NFC North: Linval Joseph

Sanford
MINNEAPOLIS -- Safety Jamarca Sanford, who missed most of the Minnesota Vikings' offsesason program and preseason with a spate of injuries, will spend the season on injured reserve, according to a league source.

Sanford's latest injury, a quadriceps strain he sustained while playing special teams in the Vikings' third preseason game against Kansas City, didn't seem likely to keep him out for the entire season, but the move allows the Vikings to retain his rights for the 2014 season. Sanford will be a free agent after the season, but the Vikings could re-sign him, instead of letting him leave for another team sometime this season.

The team has also released defensive tackle Fred Evans, according to a league source, which bodes well for both Linval Joseph's health and rookie Shamar Stephen's chances of making the team.

Joseph, who was struck in the left calf by a stray bullet in a nightclub shooting on Aug. 9, said last week he will be ready for the Vikings' regular-season debut on Sept. 7. Vikings coaches had also spoken highly of Stephen, a seventh-round pick from Connecticut who had played both the nose and three-technique tackle positions during the preseason, and it seems unlikely the team would release Evans if it didn't expect Joseph to be ready and Stephen to be ready for significant playing time as a rookie.

The Vikings have to reduce their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Hello from Arrowhead Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings will kick off their third preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at 7 p.m. CDT. It's going to be a muggy night -- it's currently 95 degrees outside, and won't dip into the 80s until after 9 p.m. -- so the Vikings' dress rehearsal for the season will be spent in conditions they probably won't face more than once, if at all. Alas, they'll have to manage.

There are no major surprises on the list of players who won't dress for Minnesota on Saturday night -- cornerback Jabari Price is expected to sit out, as are linebackers Gerald Hodges and Brandon Watts, tight end Chase Ford and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Matt Asiata will again start at running back in place of Adrian Peterson, who isn't expected to play. Fred Evans starts in Joseph's place at nose tackle, and Chris Crocker will again start at safety alongside Harrison Smith.

Peterson, who was away from the team for personal reasons on Wednesday and Thursday, is dressed for the game and going through warmups with the team. He was expected to travel with the team after missing practice, and a picture the Vikings released of their Friday walk-through showed Peterson back with the team, so things appear to be going to plan.

We'll hopefully get some answers tonight about how the Vikings will handle the safety position, how things are shaping up at middle linebacker and whether Teddy Bridgewater has a shot to unseat Matt Cassel at quarterback. Check back later for more from Arrowhead.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The absence of defensive tackle Linval Joseph, after a stray bullet clipped his left calf on Aug. 9, will apparently linger into a second preseason game. Joseph doesn't figure to play Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, and hasn't practiced with the team since he was shot as an innocent bystander at a Minneapolis nightclub following the Vikings' first preseason game.

"I know he’s here working every day. He’s a true pro," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "He’s staying up on what’s going on. From that aspect of it, I haven’t been given word when he will be back."

[+] EnlargeShamar Stephen
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallSeventh-round pick Shamar Stephen has taken advantage of a big opportunity in Minnesota Vikings camp.
Joseph's absence has necessitated extra playing time for some of the Vikings' other defensive tackles, however, and one in particular -- seventh-round pick Shamar Stephen -- seems to be taking advantage of it.

Stephen played 42 snaps last Saturday against Arizona, getting the second-most playing time of any Vikings defender. He received first-team snaps at nose tackle and lined up in both the nose and three-technique spots. He's won praise from coach Mike Zimmer, Edwards and defensive line coach Andre Patterson, and the Vikings seem to think they could have a steal in the former Connecticut tackle.

Stephen has done a solid job at the point of attack -- to the point where Pro Football Focus ranked him the third-best run-stopping defensive tackle so far in the preseason -- and he's handled a broader assignment than he figured to have through this point with the Vikings.

"We played him at the three-technique, we played him at the nose, and for a guy who really hadn’t got a lot of reps at the three [technique],we thought he did a good job of what we were asking call-wise, technically, fundamentally," Edwards said after the Vikings' first preseason game. "He held up pretty good in there."

The Vikings could hold out several starters in their final preseason game on Thursday at Tennessee, but Joseph figures to play if he's ready. Stephen could continue building on his preseason resume, especially if the Vikings don't want to risk exposing him to waivers by trying to put him on the practice squad. Stephen, the 220th overall pick, could sneak onto the bottom half of the roster.

Vikings Thursday practice report

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Some observations from the Minnesota Vikings' practice Thursday afternoon:
  • Peterson
    Peterson
    The Vikings were still without running back Adrian Peterson, who missed practice again Thursday after being gone for personal reasons Wednesday. Peterson wasn't going to play in Saturday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs but is expected to travel to the game with the team. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who is still recovering from a bullet wound to his left calf, and linebacker Brandon Watts, who is out with a leg injury, weren't seen at practice. Cornerback Jabari Price and linebacker Gerald Hodges were on the field but were not participating.
  • Much of the Vikings' work again consisted of scout-team offensive snaps against the first-string defense, which meant another busy day for Christian Ponder. The third-string quarterback went 7-for-12, throwing one interception in 11-on-11 work. Matt Cassel hit 11 of his 15 throws and Teddy Bridgewater went 5-for-7. Cassel didn't divulge the Vikings' game plan for Saturday night but said he "expect(s) to play a lot" against the Chiefs.
  • Blair Walsh has hit 47 of 50 kicks in team periods since the Vikings started training camp, according to special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who said he wasn't concerned about a pair of Walsh misses from beyond 50 yards in the Vikings' first two preseason games. "I think he may have missed one from 50, or maybe none, in practice," Priefer said. "If it was one of those deals where he was shanking the ball, I'd be concerned. But he's hitting the ball well. There's a couple things he needs to do with his follow-through, to straighten that out. We've already gone back and looked at a couple game tapes from his rookie year and last year. It's one of those things he's just got to continue to focus on his follow-through and the other little small attributes that make him such a great kicker, compared to other kickers in this league."
  • Priefer said the Vikings used 42 different players on special teams in last Saturday's preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals as coaches try to evaluate whose special-teams contributions should help them win a roster spot. The Vikings will start to use more consistent special-teams units on Saturday against Kansas City as they prepare for the start of the regular season. They'll also try to get Cordarrelle Patterson a kickoff return or two, Priefer said.
  • The moment of the day in practice came when Chad Greenway dropped an interception and angrily kicked the ball into the trees just east of the Vikings' practice field. The ball got stuck in a tree, and several minutes later, Greenway walked into the woods with another football in his hand to perform the old throw-one-ball-into-the-tree-to-knock-the-other-one-down trick. "Didn't you guys do this as a kid?" Greenway said. Seconds later, he emerged with both footballs, proclaiming it'd only taken him one shot to dislodge the one he'd kicked into the tree.

Vikings Monday practice report

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
7:05
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A few observations from the Minnesota Vikings' Monday practice:
  • Safety Robert Blanton was back at practice, but the Vikings were still using Chris Crocker as their first-team safety alongside Harrison Smith. Blanton is listed atop the Vikings' depth chart, but he'll have to earn his way back into the race for a starting spot after missing time with a hamstring injury. Coach Mike Zimmer said Crocker didn't see enough action in Saturday's preseason game for the Vikings to evaluate him properly, but the Vikings seem to want to take a longer look at the 34-year-old. Zimmer said on Monday he's evaluating players like Andrew Sendejo and Kurt Coleman as much for what they do in pass coverage as what they're able to do near the line of scrimmage. That'd explain why Crocker is getting a long look, and why Blanton had put himself in the mix for a starting job before his injury. We'll see if he can reassert himself now that he's back.
  • Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught a 51-yard touchdown pass during the Vikings' preseason game on Saturday night, was back at it on Monday, snatching passes away from Crocker and Michael Mauti in tight coverage over the middle. At 6-foot-5, Rudolph is already an inviting target for quarterbacks, and he's shown several times already how much it helped him to drop 15 pounds in the offseason in an effort to be a bigger downfield threat in Norv Turner's offense.
  • In 11-on-11 work on Monday, quarterback Matt Cassel hit 8 of 11 passes, getting one batted down at the line of scrimmage and throwing one away downfield. Teddy Bridgewater went 8-for-10, with his only misses coming to Rodney Smith and Jarius Wright -- who sustained a left ankle injury while trying to catch Bridgewater's sideline pass in tight coverage. And Christian Ponder, who didn't play at all on Saturday night, didn't throw a pass in full-team work during Monday's practice.
  • The Vikings made one roster move on Monday, cutting linebacker Dom DeCicco, who had hip surgery last week, and claiming linebacker Justin Jackson off waivers from Detroit.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings continue to try and establish a pecking order at safety, it appears they'll give Chris Crocker every chance to wind up at the top of it.

The 34-year-old, who signed with the Vikings earlier this month and came out of retirement to play his eighth consecutive season for coach Mike Zimmer, will start alongside Harrison Smith on Saturday night against the Arizona Cardinals. Zimmer said the Vikings want to take a long look at four safeties -- Crocker, Jamarca Sanford, Kurt Coleman and Andrew Sendejo -- on Saturday, in hopes of sorting out the position.

That Crocker will start, however, speaks to what could eventually land him the starting job; he's more familiar with Zimmer's defense than anyone else on the roster, and can lend some stability to a position where no one has established a firm hold on the job next to Smith.

Robert Blanton, who is still listed at the top of the Vikings' depth chart at strong safety, will miss Saturday's game with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Josh Robinson -- who's still battling a hamstring injury and appears to be ceding ground to Captain Munnerlyn in the race for a starting cornerback job -- will also sit out. Tight end Chase Ford (broken foot) and defensive tackle Linval Joseph (bullet wound to calf) are the other Vikings players who won't dress.

Fred Evans will start at nose tackle for Joseph, and Matt Asiata will again start at running back in place of Adrian Peterson, who will sit out for a second consecutive week.

Vikings Camp Report: Day 14

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
7:40
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MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • After throwing three interceptions during Monday's practice, Teddy Bridgewater was picked off twice more on Wednesday afternoon, by Mistral Raymond and Gerald Hodges. Bridgewater finished the day 12-for-17 in full-team drills, including a pass he threw away and a deep ball Adam Thielen dropped with a step on the defensive back covering him. Matt Cassel, who was again listed at the top of the Vikings' depth chart on Wednesday and appears to be solidly at the front of the Vikings' quarterback race, hit 12 of his 14 throws, with his only incompletions coming on drops from Kyle Rudolph and Matt Asiata. Christian Ponder went 6-for-8, with Shaun Prater breaking up one pass.
  • Linebacker Dom DeCicco will have surgery on his hip on Thursday. He was one of three players not to practice on Wednesday, joining Robert Blanton (hamstring) and Chase Ford (broken foot). Blanton started doing some drills on the side, as he tries to get back in time to compete for the Vikings' starting safety spot alongside Harrison Smith. Ford was also doing some running on Wednesday. Josh Robinson, who has been battling a hamstring injury, also visited the trainer's tent early in practice.
  • Cassel connected with Greg Jennings on the play of the day, hitting a long throw down the sideline to the receiver, who was covered well by Marcus Sherels. The quarterback and the receiver connected on both of the passes Cassel targeted for Jennings.
  • Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who has won praise from coach Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator George Edwards and defensive line coach Andre Patterson, got some first-team snaps at nose tackle on Wednesday. He'll get a chance to make his case with Linval Joseph still out because of a gunshot wound, and it seems like Stephen has a good shot at a roster spot; Patterson said on Wednesday the former Connecticut tackle is much better than his seventh-round draft status would indicate.
  • Running back Chuck Foreman, who played on three Vikings Super Bowl teams in the 1970s and still has the third-most rushing yards in franchise history, was spotted on the sidelines watching Vikings practice on Wednesday.

Vikings wake-up call: Day 12

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
10:52
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Setting up the day at Minnesota Vikings training camp:

Today's schedule: After a day off on Saturday, the Vikings reconvene at Minnesota State for their final few days of work in Mankato. They'll begin a special-teams-only walk-through at 11:20 a.m. CT and come back for practice at 3 p.m. Coach Mike Zimmer will address the media, and defensive tackle Linval Joseph -- who was released from the hospital Saturday after he was struck in the leg by a stray bullet in a nightclub early Saturday morning -- is expected to discuss his situation as well.

More observations from Friday's preseason game:
  • Zimmer talked about how the Vikings would be "very, very basic" in their defense, but on the first third down they unveiled a blitz package that had Anthony Barr rushing from an inside lineman position, Harrison Smith coming off the edge and left end Brian Robison dropping into coverage. We've seen the Vikings use Barr as a lineman in pass-rushing situations already in training camp, and the fact they were blitzing him while dropping Robison early on Friday night suggests such a blitz package as a key part of their repertoire. The sack Barr split with Tom Johnson also came on third down when he rushed off the right side from a linebacker position.
  • Those hoping to see some maturation from Cordarrelle Patterson as a receiver got it on the first drive of the game Friday, when Matt Cassel connected with Patterson on his first two completions of the game -- an in-breaking route against good man coverage and a third-down back-shoulder throw that Patterson had to haul in with one hand. On the back-shoulder throw, Patterson had to fight off a jam from Raiders cornerback Tarell Brown and work back to the ball just in time. It was a precise play that would have been easier if Patterson had broken contact a split-second earlier, but the fact he came up with a couple catches early -- against good coverage from a veteran cornerback -- showed some reasons for encouragement.
  • The Vikings' two fullbacks -- Jerome Felton and Zach Line -- played just 10 and 16 snaps, respectively, as the team came out in "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends) early and often Friday. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, Mike Higgins and Allen Reisner all played at least 20 snaps. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner doesn't seem to favor two-back sets as much as predecessor Bill Musgrave did, and Felton and Line will have to continue trying to carve out a role in the Vikings' offense.
What I'm watching: With Joseph expected to miss a couple weeks while he recovers from what's being described as a minor bullet wound to his calf, the Vikings will get an early look at their defensive line depth this week. Fred Evans figures to play with the first-team defense at nose tackle, but Johnson also saw some snaps in Joseph's spot later in Friday's game and undrafted free agent Isame Faciane was impressive in pass-rushing situations later in the game, batting down a pass and grading out as the Vikings' top defender, according to Pro Football Focus. Defensive tackle depth could be an issue for the Vikings, but the next week or two could provide a sense for how it stacks up.

They said it: "Well, the backup quarterback is always the favorite guy, right? They should be excited about Teddy. They are going to be cheering for him for a long, long time." -- Zimmer, on fans chanting Teddy Bridgewater's name before he had thrown a pass on Friday night.

Camp preview: Minnesota Vikings

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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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.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A look at the highlights from the first day of the Minnesota Vikings' mandatory minicamp on Tuesday:

1. Loaded for Barr: The Vikings got first-round pick Anthony Barr on the field for the first time with their full team on Tuesday, after he graduated from UCLA over the weekend, and head coach Mike Zimmer didn't hesitate to try out some of the different ways he wants to use the linebacker. Barr was at the strong-side linebacker position the Vikings expect him to play, but he also lined up as an edge rusher on some third downs. At 6-foot-4, he's taller than defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, and if he can rush from the line of scrimmage, the Vikings can present a number of different looks to confuse opposing offenses, especially when Griffen's versatility enters the equation.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsFirst-round pick Anthony Barr participated on the field on the first day of Vikings' mandatory minicamp.
2. Robinson returns: Cornerback Josh Robinson was back on the field on Tuesday, after missing the Vikings' organized team activities with a muscle pull. He was also back at an outside cornerback position, following last year's failed experiment at slot cornerback. Robinson got plenty of snaps in the Vikings' first-team defense on Tuesday, and could wind up playing in the nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside.

3. Quarterbacks look sharp: The Vikings ran plenty of play-action and bootleg plays on Tuesday, and all three of their quarterbacks had a successful afternoon practice. Matt Cassel missed just one of the nine throws he attempted in 11-on-11 and was 5-for-5 in 7-on-7 work. Teddy Bridgewater was 15-for-17 in 11-on-11 action and 4-for-5 in 7-on-7, and Christian Ponder hit all four throws he attempted. Ponder again got fewer snaps than Cassel or Bridgewater, but he looked good in what he was asked to do. "Everyone's getting reps with the ones and twos," Ponder said. "I'm not getting as many reps as the other guys, but I'm trying to take full advantage, and we'll see what happens. I don't know how long the evaluation process is going to be. I'm hoping it goes into training camp and preseason games, but we'll see."

4. Jennings impresses: Wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed the Vikings' open OTA last week because of a charity event, caught four balls on the first day of minicamp, and saved his best for last, reaching out for a one-handed grab over the middle on a throw from Cassel in 7-on-7.

5. Middle linebacker plan emerges? The Vikings used Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway and Michael Mauti at middle linebacker on Tuesday, noticeably keeping Audie Cole on the outside after Cole played the middle at the end of last season. Brinkley has gotten more first-team work than anyone else in the middle, so far, but Zimmer cautioned not to read too much into that. "We have to line them up somewhere when we go, but I don't look at this guy is the favorite or that guy is the starter," he said. "(Brinkley)'s lined up with the first team right now, but I don't know, once we get him in practice and games and the things that prepare us for games and for the season, that will determine who lines up there on Sept. 7."

6. Safeties still limited: Jamarca Sanford was able to do a little more work after missing OTAs with a muscle injury, but the Vikings were mostly using Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Antone Exum and Kurt Coleman, with Blanton often pairing with Harrison Smith in 7-on-7 drills. Safety Andrew Sendejo was still limited with a back injury. Tight end Allen Reisner sat out, and running back Joe Banyard was a limited participant. Matt Kalil and Linval Joseph were again limited after knee and shoulder surgeries this offseason, but Zimmer said he expects both to be ready for training camp.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings were missing a handful of players because of injuries during Thursday's organized team activities. That included left tackle Matt Kalil, who had an operation four or five weeks ago, coach Mike Zimmer said.

Zimmer would not elaborate on the operation, other than to say it was not on Kalil's shoulder. The 2012 first-round pick was limited to individual drills Thursday.

Safety Andrew Sendejo was also out after having an operation on his back recently, Zimmer said, and cornerback Josh Robinson and safety Jamarca Sanford missed time because of pulled muscles during Wednesday's OTA.s

"They're day-to-day," Zimmer said of Robinson and Sanford. "It's nothing much."

Defensive tackle Linval Joseph is working his way back from a previous injury as well, but Zimmer said Joseph -- who signed a five-year deal with the team in March -- is getting close to returning to the field.

Vikings offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
10:00
AM ET
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With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Minnesota Vikings' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Matt RourkeIt's been a long time since the Vikings had a run-stuffing nose tackle like Linval Joseph.
Best move: The Vikings needed a run-stuffing nose tackle as much as they needed anything else on their defense, and the signing of Linval Joseph gave them a big body for the middle of their defensive line. Joseph should provide a presence the Vikings haven't had since Pat Williams' time in Minnesota ended, and although his contract will pay him $31.75 million over the next five years, including $12.5 million guaranteed, it's structured in such a way that the Vikings would face minimal cap repercussions if they needed to cut Joseph as soon as 2016. He's just 25, and in an ideal world, he'll be playing nose tackle for the Vikings for the next five years.

Riskiest move: It's based on the Vikings' high assessment of his potential, but giving $20 million guaranteed to defensive end Everson Griffen after four seasons of rotational duty was a gamble. The Vikings could insert Griffen in Jared Allen's old left end spot, and while sacks are an incomplete measure of performance for a defensive end in Mike Zimmer's scheme, Griffen will have to generate some pressure and be stout against the run. He has the talent to do both, but for him to be worth a contract that pays him like one of the league's top defensive ends, Griffen will have to showcase that talent more frequently than he's done so far in Minnesota.

Most surprising move: In an offseason that followed a fairly sensible shopping list, there weren't too many out-of-character steps among the Vikings' decisions. But the team opting not to add another receiver was worth at least a second glance. The Vikings could have plucked one in the middle rounds of a deep draft, giving themselves another option at a position where No. 3 receiver Jerome Simpson is coming off his second arrest in three years. Instead, the team will hope that Simpson is available for the better part of the season, third-year man Jarius Wright can become a more consistent part of the offense, and practice squad holdovers like Adam Thielen can add something to an offense that should push the ball downfield more than it has in the past.

Quarterback plan in place: The Vikings started their offseason by giving themselves some pre-draft insurance at quarterback, signing Matt Cassel to a new two-year, $10 million deal after he opted out of the contract he'd signed in 2013. They also traded back into the first round to take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, meaning their succession plan is in place at the position, whether that happens sometime this year, in 2015 or in 2016. If the Vikings do want Bridgewater to sit for a year, they're making a leap of faith that Cassel can be reliable for a full season in Norv Turner's offense after starting just 23 games from 2011 to 2013. If he's not, the Vikings could have to decide whether to put Bridgewater on the field or see whether they can get through a few games with Christian Ponder. But Cassel was mostly solid in six starts last season, and with both him and Bridgewater in the building, the Vikings have more reason to feel comfortable at quarterback than they've had in a while.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the sternest test of Mike Zimmer's ability to remake the Minnesota Vikings' defense will come in an 18-day stretch from Sept. 14 to Oct. 2, when the Vikings will play four consecutive games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, effectively staking their playoff hopes on their ability to stand up to some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

In many ways, the Vikings will have to fix two of their biggest problems from last season in the first month of the season if they're going to have any shot at relevance. They didn't win a road game last season (their victory in London was technically a "home" game), and they'll start the year against a St. Louis Rams team that went 5-3 at home last season before playing games at the Superdome and Lambeau Field in the next five weeks.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap
AP Photo/David KohlMike Zimmer's defense made things challenging for Aaron Rodgers last season.
But the Vikings' struggles against top quarterbacks, if left unchecked, will be an even more pervasive problem in the first part of the season. The Saints, Packers, Falcons and Patriots were the league's second-, sixth-, seventh- and 10th-best passing teams last season, and the Vikings come out of that stretch with an Oct. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, who threw for the third-most yards in the league. Essentially, the message of the Vikings' 2014 schedule is this: Fix your defense and fix it quickly.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Zimmer's had some success slowing down the quarterbacks the Vikings will face -- particularly Rodgers. The Packers quarterback faced the Cincinnati Bengals twice while Zimmer was their defensive coordinator, and lost both games. Last year, he hit 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bengals, and was sacked four times. And while he threw for 311 yards against the Bengals in 2009, he was sacked six times and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 31-24 loss.

Brady also faced the Bengals twice in that time, with unimpressive results. He went 1-1 in a pair of games against Cincinnati, completing 43 of his 73 passes for 455 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. After picking them apart in a 2010 win, he had arguably his worst game of the season against them last year, completing just 18 of his 38 passes for 197 yards and an interception in a 13-6 loss.

Brees and Ryan both fared well in their lone efforts against Zimmer's defense, each beating a 4-12 Bengals team in 2010. They were two of just four quarterbacks to surpass 290 yards against Cincinnati that season, posting 313 and 299, respectively.

Zimmer's defense employs plenty of man coverage, mixed with some zone principles, and counts more heavily on cornerbacks winning one-on-one matchups than the Vikings' old scheme did. That seems like a good fit for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and Captain Munnerlyn should help the Vikings' defense, as well, but secondary depth is paramount to surviving matchups with teams that will put as many receivers on the field as the Vikings' early-season opponents will.

The other thing to watch is how effectively the Vikings can pressure the top quarterbacks they'll face, particularly with some of Zimmer's creative blitzes. The Bengals didn't bring extra pressure after Brady and Rodgers all that often last year -- on just 12 and 11 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but what's worth noting is just how much they rattled those two quarterbacks. Brady had just a 2.2 QBR against the Bengals' blitzes last year, and Rodgers' QBR was only 8.0, as he was forced into checkdowns and didn't complete a pass of longer than 8 yards against the blitz. Considering how lethal those two quarterbacks have been against the blitz in their careers -- to the point where many teams don't try to send extra pressure -- Zimmer's ability to throw them off is impressive. He did it well against Matthew Stafford last season, too, holding the Lions quarterback to just 33 yards and a 5.0 QBR on 13 blitzes.

The key variable to all this, of course, is talent, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings' personnel is as effective in Zimmer's scheme as what the Bengals had last season. But the additions of Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the development of Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the health of safety Harrison Smith should help. If Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can coax more out of players like defensive end Everson Griffen and figure out the Vikings' linebacker situation, they'll likely receive credit for it early, because the Vikings' progress will be graded against some of the toughest opponents they'll see all season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since free agency began on March 11, the Minnesota Vikings have been busily working the free-agent market to upgrade their defense. Those efforts, according to ESPN Stats & Information, have landed the Vikings among the league leaders in guaranteed money spent since the start of the new league year.

The Vikings have given out $50.2 million in guaranteed money since March 11, which is the fifth-most in the NFL. Only the Buccaneers ($74.3 million), Broncos ($65.5 million), Browns ($63.8 million) and Raiders ($51.0 million) have included more guaranteed dollars in new contracts.

That sum is the cost of doing business for a team that ranked second-to-last in the league in defense last season, but even though the Vikings have spent a sizable amount of money to sign players from other teams, the number itself shouldn't necessarily signal a departure from the draft-and-develop philosophy the team has employed the past three years, largely because of how much of the guaranteed money was wrapped up in the Vikings' new deal for 2010 fourth-rounder Everson Griffen.

Griffen got $19.8 million guaranteed as part of his five-year, $42.5 million contract, and he'll have been paid all of that money by the end of next season. The only money that would accelerate onto the Vikings' salary cap if they cut Griffen after 2015 is the $3.6 million in signing bonus proration left on his deal. The deal that includes the second-most guaranteed money -- for defensive tackle Linval Joseph -- has a similar structure. In that case, the Vikings gave Joseph $7.1 million in base salary guarantees, and a $2.4 million roster bonus they paid him last month, so the only cap charge they'd face by cutting him after 2015 is the $1.8 million of bonus proration left on his deal.

In total, the deals the Vikings gave out this spring would only include $5.73 million of dead money after the 2015 season. The pay-as-you-go method employed by assistant general manager Rob Brzezinski has allowed the Vikings to give out big contracts and stay out of salary cap trouble. Even the $45 million deal the team gave wide receiver Greg Jennings a year ago will only carry a $6 million cap charge after this season; the Vikings gave Jennings $17.8 million in guaranteed money, in the form of a $10-million signing bonus and guaranteed base salaries in each of his first two seasons. That deal came with a bigger signing bonus than most of the contracts the Vikings have done lately, but on a $45 million total deal, the Vikings' cap burden in the final years of Jennings' contract is still relatively small.

That structure will also allow the Vikings to be aggressive next year, should they choose to do so; with the cap possibly rising as high as $140 million, the Vikings could already have $30 million in cap space for 2015, before restructuring any deals or releasing any players.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jared Allen was the face of the Vikings' defensive line for the past six years, but not just because of how productive and colorful he was on the field. It was also because, from 2008-13, the Vikings' defense was rarely on the field without him.

Allen
As Pro Football Focus pointed out this morning, Allen played 6,284 snaps in his six years with the Vikings. His 90.8 playtime percentage last season was the lowest of his Vikings career, and he's suited up in 110 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the league among defensive ends.

That plan is all but guaranteed to change next season, thanks to Allen's departure and Mike Zimmer's history of a more egalitarian approach on the defensive line. In his seven years as the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator, he never had a lineman log more than 1,000 snaps in a season, and the only time a lineman went over 900 was last season, when Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap played 949 and 922 snaps, respectively. The Vikings, on the other hand, used Allen for 1,083 last year and Brian Robison for 989.

We say this, of course, with the acknowledgement that the Vikings played the second-most defensive snaps in the league last season, thanks to a unit that was among the league's worst at getting off the field on third downs. But Zimmer seems likely to involve more players on his defensive line, and he's got the bodies to do it; the Vikings have four defensive tackles in place (Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Fred Evans) and added a former starter to their defensive end group in Corey Wootton. It's also worth noting that in defensive coordinator George Edwards' two seasons with the Miami Dolphins -- where former Zimmer assistant Kevin Coyle is the defensive coordinator -- no lineman played more than 83 percent of the Dolphins' snaps.

Would some extra rest have helped Allen be even more productive in Minnesota? It's tough to say, and it would have been even tougher to convince the defensive end he should take it. But it seems highly unlikely Robison will see the same workload next season, or that Everson Griffen will wind up playing as much as Allen or Robison have in the past. Zimmer's had a history of trying to use multiple linemen to keep the group fresh. It's likely a big reason the Vikings have prioritized defensive line depth this spring, and it could lead to a noticeably different look on defense this fall.

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