Ponder had a great day yesterday and needs to do it again

Pleasant Surprise: Michael Mauti is beginning to play physically.

Uh Oh: Xavier Rhodes went down, but got back up again pretty quickly.

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