NFL Nation: Jim Kleinsasser
On the whole, the trio appeared to be luxury picks. The Vikings seemed set at tight end with Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan. The Lions already had Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson on their roster, while the Packers could boast a receiver group of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
Not even two years later, we can see the value of judging draft picks with a long(er) term view. Rudolph's arrival allowed the Vikings to bid farewell to Shiancoe, who is 32 and has spent this season on the New England Patriots' injured reserve list. Kleinsasser and Dugan retired. Rudolph ranks third among NFL tight ends with five touchdown receptions, despite a quiet two-game stretch, and has played on 506 of a possible 540 snaps in eight games.
Young provided a much more dynamic three-receiver set as a rookie, and this season the Lions have appeared anxious to make him their No. 2 receiver. After a slow start, he caught two touchdowns among nine passes last Sunday in the Lions' first game since Burleson suffered a season-ending leg injury.
Cobb, meanwhile, gave the Packers an immediate bump as a punt and kickoff returner last season. In 2012, he has helped the team navigate injuries to Jennings and Nelson. He leads the Packers with 42 receptions, has caught three touchdowns in the past two games and "is probably going to go down as one of the best picks in [Packers general manager] Ted Thompson's career, if not the best," according to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The chart shows each player's relevant statistics as well as his playing time. It's worth noting that Cobb's production has come in less than half of the Packers' snaps, an important development as the Packers work to keep his playmaking skills part of their special teams as well.
Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.
Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.
Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.
What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.
Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.
Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.
All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.
What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.
Green Bay Packers
Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.
Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.
What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.
Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.
Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.
What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 17:
Lambeau Field rematch: The season's first game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions was a tense, physical and emotionally-charged Thanksgiving Day affair that included two ejections and eventually ended in a 27-15 Packers victory. The rematch figures to be less intense. The Packers are hoping to become the sixth team in NFL history to win 15 games in the regular season, but they aren't likely to sacrifice their health to do it. It's likely that coach Mike McCarthy will empty his bench at some point, even if most of his regular players start the game. Historically, the Packers have been strong finishers regardless of the circumstances. They have won their final regular-season game for eight consecutive years, the best active streak in the NFL, and are 16-1 in regular-season finales since 1994.
Unleash Flynn: McCarthy hasn't said much about his personnel plans for Sunday's game, but he apparently told former NFL quarterback and current broadcaster Rich Gannon that backup Matt Flynn will get at least some action. Starter Aaron Rodgers has suggested that Flynn is ready to compete for another team's starting job, and Flynn could sign elsewhere this offseason as a free agent. But there is a limited amount of regular-season tape to evaluate Flynn on, and none of it is from this season. So that makes whatever time he gets in Sunday's game particularly valuable to his future.
Quarterback issues: The Chicago Bears will start 32-year-old journeyman quarterback Josh McCown at the Metrodome on Sunday, which I suppose is merited after his better-than-expected performance Sunday night against the Packers. But I strongly agree with Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote this week that the Bears would be ignoring the central flaw of their season by not giving rookie Nathan Enderle extensive playing time. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie flopped after taking over for injured starter Jay Cutler, sparking what is now a five-game losing streak. Part of developing backup quarterbacks is getting them regular-season playing time. If you can't squeeze a rookie quarterback into a Week 17 game after you've been eliminated from the playoffs, when can you? If Enderle is so ill-prepared that the Bears deem him unfit for even that assignment, they might as well cut their losses with him now.
Vikings stakes: I wonder if Vikings fans are rooting for a victory or loss Sunday against the Bears. A win would allow them to avoid tying the franchise record for most losses in a season (13). They would also circumvent their first winless division record in team history. On the other hand, a loss would give the Vikings a top-three pick in the 2012 draft. A victory could drop them as far as No. 6. One thing is for sure: Everyone will be rooting for the Vikings to get into a goal-line situation. Coach Leslie Frazier has already said he'll give the ball to tight end/H-back Jim Kleinsasser, who will be playing in his final career game.
1. Health, Chicago Bears: The Bears led a charmed life on the way to their 2010 NFC North title, losing only a handful of starts due to injury all season. But their four-game dive in 2011 has coincided with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Receiver Johnny Knox has been lost for the season and receiver/kick returner Devin Hester clearly has been limited by an ankle injury. Two members of their Week 1 offensive line, left guard Chris Williams and right tackle Gabe Carimi, are also on injured reserve. I've always considered it silly to say that injuries come in bunches, but that has been the case this season for the Bears and it provides a ready-made excuse for why they are likely to miss the playoffs in 2011.
2. Offensive line, Green Bay Packers: It's very possible that the Packers will have replacement starters at three of their five positions Sunday night against the Bears. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse will make his 10th start at left tackle after taking over for veteran Chad Clifton, who has been working through hamstring and back injuries. Left guard T.J. Lang could move to right tackle, replacing Bryan Bulaga (knee) and Derek Sherrod (broken leg). And that would mean Evan Dietrich-Smith would return to the starting lineup in Lang's spot. Dietrich-Smith made two starts earlier this season in place of right guard Josh Sitton (knee). That's hardly the kind of continuity you want heading into the playoffs, but the Packers have dealt with such issues before.
3. Sleep totals in Detroit: Lions coach Jim Schwartz admitted it Monday. "I'm just tired as hell," he said during a news conference less than 24 hours after his team pulled off a wild comeback victory in Oakland. In the interim, the Lions made the long flight back east and immediately began preparations for the biggest week in recent team history. Playing a day early because of the Christmas weekend, the Lions are hoping to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999 with a win Sunday over the San Diego Chargers. There won't be much time to sit by the fire or sip eggnog this week. Serious business is at hand.
1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I know we've been touting Avril regularly here on the blog, but something caught my eye late in Sunday's game that merits a mention. Moments after Calvin Johnson's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, television cameras showed Avril pointing demonstratively at defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and then at defensive tackle Corey Williams. Poking both in the chest, Avril appeared to be saying something along the lines of: You make a play. As it turned out, Avril made one himself a few minutes later, sacking quarterback Carson Palmer and forcing the Raiders to use their final timeout. Suh went on to block the Raiders' attempt at a game-winning field goal. Avril now has 11 sacks this season, but it was also nice to see him recognize the moment and, as a leader, challenge his teammates in a positive way.
2. Questions about Jermichael Finley, Packers tight end: When the season began, there were those who thought Finley was the best young tight end in the NFL. The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (15 touchdown receptions) has captured that title, and Finley has regressed a bit in the past month with more drops than the Packers would like to see. He entered Sunday's game at Kansas City with five drops in 66 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and probably had three more against the Chiefs, depending on how strict of a grader you are. Finley blamed no one but himself for the drops, and we should note that his 41-yard catch to set up the Packers' first touchdown required a high degree of skill and concentration. But through 15 weeks of the season, I'm not sure we can say Finley has broken through to the degree most thought he would. He'll need 10 catches over the next two weeks to match the career high of 55 he set in 2009 -- in 13 games.
3. Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings tight end: Multiple reports suggest Kleinsasser is prepared to retire at the end of his 13th season, marking the end of a career that is to be admired in many ways, even if it rarely was reflected in the box score. Few recall that Kleinsasser was emerging as a reliable receiving threat in the early 2000's before he tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2004 season. Since then, he has handled one of the NFL's most inglorious jobs with aplomb, serving as a blocking tight end/quasi-third tackle and earning the respect of three different coaching staffs along the way. His approach has been a model for anyone who wants to maximize an NFL career. For 13 years, Kleinsasser has hit people hard and kept his mouth shut.
Frazier released left tackle Bryant McKinnie at the start of training camp, and news is beginning to trickle out about the departures of some other stalwarts of the Brad Childress era. Linebacker/special teams ace Heath Farwell confirmed to multiple media outlets, including 1500ESPN.com, that he has been released. Meanwhile, agent Ralph Cindrich tweeted that tight end/fullback Jeff Dugan will be a free agent as of this evening, implying he will be released.
Dugan confirmed the move to Mark Craig of the Star Tribune.
Reserves throughout their careers, Dugan and Farwell were nevertheless among the Vikings' most tenured players. Dugan was a 7th-round draft choice in 2004 and Farwell joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2005. Only two players, tight end Jim Kleinsasser and linebacker E.J. Henderson, have been with the Vikings longer than Dugan, and both he and Farwell were the kind of easy-going glue players that Childress and former coach Mike Tice wanted in the locker room.
That's not a knock on Frazier and his staff for moving on. It's difficult to develop young talent if you keep veterans as backups. Schemes change, players age and circumstances transform. Dugan and Farwell are dependable and of high character, but they were replaceable. But if there was any question, it's now clear that Frazier will be blazing his own trail despite his relatively deep roots within the organization.
Put more bluntly: Injury-prone is injury-prone, no matter where you're playing.
Clearly, the Minnesota Vikings are hoping the top of their draft proves the exception. Thursday night, we discussed the impact of shoulder and arm injuries on Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. (ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, for one, is skeptical that Ponder will have any better luck in the NFL.)
In the second round Friday night, the Vikings drafted Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph -- a top prospect who missed portions of the past two seasons because of shoulder and hamstring injuries, respectively. Both injuries required surgery.
The Vikings, however, gave Rudolph a clean bill of health, have no concerns about his future and considered him a first-round talent worthy of selection despite a more-than-competent trio of incumbents at the position.
"We had no issues with him medically after he was cleared by our doctors," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said. "When he fell to us, he was too good of a player for us to pass up. He has some unique skills as a tight end, and we're going to stay true to our board. Normally, if he hadn't had that hamstring injury, I don't think we have a shot to get him. We feel we got great value where we got Kyle."
Rudolph is a 6-foot-5, 266-pounder who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He caught 90 passes in 29 games over three seasons for Notre Dame. Typically a tight end with those measurables would be a surefire first-round pick. But Rudolph didn't just have a hamstring injury last season. It tore completely from the bone in October, three months after he originally pulled it. He missed the final seven games of last season and soon had surgery.
That episode was enough to drop Rudolph from the first round. Friday night, Rudolph insisted he's 100 percent healthy but admitted the injury was an issue for some teams.
"The hamstring checked out completely 100 percent," he said. "It was something that I got it fixed over six months ago. By the time my pro day came around, I was 100 percent. The MRI showed it is 100 percent healed. All the doctors dug and prodded on it and they couldn't find anything."
I don't doubt that to be the case, but when a player misses nine games over two seasons, it's fair to at least inspect his history further. The Vikings have done that and have no long-term questions.
Incumbents Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan are all under contract for 2011, but it's worth noting each is entering the final year of his deal. Rudolph could prove a fortunate turn of events for the Vikings, providing he can stay on the field.
"I know we'll sort it all out as we get there," Spielman said. "We just wanted to stay true to our board, and he was by far the highest player on our board at that time."
"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.
Consider it done.
Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
- Jason Witten, who edged Antonio Gates for the top spot in our rankings, dropped only two of the 126 passes thrown his way last season. That gave him easily the lowest drop rate -- 1.6 percent -- among tight ends with at least 50 receptions.
- Heath Miller had the most receptions (42) without a drop. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley (21), Jacksonville's Zach Miller (20) and Jim Kleinsasser (17) were next.
- Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller and Kevin Boss had the most drops with nine apiece. Chris Cooley, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez and Owen Daniels were next with six each.
- The St. Louis Rams' Daniel Fells ranked 13th in lowest drop percentage among players with at least 20 targets. Teammate Billy Bajema, with three drops in 21 targets, had the highest drop percentage in the same category.
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.
The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.
The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.
ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.
The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.
The Cowboys followed their normal 2010 script in Sunday's 24-21 loss to the Vikings. They won the battle of the stat sheets, but undermined themselves with 11 penalties and two key interceptions. This team is not good enough to overcome its ineptitude, and the Vikings had the good sense to patiently wait for the implosion.
Owner Jerry Jones, who was conspicuously absent from last week's postgame locker room scene, commanded a large audience in the cramped visiting locker room Sunday. Knowing what was coming, Jones made it clear that he wouldn't be making any coaching changes, which begged the subtle follow-up question, "Why the hell not?"
"I would never consider doing that during the season," said Jones, alluding to the fact that it's not something he's done since buying the team in 1989.
His explanation was that even if the team started winning under a new coach, we wouldn't know if the change was the reason for the success. For the record, this was when he completely lost me with his thought process. But honestly, it's not like the Cowboys' sideline is a who's who of head-coaching candidates. The fiery special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is an impressive man in person, as long as you don't have to watch his unit play.
Just a week removed from giving up a 73-yard kickoff return to the Titans in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys opened the second half by allowing Percy Harvin to sprint 95 yards for a touchdown that tied the score. That erased all the good things the defense had done to make Vikings quarterback Brett Favre look like a 41-year-old man with a penchant for needless pump fakes and shaky handoffs.
The Cowboys let the Vikings off the hook because that's what bad teams do. Coach Wade Phillips probably will soothe his players' immense egos with tales of how they were actually the better team Sunday (please see our chart), but some of us know better. Barring an epic turnaround, Jones will eventually get around to firing Phillips at the end of the season. And he'll absolutely hate doing it because he loves an arrangement in which a head coach defers to him on pretty much every important decision and isn't jealous of his Papa John's commercials.
If you had told the Cowboys they would hold Adrian Peterson to three yards per carry on 24 attempts and Randy Moss to five catches for 55 yards, it might sound like a recipe for success. But then some of us missed the genius of the Moss trade, which apparently was designed to open things up for Jim Kleinsasser and Greg Camarillo. Both of those players made catches that figured heavily in Sunday's outcome.
Favre, a man who has more on his mind than football these days, was crushed by Cowboys defensive end Igor Olshansky in the third quarter. He had to literally crawl for several yards before staggering to the huddle.
"When I hit quarterbacks, they get hurt," Olshansky told me in a Russian accent that brought back images of Drago in the classic film, "Rocky IV." "It normally leaves a mark."
Favre recovered in time to make his best play of the game when he sidestepped Anthony Spencer and found Kleinsasser for a 20-yard gain to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
"If you have ever gotten the wind knocked out of you, you think you're pretty close to death," Favre said. "I'm not going to sit here and say I'll be John Wayne, but I'm hoping that we didn't call a pass the next play."
The Cowboys also were victimized by a middle linebacker who has trouble getting through airport security because of a metal rod in his leg. E.J. Henderson broke his femur last season, but that didn't prevent the eighth-year player from doubling his career interception total in one afternoon.
He caught a jump ball in the first quarter when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had the ball deflected as soon as it left his hand, in part because All-Pro Jared Allen was allowed a free run at the quarterback. Henderson later deked Romo into throwing an interception when he showed blitz and then retreated at the last second. He snagged Romo's pass intended for Jason Witten, which set up the game-winning field goal for the Vikings in the fourth quarter.
"The second one, they sent a dog with the backer," said Romo. "It’s a hot play to Jason [Witten], so I’ve got to get the ball there. I think 56 [Henderson] did a good job. He must have rushed and come back out from the line. He did a good job and made a good play. I didn’t see him. I thought he was rushing. In the process, he did a good job coming back out. That was obviously a big play in the game. It’s tough."
Asked if he was concerned that his veteran quarterback would make such a crucial mistake, Jones showed his support in his own unique way.
"We don't have a replacement for Tony," he said.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield refused to believe it, even after seeing "Minnesota Vikings acquire receiver Randy Moss" on the ESPN news ticker scroll a few dozen times. "I didn't think it was possible," Winfield said.
Tailback Adrian Peterson was speechless. "I feel like words can't even express right now," he said. "It's like Christmas over and over again."
Even tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, a stoic 12-year stalwart who has lived through some of the wildest days in franchise history, was shocked.
"Every year I say I've seen it all," Kleinsasser said. "I've been saying it for the last 12 years here. I've seen it all. [But] this is it. I've seen it all now."
Grown men felt compelled to make emotional calls to their mothers. They rubbed their eyes in disbelief while staring at the television screen, rushed down the stairs at the crack of dawn and raised their expectations for what is truly possible. Internal reaction to the Vikings' acquisition of Moss this week offered a preview of what Vikings fans -- and much of the sporting nation -- will feel Monday night when Moss joins Peterson and quarterback Brett Favre to form arguably the most accomplished quarterback-receiver-running back trio in recent NFL history.
"The sky's the limit," said Moss, who will open his second tenure with the team Monday night against the New York Jets.
Yes, at some point early at the New Meadowlands Stadium, the quarterback who has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in NFL history will stride to the line of scrimmage. He'll have his option of throwing to the receiver who has caught the second-most touchdowns in league history, or handing off to the running back who holds the record for the single-highest rushing total in a game.
The Vikings' offense has struggled to finish drives this season and entered Week 5 averaging 14.3 points per game, the third-worst mark in the NFL. Can Moss offer a universal remedy? It's hard to imagine one receiver making a 180-degree impact, but the Vikings hope that his presence will elevate their already-substantial cadre of weapons into an unstoppable team offense.
"He obviously brings a different dimension to any team," Favre said. "I've seen it so many years against him. You just shake your head. He doesn't have to catch the ball. ... It's what he does to defenses."
After watching their first practice together this week, the normally reserved Winfield was gushing.
"If you're a defense, it's 'pick your poison'," Winfield said. "You can stop [Moss] or stop Adrian Peterson. ... Brett wants to get the ball down the field and now he has the best [downfield] receiver in history to do it ... We have that dual threat now."
For years, defenses have been playing at least one safety close to the line of scrimmage to slow down Peterson. But if there were ever a player who could draw that safety away, it's Moss.
Peterson already is off to the best start of his career, averaging 130.7 yards per game this season, but this week he acknowledged the new opportunities in front of him.
"His presence out there is really going to shake things up and make guys play honest," he said. "It's really going to help this offense be more productive. ... I feel like a kid in a candy store."
Sometimes a cliché actually provides a precise description. In different ways, the Vikings' new offensive trio has always dreamed of playing together.
Peterson was 13 years old when Moss entered the NFL in 1998. "He was my favorite receiver to watch," he said, probably because Moss' freakish athletic abilities came to mirror his own.
Moss and Favre, meanwhile, have been engaged in a 13-year mating ritual that dates to Moss' first game against Favre's Green Bay Packers on Oct. 5, 1998. In that game, a Monday night affair at Lambeau Field, Moss caught five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
"We played Cover 2 and you should never get beat in Cover 2 over the top," Favre said. "But it just happened over and over again. And we were not the only team that happened to. I've seen it way too many times."
Favre lobbied the Packers to acquire Moss in 2007 and 2008, and was deeply disappointed when they failed.
"How could you not want to play with a guy like that?" Favre said. "It can't do anything but make us better and make the guys around us better."
Favre was not the only fan in uniform during that 1998 game, however. Moss offered a similar recollection.
"They wanted all the offensive guys to come sit down," he said. "[Coaches said], 'Everybody come and sit down and rest your legs.' I said, 'No, I want to watch Brett Favre and see his magic.'"
Indeed, both Moss and Favre used the "M" word to describe their hopes for this union.
"I hope that there is still some magic left with me, with him, with this team," Favre said. "Absolutely."
So let us add another cliché to the mix. Christmas came early for the Vikings -- and they're hoping for an extended stay.
- When team drills began during the morning practice, these players were part of the first-team offense: Receiver Greg Lewis, center Jon Cooper, guard Chris DeGeare, tight end Jim Kleinsasser and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. I wouldn't expect any of those five players to be in the starting lineup in the season-opening game Sept. 9 at New Orleans. Injuries, family death and indecision are all to blame.
- Nose tackle Pat Williams, 37, and linebacker E.J. Henderson, who has a titanium rod in his leg, have each participated in more practices than receiver Sidney Rice, receiver Percy Harvin, center John Sullivan and quarterback Brett Favre combined. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe has been added to the injury list with what coach Brad Childress called a strain, and he missed both of Monday's practices.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Andy KingE.J. Henderson has made strides in his recovery from a fractured femur.
- I plan to write more about Henderson soon, but for now you should know that Monday was the best day yet in his recovery from a fractured femur. For the first time, Henderson participated in all of the defensive repetitions for his group in the morning practice (first team) and afternoon practice (second team). "It felt good," Henderson said. "No pain. No worries. Ready to keep it moving."
- DeGeare, a fifth-round draft pick in April, was filing in for injured right guard Anthony Herrera and appears on his way to winning a roster spot as a backup who can play both guard spots and perhaps tackle in a pinch. With DeGeare and Cooper on the roster, you wonder if the end is near for center/tackle Ryan Cook -- the player drafted in 2006 with the choice acquired from Miami in the Daunte Culpepper trade.
- I thought the Vikings looked pretty sharp defensively. The best play I saw was linebacker Chad Greenway's diving tip of a pass intended for Kleinsasser.
- Count me in agreement among those who have already observed that rookie quarterback Joe Webb is struggling. I counted three ducks on basic go routes and got the sense he has hit the rookie wall of training camp. Even offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell admitted that Webb's head is "swimming" with terminology and added: "There's been times out here where he's flashed some great plays, but there's been times where he's flashing that he's definitely a rookie."
- Here's an interesting wrinkle to the Harvin situation we discussed earlier: Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports that in addition to dealing with the death of his grandmother, Harvin might be suffering from the migraine headaches that plagued him for parts of last season. Childress reiterated Monday afternoon that he isn't certain when Harvin will rejoin the team. "I'm kind of flying in the dark a little bit," Childress said.
- The Vikings have a full-pads practice scheduled for Tuesday morning. It will include some live scrimmaging and probably be their last real contact until Saturday's preseason game at St. Louis.
- I made it almost a full day without addressing the elephant next door. Childress said he texted with Favre as recently as Monday morning but had no information on Favre's scheduled visit this week with Dr. James Andrews, who performed the routine surgery on Favre's ankle.
- Being a cynic, the first thing you wonder is if the Lions are more concerned about the health of Brandon Pettigrew than we thought. Pettigrew tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day, and the Lions have said he is on track to be ready to practice around the start of training camp. I'm not aware of any setback in that regard. But after the retirement of Casey Fitzsimmons, the Lions aren't exactly deep at the position. And offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loves using two tight ends; in Minnesota he made it work well with Jermaine Wiggins and Jim Kleinsasser. So I think this move was independent of Pettigrew's long-term status.
- Scheffler is a pure playmaker at the position; he caught a combined 89 passes and eight touchdowns in 2007-08. Last year, however, he ran into two obstacles with the Broncos: Coach Josh McDaniels doesn't have a big need for a pass-catching tight end, and McDaniels wasn't always a fan of prominent players from the regime of former coach Mike Shanahan. A Michigan native who played at Western Michigan, I would imagine Scheffler will appreciate this fresh start.
- This deal had a Martin Mayhew special buried in it. As reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the Lions also got a seventh-round pick from the Broncos. Mayhew always scraps for extra assets.
- Sims had been penciled in as the Lions' weakside starter, but I emphasize that projection was in pencil only. The Lions originally drafted him as a linebacker perfectly suited for the Tampa 2 defense. At 230 pounds, if that, Sims didn't seem to fit squarely into the scheme the Lions are using under coach Jim Schwartz, one that emphasizes size as much as speed. The trade marks the dangers of drafting purely for scheme, as well as the inability of most teams to flex their scheme to the strengths of diverse players.
- It's going to take some time to sort out who will replace Sims. One thing I feel pretty confident about: It won't be DeAndre Levy. I asked Schwartz about Levy last month at the NFL owners meetings, specifically about whether he was locked in at middle linebacker. Schwartz obviously didn't know this trade was coming, but he couldn't have been more affirmative in saying Levy would remain in the middle. I don't think there's an obvious weakside answer on the roster, so it will probably be an open competition unless the Lions acquire a veteran in some other fashion. As of right now, I'm guessing Jordon Dizon, Zack Follett and perhaps free-agent signee Landon Johnson are all in the mix. The Lions could draft at least one additional participant later this week.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
Check here for a full list of Minnesota’s roster moves.
Biggest surprise: There weren’t many, but it was a bit startling to see the Vikings part ways with tight end Garrett Mills. He’s always demonstrated soft hands and seemed to be an offensive playmaker in the waiting. The Vikings carried him on their roster for two years hoping that would be the case, but this year they decided to go heavier at the receiver position. They kept three tight ends -- Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan -- along with six receivers. Essentially, No. 6 receiver Darius Reynaud beat out Mills.
No brainers: There will be some hand-wringing over the decision to release quarterback John David Booty, especially if he is claimed by another team. I don’t deny that he’s in the middle of his development, but to this point I’ve never seen anything to suggest he’ll be any better than a No. 3 quarterback. The Vikings have three passers on their roster who are better than him. I don’t think there are many people in the NFL who consider Booty the Vikings’ quarterback of the future. It’ll be OK.
What’s next: Minnesota will have to determine whether Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels will be the No. 2 quarterback behind starter Brett Favre. I’m guessing it’s Jackson. Coach Brad Childress loathes interceptions, and Rosenfels threw a bad one Friday night against Dallas. I’ll also be interested to see if some of the Vikings’ roster decisions help improve their coverage units. Linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Kenny Onatolu, along with defensive backs Jamarca Sanford and Karl Paymah, made the team based almost exclusively on special teams.
|Marilyn Indahl/Icon SMI|
|Having Phil Loadholt at right tackle should give Minnesota's offense more options.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MANKATO, Minn. -- The formation seemed customary for the Minnesota Vikings, circa 2008. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser was lined up alongside the right tackle. Next to Kleinsasser was another tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe. Maximum protection, you might say, for a right-side run behind a subpar tackle.
Quarterback Sage Rosenfels, however, faked a handoff and rolled right for a bootleg pass. He found Kleinsasser for a first-down completion in the flat. Sounds simple, but let it be known: A seemingly innocuous 5-yard pass spoke volumes about a behind-the-scenes adjustment the Vikings are hoping to make to their offense this season.
The right tackle in question was not Ryan Cook, a weak performer over the past two seasons. Instead, it was massive rookie Phil Loadholt -- who didn't so much as dominate the play as he merely fulfilled the role of a trusted right tackle who doesn't always need help from the tight end. Instead of staying put to help Loadholt, Kleinsasser was free to provide another receiving option while the defense focused on Shiancoe.
The development might not rise to the excitement level of Percy Harvin's potential impact. But it's no less important for a team that was among the NFL's most left-handed running teams last season, one that often seemed schematically strapped by the need to protect Cook or minimize his impact. Loadholt is a rookie with some rough edges, but his 6-foot-8, 343-pound frame should compensate for some inexperience and give the Vikings some nuanced flexibility to expand their offense this season.
"He has held his own in there against our [first-team] defense," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "That is a good measuring stick."
Take a look at the chart to your right. Last season, the Vikings ran around left end more than all but one NFL team. They ranked No. 19 in runs around right end, and overall they directed only 30 percent of their running plays to the right of center. That's a stark predictability influenced by two factors: the presence of All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson on the left side and Cook's struggles on the right.
As long as Hutchinson remains in the lineup, it's unlikely the Vikings will reverse those numbers in 2009. But simply bringing them closer to even will be a new obstacle for opposing defenses that more often than not could gear up for a run to the left side.
Pre-snap formations could also be impacted. The Vikings might not feel as obligated to park Kleinsasser next to the right tackle. They could use a more skilled receiver in that space, perhaps Shiancoe or Garrett Mills, or be able to limit their use of the two-tight end look altogether.
Of course, this all presupposes that Loadholt can lock down the position in a way that Cook never could. After spending four days watching the Vikings practice, it seemed clear to me that Loadholt is well on his way. You don't have to look far to see the primary reason. I like how coach Brad Childress distilled it when I asked him Monday.
Childress noted that "mass kicks [something that rhymes with mass]" on most occasions.
"You don't see a lot of tiny guys running around him," Childress added. "Guys can kind of get enveloped in him."
We here in the Black and Blue didn't have the kind of blockbuster free agent weekend that a few other divisions enjoyed. That could change a bit if receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh agrees to terms with Minnesota, possibly as early as Monday, but otherwise the NFC North took a secondary position in the initial stages of the NFL's offseason player scramble.
But with a nod toward AFC North colleague James Walker's 7-step drop, and in recognition of my own absence over the weekend, let's touch on a few pertinent points before moving forward this week:
- Chicago's acquisition of offensive lineman Frank Omiyale gives the Bears extra flexibility but doesn't necessarily answer the question of who will replace retired right tackle John Tait. Omiyale's $5 million in guarantees suggests he will start somewhere, but he has experience across the line and likely will focus on guard, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. This means the Bears likely will have three new starters on their line in 2009: Chris Williams at left tackle, Omiyale -- possibly at left guard -- and whoever replaces Tait. You would have to assume that current free agent John St. Clair remains the favorite for that job.
- I can only hope Green Bay wasn't too serious about signing free agent defensive end Chris Canty, who agreed to terms with the New York Giants on Sunday evening. This quote from Canty's agent, Brad Blank, spoke volumes: "They acted like the Packers always do. They said, 'Good luck with [the Giants], and if it doesn't work out, we're interested.'" (Check out Pete Dougherty's full story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette.) Assuming Blank provided an accurate portrayal of the Packers' message, then it's the stance of a team that considered Canty a secondary target at best. If the Packers had serious designs on signing Canty -- and it's not as if they are overloaded with 3-4 defensive ends -- then they needed a much more aggressive approach.
- This is just me talking, but what I liked the best about Detroit's weekend is that the Lions got something in return for quarterback Jon Kitna, who under no circumstances was going to be back with the team in 2009. I don't know whether cornerback Anthony Henry, whom the Lions acquired from Dallas in return for Kitna, is going to have a huge impact this season. But most teams simply would have released Kitna and went about their business. The trade sends the appropriate message that new general managerMartin Mayhew is going to leave no stone unturned and will try to capitalize on every asset possible to improve the roster. It's also a sign of Mayhew's negotiating skill that he was able to get a return on a player near the end of his career who had no future with the team.
- I continue to be amazed at the way Minnesota is willing to throw money around at darn near every position except quarterback. The Vikings' latest target, Houshmandzadeh, figures to get a deal from someone worth around $6 million per season. Over the weekend, backup tight end Jim Kleinsasser signed a new three-year, $9 million deal. That's only slightly more than the Vikings will pay quarterback Sage Rosenfels, whom they acquired Friday to compete with Tarvaris Jackson for their starting job. (Rosenfels signed a two-year, $9 million contract.)