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Vikings Training Camp Notebook: Defensive Players, Weekend Recap

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Eric goes through his notebook and gives an overall review of his time at Training Camp along with a quick reaction to every defensive player on the roster.

One of the great photos I was able to get during Saturday night's practice.
One of the great photos I was able to get during Saturday night's practice.
Eric J. Thompson

This week sucks.

That sentence has kept running through my head for the past two days. And can you blame me? Instead of enjoying gorgeous mid-80's weather and getting an incredible amount of access to my favorite football team, I was stuck in my cubicle at work. The "Training Camp Hangover" has been strong and tough to endure since I left Mankato on Saturday night.

Luckily I can still recap what happened over the weekend and relive those three glorious days where I got to pretend to be a real journalist again. On Thursday night I brought you my "HOT TAEKS" of each and every offensive and special teams player. Today I'll cover everyone on the defensive side of the ball and give my quick opinion on how they did while I was in Mankato.

First, allow me to share some of the pictures I took over the weekend. Some of them aren't of the highest quality since they're all from my phone. (Note to self: get an actual photographer for us Daily Norseman writers at next year's camp.) But there are still some really cool shots I was able to get, especially from the evening practice on Saturday.

This might come as a surprise, but being able to cover the big Saturday night practice from the sidelines is pretty awesome. I snapped some great pictures, saw some great plays from mere yards away, and interacted with a bevy of very talented people that cover the team. My brother came down with me on Saturday. While he was only about 10 rows up on the 30 yard line watching the practice, he couldn't get over how great my vantage point was.

Some other quick thoughts on my overall experience at camp:

  • Overall, the 2014 Vikings have a lot of promise. However, the 2014 Vikings still have a lot of work to do if they're going to compete this year. I like where Mike Zimmer has this team headed, but they're not "there" yet. Not even close. On both sides of the ball.
  • The defensive line is probably my favorite unit on the team from top to bottom. All four starters look good and there should be some impressive depth rotating in behind them. They should be able to disrupt the quarterback and help stop the run pretty well.
  • It's good that the front four will be good because the back seven of the defense still has a lot of question marks. I think Chad Greenway will be able to bounce back and have a solid year under the new defensive scheme. I think Xavier Rhodes is poised to make a big step forward in his second year. I think Harrison Smith will be an excellent center fielder in the secondary. I think Captain Munnerlyn will be a very effective addition, especially defending slot receivers. But after that, it's nothing but question marks, even for first rounder Anthony Barr. Again, there's plenty of potential, but the staff still has to figure out how it's all going to work.
  • Mike Zimmer & Co. seem to have two philosophies that are pleasant departures from former regimes: a) they love versatile athletes that can play multiple roles; and b) they want to put their players in roles where they can excel rather than plug them into some sort of system. There will be none of Brad Childress' "if they run the kick-ass offense my way, it'll work". There will be no "TAMPA 2 4 LYFE" philosophy that Leslie Frazier clung to until the bitter end. Simply put, Zimmer and his staff are going to coach to their players' strengths rather than be steadfast in a certain scheme.
  • Arif Hasan is a legitimate celebrity now. There were at least five separate occasions I witnessed where people would yell to get Arif's attention just to tell him how much they enjoyed his work.
  • Daniel House from Vikings Corner might be "The Next Arif". The 17-year-old redhead that was shuttled around by his parents for the ten days he covered camp is already carving a name for himself among Vikings media. He put me to shame in the interview department--while I was lucky to snag one interview after practice, Daniel averaged about three interviews per session. He was hanging out with the KFAN crew before practice one day (he writes for Paul Charchian's fantasy website as well). When Vikings Wide Receivers Coach George Stewart chatted with a handful of us before Saturday's practice, he told Daniel to keep up the good work. (I also got a handshake but he likely had no effing clue who I was.) When House takes over for Mike Wobschall in about 5 years, I'll be able to say I knew him well before he could buy beer.
  • Blair Walsh is still automatic. He hit from 37, 39, 41, 43, 45, 48, 51, and 52 yards in quick succession during the Saturday practice. All with PLENTY of room to spare. The only downside to the amazing display was when his 48 yarder smacked a young girl behind the uprights square in the face. We're talking Marcia Brady football to the nose. Poor girl.
  • I think Rodney Smith may have passed Adam Thielen on the WR depth chart. If not, he probably should. Smith had another great day on Saturday, capped by his TD reception from Teddy Bridgewater on a corner route. Meanwhile, Thielen had an easy drop and not much else. I think both should probably make the team, but if I had to choose one I'd go with Smith right now.
  • As Ted reported earlier, Matt Cassel will get the start on Friday and Bridgewater will get some reps with the first team. After watching both quarterbacks closely for three days, that sounds about right. I'd still give Cassel a slight advantage overall--for now. Bridgewater has looked incredibly promising at times but has still suffered from...well, being a rookie with only about two weeks of real NFL experience.
  • The unit I'll be paying the most attention to in Friday's game against the Raiders: the linebackers. As I said in an earlier recap, it's like Zimmer and George Edwards were putting the linebacker playlist on shuffle while I was there. The first line seems to be set for now, but I'm really curious to see the rotation after the starters. I think I have a good idea of what the rotation will be--Hodges, Cole, and Watts behind Barr, Brinkley, and Greenway--but after listening to a few press conferences it sounds like that could change rather quickly.
  • I'm a camp veteran now, but Vikings' starting offensive tackles are both startling to see in person for completely different reasons. Matt Kalil is strikingly fit and thin for an offensive lineman. I had a few people ask me if Kalil was a tight end when he had his jersey tucked up so you couldn't see his number. Meanwhile, Phil Loadholt is still remarkably large. It was fun to see the reaction of first-time camp visitors to the sheer mass of the Minnesota right tackle.
  • If you're jealous that I get to cover the Vikings from up close like this every year, you should be. The novelty definitely hasn't worn off yet even though I have been lucky enough to do this for the past few years in a row. Each year I calmly conduct interviews and ask questions from the coaches at press conferences. Each year I silently say to myself, "holy sh*t I just got to talk to [player or coach name here]!" right after I'm done. If you have never been to Mankato for camp, I strongly recommend it even if you don't have the kind of access I get. It's the best chance you'll get to see the Vikings up close and get a pretty good idea of what the team might look like when September rolls around. Speaking of which, I suppose I should get to my defensive player notes!

DEFENSIVE LINE

Brian Robison: Many people are wondering if Robison will be able to deal with the extra attention now that Jared Allen isn't in the mix. I think B-Rob will be just fine. He has become one of the leaders of the defense with both his leadership and play. When he wasn't schooling his teammates in the individual drills, he was busy coaching up the backups on technique. I'm not guaranteeing he'll get 15 sacks this season but he should cause a lot of disruption in the backfield.

Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph: I feel like I need to include these two together because there have been roughly 47 stories published by various Minnesota media outlets about how well the two defensive tackles are working together. And you know what? It's true. They really are meshing well. Their skills compliment each other and they look like they have played together for years. They walked in and out of nearly every practice together. Joseph is batting down passes and stuffing the run while Floyd uses his quickness and agility to get past his blockers. Are they the next Williams Wall? Not yet. Could they be anchors of a very underrated and dangerous front four this year? Absolutely.

Everson Griffen: There are athletes, and then there are AH-THUH-LEETS. Griffen is the latter. He's an incredible ball of speed and muscle that's poised to become one of the league's best pass rushers. Which is good because the Vikings are definitely paying him like one. It remains to be seen whether he can do it day in and day out; from what I saw of Griffen in camp, there is plenty of reason to think that he'll do it.

Corey Wootton: The more I saw of Wootton in camp, the more I liked. He didn't really impress me all that much in the initial position drills, but he was very effective in 11-on-11. He has a tendency to be a little too upright at times with his 6'6" frame, but he's very effective with his hands and can do a lot of different things on the line. I even saw him drop into coverage on running backs with success.

Tom Johnson: Another guy that didn't impress me all that much in the drills but he might have made more impact plays than any other defensive lineman during the 11-on-11 work. Most of his work came against the two's but he always seemed to be harassing the quarterback or ball carrier when he was in there.

Fred Evans: Remember what you saw from Evans last year? A solid rotational player that got about a third of the defensive snaps, had some good games, had some bad games? Yeah, I'd expect more of the same in 2014. He looked nearly identical to how he did in camp last August. Not great, not terrible.

Scott Crichton: This guy did one thing as good as anyone in camp: get around the edge in a hurry. He has an amazingly quick first step and is a nightmare for any tackle trying to stop his speed rush. But he still needs to add more moves to his repertoire if he wants to get serious playing time. NFL teams will be able to just let him run outside and past the play unless he can sharpen his technique. That said, his potential is incredibly exciting.

Chase Baker: He was much more inconsistent than I expected. Baker definitely showed flashes of disrupting plays but got swallowed up at times as well. He'll have to show up more often if he wants to be part of the rotation.

Jake Snyder and Tyler Scott: These two rookies needed to be "coached up" by the veterans and line coach Robb Akey a lot. (Side note: Akey is a perfect Zimmer assistant. Old school, smash-mouth through and through.) Snyder has more size and seemed to make adjustments much better than Scott. It'll be an uphill battle for Snyder to make this roster; it'll be nearly impossible for Scott.

Justin Trattou: He's a hard worker but his strength and quickness are simply a step behind the people ahead of him on the depth chart.

Shamar Stephen: The seventh round rookie was really up and down. He'll look good one play and get chewed out by the coaches for poor technique or position the next. I thought he was fairly even with Baker, but that might not be such a good thing.

Kheeston Randall: He has some pretty impressive size but didn't show much burst off of the line. He's definitely a step behind the other defensive tackles I have already mentioned.

Isame Faciane: He barely got any reps from what I saw and there wasn't much to get excited about when he was in there.

Rakim Cox: Whoops, he's already gone. Which matches up pretty well with the notes I took about him. Let's hope Chris Crocker makes a much bigger impact, because Cox didn't even move the needle.

LINEBACKERS

Anthony Barr: Like Griffen, he's an absolute specimen athletically. The coaches did a good job putting him in situations where he could excel, such as lining him up in "9 technique" next to the defensive line fairly often. Barr could definitely be a special player in the NFL but there will be a steep learning curve for him, especially in pass coverage. Mike Zimmer summed up Barr's progression thus far perfectly in one of his press conferences: "He has made a lot of great plays that didn't need to be great plays." Barr has been a very willing student and seemed to be picking up something new every day. If he can get the X's and O's to go with his amazing ability, watch out.

Jasper Brinkley: For some reason Brinkley was harder for me to read than a Dostoevsky novel printed in Mandarin. I think he probably deserves to be the starting middle linebacker right now but the coaches shuffled around the personnel so much that it was really difficult to tell. He was always the first player off the field in nickel so I'm guessing he'll get significantly fewer snaps than Barr or Greenway even if he does start. Brinkley seems to be playing a lot smarter than his last stint with the Vikings but I honestly can't tell if he'll be able to execute at game speed yet.

Chad Greenway: Arif's fist bump buddy looks a lot more comfortable than he did last year. I'm not completely sold that he's going to have a big resurgence this year, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out either. He won't be asked to do as much in this defensive scheme, which is good because he certainly couldn't do all that was asked of him in 2013. He'll still get plenty of tackles; hopefully most of them won't be after allowing a 15 yard gain this time around.

Audie Cole: He can break downhill on the ball like nobody's business against both the pass and run. His interception on Bridgewater showed absolutely incredible instincts and closing speed. However, there's still some work to do on his lateral movement and coverage if he wants to crack the starting lineup. Maybe a lot of work.

Gerald Hodges: The Swiss Army Knife of the linebacking corps. The coaches put him all over the place while I was there. Hodges did good wherever he was placed and great nowhere. If he can keep improving he could be a sizable part of the LB rotation. His versatility and athleticism seem to have secured him a spot on this roster.

Brandon Watts: I'll admit that I was surprised to see him running with the second unit when I got to camp. But Zimmer and his staff seem to have a hankering for athletic players and Watts certainly fits that bill. Like Hodges, he'll get some snaps if he can prove to take direction from his coaches.

Michael Mauti: The cult favorite that everyone hoped would compete for the starting MLB gig is merely competing for second team snaps--and currently losing that competition most of the time. Mauti just doesn't seem to fit the versatile and athletic mold that Zimmer wants. Don't count him out just yet--Zimmer has intimated that Mauti will still get his shot at a variety of places on the field.

Larry Dean: If Dean is going to make this team again, it'll be because of his special teams prowess. On defense Dean always knows where to be; the trouble is making an impact when he gets there.

Dom DeCicco: He's pretty quick, but not quick enough to be an undersized NFL linebacker.

Mike Zimmer: Yeah, there's only going to be one Mike Zimmer on the Vikings after camp, and it won't be this one.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Xavier Rhodes: He might be the most improved player on the defense. Of course, actually being asked to defend in a way that plays to your strengths will always help you look better. Rhodes seems to be grasping the concept of how to play corner in the NFL very quickly. He didn't make boneheaded gambles or fall for head fakes like he did as a rookie in camp last year. His interception in the Saturday night scrimmage was a thing of beauty even if Zimmer correctly called him out for being a little out of position. He's no Antoine Winfield yet, but I think he's well on his way.

Captain Munnerlyn: Man is he a sight for sore eyes in the slot. His size and lateral movement make him an ideal fit to cover receivers in the middle but he looked pretty good playing outside as well. He'll make the secondary better regardless of where he lines up.

Harrison Smith: He's good. You already knew that. He looks healthy and ready to bust some heads in 2014. You probably knew that too. Smith will be the starting free safety and be on the field for nearly every snap barring another injury. You definitely knew that. Who will be starting next to him at strong safety? Nobody knows that.

Josh Robinson, Robert Blanton, and Andrew Sendejo: I didn't get to see a ton of J-Rob and I didn't get to see Blanton or Sendejo in action at all in Mankato due to their injuries. Which is too bad because by all accounts Blanton was really earning that starting safety spot, Sendejo has fallen behind in a year he was supposed to compete for a bigger role, and Robinson seemed to be much more comfortable in his natural outside CB position.

Marcus Sherels: After barely scraping by to make the roster the past couple years, it certainly seems like Sherels won't have to worry about that this season. He has the punt return job all but locked up and got a surprising amount of snaps with the first team defense. Sherels can do some pretty incredible things on defense, as evidenced by his interception in the Saturday night practice. He's still really small though. I can't imagine him matching up well on some of the huge receivers in the NFC North.

Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford: Our two old pals that have competed for the starting safety gig in the past are back at it again thanks to Blanton's injury. Raymond got quite a few more snaps with the first team than Sanford, but Sanford was listed ahead of Raymond on the depth chart. Both guys still looked like their normal decent-but-not-great selves in camp.

Kurt Coleman: He seemed to be more and more in the coaches' favor as the weekend went on. He's not going to threaten Smith at free safety but might be able to give the secondary some much-needed depth while helping out on special teams. I was pleasantly surprised with Coleman.

Jabari Price and Derek Cox: I think both the rookie Price and the veteran Cox have had an incredibly solid camp. Cox made a couple picks of Bridgewater in 11-on-11 and Price is really exceeding his 7th-round draft status already. I guess if I had to choose between the two I'd take Cox right now, but I understand why Price is currently ahead of him on the depth chart--he's six years younger and has a cheaper contract.

Julian Posey, Kendall James, Robert Steeples, and Shaun Prater: It was hard to take many notes on this group because they simply didn't get the reps that others in this group did. Prater really struggled with keeping receivers in front of him during the Saturday night practice. James seems to have a decent nose for the ball especially against the run but got caught out of position a lot. Posey and Steeples didn't do anything of note from what I saw while they were out there. I think we're 0 for 4 on this group making the final roster.

Antone Exum: I feel kind of bad for Exum. He can't do the one thing he's known best for in camp, which is hit like a freight train. He looked pretty solid against the run. His coverage was OK but sometimes it looked like he'd rather hit the guy than cover. I hope he gets some good playing time in Friday's preseason game because I don't think we've really seen what he can do yet.

Brandan Bishop: When you spent last year on the Practice Squad, there are a ton of injuries at your position, and you still can't make much of an impact at camp, you might be in trouble. He doesn't seem to have the closing speed necessary even when he puts himself in position to make a play.

So there you have it--my quick hits on all 44 defensive players that were in camp while I was in Mankato. I'm sad my time in Mankato has come to an end, but I couldn't be more pumped to see these guys in action on Friday at TCF.