Minnesota Vikings: Everson Griffen

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our look at the Vikings' defensive performance in a 34-6 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, through a look at the game film:
  • Rookie Anthony Barr was impressive, showing good chase speed, holding up well in pass coverage, and displaying solid instincts on a third-quarter run, when he stayed home to bring down Zac Stacy on the backside of a counter play. Coach Mike Zimmer moved Barr all over the defense, blitzing him from the linebacker spot when he drilled Austin Davis on Harrison Smith's interception and lining him up at left end on third downs. On those occasions, the Vikings often moved Brian Robison inside and put Gerald Hodges at linebacker in the nickel. Hodges, who was in man coverage against slot receivers on several occasions, fared well.
  • Any lingering concerns about Linval Joseph's health after he was struck by a bullet on Aug. 9 should be over. Joseph was a rock in the middle of the Vikings' defensive line, seldom moving at the point of attack and displaying an impressive bull rush on his 10-yard sack. He only played 37 snaps on Sunday, but when he was in the game, he was tough to miss.
  • Tom Johnson, who was one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason, played well again on Sunday, stripping the ball from Shaun Hill's hand as he passed by the quarterback in the first half and collapsing the pocket on a rush earlier in the second quarter. He's proved to be a slippery pass rusher, and he'll have a role in sub packages.
  • One nitpick about the Vikings' five-sack day: Several of their sacks, like the first one Everson Griffen had in the fourth quarter, came after quarterbacks were forced to hold the ball for several seconds. The Vikings only needed to blitz eight times, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and one of Zimmer's favorite looks -- an eight-man front where several defenders would peel back into coverage -- caused some confusion for the Rams' line. But against better quarterbacks, the Vikings will need to apply pressure quicker. Still, it was hard to find much wrong with the way the Vikings played defense on Sunday.
MINNEAPOLIS -- An examination of what the Minnesota Vikings must do after their win over the St. Louis Rams:

If there was one major issue emerging from the Vikings' 34-6 victory on Sunday, it was the team's share of penalties on a day when referee Ed Hochuli's crew tossed plenty of flags. The Vikings were penalized seven times for 60 yards, but the Rams gave away more than twice as many yards, committing 13 penalties for 121 yards in the loss.

The Rams' carelessness ultimately helped Minnesota win the game, but Vikings players and coach Mike Zimmer cited their own penalties as one of the major issues in need of fixing this week.

"In the first half, I felt we kind of self-destructed a little bit," Zimmer said. "We had too many penalties."

The Vikings had a 13-0 lead at halftime, after Josh Robinson's second-quarter interception helped set up a Matt Cassel touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, but in general, Zimmer thought his players were a little too amped up in the first two quarters of the season. He told them at halftime to calm down, and though it's worth noting the Rams declined three penalties in the second half, a holding call on Phil Loadholt was the only Vikings penalty the Rams accepted.

Zimmer has said several times he coaches Vikings defenders to avoid penalties, in light of the league's increased focus on contact with receivers. The Vikings had two illegal contact calls (on Jasper Brinkley and Jabari Price) declined, as well as a pass interference penalty on Robert Blanton, but in different circumstances, those penalties could have had costlier consequences. The penalties alone on Sunday were enough to keep defensive end Everson Griffen from calling the Vikings' defensive effort a dominating performance.

“It wasn’t dominating. We can play a lot better -- penalties, penalties can kill a team," Griffen said. "But we allowed ourselves to stay in the moment and execute our assignments, [and] still win the game.”
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings will officially be without three players for their season opener on Sunday in St. Louis: linebacker Brandon Watts (knee), linebacker Michael Mauti (foot) and fullback Zach Line (ankle).

Defensive end Everson Griffen, who missed his second day of practice with an illness on Friday, said he'll play on Sunday, and that he'll start the game at right end. Tackle Mike Harris, who joined the team after the Vikings claimed him off waivers last Sunday, is questionable with a shoulder injury.

Wide receiver Rodney Smith (neck) and cornerback Jabari Price (shoulder) were full participants on Friday, and both are probable to play.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As elementary as the Minnesota Vikings' game plans have been for their first two preseason contests, the Vikings' wins over the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals have already seen coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards unveil a handful of different defensive looks.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt"Once I feel like we have the fundamentals down and the techniques down, then you can worry about tricking somebody else or disguising," Mike Zimmer said.
Anthony Barr has played linebacker, rushed the quarterback standing up and moved into a defensive end position on passing downs. Everson Griffen has played left end and right end. Brian Robison has rushed from the left end spot and moved inside. The Vikings have dropped several different linemen into coverage, they've shown a three-safety package in their nickel defense and they've been unafraid to blitz safeties such as Harrison Smith.

There's probably more coming from a coach who sent a defensive back on a blitz 75 times while he was the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator last seasom, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure was the 10th highest in the league, and it was nearly double the number of times (41) the Vikings blitzed a cornerback or safety. But as effective -- and as entertaining -- as different looks can be, Zimmer says he won't overdo it to the point he runs the risk of diluting a player's focus.

"It's a little bit of, 'What can the guy do and still be effective?'" Zimmer said. "Once I feel like we have the fundamentals down and the techniques down, then you can worry about tricking somebody else or disguising. You don't always have guys like Griffen, Barr, Robison that can do a number of different things. Those three guys can stand up and drop, play outside linebacker and rush."

Zimmer said the Vikings are getting to the point at which their understanding of defensive fundamentals is strong enough that he can mix in different ideas, but he still knows there's a danger in mixing in too many different ideas. To borrow a musical metaphor, it's no good for a drummer to show off all sorts of complicated fills and complex beats if he can't keep the rest of the band in the groove.

"You don't want to hurt other guys by trying to fit some other guy in something he's not comfortable with," Zimmer said. "There's a cause and effect with everybody."

The Vikings will have plenty of chances to get creative with their personnel this season, simply because of how many versatile players they have in their front seven, but Zimmer's defense is built on sound fundamentals and good communication across the defense more than it is energized by anything exotic. If the Vikings can't handle the basics this season, we probably won't see as much variety in Zimmer's defensive looks.
MINNEAPOLIS -- While the Minnesota Vikings didn't get to move Anthony Barr around in the pass rush as much as coach Mike Zimmer said he hoped they would on Saturday night, they consistently put him on the defensive line enough to show how serious they are about using him there in their nickel package.

On Saturday, the Vikings often went to a look where Barr lined up at right end, Everson Griffen moved from the right to left end spot and Brian Robison slid inside, rushing the passer from the defensive tackle position like he did before he became a starter.

"As a defensive end, you want to rush from the edge, but bottom line is, it creates mismatches," Robison said. "If you create mismatches, it allows your team more of a chance to win. I'm about winning games around here, so if I've got to be inside or outside, or standing up, it doesn't matter what I've got to do. The bottom line is, I'm trying to win games."

That package helped Barr got his second sack of the preseason on Saturday night, lining up at right end and working back to quarterback Drew Stanton on the final play of the first half after tackle Bradley Sowell forced him too far up the field. The Vikings had sent six pass rushers on the play, and when Stanton stepped up to evade Griffen, Barr came back to take him down and knock the ball out of his hands.

Had the play been quicker to develop, Stanton might have gotten rid of the ball before Barr got there, and it's been clear through two games the rookie will have to develop a few more methods to get to the quarterback than simply relying on his quickness. Sowell played him the way many tackles might. Barr had to work back to the quarterback after an initial rush from Tom Johnson on his first sack last week, too. The next step for Barr is develop some counter moves to punish tackles who are setting up to take away his speed around the edge.

"That's the thing he's learning right now, is a lot of the hand techniques and counter moves, whether it's going back to power or something like that," Robison said. "He's big enough to use that, as well. There'll come a time where guys start seeing that he is a speed rusher and they start sitting. Well, now if he has an element where he can come back and bull [rush] a guy, now you've got problems. That's what he's learning right now, and I think he's going to be a heck of a force for us."

MINNEAPOLIS -- Much of his work came against the Arizona Cardinals' second-team defense Saturday night, so it's wise to use some measure of restraint when talking about Matt Cassel's performance in the Minnesota Vikings' second preseason game. But it's getting harder and harder to see anyone but Cassel beginning the season as the team's starting quarterback.

Cassel connected on 12 of his 16 throws, throwing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings' 30-28 win over the Cardinals. Cassel also scrambled three times for 30 yards and threw a strike to Kyle Rudolph over the middle for 51 yards.

It was the kind of commanding, decisive performance Cassel had hoped to deliver in two quarters of work, and while Teddy Bridgewater had an impressive night of his own, it seems like a matter of time before coach Mike Zimmer declares Cassel the starter.

Here are some other thoughts on the Vikings' second preseason game of the year:
  • It seems unlikely Zimmer will be happy with the Vikings' performance on a couple of long Cardinals drives, particularly on Arizona's first of the game. The Vikings allowed the Cardinals to march 93 yards in nine plays to start the game, giving up a 51-yard pass when Xavier Rhodes missed a tackle on Jaron Brown, and conceded a touchdown on a 19-play, 80-yard drive to begin the second half. That march took 10:06 off the clock, and featured two third-down and two fourth-down conversions.
  • Bridgewater, who admitted he'd been overthinking things this week, has to be feeling much better after an impressive second half that included a last-minute touchdown drive. He went 16-of-20 for 177 yards and two touchdown, directing an 11-play scoring drive that put the Vikings ahead in the fourth quarter and throwing a perfect fade route to Rodney Smith for the game-winning touchdown. On that drive, Bridgewater evaded a sack and found Allen Reisner while rolling to his right. He also threw a corner route that Adam Thielen should have caught for a touchdown.
  • Zimmer wasn't happy with the pass rush after the team's first game, and while the Vikings only had one sack (from Anthony Barr on the final play of the first half), they got more consistent pressure than they did against the Oakland Raiders. Defensive end Everson Griffen was particularly active, lining up at both left and right end as the Vikings tried a new nickel rush package that put Barr at right end and moved Brian Robison inside.
  • After allowing six sacks last week, the Vikings' offensive line surrendered only one Saturday. Bridgewater, who fumbled last week after holding the ball too long, did a better job of getting the ball out and moving in the pocket this week, and Cassel also evaded pressure on several occasions, particularly when the Cardinals' first-team defense was in the game. But it was definitely a step in the right direction for the Vikings' offensive line.
  • Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who was hit in the left calf by a stray bullet at a Minneapolis nightclub last Saturday morning, was on the field before the game, wishing teammates good luck as he wore a sleeve on his calf. Joseph hadn't been seen with the Vikings in practice all week.
  • The Cardinals' long opening drive in the third quarter meant the Vikings had limited time to work on offense in the second half, and it also meant third-string quarterback Christian Ponder didn't see a snap. Though stranger things have certainly happened, Ponder -- who was the Vikings' unquestioned starting quarterback at this time last year -- might have seen his final action in a Vikings home game; he'd be the third-string quarterback if he's on the roster this season, and he'll be a free agent after the season.

Vikings camp report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • Coach Mike Zimmer's fiery side was on display late in the afternoon practice after defensive end Everson Griffen jumped offsides in an 11-on-11 drill. Zimmer immediately called for the entire team to drop and begin pushups on the field. (I lost count but I believe it was 10.) "It was spur of the moment," Zimmer said. "The period before, a couple guys jumped offsides, and I got tired of it."
  • Veteran safety Chris Crocker, signed Monday, got some work with the first team Tuesday. Zimmer acknowledged he has long planned to bring in Crocker, who played for him during most of the past seven seasons, and envisions him as a facilitator of the defensive system to younger players. "I thought it would be good for him to be around," Zimmer said. "We've got a pretty young secondary, a pretty young defense. He knows the system well. I thought he would be in that defensive back room to help these guys understand exactly what I'm looking for. He's been with me for a little while."
  • That Crocker got work with the first team speaks to the Vikings' situation at safety opposite of Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton, who had been working with the starters, is trying to come back from a hamstring injury. Zimmer said Blanton's timetable appears more optimistic than once believed, but said: "Blanton's got to get back out here. He was looking good early. Now he had to get back out here and show what he can do."
  • The Vikings are beginning to prepare for Friday's preseason opener at TCF Bank Stadium. Zimmer planed to speak with to the team Tuesday night about the value of a home-field advantage. Temporary digs have not usually been kind to NFL teams, but Zimmer said: "Maybe we can be the first." Meanwhile, Zimmer indicated that tailback Adrian Peterson won't play. That sounds like a good plan. Peterson is healthy and doesn't need preseason work, whether or not the Vikings are installing a new offense.
  • The Vikings are scheduled for a walk-thru practice Wednesday morning from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. local time. Their primary practice will go from 3 p.m. to 5:10 p.m. local time.

Vikings wake-up call: Day 5

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
MANKATO, Minn. -- Setting up the day at Minnesota Vikings training camp:

Today's schedule: After a day off, the Vikings are back on their normal schedule today at Minnesota State. They will hold a morning walk-through from 10:30-11:30, and their afternoon practice will run from 3:30-5:10. Coach Mike Zimmer is scheduled to talk to reporters after the morning walk-through.

More observations from Monday's practice:
  • Sanford
    Safety Jamarca Sanford was back to getting some first-team snaps, after he had mostly been working out with the second team in the first part of camp. Zimmer has spoken highly of Robert Blanton, who has made the most of his time with the first team while Sanford sat out the Vikings' spring program with a pulled muscle, and at the moment, Blanton would seem to have the inside track on a job next to his former Notre Dame teammate, Harrison Smith. But Sanford, who has been the starter the past two seasons, appears healthy enough to make a bid for the job. We'll see how much more time he gets this week with the first team.
  • For all the times Marcus Sherels is forgotten because of his small stature, the cornerback keeps coming back to assert himself in training camp, year after year. He had a textbook pass breakup during individual drills, and after an outstanding season as the Vikings' punt returner in 2013, he appears to be well ahead of any challengers for that job. "He has gotten better every year," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "Every year we have taken a little bit, I don’t want to say more chances, but we have been a little bit more aggressive with him every year and we are going to continue to do so this year."
  • Undrafted free agent Kain Colter is fighting for one of the Vikings' receiver spots after playing quarterback in college, and he showed his athletic ability early in Monday night's practice, leaping to make a one-handed catch in the back of the end zone during a red-zone drill.
What I'm watching: The Vikings activated Captain Munnerlyn from the physically-unable-to-perform list, and should get him back on the practice field on Wednesday. I'm curious to see how they will work him into their defense; he has been adamant that he will start at cornerback in the base defense, rather than just playing in the slot in the nickel package, but Josh Robinson looks more comfortable now that he is on the outside again. The Vikings might have to ease Munnerlyn into practice once they do get him back, but how they use him in the next week or so will give us an idea of whether he is going to be playing in their base defense as well as their sub packages. The guess here is Munnerlyn will wind up with the starting spot.

They said it: "Everson is a very difficult person to replace. He is such a great athlete. I think Scott has the size; he is not quite the athlete that Everson is, but he is a bigger guy. We will be able to utilize him in lot of different phases. I am excited about working with him, and again, Everson is a very tough person to replace athletically, but I think Scott will be doing some of the things that Everson did when he was playing special teams." -- Priefer, on the possibility of using rookie defensive end Scott Crichton to replace Everson Griffen on special teams now that Griffen is starting at right end.
MANKATO, Minn. -- After looking at the most valuable contracts in the NFL, Grantland's Bill Barnwell debuted his All-Bad Contracts team late last week. The Vikings didn't have any players on Barnwell's first list, but they had two appear on his second.

Both wide receiver Greg Jennings and defensive end Everson Griffen made Barnwell's list, thanks to the five-year deals the Vikings gave both players in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Jennings' first season in Minnesota was tarnished by the Vikings' uncertainty at quarterback, and his numbers (68 catches, 804 yards and four touchdowns) were his worst in a season where he played more than eight games since his rookie year. Griffen got $20 million of a $42.5 million deal guaranteed this March, and he'll be a full-time starter for the first time this fall.

Here's what Barnwell said about both deals:

On Jennings: "Wanting a new no. 1 wideout for young quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings went shopping in free agency and came away with Jennings, who was once a star for the Packers. Despite the fact that he would be moving from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder, the Vikes authorized a five-year, $45 million deal for Jennings, who would turn 30 at the beginning of the 2013 season. He finished with a pedestrian 68 catches for 804 yards and four touchdowns in his first season away from Lambeau; the good news, perhaps, is that there’s no further guaranteed money in Jennings’s deal after 2014."

On Griffen: "A promising backup who has accrued 17.5 sacks across four seasons with Minnesota while playing behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison, Griffen was marked for the starting lineup after Allen’s contract expired this past offseason. The only problem? Griffen was also about to hit free agency. To avoid losing him, the Vikings gave the 26-year-old a stunning deal. Despite starting just one career pro game, Griffen was signed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract that guarantees him nearly $20 million. If Minnesota had that much faith in Griffen, why didn’t it extend him during his time as a backup, when he surely would have come cheaper? The best-case scenario is that Griffen delivers on his promise and lives up to the massive deal. The worst-case? Minnesota just gave a superstar’s deal to a player best used in small doses."

A couple points to add here: First, the Vikings talked with Griffen about a contract in general terms during the 2013 season, but didn't make serious progress toward a deal until the days and weeks before the start of free agency. And second, as Barnwell points out, the guaranteed money on both deals is such that even if the contracts turn out to be bad ones, the Vikings won't feel the sting for long. They will have paid Jennings all $18 million guaranteed after this season, and all of the guaranteed money in Griffen's deal comes within the first two seasons, as well. The pay-as-you-go approach means the Vikings won't have to worry about dead money later in the deals, and they've also got some leverage if they eventually need to think about restructuring one or both contracts.

It's certainly possible that Jennings will rebound this season, Griffen will turn into the player the Vikings paid him to be and both deals will work out fine, but it's not a stretch to say there's an onus on both players to prove they're worth the deals the Vikings gave them.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Between now and the Minnesota Vikings' first training camp practice July 25, we will break down each position group.

Today, we'll take a look at the defensive line.

Returning players: Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, Chase Baker, Spencer Nealy, Justin Trattou

Gone from last season: Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion

New this season: Linval Joseph (free agent from New York Giants), Tom Johnson (free agent from New Orleans), Corey Wootton (free agent from Chicago), Kheeston Randall (free agent from Cincinnati), Scott Crichton (third-round pick from Oregon State), Shamar Stephen (seventh-round pick from Connecticut), Rakim Cox (undrafted free agent from Villanova), Isame Faciane (undrafted free agent from Florida International), Tyler Scott (undrafted free agent from Northwestern), Jake Snyder (undrafted free agent from Virginia)

Position coach: Andre Patterson (first season)

Biggest issue: There might not be any position group on the roster that went through a bigger change this offseason than the defensive line, and after the Vikings spent considerable resources to put together a line that can play coach Mike Zimmer's system, it will be incumbent upon players to execute it. Zimmer wants his linemen to engage blockers first and stay disciplined against the run, which means Robison and Griffen, in particular, will see a change in the way their position is coached. The Vikings' old system often gave defensive ends -- particularly Allen -- the freedom to take an aggressive pass-rushing stance and charge upfield, rather than working off blockers first .Zimmer's ends typically play with a more balanced stance, and don't get to set up in a wide alignment as often as pass-rushers like Allen did in the past. Reconstructing the Vikings' line play might be one of the more important steps in Zimmer's effort to rebuild the defense.

Player to watch: It's an important year for Floyd, who will take on a more significant role at defensive tackle after an underwhelming rookie season. The 23-year-old lost weight over the winter, and will likely play more this season after staying on the field for just 39.6 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps last season. The Vikings want to see him turn into the kind of three-technique defensive end that Zimmer had in Geno Atkins while he was in Cincinnati, and it's an important year for Floyd to prove he can turn into a key piece of the defensive line.

Medical report: Joseph was limited by shoulder surgery during the Vikings' organized team activities and minicamp, but should be ready for the start of camp. Wootton had hip surgery last winter, and after playing hurt last season in Chicago, he believes he will have more pass-rushing productivity now that he has regained some of his explosiveness.

Help wanted: There is some reason to be concerned with the interior line depth, but they have a solid group of ends and will get some flexibility from a few players that can work inside or outside, like Griffen, Wootton and Crichton. As common as injuries are on the defensive line, though, the Vikings are likely always on the lookout for another body (as they were when they tried to bring Williams back this spring).

Quotable: "That group, I think, is a good group," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "There was a lot of holes there when we first came in here. We’ve added some new players to that position. One thing you always like to see is guys working together and trying to help each other, and you see that group right now coaching each other when we’re not around, helping each other, trying to talk about pointers, trying to talk about the message that we’re trying to get accomplished, what we’re trying to do schematically, defensively the fundamentals and techniques of it."

Camp preview: Minnesota Vikings

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Ben Goessling examines the three biggest issues facing the Minnesota Vikings heading into training camp.

Quarterback: This will be the biggest storyline surrounding the Vikings in training camp until head coach Mike Zimmer settles on a starter. Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have pledged to hold an open competition during training camp, though the race really figures to boil down to two quarterbacks: veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who both got a significantly larger share of snaps during the Vikings' OTAs and minicamp than Christian Ponder. Bridgewater was impressive in his first work with the Vikings this spring, but unless he's clearly the best of the Vikings' quarterbacks in training camp, Cassel figures to start the season as the quarterback. The Vikings re-signed Cassel so they wouldn't have to rush a young quarterback, and in the process, they created a situation in which they can afford to be patient with Bridgewater. If he's the best man for the job, it doesn't seem likely Zimmer will wait to play him. But if he's not fully ready by the end of camp, there's nothing forcing the Vikings to play the rookie.

Remaking the defense: The Vikings committed $20 million in guaranteed money to defensive end Everson Griffen and guaranteed another $16.95 million to secure the services of defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. But until training camp, when players put on pads, cornerbacks play press coverage and there's actual contact at the line of scrimmage, it's difficult to assess where the Vikings are in their effort to rebuild a defense that allowed more points than any other unit in the league last season. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr only had a minicamp with the team as classes at UCLA kept him out of the team's OTAs, but he'll be a prominent figure as the Vikings plan to use the 6-foot-5 linebacker in several different ways. With questions at linebacker (does Jasper Brinkley start in the middle?) and in the secondary (is Josh Robinson good enough to get significant playing time at cornerback?), the Vikings will have plenty to figure out on defense.

New roles for Peterson, Patterson: At age 29, Adrian Peterson is intent on cruising along with his career at a time when most running backs his age start to break down. In Norv Turner, Peterson has a new offensive coordinator who is intent on using him differently. Peterson will be more involved in the Vikings' passing game this season, as Turner and Zimmer seek to convert some of his carries into receptions, giving him more room to work in the open field and making him less likely to take a pounding. Turner also has big plans for second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whose emergence late last season made many wonder why the Vikings waited so long to make him a big part of the offense. Patterson, who played mostly at split end last season, moved to different spots during the Vikings' offseason program, and Turner seems interested in getting the explosive receiver the ball as much as he can; general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL scouting combine in February that Turner already had designed about 10 plays for Patterson. If the Vikings can turn him loose in Year 2, he could emerge as one of the NFL's premier playmakers.
In the last few weeks before the Minnesota Vikings begin training camp, we're going to take a look at several players on their roster with something to prove this season, excluding rookies. We will focus primarily on veterans or players being asked to assume a larger role this season. Today: defensive end Corey Wootton.

Why he has something to prove: Wootton had an impressive 2012 season with the Chicago Bears, posting seven sacks while starting just seven games, but a nagging hip injury kept him from building on his breakout 2012 performance in 2013. Wootton started 15 games for the Bears, but had just 3 1/2 sacks as his hip injury slowed his first step, and the Bears let him walk in free agency. He had surgery following the season, and he's expecting to be 100 percent for the start of training camp. Playing on a one-year, incentive-laden deal that could pay him up to $2 million, the 27-year-old will have plenty at stake with the Vikings in 2014.

What he must do: The 6-foot-6 Wootton could be a good fit in the system of head coach Mike Zimmer, who had a couple of tall, long-armed defensive ends in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson in Cincinnati. Wootton will probably play a rotational basis, with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen likely to start at the two defensive end positions, but that kind of a role could suit Wootton; he played inside and outside with the Bears, and he'd be able to stay fresh in a limited role, which is how he did much of his best work with the Bears in 2012. Four of Wootton's seven sacks that season came in games where he played 38 snaps or less. He'll find ways onto the field as the Vikings move Griffen, Robison and Anthony Barr around, and if he's healthy and rested, his quick first step could help him be a disruptive player.

Projection: Wootton has a solid year as a rotational player in Zimmer's defense and puts himself in position to head back into free agency in search of a starting job in 2015. He'll only be 28 next spring, and if he's productive, it's difficult to imagine the Vikings keeping him when they've already got so much money committed to Robison and Griffen. But the guess here is that Wootton will make enough contributions in 2014 that he'll create a solid market for himself.
In the last few weeks before the Minnesota Vikings begin training camp, we're going to take a look at a number of players on their roster with something to prove this season, excluding rookies. We will focus primarily on veterans or players being asked to assume a larger role this season. We'll kick things off today with defensive end Everson Griffen.

Why he has something to prove: Griffen signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract in March, effectively becoming the successor to Jared Allen at the left end spot, despite starting just one game in his first four years with the Vikings. He found enough snaps in a rotational role, lining up as an inside rusher in the Vikings' nickel package and spelling both Allen and Brian Robison, that the Vikings were willing to spend big money to keep Griffen off the free-agent market. He has the quickness and athletic ability to cause serious matchup problems at defensive end, and he had eight sacks in a part-time role in 2012. But Griffen disappeared too many times early last season, and the Vikings need to see him take the next step toward becoming a consistent force on the defensive line.

What he must do: Griffen's performance this year shouldn't be solely measured by his sack numbers, since he won't have the benefit of lining up in a wide alignment and charging upfield toward the passer as often as Allen did. In Mike Zimmer's system, defensive ends are often asked to line up directly over a defensive tackle and engage blockers before heading into the backfield, so Griffen should be evaluated on how he sets the edge against the run almost as much as how he pursues the quarterback. Griffen also has to prove he can be effective as his workload likely increases; he's never played more than 717 snaps in a season, and he could be asked to log 200 or 250 more than that in 2014, based on how much Zimmer used right end Michael Johnson in Cincinnati. Griffen looked noticeably bigger this spring after staying in the Twin Cities to work out in the offseason, and he'll have to hold up under what will likely be a more taxing workload this season.

Projection: Griffen's sack totals won't be extravagant -- pencil him in for six or seven this season -- but he'll be solid enough against the run to help the Vikings improve there this season under Zimmer. He seemed energized by his new contract and the Vikings' coaching change, and he'll get his chance to take off in 2014.
Thanks to all of you who submitted questions for our weekly Minnesota Vikings mailbag. You can send them to me on Twitter any time during the week at @GoesslingESPN, using the hashtag #VikingsMail. @GoesslingESPN: Good morning everyone. We're going to get right into it, with what I expect will be the biggest storyline of training camp. Jordan, in the scenario you laid out, I've got to think Matt Cassel gets the nod over Teddy Bridgewater; his experience has to put him over the edge in the event the two quarterbacks' performances are similar. To me, there's no reason to put Bridgewater on the field Sept. 7 against the St. Louis Rams unless he's made it clear he's the better choice. Otherwise, start the year with Cassel, see if he can get you through a rough early stretch of the schedule and give Bridgewater the extra time to get ready. I think it's very possible Bridgewater wins the job; I just don't see a reason to force him in there unless he's made it clear he's the best choice. @GoesslingESPN: Next week, the Vikings should get the findings of an independent investigation into former punter Chris Kluwe's allegations against special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. The investigation dragged on longer than anyone had planned -- in large part, from what I've heard, because some people were reluctant to participate at first -- but in some ways, it worked out perfectly for the Vikings. The team will get the findings with many players out of the building, away from the media and in the safe haven of their summer vacations. If the Vikings decide to make the report public (likely after consultation with the NFL), they might choose to release it somewhere around the Fourth of July, when attention on the NFL might be at a relative low point. Funny how that stuff works out, isn't it? If the report shows corroborating evidence of Kluwe's allegations that Priefer made homophobic remarks, and if the Vikings decide to discipline Priefer, the situation could become a problem in the weeks before training camp, but short of that, I don't see it being a big distraction. @GoesslingESPN: We only got to see Barr for three days during the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, of course -- he was finishing school during the Vikings' organized team activities -- but it was clear early that the team plans to move him around quite a bit. He was lined up at strong-side linebacker, saw time with Chad Greenway in the first-team nickel defense and lined up as an edge rusher on a few occasions, which at one point led the Vikings to drop Brian Robison into coverage while Barr rushed from the left end spot. The rookie has impressive edge rush speed and looked like he already had a functional swim move. He'll have to develop a number of moves and strategies to beat offensive tackles, but he could open up new wrinkles for the Vikings' defense, particularly when you consider that Everson Griffen has dropped into coverage before and Robison started his college career as a linebacker. Especially in the first few weeks of the season, unpredictability could be an effective weapon for the Vikings' defense. @GoesslingESPN: This is traditionally the slowest time of the year in the NFL, largely because it's the one concentrated chunk of time where coaches and executives get away for a little vacation. Coaches are still able to contact players, and Mike Zimmer said this week the Vikings' coaches will send players short messages, reminding them to keep working out and getting ready for training camp. But many players return home, to be with their families and take advantage of the last few weeks of down time before they're scheduled to report for training camp on July 24. Zimmer said he plans to take vacation time, too, returning to his ranch in northern Kentucky, making a trip down to Dallas and heading to Naples, Florida, to see his parents. He said Thursday he'd miss the players -- though he didn't plan to tell them that. The biggest concern for coaches this time of year is that players stay out of trouble and stay in shape, ready to get to work once training camp begins. But in what's become a year-round job, the time between minicamp and training camp provides a brief respite for many of the people involved in running a football team. We'll wrap up this edition of the mailbag there. Thanks for all the great questions -- we got quite a stockpile of them this week, so I might tackle a few more of them in another edition of the mailbag early next week. Talk to you then!