By 5 PM Central time on Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings will have to reduce their roster down to 53 players, as will every other team in the National Football League. We've had the opportunity to watch the team play four pre-season games, with various levels of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth and so forth. So what do we think is going to happen?
Well, for starters, there are plenty of spots on the roster right now that are not, in fact, up for grabs. As far as I can tell, here are the guys that have absolutely no chance of finding themselves unemployed on Saturday afternoon.
QB - Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel
RB - Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart
FB - Jerome Felton*
WR - Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson
TE - Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison
OL - Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt, Joe Berger
DE - Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen
DT - Kevin Williams, Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, Letroy Guion
LB - Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Desmond Bishop
CB - Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson
S - Harrison Smith, JaMarca Sanford
K - Blair Walsh
P - Jeff Locke
LS - Cullen Loeffler
By my count, that's 35 spots out of 53. . .34 if you count the fact that Jerome Felton won't count against the Vikings' 53-man roster while he's serving his three-game suspension to start the season. Defensive tackle Christian Ballard won't count against the team as long as he's on the suspended/left team list, either, nor will receiver Greg Childs as long as he's on PUP.
One of the big sources of intrigue is what's going to happen with the wide receiver position and the quarterback position, as they're linked by one person. . .that being Joe Webb. The quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback-turned-receiver got a lot of attention in last night's pre-season game against the Tennessee Titans, being given the opportunity to make plays in space. At least one person on Twitter observed that it looked like he was being featured in the "Percy Harvin" role from last year.
If the team decides that they can't live without Webb, then does that spell the end for Stephen Burton? Burton has had a pretty impressive camp thus far, though he's had his lapses as well (such as stopping short on a slant route against the 49ers, causing an interception). This is Burton's third year in the league, which is when the light is supposed to "come on" for wide receivers, and he might be the best blocking receiver the Vikings have. . .and we know how much the Vikings value that.
If the team wants to keep Burton and Webb, then the odd man out might be Jerome Simpson. . .or it could be current #3 quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. The team could talk themselves into keeping six receivers and listing Webb as the #3 quarterback by cutting MB-T. (And then, you know, praying like hell that he never has to line up behind center again.) But I think the team likes Bethel-Thompson a lot, and he's shown some potential as a developmental option. In the end, I think Burton ends up drawing the short straw.
At running back, Jerome Felton's suspension probably locks Zach Line into a roster spot. He's shown the ability to block, catch, and run thus far in pre-season, and has the sort of versatility that Bill Musgrave seems to like. The #3 tailback battle appears to have gotten down to the incumbent, Matt Asiata, and the newcomer, Joe Banyard. Banyard was featured quite a bit against the Titans, and responded nicely. His pass blocking skills are lacking at the present time, but he appears to offer a bit more of a change of pace to Peterson and Gerhart than Asiata represents.
As far as the offensive line, I think the team likes Jeff Baca a lot. He's gotten work at center and guard, and could shore up both positions. Kevin Murphy appears to be the guy the team is looking at for the swing tackle spot, as he replaced Kalil for a spell while he was drawing dumb penalties against the 49ers. I think Seth Olsen makes the squad, too, though, giving the team nine offensive linemen.
Moving to defense, the team has three defensive ends locked in, and I think that D'Aundre Reed joins them, even though he's been relatively non-descript this pre-season. Nobody has really done anything to knock him out of his spot. The four defensive tackle spots look pretty set at this point, too, though that could change pending how serious Kevin Williams' injury turns out to be. The team says he's "hoping" to be back for Week 1, but if he can't be, they're going to need extra help there. For now, I'm going to play it like he's going to be out for a bit, and say that Anthony McCloud sticks as the fifth defensive tackle (for now).
Linebacker has some intrigue to it as well. I think that Greenway, Henderson, and Bishop are locked in as the starters at this point. Paul Allen said that they hadn't called Gerald Hodges' name all pre-season, but I think the team would be nuts to get rid of him this early. Mike Mauti has shown pretty nicely this pre-season, too, and the way that Leslie Frazier has gushed about Marvin Mitchell this off-season tells me he's set, too. If the Vikings are going to keep seven linebackers. . .and with as many of them that they have with injury histories, they should. . .the last spot would come down to Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenzie, and OMG AUDIE COLE. Dean and McKenzie are special teams standouts, while Audie Cole is. . .well, he's Audie Cole. It's a really tough call, to be honest. I'm going to say that Dean sticks and the other two are out.
Moving to the defensive backfield, I think that Marcus Sherels might have solidified his spot last night against Tennessee with his performance. Bobby Felder was his closest competition in that regard, but he got injured last night. Also, with Felder, as someone noted in the game thread, he's either making a great play or he's getting torched. . .no real in-between. He might be a guy that. . .cough. . ."finds his way to injured reserve" for this season, regardless of the severity of his injury. A.J. Jefferson will make the roster, too, where his incredible athleticism will continue to be offset by his seeming complete lack of ball skills.
I think the team keeps five safeties as well, as JaMarca Sanford will continue to team with Harrison Smith as the starters with Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton backing them up. Andrew Sendejo will return, too, as he's one of the main cogs on special teams.
With that, here's what I think the final roster looks like at 5:00 PM Central on Saturday afternoon.
QB - Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson (3)
RB - Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Joe Banyard (3)
FB - Zach Line (1)
WR - Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Joe Webb (5)
TE - Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison (3)
OL - Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt, Jeff Baca, Seth Olsen, Joe Berger, Kevin Murphy (9)
DE - Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, D'Aundre Reed (4)
DT - Kevin Williams, Fred Evans, Sharrif Floyd, Letroy Guion, Anthony McCloud (5)
LB - Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Desmond Bishop, Marvin Mitchell, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Larry Dean (7)
CB - Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, A.J. Jefferson (5)
S - Harrison Smith, JaMarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo (5)
K - Blair Walsh (1)
P - Jeff Locke (1)
LS - Cullen Loeffler (1)
Now, as Rick Spielman said during the broadcast of last night's game, what the 53-man roster looks like on Saturday is likely not what the 53-man roster is going to look like on Monday. The Vikings will be looking at guys that have been cut by other teams, and if they see someone that can fill a need. . .perhaps at defensive tackle or something. . .they could easily move to bring someone else in and cut someone that was with them in camp.
Who do you think will make the cut this weekend?