NFL Nation: Antone Exum

W2W4: Minnesota Vikings

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
PM ET
The Minnesota Vikings (1-0) and Arizona Cardinals (1-0) square off for their second preseason game on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

1. Starters to play more: Coach Mike Zimmer said quarterback Matt Cassel "has a chance" to play the entire first half on Saturday night, which would suggest the Vikings plan to give their first-team offense much more playing time than they saw last Friday against Oakland. Zimmer said this week he's never placed as much importance on the third preseason game as many seem to do, so it's possible the Vikings treat this week's game as more of a dress rehearsal than next Saturday's game against Kansas City. Adrian Peterson still won't play, but if Cassel -- who seems like the favorite to win the Vikings' quarterback job -- gets two quarters of work with the first-team offense, we'll get a good sense of how he's handling offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme against one of the league's best defenses.

2. Safety dance: The Vikings are still trying to sort out a crowded competition for the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith, and Zimmer said he wants to take a long look at four veterans on Saturday night: Chris Crocker, Andrew Sendejo, Jamarca Sanford and Kurt Coleman. With Robert Blanton still out because of a hamstring injury, and rookie Antone Exum having played 60 snaps last week, it stands to reason the Vikings will use the four safeties for much of the night on Saturday. It's hard to envision a scenario where all four veterans are on the roster, and Zimmer said he's hoping Saturday's game will help the Vikings establish a pecking order at the position. That pecking order could have some important consequences for a number of players.

3. Cleaning up pass protection: Zimmer wasn't happy with the Vikings' pass protection last week, after the Raiders sacked the Vikings' quarterbacks six times and Teddy Bridgewater nearly lost a fumble deep in Raiders territory. The Vikings spent plenty of time focusing on protection schemes this week in practice, and though some of the blitz pickup work from their running backs looked better, the linemen were responsible for many of the sacks anyway -- especially the three that came late in the game on Christian Ponder. Particularly from younger players like David Yankey and Antonio Richardson, the Vikings will be looking for better results this week.

Vikings Camp Report: Day 12

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
8:05
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • Coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings came out of Friday's preseason opener relatively healthy, but the Vikings were missing several players at practice on Sunday afternoon. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson and linebacker Dom DeCicco weren't on the practice field, and safety Mistral Raymond (who suffered a concussion during Friday's game) was doing work on the side with safeties Robert Blanton and Jamarca Sanford, who missed Friday's game with hamstring and back injuries, respectively. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, of course, was not practicing after a stray bullet struck him in the calf in a nightclub incident on Saturday morning. On a more positive note, cornerbacks Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels returned from hamstring injuries, and tight end Chase Ford (broken foot) was once again out of a walking boot.
  • The Vikings began their practice outside, but had to move indoors for the first time during training camp thanks to a jagged bolt of lightning off to the west of their practice field. That turned Sunday's session into a glorified walk-through, and the Vikings were only able to do so much work inside the Minnesota State field house. Zimmer said he hadn't written practice schedules for this week until after Friday night's game, and the Vikings will have to resume the work of drilling their mistakes once they get back outdoors on Monday.
  • Zimmer wasn't thrilled with the way the Vikings' secondary played the run, particularly on Darren McFadden's 23-yard burst at the end of the first quarter. Safety Antone Exum had a shot at McFadden at the Raiders' 29, but came down with inside leverage and couldn't fight through McFadden's stiff arm to bring him down until the Raiders' 43. "I tell our guys all the time that long runs are typically because of the perimeter run force," Zimmer said. "We did not do a good job when the safety was coming downhill on that play, so we ended up giving him 14 more yards on that run than we should have."
  • Wide receiver Adam Thielen continued to win praise for his work on special teams, after returning three punts for 53 yards and making a tackle for a 4-yard loss on a punt at the end of the first half. Thielen was visibly upset he didn't score on his second return, which went for 26 yards, but special teams coach Mike Priefer said that was just a matter of Thielen making one more move. "He is probably disappointed that he didn’t score on the one, but that’s something that a young punt returner, that’s a mistake they are going to make," Priefer said. "He saw the seam and he just went for it full speed. He’s got to kind of dip and go to the outside or widen them and go back inside but it was a very, very well-blocked play." Priefer said Sherels is still entrenched as the Vikings' punt returner, but with Sherels fighting a hamstring injury, it's not bad for the Vikings to have another option they trust.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Shamar Stephen did well in Friday's game, Zimmer said. He wound up with five tackles in the game and showed some nice push up the middle on a couple run plays. With Joseph likely to miss some time, the seventh-round pick could see some more opportunities.

Vikings wake-up call: Day 7

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:45
AM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- Setting up the day at Minnesota Vikings camp:

Today's schedule: The Vikings have their normal routine of a 10:30-11:30 walk-through and a 3 p.m.-5:10 p.m. practice at Minnesota State University. Defensive coordinator George Edwards and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are scheduled to talk to reporters after the morning walk-through.

More observations from Thursday's practice:
  • The Vikings have been doing extensive work with Xavier Rhodes, their talented second-year corner who still seems to be learning to trust his instincts in coverage. Rhodes is expected to be the Vikings' top cover corner this year, and while coach Mike Zimmer's defense typically doesn't ask corners to travel across the field with one receiver, Rhodes will undoubtedly see his share of difficult matchups this season. On Thursday, he drove on a route early in practice, but dropped an interception for the second consecutive day. Later, in a seven-on-seven red zone drill, he showed good technique against Jerome Simpson, playing with inside leverage that forced Matt Cassel to make a difficult throw to the back corner of the end zone, but Rhodes turned a split-second late for the ball and tried to swat it, rather than hitting Simpson's hands as he leaped to catch it. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray explained to Rhodes afterward that he'd played the right technique in coverage, but he just needed to force the ball out, rather than trying to recover by batting it away. It was a vivid snapshot in what's been a camp full of learning for Rhodes.
  • Zimmer continued to mix and match players in his first-team defense, giving Tom Johnson some work with the top unit at 3-technique tackle and rotating Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and rookie Antone Exum in the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith with Robert Blanton out because of a hamstring injury. Zimmer said he will release the Vikings' first formal depth chart sometime next week, and at certain positions it's probably dangerous to assume too much about a pecking order, when the Vikings are trying to get a look at a handful of different players in a variety of roles. ""Really, it's just about figuring out what guys can do," Zimmer said. "The more you can do, the more value you have to this football team."
  • The Vikings are experimenting with first-round draft pick Anthony Barr in a number of different ways. He's played linebacker in their dime package, has rushed from a defensive end position in the nickel, in addition to his normal work at linebacker in the base defense. He'll have to be able to hold up in coverage as a linebacker, but Zimmer's had no complaints there so far. "Coverage is great. He moves well. He’s got a good idea," Zimmer said. "Somebody was telling me that he takes copious notes in the meetings. He’s got pages and pages of them as we talk, so he’s very, very into trying to learn what we’re trying to do and teach. He’s got a lot of raw, athletic ability that helps in the coverage aspect of things. There’s times when he may pull off of somebody a little bit too soon that he’s got to do better at. But for the most part, I’ve been very pleased with that."
They said it: "I would say the sky's the limit, but there's no ceiling to his potential. There really isn't. If he's willing to put in the time, the potential is there. He has everything he needs. He's starting to mature as a player, as an individual, so his success is going to shoot straight through the roof. I'm excited. I told him this, and maybe it was a little premature, but I told him, 'At some point, I'm going to tell my kids I played with Cordarrelle Patterson.'" --Wide receiver Greg Jennings on Patterson.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings' safeties learn a defense that should bring much more variety to their roles than they had in the team's old scheme, a group of them is also auditioning for a role alongside Harrison Smith in the Vikings' starting lineup.

Coleman
Blanton
The Vikings have been rotating a number of safeties through their first-team defense during organized team activities, with Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo sitting out with injuries. Kurt Coleman, Robert Blanton, Brandan Bishop and rookie Antone Exum have all gotten plenty of work in OTAs, and the Vikings figure to use a number of combinations next week during their minicamp. Coach Mike Zimmer said that the Vikings will likely run through more drills like they did on Thursday, when they had safeties working at something closer to game speed, without as much direction from coaches in between plays.

"I think we'll get a little bit better feel of how it goes the more of this stuff like we did today, where the coaches aren't out there helping them, 'Hey, move this way, move that way. Line up here, line up there,'" Zimmer said at the Vikings' charity golf tournament. "When all the things happen and they have to make adjustments and checks because those guys are a lot like the quarterbacks for the defense when they get back there."

In the Vikings' old Cover 2 scheme, safety was a relatively staid position. The team used a defensive back to rush the passer on just 46 snaps last season, which was the sixth fewest in the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals, under Zimmer, sent a defensive back after the quarterback on 76 snaps, the 15th most in the league, and Smith said he expects a more diverse set of responsibilities in the Vikings' new defense. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray has talked about how he'd like to be able to use safeties in man coverage, and even the Vikings' zone coverages will have safeties working more aggressively to eliminate space from receivers, so much so that some of the zones will look like man coverage to the naked eye, Smith said.

"The safeties get to do a lot more, whether it's in coverage, sometimes being the free guy, being able to go make a play on the ball, coming down in the box, getting involved in the run game, blitzing," he said. "You really get to do it all."

That means there's more to be gained from finding the right player to go next to Smith. The competition will get even thicker once Sanford and Sendejo are healthy, but it stands to reason the Vikings will take their opportunities to see a number of different safeties, especially when they'll ask them to be a more dynamic part of their defense.

"Harrison's a smart guy," Zimmer said. "Kurt Coleman's doing a good job. Robert Blanton's doing a good job. We've got a lot of guys who are continually working at those spots. We're just trying to get them in the right position where we can get them to go play."

Vikings rookie camp primer

May, 16, 2014
May 16
11:45
AM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings continue their rookie camp Friday at their facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., getting their first chance to work with their 10 draft picks, 15 undrafted free agents and more than a dozen players from around the region who will receive tryouts.

Friday is the only day of media access to the Vikings' rookie camp. Here are a few things I'm particularly interested in seeing:

Bridgewater
Bridgewater's debut: The Vikings are getting their first extended chance to coach first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, and in light of how well the former Louisville quarterback responded to a little coaching at his private workout (according to general manager Rick Spielman), I'll be curious to see how he looks in his initial trips through the Vikings' playbook. He won't have any of the receivers he'll eventually be working with -- he'll be able to start throwing to them in the coming weeks -- but Friday will offer the first glimpse into Bridgewater's early development as a NFL quarterback.

Competition at corner: The Vikings didn't add a defensive back in the draft until the sixth round, and the three they drafted in the final two rounds (Virginia Tech safety Antone Exum, Maine cornerback Kendall James and North Carolina cornerback Jabari Price) will have to fight for roster spots. But Spielman sounded optimistic about James (who called himself an "all-around great cover corner" in a conference call with reporters), and Exum could be an intriguing fit at safety. He's big and physical enough to play the position, but the Vikings also want to be able to do some of what we've seen Seattle do with their safeties, putting them in coverage against inside receivers and allowing their linebackers to stay on the field in passing situations. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray talked about that with Harrison Smith last month, and Spielman mentioned that as a possibility for Exum, too. "What is intriguing about him, as we sit there and talk with our coaches, is that they also want guys at the safety position that can be cover guys," Spielman said. "This was kind of a unique player for us because he is physical on support. He has played corner, but because of his size and his physicality in the run game we feel he can maybe transition to safety."

Barr
Breaking in Barr: Linebacker Anthony Barr's pass-rushing skills are what earned him headlines at UCLA, but the Vikings wouldn't have taken him ninth overall if they didn't think he could be a complete linebacker that can stay on the field for three downs. He's only been at linebacker for two years after switching from the running back position, and has shown good instincts at the position, but he'll need to get stronger and refine his technique at the NFL level. That begins this weekend, and as much as coach Mike Zimmer pays attention to details on defense, he'll likely spend plenty of time with Barr. "It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player," Zimmer said. "I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be, which I think will be good."

Target at tight end: Tennessee State tight end AC Leonard, whom the Vikings signed as an undrafted free agent, has the athletic ability to be an interesting option in Norv Turner's offense. He's only 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, and could get swallowed up by defensive ends, but his 40 time (4.50), high jump (34 inches) and broad jump (128 inches) were the best of any tight end at the NFL scouting combine. Leonard played all over the field in college, and though he'll need plenty of work, both on and off the field (he was arrested for misdemeanor battery in 2012 and cited for driving with a suspended license three months later), his athletic ability could keep him around for an extended look.

Garoppolo's receiver tries to catch on: You'll hear plenty of talk about former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who signed with the Vikings as a receiver after leading the efforts for Northwestern players to unionize, but of the Vikings' three undrafted receiver additions, former Eastern Illinois receiver Erik Lora might have the best chance of sticking around. He caught 136 passes in 2012, setting a FCS record as Jimmy Garoppolo's favorite target, and scored 19 touchdowns in 2013. He's only 5-foot-10, and will have to show he can produce against better competition -- and in a more complex offense than he had in college -- but Lora might have potential as a slot receiver.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers will make six picks today, one each in the fourth and seven rounds and two apiece in the fifth and sixth rounds. They have to address cornerback and wide receivers after not taking a player at either position with their first three picks.

Here are 10 players who might interest them today.

CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood: The Steelers found smaller-school cornerbacks in the fourth round when they drafted current starters Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. Will they unearth another one if the 6-1, 198-pound Desir is available in the fourth round and they take him?

WR Martavis Bryant, Clemson: Bryant has good size and speed and averaged almost 20 yards per catch at Clemson. The depth at wide receiver pushed him into the third day, and he could go off the board early in the fourth round.

DE Brent Urban, Virginia: The 6-7, 295-pounder has the build of a prototypical 3-4 defensive end and defensive line coach John Mitchell said the Steelers still need to add players up front. Injury concerns may be why Urban is still available.

WR Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: A terrific athlete, Ellington provides good value on the third day. Not sure how much of a fit he is for Pittsburgh as he is lacking in size, and the Steelers don’t need a return man after drafting Dri Archer.

OLB: Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas: The Steelers need to add a pass rusher and Jeffcoat has the build to convert from defensive end to outside linebacker. The son of former Cowboys star Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson Jeffcoat recorded 12 sacks last season.

CB Jaylen Watkins, Florida: The 5-11, 194-pounder has good size and speed, and he played both cornerback and safety in Gainesville. Watkins is the brother of Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick of the draft.

DE DaQuan Jones, Penn State. Big and physical, Jones projects as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme after playing tackle at Penn State. The 6-4, 322-pounder might also have the position flexibility to play nose tackle as he holds up well at the point of attack.

CB Ross Cockrell, Duke: The 6-feet, 191-pounder intercepted three passes, defended 12 of them last season and held his own against Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in Duke’s bowl game. Cockrell, who made a pre-draft visit to the Steelers, would be a good pick in the fifth round.

WR Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Big and physical, the 6-2, 225-pound Enunwa could be available in the sixth or seventh round and might be a nice late-round find. Keep an eye on him, especially if Steelers wait until after the fifth round to take a wide receiver.

CB Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: Would have likely been a second- or third-round pick if not for injury issues in college. Exum has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety and he performed well at both positions for the Hokies.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft after finishing 8-8 last season. A cornerback, wide receiver or defensive lineman would make sense for the Steelers.

Mel Kiper Jr.’s Grade A 2014 mock draftInsider is out on ESPN NFL Insider today, and his choice is a position that has been linked to the Steelers, though not necessarily a player they have been presumed to be targeting.

Redskins combine prep: safeties

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
8:20
AM ET
The Redskins selected two safeties last spring, but one (Phillip Thomas) missed the entire season with a foot injury and the other (Bacarri Rambo) did not look ready for a starting job anytime soon. That’s why they’ll have to take a serious look at the safeties in this draft, with a good chance to do so at the scouting combine over the next week.

Here are four safeties to watch:

Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois): He’s only 5-foot-11, 192 pounds, which is why he’ll still be around in the second round. ESPN's Mel Kiper wrote of Ward that he “isn’t a big player but is a very good one and looks as if he can start early. Likely a second-rounder.” He intercepted seven passes this past season. Ward played well at the Senior Bowl so another good showing at the combine obviously will help him. Ward plays aggressively and showed good coverage skills; he runs through the ball carrier when he tackles. Ward had to cover man (though he did not face great competition in the Mid-American Conference) and lined up at both safety spots. “I think he fits today’s NFL which is coverage ability,” Kiper said, “and the fact he’s around the action so much and makes so many impact plays.”

Antone Exum (Virginia Tech): He’ll be one to watch for any team seeking a safety in the middle rounds. Exum played both corner and safety at Virginia Tech so there’s some doubt over what he’ll play in the NFL. He missed most of last season because of a torn ACL. But he has good size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) and could be a presence as a safety. Kiper rates him as the sixth best safety.

Dion Bailey (USC): He played both strongside linebacker and safety in college, but at 6-foot and 200 pounds, his NFL future is at the latter (it’s also where he played this past season). Kiper considers him the fifth best safety in the draft. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in coverage drills at the combine. Another player who should be available in the middle rounds.

Ahmad Dixon (Baylor): Kiper rated him as the eighth best safety. Dixon is projected by most as a fourth-round pick at best. Often played in the box at Baylor and played physical in this area. Dixon got in trouble for some hits and will need to fix this area to avoid fines (and penalties) in the NFL. After playing mostly zone (a lot of quarters coverage) in college, he has to show he can cover man and also move from free to strong. The Redskins like their safeties to play both spots.
Last year, the San Francisco 49ers took advantage of a surplus of picks and were able to take injured standout players Tank Carradine (second round) and Marcus Lattimore (fourth round) with an eye on the future. Both players missed the 2013 season, but the team is counting on Carradine, a defensive tackle, and Lattimore, a running back, to contribute in 2014.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the 49ers -- with few immediate needs and a projected 12 draft picks -- to again show interest in injured players to develop. But unlike last year's draft, there aren't many top rated players recovering from an injury this year.

The best prospect coming off an injury may be Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley. He was a first-round talent, but had a torn ACL. He is now projected as a late-second or early-third round pick, according to ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench.

Muench said Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum (the position is one of the 49ers’ top needs) could be a mid-round steal. He is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of most of last season.

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is coming off a torn ACL that will affect his draft status. But Muench said he doubts he is a fit for the 49ers, which may be looking in the draft for a quarterback to groom as a backup.

Still, as we learned last year, the 49ers will not be swayed by injury. They are willing to wait for the right player.

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