MANKATO, Minn. -- I won't pretend to select an early training camp standout after watching the Minnesota Vikings' first two practices at Minnesota State University, Mankato. What I will pass along, however, is the identity of the player that some of the team's most important decision-makers are buzzing about.
Everson Griffen is a 25-year-old pass-rusher on a team with a trio of 30-something defensive linemen who are entering the final years of their contracts. Griffen finished last season with a flurry of four sacks and a touchdown return during the Vikings' 4-0 finish, and when I asked coach Leslie Frazier a simple question about his pre-snap positioning over the weekend, I got one of the longest answers Frazier has ever given me.
"He's just grown so much as a person," Frazier started.
You might remember that Griffen was one of the highest-rated pass rushers in the 2010 draft, but he was available at the Vikings' No. 100 overall pick because of a well-deserved reputation for immaturity and high maintenance at USC. He didn't record a sack as a rookie, and then in Feb. 2011 -- less than a month after Frazier took over as the team's permanent head coach -- Griffen had a run of off-field mistakes that nearly ended his tenure with the team.
Arrested twice in three days and also implicated as the organizer of a Las Vegas party that USC banned its football players from attending, Griffin became Frazier's signature reclamation project. Since that time, Griffen hasn't had an off-field incident or run afoul of team rules, at least no cases that have been reported publicly.
"There was a time," Frazier said, "and he'll tell you this, when I just didn't know if we were going to be able to coexist. It was touch and go there for a while. But, to his credit, he wanted to make some changes in his personal life. He began to listen. He began to take advice from the right kind of people, and he gradually began to mature in some key areas that you have to mature in order to survive in our league.
"Because I told him a number of times, when I first started working with him: In this league, you can't just say you're going to survive on talent. You crash and burn on just talent. But to his credit, he's bought into some things. We've had a lot of people spending time with him to help him. He's not unlike a lot of other people you try to get across to. Some guys will accept it and some guys will reject it. He's one of those guys who has accepted it.
"We're going to benefit from it on the football field."
The big step, by all accounts, was Griffin's mother spending time in Minnesota on regular intervals to supervise his progress. When she died unexpectedly in October 2012, Frazier feared a maturity regression. Instead, he witnessed a confirmation of his progress.
"Seeing how he handled the tough part of losing your mother, that's hard on anybody," Frazier said. "If you know his history, that could have been a moment of regression. But he didn't regress. He used that as a motivator in a positive way instead of a negative way. That was encouraging. I tell him all the time, 'Man, when your career is over, I hope we'll all be able to look back and say if that guy can make the changes that he made, I know that that guy can and this guy can and that guy can.' I want him to be one of those guys to come back and talk to players who came into the league with a little bit of immaturity, and then talk about the maturation that occurred in his career. The evolution that I've seen has been fantastic."
This post won't provide a litany of examples illustrating Griffen's newfound maturity. We've all heard similar stories in professional sports, only to be disappointed. It's not up to me to judge Everson Griffen's maturity independently. To me, what's important is that some of the people closest to him in the organization are convinced that he has positioned himself to maximize his considerable talent.
Griffen said he reminds himself every day to, in essence, act like an adult.
"It takes a lot of hard work," he said. "It's like another job. You've got to make sure you're dedicated. You tell yourself every morning that you're going to do the right thing. You tell yourself that you're going to be on time and listen to the coach. It's a decision that you make, and I make the decision every day to try to do it right and up to my best ability. All I want to do is be a professional. I feel like I'm coming along well."
So do the Vikings.