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Minnesota Vikings 2014 Training Camp Notebook (Day One)

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The first day of training camp has concluded, which means we now have the opportunity to dissect every play we possibly can!

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The first day of training camp comes with a lot of anticipation and a little bit of hype. Obviously, the Vikings had a little bit more to overcome in Mankato than a typical team in terms of non-football distractions, but an aggressive strategy to resolve the issue has been at least partially effective.

It will be some time before we get a full understanding of the coaching staff and how it differs from the previous regime, but the philosophical differences are beginning to clear up.

Immediately, the unusual emphasis the Vikings paid to special teams the past two years has fallen to the wayside. That aligns with the rest of the NFL, so there’s not much to draw upon that more than anything else, though the monomaniacal emphasis on the field position battle we saw in previous years may no longer be the sturdy focus.

I’ve long argued that pundits and football intelligentsia have placed far too much importance on special teams, and a lot of that has to do with two facts: 1) there is not much distinction between the fourth-worst and fourth-best special teams unit in the NFL and 2) it is extremely rare for a team to show year-to-year excellence in special teams.

That doesn’t mean a bad special teams unit won’t hurt—any team that loses its long snapper well knows the impact of abysmal play—just that it generally takes circumstances out of a coach’s control to produce the results that lead to special teams units consistently losing games for their team, unless they’re the 2010 San Diego Chargers.

Returning to a more league-average emphasis may simply be (accidentally) efficient, where marginal improvements in one category more often produce larger on-field improvements than in another category. Improving average field position as a result of returns by one yard may take as many resources as improving offensive yards per play by 0.1 yards, but because there are more than ten offensive plays from scrimmage for every non-touchback return, improving yards per play yields more in terms of field yardage.

There’s evidence of different coaching priorities throughout the camp atmosphere, too—it’s not just reduced to emphasizing or de-emphasizing special teams. There’s an additional mandatory team film session in the schedule that wasn’t there before or was made optional in the previous regime.

Coaches are far more vocal and routinely critical of players than they were in the past. The culture of the locker room emphasizes a different relationship between coaches and players—one that seems far less give-and-take than before.

This is not to say that the new approach is remarkably better or that we even know all of or even most of what makes the coaching staff different than Frazier’s.

As it is, the coaching philosophy, as always needs to be consistent throughout the organization. Without that, the critical lack of a unified voice being transmitted to the players can lead to breakdowns in communication, not just between players and the coaching staff, but among the coaches themselves. Further, a lack of consistency in how players are handled leads to resentment, unequal treatment and confusing outcomes.

Hopefully, there will be more to speculate on in regards to coaching and philosophy as camp goes on.

Offense

Depth Chart

The offensive depth chart is a little different if only because it seems like there is much more variability in how the receivers will be used. There won't necessarily be a specified flanker, split end or slot receiver so much as a set of receivers expected to do anything from any position. Because of that, the receivers will not be listed as WR1, Z, SE, etc. but simply as one list of receivers. Obviously, there will likely be more than one receiver on the field on any given snap (from 2006 to 2013, his offenses have had between 73% and 94% of their formations feature two receivers or more), you will see the chart play out differently than listed. Hopefully, this still provides a good idea of how the offense stands.

QB: Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater, Christian Ponder
HB: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, Joe Banyard, Dominique Williams
FB: Jerome Felton, Zach Line
TE: Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, A.C. Leonard, Chase Ford*, Allen Reisner, Mike Higgins
WR: Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson*, Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson, Adam Thielen, Rodney Smith, Kain Colter, Erik Lora, Kamar Jorden, Donte Foster, Ty Walker, Andy Cruse
LT: Matt Kalil, Antonio Richardson, Pierce Burton
LG: Charlie Johnson, David Yankey, Jeff Baca
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Zac Kerin
RG: Brandon Fusco, Vladimir Ducasse, Austin Wentworth
RT: Phil Loadholt, Mike Remmers, Kevin Murphy

*Chase Ford and Cordarrelle Patterson did not participate, so this is a speculative projection more than an observation

Quarterbacks

There wasn't much to draw from in terms of quarterback play. Matt Cassel grabbed all of the first team reps, though it won't stay that way if only to test others. He didn't have a great day. There were some ugly throws in there, including a particularly bad wobbler to Jerome Simpson that almost ended up as a tip interception for Robert Blanton. He also found his passes batted down at the line of scrimmage at least three times.

A few bad overthrows were peppered in as well. Cassel looked relatively solid on passes to the intermediate levels that were not batted down—crossing routes and drag routes were hit with some precision. If pocket awareness is something easily evaluated in a world without sacks or pads, his was marginal. It was not terrible, but his pocket movement was stiff and not as reactive as it should have been.

Ball placement deep was not ideal, but it wasn't necessarily criminal (aforementioned play aside) and there was one moment where he did hit his receiver only to see it dropped. Still, the Vikings did not complete a deep pass that day, and he threw the most passes.

There was a messy QB sneak from Cassel that resulted in a fumble.

Teddy Bridgewater may have had the best throw of the day, if only because it was so beautiful.

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Yes, it was an incompletion that he caused, but it was very pleasing to watch nevertheless. In general, his pocket sense was better and he had good movement. There were some awkward moments with poor footwork and that caused at least one bad throw, but for the most part looked good. There was a moment where he rolled away from pressure to drop a touch pass between two defenders to Kain Colter for a fantastic gain, and that was perhaps the most encouraging sign of the day.

Teddy's draw fakes are involved and convincing, and do not seem to throw off the timing of the run.

Christian Ponder had a mixed day. In the walkthroughs, confusion with the third team, seemingly caused by him, forced the Vikings to rehuddle and coach up players once more and there were some bad moments later on as well. He threw the only scrimmage interception of the day to Robert Blanton, who was in good position.

Ponder was the only quarterback to scramble, but it was a good decision. A muddy pocket with acres of green space and a clear running lane for a first down were there, and had the coaches not whistled the play dead, it would have been a good gainer.

In 7-on-7s, Ponder threw a few overthrows, and capped it off with one in 11-on-11s. He still has issues staring down receivers, but did thread a needle at least once and had a good gainer near the end of scrimmage drills.

Receivers

Cordarrelle Patterson sat out. I was told it wasn't medical, but later in the day there was confirmation from the Vikings that Patterson had a minor foot injury and is now day-to-day. Some reported limping. I did not see it, nor did Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune.

Greg Jennings was very Greg Jennings. In some senses, he didn't really test himself fully because there were only basic coverage concepts he had to work against, but he regularly worked himself open and displayed the surest hands of the corps. In drills, he certainly seemed to collect himself better than the others and prevented wasted movement.

Less solid was Jarius Wright, who suffered both from his special teams work and his play on the field. He had more than one dropped pass, and double-clutched a few as well. He did the same in punt return work. Wright certainly has the capability to get open and be a major threat, but did not do much of it in the first day of camp, mostly doing work underneath to get open. He does seem to have intentionally varied his speed throughout the route, though, which should make him exceedingly difficult to cover.

The worst day might have been Jerome Simpson's. Not only did he drop three passes (not counting the odd Cassel wobbler) in scrimmages, he dropped passes that hit his hands in drills as well. Conversely, he did find himself open quite a bit (though less in drills with press work, which admittedly was not the focus of the day) and it wasn't just because of his speed. Simpson for the first time in a while was relatively unassuming, but he would appear in open spaces to exploit the defense. If he could haul the ball in, it would all be very impressive.

Adam Thielen may be in a position to overtake Simpson on the depth chart, which would be frankly astounding. Not only is he rumored to be a favorite of the coaching staff, he clearly demonstrated good play on the field. He's improved his consistency as a route-runner it seems, though he still has this tendency to create highlight-type passes as a result of a mistake he himself made. This time, it was laying out for a slant he really didn't need to.

There is a gap between Thielen and the rest of the depth chart, and it looks like the current receiver on top of that pile is Rodney Smith, who looks like he always does—athletic but missing some technical refinement. He seems to have started doing things like sinking his hips a little better in the drills, but his footwork is dragging and poor and it looks like he could be setting himself up to lose leverage in the passing game despite his size. He made some minor mistakes in drills.

Marginally ahead of the undrafted free agents is Kain Colter, whose hands seem to exceed those of the hands of other players who played receiver for far longer than Colter has. For the most part seemed to look good and crisp. Came out to be the only receiver looking good in special teams besides Marcus Sherels (and Jeff Locke). Colter has displayed impressive body control as well.

Next in the pecking order is Erik Lora, who looked good in drills but seemed to quiet down in 11-on-11s. He did grab a pass, but for the most part was washed out.

I did not catch much of Kamar Jorden or Donte Foster, though it looks like Foster isn't high on the coach's list of priorities.

The new players, Ty Walker and Andy Cruse, looked as rusty as you'd expect. No major route-running errors or confusion, but both suffered from drops and improved dramatically over the course of a single practice. Though Cruse tests as the more agile athlete, it seems like Walker has better on-field agility. Still, they haven't had the time to be with this team to really provide a fair evaluation.

Tight Ends

Didn't catch much of the tight end action, which means I don't have any notes on Kyle Rudolph or Rhett Ellison. I did note that AC Leonard had an unusual capacity to get open against the third and fourth-stringers. nothing on Mike Higgins or Allen Reisner. Of note, Leonard and Reisner both dropped passes, Leonard doing so twice.

Notably, Kyle Rudolph has dropped weight in order to access the speed he had the year before he declared for the draft (and before his first hamstring injury). Weighing in at 258, he's running leaner and differently than he had been in the past. If he can get the speed he had in his sophomore year of college, he may finally turn into that comprehensive tight end threat people had hoped he would be.

Importantly, Rudolph is looking to improve the breaks out of his routes, and that's well worth watching, as it was a weakness of his running up to this point. Norv Turner has asked him to shorten his stride, and that should go a long way into creating a different kind of separation.

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson looked as good as ever, and there wasn't much from him that was unexpected. Quick thinker in the pass protection drills, Peterson's patience seems to have improved, though only a live game can test that quality. His catching was about as you'd expect, with a few decent catches in drills on occasion and two disappointing drops that hit him in the hands.

Matt Asiata probably deserves the #2 spot he currently occupies. He showed good vision a few times in camp, though in drills he was stiff as a board. Couldn't do much in change-of-direction type drills, especially ones that require moving the hips to a new face. Not a particularly convincing pass-catcher.

On the other hand, Jerick McKinnon astonished in these drills, and he looks every bit the physical phenom the Vikings drafted. Not only is he fluid in everything he does, it comes naturally and without the problem of reducing his speed. His burst and speed were obvious on the field, too, and occasionally he looked like he was playing a different game than others because of it. Had one drop in pass-catching drills. Though he had a few drops in the Senior Bowl as a result of his small hands, this one seemed to be related to concentration; McKinnon didn't look the ball in and turned upfield before securing the ball.

Jerome Felton is not a particularly agile person, but he deserves more credit than he gets as is, as he can square himself with better adroitness than Zach Line or Asiata. His blocking technique was praised audibly by the coaches and used as an instructive example to the other running backs. He keeps himself tight and coiled when blocking, only to release powerfully at the point of attack. He looked fairly natural catching the ball.

Unfortunately, Zach Line did not look as natural. He did seem more comfortable carrying the ball, which it looks like fullbacks will be asked to do, but it's clear that he'd only carry the ball in that capacity instead of as a halfback.

I didn't get to see a lot of Joe Banyard, but I did see some of Dominique Williams and there's a few things to like about him. At the moment he seems to be a combination of power and quickness, though lacking long speed. That alone is interesting enough to want to explore further.

Offensive Line

There's nothing to note without pads, except that the rumor is that the coaching staff is very high on Zac Kerin from Toledo.

Defense

Depth Chart

RDE: Everson Griffen, Scott Crichton, Justin Trattou, Jake Snyder
NT: Linval Joseph, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Isame Faciane
UT: Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson, Kheeston Randall, Shamar Stephen
LDE: Brian Robison, Corey Wootton, Rakim Cox, Tyler Scott
SLB: Audie Cole, Anthony Barr, Dom Decicco
MLB: Jasper Brinkley, Michael Mauti, Mike Zimmer
WLB: Chad Greenway, Gerald Hodges, Larry Dean, Brandon Watts
CB: Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn*, Josh Robinson, Derek Cox, Marcus Sherels, Shaun Prater, Kendall James, Jabari Price, Julian Posey, Robert Steeples
S: Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo*, Kurt Coleman, Mistral Raymond, Antone Exum, Brandan Bishop

*Captain Munnerlyn and Andrew Sendejo did not participate, so I speculated again.

Defensive Line

Nothing to see here until the pads come on. Good job by Linval Joseph in batting down a pass.

Linebackers

Difficult to tell effectiveness given the angles we have and the no tackling rules, but Chad Greenway did stand out positively as a player who consistently found the right hole and plugged the run. His lateral movement, for what it's worth, seemed fine. He did well in the coverage drills, until Adrian Peterson slipped one by. Still, he looked good.

Audie Cole didn't look bad, but didn't seem to play with the right speed if only because he moved a little late in response to the development of the play.

As a middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley didn't look out of place. His spot is currently up for grabs, of course, but I didn't see much of Michael Mauti or Mike Zimmer.

It would have been nice to see more snaps from Anthony Barr if only to see his role in the defense, but he didn't get too many. He was rushing the passer for a lot of them (like Audie Cole was) and was working mostly on making sure he maintained square shoulders as he followed the play laterally. Maintaining depth is an important skill and it looks like he's getting a handle on it.

Brandon Watts seems to be getting more chances in rotation than you'd typically expect given his draft slot, but given how thin the Vikings are at linebacker, this hardly seems like a huge surprise. I didn't get to catch too much ofGerald Hodges, but I did like what I saw. I caught nothing of Larry Dean or Dom Decicco.

Cornerbacks

Though Captain Munnerlyn stood out, the cornerbacks largely had a nice day even without a pick. The Vikings did not practice as much press coverage as they'll likely play throughout the season, but even so saw some good stuff from Xavier Rhodes who very rarely lost his receiver (unless it was Jennings) and ended up making a few plays on the ball, especially later in practice. Rhodes has high level closing speed and is beginning to really understand his body positioning relative to the receiver, quarterback and the route being run.

Derek Cox put in a good day, too. It seems like he's fully healthy, and his fluidity is finally back. Playing with a lot of speed and agility, Cox not only had a deflection, but smotheringly good coverage as well. He's playing with a lot of focus early in camp and that's a good sign.

Shaun Prater did have one big mistake, but otherwise played fundamentally sound for most of the day and could be considered to have a better shot at making the roster than the draftees. His footwork clearly needs improvement, but his intuition seems to be spot on.

I did not track much of Jabari Price's play, but Kendall James looked very good and distinguished himself in 7-on-7s a few times with heady play and good closing speed.

I did not see much of Marcus Sherels, Robert Steeples or Julian Posey. Sherels is miles ahead in the punt return competition, if only because his attempts to field punts never look at risk. Other returners either muffed punts or double caught and nearly all of them (except Sherels) take too long to secure the ball, often holding on with the edge of their fingertips as the ball dips too low to the ground. Sherels is a natural.

Safeties

Harrison Smith wasn't immune to being corrected, but overall had a good day. He consistently forced quarterbacks to look away from him. While he was largely quiet, it was mostly effective. One note: he was a rover in a three-safety/two-linebacker package that saw him move across the formation while two free safeties operated deep.

The best day was probably to be had by Robert Blanton, who had multiple pass breakups, an interception and a near interception off of a tip. He's playing with his head on a swivel. Though he seems to have the starting strong safety spot largely because injury limited the opportunities that Jamarca Sanford or Andrew Sendejo had to take the spot, he may prove difficult to displace.

Antone Exum had a mixed day, with a few blown coverages followed by a series of nice plays and good work.

I did not see enough of Mistral Raymond, Kurt Coleman or Brandan Bishop to comment.

Overall, a good first day of training camp, with more reasons to be optimistic than anything else.