NFC North: Tyrone McKenzie

A few days ago, we noted that Erin Henderson has been preparing to be the Minnesota Vikings' middle linebacker in 2013, presumably at the suggestion of coaches. Friday, coach Leslie Frazier said Henderson was one of several options. The other candidates, however, could charitably be described as "darkhorse."

Asked about the possibility of moving Henderson from outside to the middle after Friday morning's rookie minicamp practice, Frazier said: "We've been talking about it. We want to take a look at some things in this minicamp and we'll probably make a decision here after we get done and just talk about some things. But he's definitely in the conversation."

Other candidates, Frazier said, include Audie Cole, Tyrone McKenzie and rookie Michael Mauti.

Cole, a seventh-round draft pick last season, played one defensive snap as a rookie. McKenzie played six. Mauti is recovering from a torn ACL and won't be ready to practice until training camp at the earliest. Nothing against either any member of that trio, but going with one of them over Henderson would represent a substantial leap of faith.

If Henderson does make the move, veteran Marvin Mitchell and rookie Gerald Hodges would compete for the starting outside position.

Note: The first practice of rookie minicamp was held inside, thanks to a classic May snowstorm in Minnesota. The weather forced one of the Vikings' most intriguing newcomers, punter Jeff Locke, downtown to the Metrodome so he could kick freely.
The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers have essentially wrapped up their practice weeks in advance of Saturday night's wild-card playoff at Lambeau Field. There is a relatively short list of significant injuries in play this week, and by far the most intriguing to emerge is the sore right elbow of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder.

Ponder suffered the injury in the second quarter of last Sunday's 37-34 victory over the Packers after a hit by Packers safety Morgan Burnett. He had an ice pack on the elbow immediately after the game and was limited in practice this week. The Vikings "didn't ask him to do a whole lot" in practice Thursday, coach Leslie Frazier told reporters, because they wanted to "let that elbow calm down a little bit."

There is every expectation Ponder will play Saturday night, but it's becoming clear he won't be at 100 percent. You wonder if his injury is significant enough for the Vikings to put their third quarterback, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, in uniform on game day for the first time this season. Joe Webb is the No. 2 quarterback but has played only three snaps this season.

Let's take a look at the rest of the teams' injury lists:

Vikings: Cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) again sat out practice but there remains optimism that he will play Saturday. He worked on the sidelines and, as Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com notes, Winfield will wear a larger protective cast Saturday than he did last Sunday. Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder) isn't expected to play. All other players should be available.

Packers: Cornerback Tramon Williams didn't practice Thursday because of an illness, but he is expected to be ready for the game. Receivers Jordy Nelson (knee) and Randall Cobb (ankle) both were full participants Thursday, making it likely the Packers will have their full complement of top-end receivers. Defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone) was a full participant and remains on track to play. Receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) again sat out practice and would seem unlikely to play.

Vikings-Packers III: Injury report

January, 2, 2013
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There are only a handful of true injury questions as we approach Saturday night's wild-card playoff at Lambeau Field. Let's take a quick look at the first official injury report of the week:

Green Bay Packers: Receiver Jordy Nelson (knee) participated in a portion of practice, putting him on track to be available Saturday night. Running back James Starks (knee) was also a limited participant, but it sounds as if DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant are ahead of him in line for carries. Defensive end Jerel Worthy has been lost for the remainder of the playoffs because of a knee injury. Worthy and receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) were the only players who didn't practice at all Wednesday. Receiver Randall Cobb (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) were limited but are expected to play.

Minnesota Vikings: As has been the practice for the past few weeks, tailback Adrian Peterson (abdomen) again did not practice. He will start Saturday night, however. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) has pledged to play but will face significant pain. Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder) did not practice and probably won't play. Quarterback Christian Ponder is dealing with a sore elbow, injured on a blitz by safety Morgan Burnett, but has downplayed the injury.

Rookie Buzz: Vikings' Audie Cole

August, 20, 2012
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Another in a series of NFC North rookies who have generated buzz. (Full series here.)

You saw it. I saw it. Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier saw it. There is no doubt that rookie linebacker Audie Cole returned interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive defensive plays from scrimmage Friday night in the Vikings' 36-14 preseason victory over the Buffalo Bills.

[+] EnlargeAudie Cole
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireRookie linebacker Audie Cole, who had only one career collegiate interception, had two picks Friday night against the Bills.
What each of us does with that information, however, could be substantively different. Many of you are calling for Cole -- a seventh-round pick from North Carolina State -- not only to earn a spot on the roster but to unseat starter Jasper Brinkley, who hasn't had an impressive preseason. I'm including Cole in a series previously reserved for high draft choices. Frazier? He's doing exactly what you would expect from a coach: Tempering expectations and politely reminding everyone that "we'll look at his entire body of work as we're trying to make a decision on what's best for our team," as he told reporters Sunday.

Cole is a big dude; he measured a bit over 6-foot-4 and weighed in at 246 pounds at the February scouting combine. But a relatively slow performance in the 40-yard dash (4.81 seconds) gave teams reason for pause when considering whether he had the range that today's NFL linebackers need. (Consider that the draft's top middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly, ran a 4.58.) Here's a sample of Scouts Inc.'s report Insider on Cole prior to the draft:
"Makes plays in pursuit but effort has more to do with it that anything else. Not a sideline-to-sideline player and has to take sound angle or risks getting sub-par range exposed. Doesn't have the burst to chase NFL backs down from behind. Gets caught up in the wash a little too much."

Cole had one interception in his college career, but when you look back at the two he managed Friday night, you see a player who anticipated throws from two veterans -- Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith -- and didn't have much doubt about where he should go after he caught the ball.

"What some people think is a lack of speed," Frazier said, "he's really closing and moving fairly quickly. His length makes a big difference. Those quarterbacks who think they can line-drive a ball in like they did the other night because of his length, all of a sudden that pass is not a completion. It could be an interception. But he has good instincts, he has good anticipation, he's a smart football player and that can offset a guy who doesn’t have blazing speed."

Like most low-round draft picks, Cole's immediate future -- whether he makes the roster or is shuffled to the practice squad -- will be determined by his ability to contribute on special teams. But you don't have to spend much time with the Vikings' depth chart to realize that even a seventh-round draft pick has a good chance to win a roster spot this summer.

Brinkley's backup is technically first-year player Tyrone McKenzie, but it's thought that weakside linebacker Erin Henderson or veteran backup Marvin Mitchell would step in first for Brinkley if necessary.

We hadn't heard much about Cole before now, but it's hard not to take notice after Friday night's events. Preseason flashes don't always foreshadow productive careers, but they're always preferable to the alternative.

"It's what you sit the night before and think about," Cole said. "Doing stuff like that. I am trying to make the team, and I hope that helps my cause."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Despite a near-obsession with the every move of receiver Percy Harvin, I did take some time this week to report on some other facets of the Minnesota Vikings during the first two days of minicamp. We'll get to them in the days and weeks to come, but to me one of the most obvious issues of attention was what the Vikings acknowledged is a situation at linebacker.

At the three primary positions, the Vikings have a cornerstone (Chad Greenway), a returning starter who was retained with a one-year contract (Erin Henderson) and a complete mystery (Jasper Brinkley). Behind that trio is a special-teams player (six-year veteran Marvin Mitchell) and a pile of additional unknowns.

[+] EnlargeThe Vikings' victory over the Eagles guarantees Leslie Frazier at least a .500 record as interim head coach.
AP Photo/Miles KennedyLeslie Frazier will be counting on Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson to lead a thin group of linebackers in Minnesota.
With Brinkley continuing to feel the effects of hip surgery that took place more than 10 months ago, coach Leslie Frazier hasn't hidden his concern. "We still have some things to shore up," he said, "and we would like to improve our depth at linebacker, for sure."

There are plenty of teams with untested backups at linebacker, and in reality the Vikings' situation would be less alarming if Brinkley had been healthy and on the field during minicamp. Instead, he nursed a groin injury that he attributed to the torn hip labrum he suffered last summer and which cost him the 2011 season. In his place was second-year player Tyrone McKenzie, a practice squad player last season who appeared more of a space-filler than a legitimate prospect.

We've told Brinkley's story before. As a fifth-round draft choice in 2009, he replaced an injured E.J. Henderson late in the Vikings' playoff run, making a total of six starts. He spent 2010 as a special-teams player and dropped out of training camp last summer when the hip injury proved too limiting.

There is always a risk in anointing a new starter who missed the previous season, even when the injury is one that typically heals on a reliable timetable. Brinkley got significant work during organized team activities, but it's fair to be concerned about the connection between the groin and hip injuries.

In explaining why Brinkley was held out of minicamp, Frazier said: "We didn't want to create a situation where it became something that was going to be nagging him throughout the time that we are away from football.

"We believe that he'll be ready to go when training camp begins. With our depth at linebacker, it is something that you have to think about from my standpoint. But you can't make him go out there and practice if you know it's going to create some issues for him health-wise. But it does make you a little bit concerned."

I would offer two important caveats here.

First, if holding Brinkley out of minicamp allows him to open training camp with a clean slate, then that's an easy trade to make.

Second, the Vikings could easily protect themselves by taking Brinkley off the field in nickel situations. In a division filled with three-receiver sets, that would make Greenway and Henderson -- both healthy and still ascending -- far more important as linebackers than Brinkley.

Brinkley said this week that he is "not concerned at all" about the lingering physical issues. He is confident he showed coaches enough during OTAs and said: "If I hadn't shown what they needed to see, I'm sure they would have brought someone in here."

I see why Frazier would be concerned about this group. But with Greenway and Henderson, the Vikings are positioned to minimize those concerns.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- So as it turned out, receiver Percy Harvin did participate in a portion of the Minnesota Vikings' first full minicamp practice Tuesday. Adding to what has been a confusing set of messages from him, Harvin said that "nothing's changed" since both he and coach Leslie Frazier said Harvin would not participate in on-field work during this camp.

Harvin said there is "no question" he stands by his earlier statement, which included a threat to hold out from training camp if several unspecified issues are not resolved before then. He eventually said during his second media session that he only wanted to answer football questions, so I asked him about Frazier's plan to get him on the field more often than he was last season -- when he participated in 58 percent of the Vikings' snaps.

Harvin rolled his eyes, shook his head and said: "We'll see. We'll see."

So did Harvin not like the question, or was his body language an indication that the playing-time issue has contributed heavily into his current state of unhappiness? I'm not sure how to read it, but if you're convinced he is simply angling for a new contract, I can tell you that from what I understand, the Vikings' decision-makers were blindsided by his comments and had no inkling that he was upset about anything of substance.

This one will be continued, for sure.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from the first day of minicamp:
  • The first uh-oh moment of spring arrived came when new middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was unable to practice. Brinkley acknowledged afterward that his sore groin is related to the hip injury that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. Brinkley needs every offseason snap he can get if he is to replace free agent E.J. Henderson, and it's concerning that the hip is causing residual effects 10 months after surgery. This will be an area of concern for the Vikings all summer. Meanwhile, second-year player Tyrone McKenzie worked Tuesday in his spot.
  • Free-agent acquisition Chris Carr worked as the third cornerback. Carr played outside when the Vikings went to the nickel, with Antoine Winfield moving inside to play the slot receiver and Chris Cook holding down the other outside spot. My guess is that's the way the Vikings will go into training camp as well.
  • Winfield grabbed an easy interception during team drills when quarterback Christian Ponder seemed to think twice about throwing a pass. Ponder couldn't pull back his arm in time, and Winfield snatched the soft toss from the air.
  • The offensive play of the day was a red zone pass from Ponder to tight end John Carlson, who got free between two defenders and then dunked the ball over the goal post for good measure.

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