OK, I just got back from my last day covering Vikings training camp in Mankato, and I am happy to say that I arrived on-time today- early in fact- which was a bonus. All the heavy-hitters were out there tonight, except of course Mike Zimmer, who had left yesterday due to his father's health, which doesn't sound good. In any case, that left Norv in charge, who did a fine job in Zimmer's absence. Even heard an F-bomb out of him, all the way up in the stands.
In terms of players, John Sullivan was also gone to be with his newborn son and wife. Other notables that were there but did not participate included Anthony Barr, Josh Robinson, and Carter Bykowski.
From a front office standpoint, Zygi Wilf and Rick Spielman were both there and on the field intently watching the linemen scrimmage, and from their body language, talking business. Spielman was up behind me at the top of the media stands by himself taking notes just about the whole practice, which I think is usual for him at certain points in training camp.
The evening started with drills and Matt Kalil once again had some one-on-one time working with offensive line coach Jeff Davidson before practice.
I was in the stands and the offensive line went back to the practice field to do their drills, so I missed those, but watched some of the QB / receiver drills, which I think most fans watch but I find kinda dull because they're not playing against anybody, so it's like watching guys play catch. But I digress. Anyway, I moved over to watch the RBs and TEs practice picking up blitzes against the LBs and safeties. Much more interesting. Some observations based on these drills:
- Harrison Smith looks like the best blitzer of the bunch on defense. Fast, has good moves, knows what he's doing.
- Rhett Ellison is the best picking up the blitz (perhaps not surprisingly) and always won his duel.
- Best battle in this group was between Gerald Hodges and Adrian Peterson. Hodges is a beast and the best blitzing LB I saw, if not as refined as Smith, but AP was up for the challenge and they really battled, but for the most part AP held him off, but it took everything he had. I was a bit surprised how well AP did, as I've never seen him do that much pass blocking or picking up blitzes in games before. Could be the fact that its a drill, and the only thing he needs to do in the play is pick up the blitz... nevertheless he did better than I thought.
- Jerick McKinnon, by contrast, did not do very well. He lost his battles pretty much every time. Something he really needs to work on as a 3rd down type of RB.
- Eric Kendricks was fairly lackluster as a blitzer I thought. No where near the speed or power of Hodges, nor the technique of Smith. He has the skill set, but he needs reps and some learning.
- The others on both sides seemed average in general- not much to stand out that I remember.
This next part of practice featured both lines and LBs going against each in run and pass blocking, without the actual skill players.
- I tended to focus on Matt Kalil on these drills. He did fine in run blocking, whether against Griffen or taking on a LB or another linemen. In pass blocking, Griffen tended to get the better of him, but they battled where I think he might have given up one sack during the scrimmage, but more hurries or pressures.
- Overall a little more evenly matched than in one-on-one pass blocking drills, which favor the defensive player, but the defense remains the better unit at this point.
- I thought Mike Harris did alright for the most part, but could get overpowered at times, and looks like he needs more work pulling effectively. From what I've seen of him so far, that seems to be his weakest area.
11-on-11s and Summary
- Adrian Peterson: He looks like the elite RB that he is. To see him explode through a hole is amazing. I would be shocked if anyone covering camp has said he has lost anything. On the contrary, he looks primed and ready to go. I get the feeling that his off-field issues, suspension, and turning 30 has given him something to prove- similar to when he came back after knee surgery. And we all know what happened that year.
- Teddy Bridgewater: I think the headline for this practice may be the 2 INTs Teddy threw, but I wouldn't be too upset about it. One was over the middle to Kyle Rudolph and OMG Audie Cole stepped in for a pick six. Not sure if it was a bad decision or a bad throw, or if some of it was on Rudolph, but it wasn't tragic, or representative of Bridgewater's overall performance. The other pick was at the end of full speed 2-minute drill. Bridgewater was hurried a little and stepped up in the pocket then turned to throw a jump ball to Charles Johnson at the sideline of the end zone, who was covered well by Xavier Rhodes- which is usually the case. I don't know if Johnson mistimed his jump or slipped a little- I couldn't tell- but Rhodes leaped fairly uncontested and came down with the ball, which may have been a little behind Johnson as well, which may have resulted in Johnson being less able to contest the ball. Bridgewater also had a nice TD pass to Rudolph, hitting him in stride running across to the back corner of the end zone, and a nice deep ball to Jarius Wright. He generally looks poised and polished, in command, doesn't seem to be having difficulty in any particular aspect that I can tell, with the exception perhaps of deep ball (25+ yard) accuracy/touch/ball placement at times. The short- and intermediate throws seem nearly automatic in the practices I've seen- which represent most of his throws- but some of his deep balls, while accurate, also allow a defender to make a play where better ball placement- leading the receiver a bit- would most likely eliminate that. These are of course relatively minor issues for a QB just starting his 2nd training camp, and nobody should feel that Teddy Bridgewater is the weak link on offense- far from it. I would not be surprised if Bridgewater cracks the top 10 - 12 in terms of QB ratings this year, as he becomes more comfortable running the offense, with receivers, with the NFL game, the return of AP, and injured players returning on the offensive line.
- Matt Kalil: In the full speed scrimmage plays, which were the only ones worth evaluating, Matt still struggled against Griffen in pass protection, taking more than he dished out, I don't know that I saw him give up what would have been a sack, but certainly some hurries. It's not pretty though, nor does it inspire confidence. But with some modest improvement over the rest of training camp, he could prove adequate. In run blocking he does fine. If he is able to find some consistency with his technique in pass protection, that will help build his confidence, and likely generate a little more time for Bridgewater to throw. I hope the coaching staff is not shy about playing him in pre-season games to help his progression.
- Tyrus Thompson: Thompson played some LT with the 2nd group during the scrimmage- Yankey had some time there as well in drills, neither looked very good. Norv was asked about Yankey playing there in the morning before practice and confirmed my thought that with Bykowski not participating, they needed to give the reps to somebody, so they gave them to Yankey. I didn't notice Thompson much as the 2nd team RG, but that probably means he didn't stand out much one way or another.
- Mike Harris: Harris has done well enough at RG so far where I think he is right to think it is his job to lose. He's not stellar by any means, but I think he'll be able to hold his own. The one thing I don't have as much confidence is in his ability to pull effectively at this point. His speed and agility in that regard are suspect. Perhaps with some practice it will improve, we'll see.
- Phil Loadholt: Loadholt has looked solid, albeit against not the quality of opposition that the rest of the line faces. He doesn't appear to have any lingering issues with his pectoral injury that I could tell.
- Brandon Fusco: has really battled against Floyd, but for the most part has held his own. Floyd has gotten the better of him more than once, and it is a battle, but he's doing alright. Move to LG seems permanent.
- TJ Clemmings: Clemmings did not look as good in scrimmages as he did in drills. Still, from what I've seen over the past three days, he is definitely the best of the non-starters, and arguably the 5th best lineman on the team. But he does need more consistency. He can get caught off-guard (beat) by a good move. I'm wondering if keeping him at RT, where he played in college, may be in part because he's looked good enough where he could spell Loadholt on occasion, who I think tends to wear down a little more than the others toward the end of a game, and eventually replace him in a couple years.
- David Yankey: Yankey was one of the rookie linemen from last year (Crichton was the other) that I hoped would step-up this year. I'm not seeing it. Zimmer, I believe said he was stronger, technique better, and that may be true, but from what I've seen of him he doesn't seem to have the tenacity a good offensive linemen needs to fend off and impose his will. He looks to back-up Fusco at LG, and I don't see that changing at this point.
- Rest of the Offensive Line: I confess that I didn't focus in on each player enough to generate more detailed observations, but in full speed plays, they generally were adequate in pass protection- there was never a play where Teddy had "all day" to throw the ball, but were generally able to give Bridgewater just enough time to get the ball off. In terms of working as a unit, I think they could use more work on picking up blitzes, particularly from the outside. Generally run blocking was better than pass protection, but there is still a lot of room for improvement in both. At no point did I feel the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, and more often I felt the defensive line did.
- Charles Johnson: He is Teddy's go-to outside receiver. No question. He's the only receiver TB throws jump balls to when he's covered, which indicates his trust level, and is good for everybody concerned in preparing for the season- Teddy, Johnson, and in this case Rhodes as well. The Rhodes vs. Johnson battle is making them both better. Johnson continues to improve over last year, particularly his aggressiveness and physicality in beating press coverage and contesting balls. He's my bet to lead the team in receiving yards this year.
- Kyle Rudolph: To me, Rudolph has been The Invisible Man on offense in the three days I was at camp. He was targeted a couple times on drag routes or a short curl, but basically as a check down. He had a nice TD reception tonight, but other than that, haven't noticed him much at all, which is unusual given the importance of the TE in Norv's offense. In fairness, they may have been focusing more on passes to the WRs during this time, but nevertheless I can't say Rudolph has stood out much.
- Mike Wallace: I don't remember Wallace having a catch tonight, or even a target, which isn't surprising as he hasn't had many of either since I've been in Mankato. While part of that may be coverage, I think there is also a rapport/comfort issue here too. My hope is that Teddy will make a point to target Wallace more during training camp and in pre-season games, to help build that rapport and make Wallace more than just a high-priced decoy. From what I've noticed, Wallace tends to get open late on deeper routes, and Teddy opts for the check-down rather than trusting to Wallace's extra gear and throwing deep to where only Wallace could get there. Wallace looks to be running good routes- and not just the deep ones- and has been getting open some, although Newman has had pretty good coverage most of the time.
- Jarius Wright: Next to Johnson, I think Teddy likes throwing to Wright most on deeper routes. From what I've seen, Wright has gotten a step on his man before Wallace has, which may be the reason for Wright having more deep targets and catches than Wallace. Wright has looked good in his ability to gain separation, and seems comfortable in the scheme. I wouldn't be surprised to see Wright easily have his best year as a Viking this year.
- Cordarrelle Patterson: I often compare Patterson with Johnson in my mind, as they both have basically the same height, weight and speed, though CJ is 2 years older, to try to figure out the difference in performance so far, as the 7th round pick has well outperformed the 1st round pick. I think the main difference you notice on the field is that Johnson plays much faster than Patterson, and is more aggressive/physical against defenders. I suspect that part of the reason for CP playing slower may be that he is still thinking too much about his routes and assignments, not having mastered the playbook and his assignments. He has made some modest progress so far that I've noticed in being a little more physical in going after the ball, but he still needs, I think, to be more comfortable with the system and his assignments before he can begin to make significant progress toward his potential.
- Mycole Pruitt: I wasn't surprised to see Pruitt ahead of Chase Ford and Bostick on the depth chart already. He's been the most impressive pass-catching TE at camp, although this has come mostly against the 2s. He has been getting a little time with the 1s, and has done fine against them too. He was left wide open by the 2s in a drag route tonight, and took it for a nice gain. I could see him getting a fair amount of playing time come September if he continues to play well, which seems likely.
- Rhett Ellison: I view Ellison as primarily a FB, or a primarily blocking H-back in Norv's system. Ellison can rumble for a nice gain on an outlet pass too, but I think he'll be AP's lead blocker most of the time. Pruitt and Ellison bring maximum versatility as 2nd TEs on the field, and are a nice combo behind Rudolph.
- Harrison Smith: Smith had what would have been a sack on a blitz in tonight's scrimmage, and is easily the best blitzing DB on the team. The nature of the training camp practices and scrimmages doesn't allow you to get as good a read on how he's doing in run support- as you can't tackle- but he seems well positioned on the field and I haven't noticed any major completions he's allowed in pass coverage. He's better suited to be a strong safety than free safety, except for the fact that a replacement for him at FS hasn't yet emerged.
- Robert Blanton: I don't think much has changed in Blanton over the off-season. He's generally good in run support, but struggles in coverage. He allowed a long completion to Wright, trailing him across the field by a step or two the whole way. He allowed a couple TD catches in the red zone as well, as he reacts more than anticipates or being instinctive and finds himself trailing a receiver and allowing a catch.
- Antoine Exum, Jr.: Exum has played FS with the 2s throughout camp, and looks much more in command and control back there- comfortable with the system, assignments and reads. I haven't noticed him enough in run support to say much, but he does seem to move up quickly in support. In pass coverage, he looks better than Blanton, albeit against the 2s, but seems more instinctive and in better position to challenge balls and make plays, which he's done a couple times that I've noticed. I suspect the coaching staff is looking to see if he can be consistent and reliable as the last line of defense, before potentially giving him a chance at FS with the 1s, while Smith moves to SS/rover-type position.
- Xavier Rhodes: Rhodes has looked good, mostly working against Charles Johnson in the days I've been here. The only thing I wish from Rhodes is that he would look back for the ball more, which would enable him to contest balls more often, and probably lead to more INTs. With Teddy throwing 'em up for Johnson, it gives Rhodes the opportunity to work on this part of his game, which hopefully will improve to make him more of a INT threat. Still, he does a great job in coverage, almost always in good position. One time a day or two ago he played too far off of Johnson, leading to a completion, which drew some frank "coaching" from Zimmer. But really Rhodes has looked very solid, and a real asset for this defense.
- Terence Newman: Newman has been a pleasant surprise. He's been covering Wallace mostly, and has worked mostly outside, but had some reps the other day in the slot. He's been solid, still has the speed/saavy to keep up with Wallace, and is really a nice addition. Initially I thought Newman was here, like some other guys Zimmer has worked with in the past, as kind of a player-coach to help younger guys learn in training camp. But he can still play at a high level, even at age 37 next month. With Trae Waynes still learning, and Josh Robinson missing a lot of time and still needing to improve, having Newman out there is a real bonus this year. Could be the free-agent signing with the most impact this year.
Trae Waynes: Waynes looks like he is making progress. He started more tentative as he began learning the ropes, but has improved some and has made a play or two with the 2s, and had some time outside with the 1s the other day while Newman took reps in the slot. I don't see him having a ton of playing time this year, barring injury, but having Newman out there gives the Vikings the luxury of time in developing Waynes. I expect he will play a lot in pre-season games, both outside and in the slot, and should get some valuable experience spelling a starter here and there during the regular season.
- Captain Munnerlyn: Munnerlyn seems to be doing well in the limited time I saw him working the slot, which is where he'll play exclusively this year it appears- and that is a good thing. He made a nice play to deny Wright the ball on a go route the other day, and coaches are reporting that he is communicating better with CBs and LBs in passing off coverage, which he did not do so well last year, and led to a couple big plays for the opposition. I expect Munnerlyn to have a better year this year by being more focused on playing the slot exclusively, more familiarity with the system, and listening to coaches more.
- Josh Robinson: Robinson has not been participating in camp so far. I've seen him on the sidelines, and I'm sure he's rehabbing his pec injury and doing what he can on his own, but a lot of valuable practice time missed for a guy that still needs to improve. Hope he'll be back practicing soon.
- Gerald Hodges: Hodges has easily been the best LB on the field in the three days I've watched camp, and most people are raving about how he's been playing so far. If Greenway has been the happiest LB out there in camp, Hodges has been the most intense. He's brought the wood a few times and is playing with the speed, power and instincts of a guy who is very comfortable in the system. In tonight's scrimmage, there was a highlight of AP seemingly blowing through him on a run up the middle. In reality, Hodges was about to truck AP but had to pull up - no hitting AP - making it look like AP blew him over- the opposite of which would have happened in a real game. It would be criminal to not have him as a starting LB week one based on his performance to date.
- Chad Greenway: It's easy to see Greenway's value on defense as a field general- barking out commands, reads, adjustments. Beyond that, I think the coaching staff may give him the benefit of the doubt as to whether he would have really made the play - since there is no tackling. LBs pull-up as they approach the ball carrier to prevent heavy contact, so Greenway being close the coaches may look at the tape and say he would have made the play, but in reality he may have been a half-step late or got juked- as has happened increasingly in games. Greenway gave up the TD pass to Rudolph during the scrimmage- easily a step or two behind him. Rudolph ran a 4.83" 40 when he came out 4 years ago. Just saying.
- Anthony Barr: As I mentioned, he didn't play during the scrimmage today, and hasn't done much that I noticed since I first got to camp. I've seen him with his knee wrapped, not looking 100%. I'm starting to worry about how much time he's missed this off-season, and the potential of it leading to a sophomore slump. Hopefully not. But he brings so much to this defense, I hate to see him missing time during camp and OTAs, coming off his rookie year with only a couple years playing defense in college. I could see Zimmer deciding to play him more as a standing DE ala Von Miller opposite Griffen. He's been doing some DE drills- and George Edwards kinda dismissed it as he did them last year too- but given what is a stronger LB corps and a weak spot at LDE, it would make a lot of sense to have Barr there as part of having the best 11 on the field, as Zimmer likes to say.
- Eric Kendricks: He's been the signal caller on the 2nd team defense, and also played with the starters in the nickel package during the scrimmage. I haven't had a good read on him, other than he looks to be thinking a little more than the vets, playing a little slower, which isn't surprising, but also hasn't made any big mistakes that I've noticed. The coaching staff, according to Rick Spielman, has been very happy with his performance so far- being where he's supposed to be, assignment sound- which is showing in his getting time with the starters. It'll be interesting to see if he progresses enough to earn at starting position.
- Audie Cole: Cole had the highlight of the scrimmage, stepping in front of Kyle Rudolph for a pick six, bringing back memories of his 2 pick pre-season game his rookie year. Cole is a thumper, although I think Hodges may have passed him in that regard, but also has proved saavy in zone coverage, positioning himself well, then using his eyes on the QB to make up for his less than ideal speed. Cole is unofficially the starting MLB right now, with Kendricks behind him. He may be difficult for Kendricks to displace before opening day.
- Everson Griffen: Griffen has looked very good, improved with a better spin move I think over last year, and has certainly given Kalil everything he can handle. Griffen is showing both speed and power, and looks to be building on his breakout year last season.
- Sharrif Floyd: That last line about Griffen also applies to Floyd, only with Floyd a little more power than speed. He looks to be gaining more penetration, and is more comfortable in the system. Floyd went down in the scrimmage, but got up under his own power, and jogged off the field at the end of practice without any sign or pain, suggesting whatever happened was minor.
- Linval Joseph: Joseph appears to be playing with a little more fire so far than he displayed last year. Mike Zimmer said/predicted he would be much improved this year, as is often the case with free-agents their 2nd year with a new organization. So far, that looks to be the case with Joseph.
- Brian Robison: My praise for the defensive line starters ends here. Robison looks down, a little slow, no where near the energy of the rest of the starters. Pec injury? Short-timer? He makes more than Greenway, but contributes less. At age 32, he has three years left- including this year- on his contract averaging $5.5m a year. No way he plays that out. I view LDE as the weakest position on the defensive unit. Difficult to see Robison, who's PFF stats have been in decline the past couple years, turning things around.
- Scott Crichton: Crichton was the other rookie lineman from last year I thought would step-up in camp this year. I haven't seen it. Perhaps he's improved some, but I'm not noticing great strides at this point. Not sure exactly what the issue here is, not hearing much about him.
- Rest of the Defensive Line: I can't point to many specifics with either Danielle Hunter or BJ DuBose, but both are thought to be having good camps and showing good progress- especially Hunter. The rest I don't have too much to report- Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen primarily, but no reason to think they are not doing reasonably well either.
- ST Specialists: Not enough to go on to provide much analysis here. Walsh generally looks good- made all but the last 54 yard FG last night, Locke was alright in practice, but it wasn't full speed, Sherels has looked the best at PR, but Diggs has been getting the same amount of reps. Haven't noticed who has the edge in the LS battle, but I can't imagine Loeffler being the best man for the job after two straight years with the worst PFF LS rating in the league.
Okay, yesterday was my last day covering camp in Mankato, so I pass the baton to the next writer to fill us in on all the doings in camp the next couple days before the HOF game.