Vikings players report to 2012 Verizon Vikings Training Camp on Thursday and the team’s first practice is on Friday, which means we only have a few more days to complete our Roster Rundown series. We continue the series today by taking a look at the four quarterbacks and 10 linebackers the team will bring to training camp…
Head Coach Leslie Frazier has been clear this offseason that Christian Ponder is his starting QB. Ponder played in 11 games and started 10 during his rookie season, producing mixed results and battling injuries. But this offseason the results have not been mixed – Ponder made huge strides during the offseason program and is poised to take a big step forward in 2012. Jobs are not handed out in the NFL, so Ponder will have to perform well enough to retain the starting job. Based on his performance in the offseason program, though, that shouldn’t be a problem.
After Ponder the Vikings will see Joe Webb battle Sage Rosenfels for the backup job. These two have contrasting styles and are at different points in their careers. Webb surely has designs on becoming an NFL starter one day, and he can continue that quest during camp. Whether he ultimately beats Ponder for the job or not is a separate issue from whether he continues his development as an NFL passer. Rosenfels is a 12-year veteran who is a great complement to the QB meeting room that includes three young players still learning the ropes.
Aside from Ponder and Webb, the other youngster is McLeod Bethel-Thompson. He joined the Vikings via a futures contract this past January after starring at Sacramento State and then playing for the San Francisco 49ers, the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL and then the Miami Dolphins. Bethel-Thompson, an undrafted college free agent, has impressive arm strength and was clearly the best QB in the Vikings rookie minicamp. He was on the Dolphins practice squad to finish the 2011 season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make the Vikings practice squad (at a minimum) after this year’s training camp.
There are questions at linebacker for the Vikings as they head to training camp, but the good news is there also appears to be sufficient talent at the position as well. Chad Greenway is the best of the group and prepares to enter his seventh NFL season in 2012. Greenway has led the club in tackles the past four seasons and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do it again this season. The other starting linebacker should be Erin Henderson, who returns to the club motivated after signing a one-year contract this past offseason. Last season was Henderson’s first as a full-time starter, and I’ve identified him as a player poised for a breakout season this year.
Jasper Brinkley enters training camp as the team’s middle linebacker, but there are questions about his durability. Those questions are fair because Brinkley missed all of 2011 with an injury and then missed parts of the team’s offseason program this year as well. Brinkley has declared himself 100% healthy as we approach training camp, though, and once he’s able to stay on the field I see him solidifying the Vikings starting group of linebackers. When E.J. Henderson was lost for the season in 2009 with a leg injury, Brinkley stepped into the lineup and played capably as the Vikings made a run through the playoffs. That experience along with natural progression that comes from two complete seasons after that should have Brinkley prepared to fulfill expectations this season.
After the three starters, there will be great competition for reserve spots among the Vikings LB group. Only two of those players competing for reserve spots are returning veterans. They are special teams standout Larry Dean and two-year veteran Tyrone McKenzie. Dean made last year’s team as an undrafted free agent based on his special teams ability, and he’ll have to be a standout in the same way this preseason to make the roster. McKenzie was the player asked to step into the middle linebacker role this offseason when Brinkley was out of action.
Outside of Greenway, the most veteran NFL player in the Vikings LB group is Marvin Mitchell, a six-year pro the Vikings signed this offseason in free agency. Mitchell had been with the Saints, and with the Vikings he’ll provide depth at multiple LB positions and he’s expected to be a contributor on special teams as well.
The remaining LBs are 7th-round draft pick Audie Cole, former CFL standout Solomon Elimimian and undrafted college free agents Tyler Nielsen and Corey Paredes. At NC State, Cole led the team in tackles while playing both inside and outside LB. Nielsen was a standout at the University of Iowa and Paredes went undrafted out of the University of Hawaii.
Elimimian will be interesting to watch because he’s undersized but he’s also a player who clearly knows how to play the position. He was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2010 and helped his club (BC Lions) win the Grey Cup in 2011. In two CFL seasons, Elimimian tallied 175 tackles, 9.0 sacks and 2 INTs and was voted the league’s “hardest hitter” by his peers.
After the three projected starters, LB jobs are wide open for the Vikings. An ability to contribute on special teams will be crucial for those looking to win a roster spot, but so too is demonstrating sound technique and knowledge of the defensive system. I expect most of the decisions to be made at this position to come down to the final two preseason games later in August.
Tags: Audie Cole, Chad Greenway, Christian Ponder, Corey Paredes, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Joe Webb, Larry Dean, Leslie Frazier, Marvin Mitchell, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Roster Rundown, Sage Rosenfels, Solomon Elimimian, Tyler Nielsen, Tyrone McKenzie
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We’ve mentioned several times over the course of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) that now is not the time to try and track which players are running with the starters and which players are running with the second-team. The time to figure out depth charts and position battles will come at training camp and the preseason.
Now is the time when teams experiment with different combinations to try and find the right mix. And nowhere is that more true for the Vikings than at linebacker. In 2012 the Vikings will have a new middle LB in both their base defense and in nickel, and the team will also feature plenty of new faces providing depth at the position.
The process of identifying the contributors for the coming season is a work in progress, and so far it’s been a fluid situation. Jasper Brinkley and Solomon Elimimian have both missed time recently with what Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier described as precautionary measures, and Chad Greenway has been absent for much of OTAs as he tends to a family matter. None of those three issues are cause for alarm as the Vikings prepare for the 2012 season, but they do illustrate the point that the Vikings are in the process of figuring out their situation at linebacker.
“I’m hoping that we’ll find a right mix there,” Frazier told reporters on Tuesday. “Chad (Greenway) is, of course, solid. We’d like to have Jasper practicing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. We’d like for him to be getting these reps, but hopefully we’ll have him next week. We want Erin (Henderson) to make it clear that he’s the choice at the WILL (weak-side LB) position, but we’d like to see Marvin (Mitchell) come along and some of the other backups because you really need six guys that you can dress on Sunday to really be effective both on defense and special teams.”
That the Vikings don’t yet have every answer at linebacker is not a concern at this point. Every team has questions up and down their roster at this point in the offseason. The good news for the Vikings is that they have the bodies currently on the roster to eventually answer every question. There are 10 linebackers on the Vikings 90-man roster currently, a group that includes a good mix of returning veterans (5), rookies (3) and free agent additions (2).
“We’re trying to find that mix, that quality depth,” Frazier said. “It’s an area where we’re still not quite there yet in my mind, so we’ll see how it pans out over the next couple of practices we have and when we get to training camp. It’s one of those areas where myself and Rick (Spielman), we’ve talked about and it’s an area we have to keep an eye on.”
Tags: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Jasper Brinkley, Leslie Frazier, Marvin Mitchell, Solomon Elimimian
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