Here are 6 things I’m watching during Minnesota Vikings Training Camp and throughout the preseason.
How will Anthony Barr acclimate?
First-round pick Barr has made a strong impression thus far in Mankato, but will his lack of experience at the position rear it’s head once real NFL games begin. His pass-rushing skills are elite and his size and strength have been well-document, running over fullbacks in scrimmages or getting by RT Phil Loadholt. But many experts have questions whether he can cover well enough in passing situations to be a 3-down LB. My belief is Head Coach Mike Zimmer won’t put him in situations to fail and the schemes will be set to allow Barr many opportunities to play downhill and rush the passer.
Will the secondary improve with a new scheme?
I think many Vikings fans hope a new scheme, well, at least something from this decade, will alleviate problems in the secondary that have plagued the Purple for years. Even on the 2009 team that went to the NFC Championship game, outside of Winfield, the secondary was non-descript. Harrison Smith is about the only sure thing. The Vikings have to hope that 2nd-year CB Xavier Rhodes can stay healthy and take a step forward. The same goes for Josh Robinson. Captain Munnerlyn was brought in as a veteran who can play inside or outside, but early reports are that he’ll be mostly in the slot. The safety opposite Smith is up for grabs with guys like Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Chris Crocker, Andrew Sendejo, and many others vying for the starting role. It’s a mish-mash of veterans, young guys, former starters none of whom have caught Zimmer’s eye, hence the arrival of Crocker, a former Bengal who played under Zimmer. Between injuries and unknowns I’m still not sold on the improved secondary, at least not until I see how the scheme fits with their skill sets.
Will Kalil regain his rookie form and become an elite LT?
By all accounts LT Matt Kalil had a down year in 2013. Some of that can be attributed to nagging injuries in his left knee. Kalil missed OTAs earlier this year after undergoing knee surgery. Protecting the QB, whether it’s the rather rigid Matt Cassel, or the more fleet-of-foot Teddy Bridgewater, is extremely important to the Vikings. Kalil’s improvement and return to form will be key in the QB play and thus the overall success of the team in 2014.
What does Cordarrelle Patterson do for an encore?
Patterson emerged onto the NFL scene in spectacular fashion with his NFL-leading and Vikings record 32.4 yds kickoff return average. His sensational KO Returns made him a fan-favorite, including a NFL record-tying 109 yd return for TD vs Green Bay. However, Patterson’s true value could be in the passing game. Former Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave was slow to implement Patterson into the offense, rumored to be because he wasn’t understanding the playbook. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner implementing a whole new offense, I’m interested to see how Patterson grasps this playbook. No doubt, the Vikings will use Patterson all over the field, like they did late in 2013. His game vs the Ravens will be on to remember. But will he make the leap in year 2 that all the coaches and fans hope he can? Only time will tell.
How will the Vikings handle playing in the elements of TCF Bank Stadium?
This may or may not become a story throughout the season. It all depends how the coaching staff and players handle it. For a team built on a loud, home-field advantage in a climate-controlled teflon building, playing in a smaller stadium with wind tunnels during December in Minnesota could have some serious issues. It’s been documented how the Vikings have struggled at Chicago in years past. I expect conditions at “The Bank” to be a fairly similar, minus the footlong grass. Kicker Blair Walsh has had it probably the easiest, knowing for at least 8 games a year he wouldn’t have to worry about wind, footing conditions, etc. The Vikings seem to have an offense built for outdoor football, predicated around a power running game. I’m also intrigued to see how fans react to the new digs. It’s hard to break habits, and when that habit is knowing you can watch FB in 72-degree temps all season…outdoor seating may not draw the same crowd.
Of course the last one is the most important: Who plays QB?
It’s been debated on numerous sports talk radio stations, on Twitter, in the newspapers, etc, but there’s a reason for it. QB is the MOST important position in football and largely dictates the success, especially long-term success when a team has that franchise QB. The Vikings signed Cassel to a 2-year, $10 million deal this Spring hoping to solidify something at the position. And they of course moved back into the 1st round of the NFL draft to select Teddy Bridgewater. I loved the pick of Bridgewater because he was projected as the #1 overall pick after the season ended. Only after a bad pro day did he drop out of favor with most teams. It was great value for the Vikings at #32. But that still doesn’t answer the question. My guess is Cassel starts and plays as long as he does adequately and the Vikings win. If the offense struggles, Cassel struggles or both, Teddy comes in. Once we see the preseason we will know more. The obvious will be known when the 3rd preseason game starters are announced. Regardless, I expect to see both under center in 2014.
Check back in the coming weeks for my season predictions for both the Packers and Vikings.