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Minnesota Vikings 2014 Training Camp Notebook (Day Two)

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More Vikings Training Cap news from Mankato

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A new head coach is always significant for a franchise, and for the most part there’s good reason: getting the old leader out of the way.

Like any Vikings fan, I’m ecstatic to see Mike Zimmer in charge of the team I love and expect it to lead to some significant improvement. We won’t know the answer to this until a significant amount of the season is through with, but there is a good question to ask: will it really make a big impact?

Teams for the most part are driven by talent and play design. Coaches rarely affect the talent on the field, though there is something to be said about developing that talent and putting the right talent into the game. Largely, they’re involved in the play design aspect or in managing those who provide play design technology.

In this case, Mike Zimmer is one of the many coaches who does not identify and supply talent to the team, but does provide a significant amount of play design on the defense, letting Norv Turner on the offense handle things on his end.

There are dozens of ways to measure talent, all of them massively imperfect and some of them contradictory. The issue is with separating play design from talent on the field; an inextricable feature of the way the game is played.

Nevertheless, the information that we have about the Vikings is twofold: the first is that they have a new coach and the second is that they are largely the same team they were before even with some differences at the margins.

Given that information, we know there’s a good chance the Vikings will do better than they did last season. This isn’t because of the new talent or upgrades at key positions, nor because of the coaching incompetencies of the last regime. Instead, all other things being equal, that’s what teams do.

A study cited by Football Freakonomics, a generally poorly done statistical sideshow if we’re being honest, suggests that coaching changes often precede increases in winning and winning percentage. Theoretically, that suggests that new coaches do good things. They did one further to separate the impact of new talent acquisition and the offseason in general by looking at interim head coaches specifically, and found the same thing.

They weren’t very confident in their findings, and a different (more rigorous) study concluded the opposite: that firing head coaches tends to decrease the expected win total.

The odd thing is that both studies are probably correct. Seemingly contradictory, the studies both rely on the same underlying point: improvement in win totals are often a result of regression to the mean, not a significant change in talent, strength of schedule or strategy. That is, especially in a 16-game season, a team’s true talent is not reflected in their record, and that a particularly unlucky or lucky team will be rated incorrectly. That’s why point differential and DVOA are far better predictors of who will win (either the next season or the next game within a season) than pure win record.

To use a recent example, the Vikings did pretty well when Leslie Frazier was first handed the job in the middle of the 2010 season (going .500 after the team had gone .300 before Childress was fired). An unrepresentative bad 2011 (3-13) was followed by an almost equally unrepresentative 2012 (10-6) and it looked like a decent coaching hire.

Of course 2013 “proved” that not to be the case, and as a result the Vikings are sitting pretty with a new regime and a lot of optimism.

In truth, the Vikings probably had around a 6-7 win team the entire time, and the outliers drove reaction. Should the Vikings grab seven wins this next year, it probably would be slightly disappointing but perceived as an improvement, when the case for that may not be very strong.

The two studies both imply that a new coach tends to limit the likelihood that a team hits the win total that their talent level from the previous season implies (measured in point differential, playoff appearances or simply total wins), but the team tends to do better in the win column than the previous year. All it means is that teams should do “more better.”

What’s interesting is that in this case, the Vikings may have played exactly to their talent level, despite the odd statistic here and there about the Vikings’ record in games shortened by a minute (yes, they would have been the #3 seed in the NFC, but no they were not that good). Their average point differential per second implies they were a 5.3 win team, while Football Outsiders’ Forest Index indicated the team was probably a 6.5 win team. The “Pythagorean Wins” metric, which looks only at end-of-game point differential, implies the Vikings were “truly” a 6.1 win team.

So the Vikings won’t benefit from regression all that much, but may be disadvantaged by the fact of hiring a new coach. There’s usually a number of reasons that hiring a new coach leads to more losses than expected, and many of those reasons don’t apply to the Vikings—coaching turnover often leads to roster turnover, even of good players; coaching turnover affects consistency of the staff at all levels, even the well-performing coaches; new coaches can be “unready” to handle an NFL team; new coaches do not know as well the strengths and weaknesses of their team; new coaches are taking on a team built around a different coach with different schemes in mind.

Here, the Vikings do not seem to be at risk of major roster turnover, particularly of “good” players. The Vikings have retained their entire offensive starting package, with a risk of improving the quarterback position, and have seen starters exit on their defense at four positions, two of which (nose tackle and cornerback) are likely to see more improvement than anything else.

Beyond that, the Vikings have retained their best-performing staff, including receivers coach George Stewart, offensive line coach and run game coordinator Jeff Davidson and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.

While it remains to be seen if Zimmer has the temperament or ability to deal with being a new head coach (and he certainly needs to see more of the team to get a sense of its talent), it’s interestingly clear that the Vikings are better built to play with the new schemes instead of the old ones, with press-friendly man cornerbacks and athletic threats on every level of the field at receiver, with a timing-friendly quarterback corps.

There are also probably some good reasons that the leading indicators of talent (point differential, DVOA, etc.) are unfairly poisoned by the coordinators putting talent in a bad position to accumulate better leading statistics for talent (or wins). They ranked 26th in play design, 28th in first down differential per play and 29th in first downs per yards gained. All of these, anecdotally, can strongly indicate that the play design was bad.

If the Vikings had far worse coaches in terms of situational football, then there’s every reason to believe that the Vikings are not only going to outperform their record, but the odds of having landed a dud. And at this point, that certainly seems the case.

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

Again, there's virtually nothing to say about the offensive or defensive line until pads come on, though Linval Joseph looks good, in part because of his willingness not to take things seriously and part because of his childhood desire  to play in the NFL at a high level. He batted down two more passes, still from Matt Cassel, to make the defense look pretty good.

Linebackers

Though that depth chart above hasn't really changed, there was a lot of movement among the linebackers in day two of practice, with Anthony Barr spending significant time in walkthroughs as the first, second or third team strongside linebacker. and Gerald Hodges with brief moments in the starting roster as well—not to mention his appearance in the nickel package along with Chad Greenway.

Greenway spent a few snaps at middle linebacker, and Hodges took first-team snaps at outside linebacker, while Jasper Brinkley was the backup MLB in that case.

As for how they performed in drills and in live scrimmage opportunities...

Chad Greenway did extremely well in most of the drills, anchoring well when quick-striking through the blocking sled and a stack-and-shed drill. He was technically sound, and when lined up against a blocker, was favorable to a bull-jerk move in order to get to the ballcarrier. During scrimmage, he looked good as well, filling his assignments in the run game soundly and with only minor struggles in the passing game, outweighed by inconsistent bursts of good play against the pass.

There aren't any linebackers "established" in the same way that Greenway is, but it looks like Audie Cole might be the Vikings' best shot for a consistent linebacker to keep looking towards. Unfortunately, from what I saw, Cole struggled in the drills session and suffered from consistently poor hand placement. He still had a lot of pop when wrapping up, but he simply needs to work on getting out of blockers.

First-round pick Anthony Barr showed hesitation in live practices, and I didn't get to see much of him in drills. It seems like, however, that he wants to consistently apply pass-rushing principles to get off blockers in the run game, which isn't a bad thing, but sometimes incomplete. He was a little off balance in that regard during drills. In live play, he seemed to react slower to the snap than his teammates. There wasn't much in his actual pass coverage to incur too much criticism or praise.

Gerald Hodges may be the first candidate to really take over a spot on the starting lineup away from the incumbent linebackers. His movement in live play was refreshing to watch, as he played with fluidity and balance in getting to the ball, as well as a player who definitely looks like he'll contribute in a phase of the game that the Vikings simply couldn't get could plays out of last year—pass defense.

The returning linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, is probably much better than he was when he left, but he probably shouldn't be anyone's idea of a savior. Brinkley struggled in some drills and did well in others, and he needs to find ways to increase his lateral agility while still maintaining appropriate leverage to hit well.

Michael Mauti looked very good, both in live scrimmages and in the drills I observed. Not only did he move down the blocking shed with speed and power, he played as a natural defender against a blocker, with a god stab-and-grab to keep blockers off balance and maintain lane discipline and balance. He repeated this performance in live drills, where he seemed to have a nose for the ball.

I didn't see much of the other Mike Zimmer at linebacker, but what little I saw wasn't very impressive. He had some issues with occupying blockers, though he did better than some of his peers there. In scrimmage, he seemed to know where to go, but he didn't always get there in time.

The other late linebacker addition, Dom Decicco, performed fairly poorly in the drills I watched as well, and couldn't find a way to consistently both shed the blocker and square himself to the running back. As a pass defender, Decicco lost some battles and allowed tight and running backs to run over him.

I did not see much of Larry Dean, who saw very, very little of the field. Brandon Watts is getting many more reps than other third-string linebackers, but he's still looking relatively underwhelming for the drills. He, too, was late to react to the snap of the ball and sometimes found himself a little out of alignment.

Cornerbacks

The cornerback who frequently earned the praise of coaches was Marcus Sherels. Despite his diminutive stature, he held up well against the receivers both on the outside and in the slot. Sherels displayed good hands and quick reaction time in the interception drills. He also was perhaps the only corner assigned to Adam Thielen to make a play on the ball.

Presumptive starter Josh Robinson struggled, especially, when put into situations where he would have to defend a lot of space, like against Greg Jennings in the slot. In the same drills he was competing against Sherels, he dropped a handy interception headed his way.

I did not get a great look at Xavier Rhodes, though he did a decent job making sure that Jerome Simpson wasn't finding space, especially up the sideline.

Shaun Prater saw a lot of action, and for the most part looked pretty good. He had more than one pass deflection against Teddy Bridgewater and has been within a step of his coverage in these two days of camp.

There wasn't much to say about Derek Cox, good or bad. He wasn't targeted often enough to get a good read on how he does in those situations, but didn't always play tight to the receiver in a manner here and allowed the receivers some separation.

For all of his height concerns, Jabari Price looked very good. He pushed around Rodney Smith more than once, a player 6.5 inches taller than him and with 200 pounds on him, to disrupt him from his route.  He took at least one rep at safety, but has mostly been employed as a corner.

I was surprised with how well Robert Steeples did, consistently getting praised by the coaches and doing a good job of contesting balls in the air. In particular, a sideline squeeze of Greg Jennings to win the space out wide helped him a lot, and if he can do that consistently, he'd be perfect as an outside corner.

There weren't many opportunities for Kendall James to get out there and I missed anything that Julian Posey put together, too.

Safeties

Starter Harrison Smith started out a little shaky, tracking the ball poorly in drills and playing a little too safe in seven-on-sevens, but he ended up recovering to put in an OK day at the office. It's clear that he's still transitioning to a new defense.

Robert Blanton did alright enough in his time on the field, but it looks like the coaches are already looking for ways to test out other safeties at his spot to see who fits. Blanton's day was not nearly as good as yesterday, but that would be hard to top.

Unfortunately, Jamarca Sanford couldn't take advantage of Blanton's OK day by putting in a stellar one of his own, and was out of position a few times, drawing the ire of coaches. By the end of the day, he looked to have cleared up his issues, but it's not a good scene for him to botch an opportunity to re-earn the starting job.

Virginia Tech product Antone Exum has looked good of late, though, and is a dark horse to claim that starting spot. He had some good performances on the day, but he still did have an issue here or there in live drills if only because he couldn't outposition receivers going deep.

I did not see much of Kurt Coleman, Brandan Bishop, or Mistral Raymond. Raymond did poorly in the interception drills.

Offense

Depth Chart

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

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel didn't do himself any favors in attempting to earn the starting job. His best attribute was quick decisionmaking, where he far outpaced Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder. Though consistently finding targets who he could throw a little more open, there was enough shakiness there to be concerned. Some ball placement issues with his passes will dog him, though he did end up putting together a good string of completions. The fact that he had at least two more passes deflected at the line today is becoming tiresome. Though he didn't overthrow anyone today, it was still somewhat disappointing.

There wasn't a huge improvement from Cassel to Teddy Bridgewater, as Bridgewater did a slightly better job connecting to receivers and going through progressions, he also didn't have top-notch ball placement and created more contested passes as a result, including a few near-interceptions. He threw a little high and that caused problems as well. One good note, though: Bridgewater clearly and consistently is going through multiple reads and making sure to keep his eyes active. He needs to quicken up in this regard, but it's still a huge asset.

It's odd, because Christian Ponder is expected to do poorly, but perhaps not this poorly. He continues to scramble too early and miss open receivers, struggle with ball placement and takes too long making decisions, even when staring down receivers. There were multiple open receivers he missed when going after a covered receiver and when he did hit a guy, it usually required a lot of adjustment.

Wide Receivers

I'll continue my crush on Greg Jennings, because he is a phenomenal receiver. Despite not getting the ball as often as he might deserve, he's cracking open defenses wide, especially in man coverage. He's being used at every level, but is more often an underneath option while other receivers work on lifting the top off or constraining defenses in the flats. He's shown good hands and some very phenomenal route running.

Cordarrelle Patterson is still day to day.

Jarius Wright doesn't seem to be living up to his actual play from the last two years, but that's not necessarily entirely damning as he didn't look too bad out there in Day 2. His Day 2 performance was better than Day 1, and he was more surehanded with the ball. He's comfortable running routes to the outside and seems to understand that his size forces him to change his approach against taller defensive backs. He's been playing with good positioning, but does need to tighten up his route running.

Though there wasn't much buzz about him in Day 2, Jerome Simpson had a very good day. He found ways to keep getting open in each deep third of the field and even saved some bad passes with relatively acrobatic catches. Though he's not known for winning contested balls, he did a very good job of that on the second day of camp, and almost made up for his spotty performance from the previous day.

The best day had by anyone in Day 2 was probably Adam Thielen, who caught almost everything headed his way—and there were a lot of passes headed his way. On occasion, he found himself wide, wide open and Bridgewater was sure to take advantage of that. He's not winning contested balls yet, but he's doing a lot of other things that are attention-worthy.

Kain Colter didn't seem to have as good a day, with a bad drop (there were some ball placement issues on the drop, too) and some issues in route-running drills. He needs to sink his hips more in the breaks and find ways to explode out of cuts in order to create additional separation. On the other hand, he did save some poor throws as well, and his hands are far better than you'd expect someone with his background to be. Still, he needs to be consistent in order to make the roster.

Unfortunately, it looked like Erik Lora had a quiet day, and so I didn't mark down much of him. He too had some issues with deeper route-running and getting open, doing a much better job with underneath routes to find space.

It didn't look good for Rodney Smith, whose only job seems to be catching contested balls in the air, something he's failing at despite being the tallest skill position player at camp by some margin. He's not asserting himself physically (even within the limitations of unpadded practice), is tracking the ball poorly and losing battles in the air. For what it's worth, he's progressed in a big way as a route runner since his time at Florida State, but it's not enough to make up for some problematic performances throughout the day.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise, but I'm not sold on either Ty Walker or Andy Cruse. Both looked relatively sluggish in their routes and are still rustier than their counterparts. It's true that they have more catching up to do, but the question is whether or not they'll do it in time to survive the first round of cuts. Walker had at least one drop to go with his short-gainers in no-huddle drills. Andy Cruse did a little better with an impressive catch deep downfield, but still had issues getting open overall.

Donte Foster did not catch my eye, except for me to say that I didn't see him get open that often, but I did see a nice catch of his.

Tight Ends

I'll need to pay more attention to the tight ends today, as I simply didn't see that much of them. I missed almost everything that Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison did, though it was hard not to notice AC Leonard's excellent day. He's a smooth athlete that seems to find ways to get open. He also happened to recover from a tipped ball and catch it on the way to the ground. Allen Reisner had some good moments, too, with an impressive catch coming from a late-turnaround out of a route. He had a few more good catches working with the third team over the third-string linebackers.

Running Back

I didn't see much of the running backs, but Adrian Peterson seemed like his usual self. There's a lot of work being done in blitz recognition and pass protection technique, and Peterson seems to be doing just fine in those drills, with a lot of lateral movement and quick decisionmaking to identify pass rushing threats.

Matt Asiata is playing with more agility than I recall from last year and still displays his mature vision. That agility is allowing him to make cuts at the line of scrimmage, something he didn't have in previous years.

Jerick McKinnon has some freakish balance, and I saw him get out of really awkward positions without hitting the ground on more than one occasion. He also has a lot of speed, but that's sort of how camp works—one player will always display impressive speed, and it may be because he's putting more effort into a practice. Still, there are signs that he's the athletic wunderkind he was drafted to be, with extremely impressive change-of-direction regardless of "practice speed."

Not a lot of good looks at Joe Banyard or Dominique Williams, unfortunately. It looks like McKinnon may be separating himself from them.

Offensive Line

It's too difficult to speak on the offensive linemen at the moment because the folks in the trenches more than anyone else need to participate in padded practices before they become useful in evaluation. For what it's worth, it seems like Matt Kalil is having issues with Everson Griffen's speed, which is less the case for Brian Robison and Phil Loadholt, though Robison did have some very impressive moments. It also looked like Charlie Johnson struggled against Sharrif Floyd.

Day 2 was very encouraging, I think.