NFL Nation: Leslie Frazier


Don't expect any fine offensive displays Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

That's because the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both are struggling on offense. The Vikings (2-5) and Bucs (1-5) are starting young quarterbacks and ranked near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.

The Vikings, led by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, rank No. 29 in overall offense and are last in passing offense. The Bucs have been starting second-year pro Mike Glennon and they're ranked No. 30 in overall offense.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview the matchup:

Yasinskas: Ben, I know the numbers aren't pretty. But has Bridgewater been showing any signs of progress?

Goessling: He has shown some. He hit 12 of his 15 throws after a pair of interceptions in Buffalo on Sunday, and I thought he did a better job of trusting himself to find his receivers downfield than he has in recent weeks. He has looked great at times, especially in the Vikings' win over Atlanta last month, but he's still figuring a lot of things out.

He needs to be better about throwing on target, and he has fallen victim to the same problems that plague many rookies, when he has held the ball a little too long or thrown late because he didn't make up his mind soon enough. But it's important to remember Bridgewater doesn't have Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph and an offensive line that can protect him. The Vikings have given up 27 sacks this season, which is the second-most in the league, and they've forced Bridgewater to run for his life on a number of other occasions.

Speaking of quarterbacks, will Glennon remain the starter or will Josh McCown get the job back now that he's getting healthy?

Yasinskas: Coach Lovie Smith has been coy about his plans. My best guess is Glennon will get at least one more start because McCown returned to practice only this week and was out for more than a month. I think Glennon has played well enough to be the full-time starter, but I'm not sure Smith sees it that way. McCown was Smith's hand-picked quarterback and the two have history together from their Chicago days. Smith's history has shown he prefers to go with veterans. Back in Chicago, he once benched Kyle Orton, who was playing well, as soon as Rex Grossman got healthy. It wouldn't surprise me if Smith goes back to McCown.

You mentioned Minnesota's offensive line. I know it has been banged up. Will it be any healthier this week, and can it at least give Bridgewater some protection against a Tampa Bay pass rush that hasn't been good?

Goessling: It's hard to say at this point if it will be healthier. Guard Vladimir Ducasse is optimistic about his chances to play after injuring his knee on Sunday, but John Sullivan is still going through the concussion protocol, and his loss would be a big one. He's the Vikings' most reliable blocker, and does plenty to help Bridgewater set protections.

The biggest problem, though, has been left tackle Matt Kalil, who got beat again several times on Sunday and has struggled in pass protection all season. Kalil was the No. 4 pick in the draft in 2012 and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but got hurt last year and hasn't looked like the same guy. The Vikings were able to protect Bridgewater effectively against Atlanta, another team with an underwhelming pass rush, so I'd expect they'll fare better this week than they have against Detroit and Buffalo.

Shifting to the defensive side of the ball, how has the Vikings' old coach, Leslie Frazier, fared as the coordinator? The Bucs have obviously been shredded on defense; how much of that do you think is Frazier and Smith's old Cover 2 scheme and how much is personnel?

Yaskinsas: Tampa Bay ranks last in total defense and also is No. 32 in pass defense. That's shocking since Smith and Frazier are supposed to be defensive gurus. I think this team has good defensive personnel, especially with tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. But the pass rush has been non-existent, and that has taken a toll on the secondary. The main problem might be Smith's stubbornness. He's sticking with the Tampa 2 scheme even though it looks like it might be outdated. I'm not saying he should totally ditch the Tampa 2, but it might be wise -- and productive -- to mix in some man coverage at times.

The Vikings lost a last-minute game against Buffalo last week. That reminded me that the Vikings lost a lot of games in the final minutes last season. Is there some sort of flaw there or is this just a young team that needs to learn how to win?

Goessling: They believe it's the latter. The approach the Vikings took on the final drive on Sunday didn't look like what they did last year, when they sat back in coverage on a lot of those final drives. They were aggressive with their fronts, blitzing Orton four times on the drive and sacking him twice. But there were breakdowns that probably can be traced to inexperience. Josh Robinson needed to reroute Sammy Watkins when he pressed him on third-and-12, Xavier Rhodes misplayed Watkins' game-winning touchdown, and first-year coach Mike Zimmer said he probably should have called a timeout before a fourth-and-20 play -- like Frazier did in a couple games last season -- to get the defense settled. The Vikings gave up a first down there after Chad Greenway was trying to get Captain Munnerlyn in the right spot in a no-huddle situation. Greenway had his head turned at the snap and didn't get deep enough in coverage to keep Orton from hitting Scott Chandler for a first down.

The Vikings are young in the secondary, especially, and I think that showed up Sunday, but I continue to see progress in what they're doing. They have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith, and Rhodes has continued to improve as a corner. It'll take another year of player acquisitions, but they're headed in the right direction.

To wrap this up, why has the Buccaneers' ground game struggled so much? It might be a function of playing from behind as much as they have, but it seems like they've struggled to run the ball in closer games, too. What do you think the problem has been there?

Yasinskas: It's true they have had to abandon the running game at times because they've fallen so far behind. But even at the start of games, they've struggled to run the ball. That's puzzling because they have a rebuilt offensive line and running back Doug Martin is healthy after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. I put the majority of the blame on the offensive line. But I also put some blame on Martin. He is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. His backup, Bobby Rainey, is averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Martin needs to make more out of his opportunities.

videoORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Mike Zimmer became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in no small part because of games like these. His predecessor, Leslie Frazier, presided over a team that blew five last-minute leads in 2013, effectively handing over their chance to win a mediocre division in a series of miscommunications, coverage breakdowns and missed chances to salt away games. Zimmer and Frazier will share a field next Sunday in Tampa, and the closing touchdown drive the Vikings allowed in a 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday shares some DNA with the ones that helped send Frazier back to being a defensive coordinator.

But the Vikings' problems were spliced in between a set of commanding plays from an aggressive defense, and they put a sour finish on a performance that looked nothing like the tepid defensive efforts the Vikings had last season. The Vikings put the Bills on the brink several times on Sunday, and came tantalizingly close to taking the game for themselves.

That they didn't ultimately shows how much of a work in progress they remain.

"You check off every thing you wanted to do, you do it -- other than maybe stopping the run as well as we would like," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "But the game wasn't over. There was time on the clock, and they were able to make some key throws there at the end."

The Vikings' performance, which featured six sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception, will ultimately be remembered for the throws Bills quarterback Kyle Orton made, especially in situations where the Vikings had the Bills dead to rights. Greenway was targeted on one of those throws -- a fourth-and-20 strike to tight end Scott Chandler, who got just behind the linebacker after it appeared Greenway was still communicating defensive adjustments to teammates when the ball was snapped.

"You can't have it," Greenway said. "It's a situation where you've got to get off the field. I thought I was in a good spot. Perfect throw-and-catch. That's what sucks about this game; you play good for a long time, and you end up losing."

Three plays later, cornerback Josh Robinson was matched against wide receiver Sammy Watkins on third-and-12; Robinson had inside leverage on Watkins in man coverage, but Watkins beat a quick jam from Robinson and got inside on a slant route for 18 yards. Then, on second-and-20 after an intentional grounding penalty that forced 10 seconds off the clock, Orton hit Chris Hogan on a jump ball over Xavier Rhodes. Two plays later, the Bills were in the end zone, on a touchdown pass to Watkins that Orton squeezed past Rhodes with one second left.

"I've just got to make the play on the ball," Rhodes said. "No matter if it was good coverage, I've got to make the play."

Coming into Sunday's game, the Vikings were tied for the second-worst conversion rate in the league on third downs of 10 yards or longer, giving up first downs on nine of their 27 attempts. They'd forced a fumble on a third-and-10 in the first quarter, and sacked Orton on a third-and-10 and third-and-17 in the fourth quarter. But then came the fourth-down completion to Chandler, the third-down slant to Watkins and the second down jump ball to Hogan, and the Vikings' progress was tough to remember.

"We probably need to be better in some of those long-yardage situations than we have been," Zimmer said. "That's kind of been the Achilles heel. But, if you go back and look at the things we're working on: playing the run. Other than the one long run [by C.J. Spiller], I thought we played the run well. The third-down conversions have been better. Defensively, I think we continue to work towards where we have to get to. Our guys have to continue to have confidence in themselves that they can make these plays at the end of the ball game."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier wasn’t giving away any secrets Wednesday as he talked about Sunday’s loss to Carolina.

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The world already knew that the Bucs didn’t have much of a pass rush and didn’t come up with any takeaways. Frazier is painfully aware of both issues and talked at length about improving the pass rush and the turnover ratio.

In Tampa Bay’s system it’s crucial for the defense to produce turnovers. The fact that the Bucs didn’t have any against the Panthers was costly.

“Not being able to balance takeaways, the fact that they had three and we had no takeaways, is probably the difference in the game,’’ Frazier said. “They get 17 points off turnovers and we didn’t come up with one. From a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to be able to get those turnovers, those takeaways. No matter how the game is going, it really gives you a chance to be successful. We know historically that if you get three-plus, you’ve got a 95 percent chance of winning the game and we came up with zero.’’

Frazier said takeaways and pressure on the quarterback go hand in hand. The Bucs sacked Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson just once and seldom pressured him. Frazier said it’s critical for the Bucs to generate more of a pass rush in Sunday’s home game with St. Louis.

“There’s some things we’re going to try to improve our pass rush,’’ Frazier said. “In order for us to be successful, we need to be able to get that rush out of our down four without having a lot of other things. We saw some things we think will be able to help us this week.’’

Lavonte David a well-kept secret

August, 27, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The comparisons started among Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans as soon as Lavonte David was drafted in 2012.

It seemed far-fetched, or at least very premature, but David instantly was seen as the second coming of Derrick Brooks. These days, that doesn’t seem like quite a stretch.

“It’s very early in his career and Derrick’s a Hall of Famer, so it’s hard to say that at this point,’’ Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “But if there’s anybody that has a chance as an outside linebacker to end up on the Derrick Brooks level, Lavonte has those qualities. His instincts, his ability to make big plays, and his ability to lift everyone up around him are similar to what Derrick had. Lavonte has those qualities. He has the chance to be one of the great players in this league.’’

As Brooks was, David is a weakside linebacker with a knack for big plays. David is coming off a 2013 season in which he had 145 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and five interceptions. Look at what Brooks did in the first two years of his career and David stacks up pretty well.

“It’s nerve-wracking being compared to that guy," David said. “He’s a Hall of Famer. All it does is motivate me to keep working hard, and maybe one day I can get to where he’s at."

Despite the brilliant start to his career, David remains one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets -- outside of Tampa Bay. David was overlooked for the Pro Bowl last season, but was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. In ESPN.com's rankings of the NFL's top 100 defensive players, David came in at No. 25. He was 98th a year ago.

“[The Pro Bowl snub] didn't bother me as much as people might think," David said. “I can only control what I can control. I just go out there and play my hardest. Being voted first-team All-Pro is better than being voted to the Pro Bowl, in my opinion."

The Pro Bowls will come as long as David continues to produce, and all indications are he will. With Lovie Smith taking over as head coach, the Bucs are returning to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous back when Brooks was playing. Weakside linebacker is a crucial position in the Tampa 2 as that player is expected to go from side to side against the run and drop in coverage or blitz against the pass. Frazier said David is a perfect fit for the scheme.

“He sees things before they happen," Smith said. “He studies extremely hard. You should see him in the classroom. He’s asking questions all the time. He’s always looking for more. And then he goes on the football field and you can see that he’s applying what he’s learned. That’s not always the case. That makes him a very special talent."

How special can David be?

“The sky is the limit," Frazier said. “The way he works, as smart as he is, the talent he has -- he should go to a lot of Pro Bowls before his career is over. I’m looking forward to being a part of his evolution. He can be as good as any outside linebacker that’s played the game, in my opinion. I think he has those traits."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It appears Adrian Peterson's streak of preseasons without a carry will hit three this year.

Peterson
Peterson
Coach Mike Zimmer said the running back is unlikely to play again on Saturday night in Kansas City, adding "I really don't see the need" for Peterson to play at all in the preseason. The Vikings have shifted Peterson's role in their offense, making him a bigger part of the passing game than he's been in the past, but he's gotten enough work in practices, Zimmer said, that he doesn't necessarily need to get any game action before the Vikings kick off the regular season Sept. 7 against the St. Louis Rams.

"We’re grabbing at the ball pretty good. We’re not tackling him or anything," Zimmer said. "He’s doing a great job with the protections and the routes and obviously he runs really good. The only concern you have is he might not have been hit enough. But our guys are grabbing at the ball a lot. They’re punching at the ball as he’s running in there. I talked to him about those things.”

Peterson didn't sound terribly distraught about sitting out the exhibition season, either. He said it didn't matter to him if he played on Saturday, adding he feels comfortable enough in the Vikings' offense to miss the game. "I'm wired up (for the season)," he said. "I'm ready to go."

The Vikings first held Peterson out of preseason action in 2012, after he was returning from knee surgery, and the plan worked so well -- before Peterson's 2,097-yard season -- that former coach Leslie Frazier decided to keep the ball out of Peterson's hands before last season, too, playing him for one series in the team's third preseason game but not giving him the ball. Now, as Peterson enters his eighth season, he should be as fresh as the Vikings can get him.
MANKATO, Minn. -- The biggest question surrounding the Minnesota Vikings when Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in January was the team's future at quarterback. The tallest task facing Zimmer when he accepted the job on Jan. 15 might have been remaking the Vikings' defense.

Zimmer's résumé as a defensive coordinator earned him the chance to work with a group that allowed more points than any in the NFL last season, and more than all but one defense in the Vikings' 53-season history. The coach began a detailed remodeling process almost as soon as he got the job, walking scouts and front-office members through what he'd need to succeed, and the trademark of his on-field work with players over the past two months has been an exacting adherence to details. The first concrete signs of progress came in the Vikings' preseason opener last Friday night, when the first-team defense forced a pair of three-and-outs against the Oakland Raiders. When he watched the film the next day, Zimmer saw some semblance of what he'd outlined for Vikings decision-makers months ago.

"It was a little bit like I envisioned this football team to look like. We didn’t make many mistakes on defense until later on in the ball game. We competed very well; we got up in people’s face on defense," Zimmer said. "I think that we are starting to develop a physical mindset with this football team. I like how we practice and the way we practice is showing up when the lights come on and we get ready to go play. We need to continue to practice at the same tempo, we need to continue to improve on the mistakes and we've still got a long way to go."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. If Matt Cassel (or Teddy Bridgewater) can help the Vikings move beyond the quarterback turmoil of 2013, the team has enough weapons to catch up to the prolific offenses in the NFC North. Cordarrelle Patterson could be in for a breakout season in Year 2, Greg Jennings worked well with Cassel last season and Kyle Rudolph dropped 15 pounds in an effort to adjust his game to offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game. The Vikings, of course, still have Adrian Peterson, and they're excited about the potential of third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, who could be the change-of-pace back Turner has typically had in his offenses.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, though the Vikings night unveil some creative packages for the rookie.
2. First-round pick Anthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, where he'll be featured as part of a defense that should be more aggressive than recent Vikings teams. While he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Zimmer sent five or more pass-rushers just 172 times last season (the seventh-fewest in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information, but he'll bring pressure from more places than the Vikings did under Leslie Frazier. The Bengals, for example, blitzed a defensive back on 30 more snaps than the Vikings did last season.

3. General manager Rick Spielman has picked seven players in the first round of the past three drafts, assembling a core of young talent that could help the Vikings improve as quickly as it can develop. Third-year safety Harrison Smith is back from a turf toe injury that cost him half the season, second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes is a good fit with Zimmer's press coverage scheme and Sharrif Floyd could become the Vikings' answer to Geno Atkins, the outstanding three-technique tackle Zimmer had in Cincinnati.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Vikings will be counting on better depth in the secondary than they had last season, which means a number of unproven players will have to fill large roles. After the Vikings' experiment with Josh Robinson at slot cornerback backfired last season, he should be more comfortable on the outside, where he could start or play in the Vikings' nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside. But Robinson hasn't been asked to play much man coverage in his career, and the Vikings will need Rhodes to be their top cover corner in Year 2. They'll also need a starting safety to emerge alongside Smith, though the signing of 34-year-old Chris Crocker could help there.

2. There's little set at the linebacker position, where Chad Greenway is trying to rebound from the worst season of his career, Barr is developing as a rookie and Jasper Brinkley, in his second tour with the Vikings, is trying to hold off third-year man Audie Cole for the middle-linebacker job. In a scheme that leans on active linebackers, the position is one of the most unsettled on the roster.

3. Of course, there's the quarterback position. Cassel performed respectably at the end of last season, and seems comfortable in Turner's offense, but probably hasn't been among the top half of the league's quarterbacks since 2010. If he isn't faring well at the beginning of the season -- and the Vikings get off to a rough start against a schedule that includes dates with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers by Oct. 2 -- how soon do the Vikings turn things over to Bridgewater? Whether they're counting on a veteran whom they signed last season as a backup or a rookie, the Vikings again begin the season as the only NFC North team with uncertainty about its starting quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIf Matt Cassel struggles, how quickly will the Vikings turn to Teddy Bridgewater?
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Vikings have used Barr as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations and could unveil more creative packages for the rookie this week. Zimmer has plenty of flexibility with his defensive fronts, considering Everson Griffen has played defensive tackle in the nickel package and Corey Wootton and rookie Scott Crichton have rushed from the inside. The Vikings have also toyed with dropping defensive end Brian Robison -- who began his college career as a linebacker -- into coverage in their nickel package.

  • Zimmer wants safeties who can hold up in coverage, and he has unveiled a few nickel packages that feature three safeties and two corners. Considering how much time teams spend in nickel packages, safeties who can cover slot receivers and hold up against the run provide some additional flexibility. That's why Crocker -- who has played the past seven seasons for Zimmer in Atlanta or Cincinnati -- is back with him again.

  • Depth at tight end could be a concern, especially early in the season; Chase Ford looked like he could be a solid receiving option behind Rudolph until he broke his foot before the start of training camp, and the Vikings cut promising undrafted free agent AC Leonard last week. Rhett Ellison has mostly worked as a run blocker so far in his career. Especially if Ford starts on the physically unable to perform list, the Vikings will have to hope Rudolph stays healthy a year after missing half the season with a broken foot.

  • Running back Matt Asiata could carve out a role for himself in the Vikings' offense, especially now that Toby Gerhart is gone to Jacksonville and the Vikings need another running back who can hold up in pass protection. Asiata ran for 115 yards in the Vikings' final game of the 2013 season and has shown some ability as a downhill runner between the tackles.

  • With punt returner Marcus Sherels nursing a hamstring injury, second-year receiver Adam Thielen has shown he can be a solid No. 2 option, returning three punts for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener. As a receiver, Thielen has been one of the big stories in Vikings camp, displaying sure hands over the middle of the field and working well with Bridgewater in front of the same fans who cheered him at Division II Minnesota State, which hosts Vikings training camp.

Vikings' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
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Over the next three seasons, as the Minnesota Vikings begin the tenure of head coach Mike Zimmer, play in two home stadiums and likely wind down the days of Adrian Peterson's prime, the key to their success will be finding some stability at a position where they haven't enjoyed much of it in the last decade.

Bridgewater
Other than two seasons with Brett Favre, the Vikings' quarterback position has essentially been in a state of flux since Daunte Culpepper was traded to Miami following the 2005 season. Since then, the Vikings haven't had a quarterback start 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Even when Favre was at the helm, the Vikings knew they needed a long-term solution at quarterback. Now that they have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, much of their future success will hinge on the rookie's development.

Bridgewater figures to start training camp behind Matt Cassel, though he'll get a shot to win the job before the season. Even if he sits on the bench for much of 2014, though, Bridgewater will likely be the starter by the time the Vikings open their new stadium in 2016. Assuming he claims the job sometime in the near future, the first-round pick will have to develop quickly if the Vikings want to make the most of Peterson's remaining years as one of the league's best running backs.

Peterson turned 29 in March and will likely see a larger role in the passing game as the Vikings seek to find more balance on offense than they had under coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That means the quarterback, not Peterson, will likely be the focal point of the Vikings' offense, and eventually it will put the burden on Bridgewater's shoulders to carry the Vikings.

The rookie was impressive during OTAs and the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, though it's hard to accurately assess his progress in such a controlled setting. When he is ready to play, though, Bridgewater will have a clear charge: He'll be asked to create a foundation for the Vikings at the most important position in the game.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Bridgewater
Zimmer
Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The televised celebration in the Minneapolis bid committee's conference room on Tuesday afternoon -- in response to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's announcement that Super Bowl LII was headed to the Twin Cities -- was spontaneously raucous, in the way that only a celebration of the end of a long wait can be. As Minnesota Vikings officials, corporate CEOs and civic leaders exchanged jubilant (and occasionally awkward) high-fives and embraces, the room quieted down only at the mention that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was about to speak on TV.

It was then I realized: This must have been the first time in a while where it was purely, unequivocally good for the Wilf family to be the owners of the Vikings.

[+] EnlargeZygi Wilf and Mark Wilf
AP Photo/David GoldmanVikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were all smiles after Minneapolis was selected as the host for the 2018 Super Bowl.
Zygi, Mark and Leonard Wilf, who prefer to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible, have presumably spent too much time in it for their liking in the past nine months, and rarely for positive reasons. First, there was the news that a New Jersey judge had ordered the family to pay $100 million in damages to its business partners in a 21-year-old lawsuit, which the Wilfs are still fighting in appellate court. That lawsuit triggered an emergency (if slightly theatrical) review of the Wilfs' finances that threatened to delay groundbreaking on the Vikings' new stadium, and four days after Zygi and Mark Wilf appeared at a news conference to announce the firing of coach Leslie Frazier following a 5-10-1 season, the owners ordered an independent review of the organization in the wake of former punter Chris Kluwe's allegations he was cut because of his support for same-sex marriage.

Even low-level controversies, like the news the Wilfs were receiving tax breaks in exchange for storing stadium dirt on parking lots they owned in downtown Minneapolis, played on the narrative that the Vikings' owners were suspicious out-of-towners, intent on driving hard bargains with a community that counts three Midwesterners as the owners of its other pro teams and tends to be leery of slick East Coast mavens.

But on Tuesday, the Wilfs weren't seen as carpetbaggers. They were the patient, steady hands who bought the Vikings in 2005, never threatened to move the team during a long legislative battle over a new stadium and ultimately helped forge the partnership on a $1 billion complex that will bring the Super Bowl back to Minnesota for the first time in 26 years. They got to talk about the "beginning ... of a long, great relationship and a great venue that everyone in Minnesota can be proud of," and as a kicker, they helped Minnesota exact a small measure of revenge for one of its most bitter NFC Championship Game defeats, beating out New Orleans for the right to host the game four years after the Vikings' overtime loss to the Saints. After a long, tenuous stretch, they seemed as much a part of the community in Minnesota as they had in some time.

However unscrupulous the Wilfs' business dealings might make them seem in the eyes of Minnesotans, it's tough to argue they haven't been good owners since they bought the team from Red McCombs. They've funded one of the NFL's highest payrolls, routinely spending money in free agency and giving general manager Rick Spielman the freedom to acquire seven first-round picks in the past three years. They were patient with state legislators through the fits and starts of the stadium process, even as the Vikings' local revenues in the outdated Metrodome ranked among the league's lowest. And they've now got the distinction of being the owners who helped bring America's biggest sporting event back to a state that might never have been more energized than when it had the game last time, in the middle of a remarkable 10-month run that saw the U.S. Open, Stanley Cup finals, World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four land in the Twin Cities in 1991 and 1992, making Minnesota the center of the nation's sporting conscience.

On top of all that, the Wilfs have a new head coach they like, a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and an iconic player in Adrian Peterson. The narrative around the team right now is very much about what's exciting and new, and very little about the unsightliness of the past nine months. Tuesday was a good day for them to be the owners of the Vikings, and as they landed a Super Bowl that's sure to induce plenty of fretting about Minnesota's frosty climate, it probably wasn't hard for the Wilfs to feel the warmth from their adopted fan base.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's a predictable rite of coaching changes in the NFL: The new guy comes in, usually more (or less) of a disciplinarian or a player's coach than the last guy, and players talk about how the new atmosphere in the building is exactly what they needed.

With that in mind, we're not going to make any sweeping pronouncements from the second day of the Vikings' voluntary minicamp about whether the differences in Mike Zimmer's style from Leslie Frazier's will ultimately help the team win more games this season. There's a danger in trying to assign too much significance into anything that happens when players are in shorts and prohibited from hitting each other, so we'll try to err on the side of caution there.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Johnny VyVikings coach Mike Zimmer is showing in minicamp that he's going to be active during practices in 2014.
That said, it was clear from what players said on Wednesday -- and what Zimmer modeled in practice -- just how much of a departure Zimmer's working style will represent from Frazier's. While Frazier preferred to run practices like a CEO, floating around the field, making broad observations about his team and letting his position coaches and coordinators do much of the hands-on work, Zimmer was there in the middle of defensive backs drills with secondary coach Jerry Gray on Wednesday, firing instructions at players on when to break on certain routes.

His leadership style figures to evolve in time, as he settles into the role of being a head coach, but in his first on-field work with players Zimmer clearly was trying to establish a different tone -- to the point where defensive end Brian Robison and safety Harrison Smith said they'd never seen a head coach as involved in day-to-day work as Zimmer has been.

"We’ve always had head coaches sit in meetings, but they’ve never really talked a whole lot," Robison said. "It’s been about the defensive coordinator. Whereas Zimmer is, he’s stepping up, he’s running the meetings most of the time, going through the defensive calls. Pretty much, he’s been the defensive coordinator. It’s that type of deal. And that’s taking nothing away from [defensive coordinator George] Edwards; obviously he does a lot of stuff, too, with us. In a way, I like that. You want to see a coach, a head coach, coaching and you want to see him take it upon himself to make sure that everybody’s doing the right thing and that’s what you see at practice.

"We’re out here and he’s actually grabbing guys and he’s showing them what to do, how to use their hands, how to do their footwork. And a lot of times you don’t get that, a lot of times you have head coaches kind of sit back and let their coaches do the work. Whereas he is taking it upon himself to make sure that every single person is doing the right thing.”

The key for Zimmer, at some point, will be incorporating more work with the offense into his daily routine; he spent much of the winter working with the Vikings' defense, and said on Wednesday he's been "straying over to the defense a little bit," adding he ran a meeting with the defensive backs earlier in the day. He's got the luxury of having a veteran offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, but Zimmer has also said he wants to be the head coach, not just the defensive coach, so he'll probably start to balance his responsibilities more at some point.

What seems clear, though, is that Zimmer will be more hands-on in practice than Frazier was, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Time will tell if he needs to delegate more to his coaches, but as he talked about it on Wednesday, it was clear Zimmer hadn't lost the charge he got from his days running drills as a position coach.

"I think I’m fairly good at it, and so I’m going to try to use my abilities as best I can," he said. "I get around the offense as much as I can, but at this stage I just feel like I have to spend more time with the defense. I have to be in the meetings and run the meetings, actually, you know, coach. I have to coach. That’s what I am: I’m a coach. And so just because I’m the head coach doesn’t mean stop coaching. It means you coach everything, but you still do the best job you can to get guys better.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- There are just 16 days to go until the 2014 NFL draft, meaning we're firmly in the time of year when general managers are more likely to top off their draft preparations with a dollop of misdirection than a scintilla of truth.

And yet, when Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman described the process of evaluating this year's quarterback class as "torturous" in an interview published Monday, his comments were structured around a consistent theme he's been hitting since the Vikings began draft preparations in earnest three months ago.

"Every one of these quarterbacks ... nothing is a sure thing," Spielman said in a discussion with MMQB.com on Monday. "There’s no Andrew Luck, no Peyton Manning. It is such a mixed bag with each player -- every one of them has positives, every one of them has negatives. And if that’s the way you end up feeling, why don’t you just wait ’til later in the draft and take someone with the first pick you’re sure will help you right now?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWould the Vikings have stayed with Christian Ponder as long as they did if he had been drafted in the second or third round?
Since January, Spielman has been talking about how far and wide the Vikings would search for a quarterback, how careful they would be not to get boxed into drafting one in the first round. He has described this class as being without a sure thing since February and has talked since March about how re-signing Matt Cassel gave the Vikings the freedom to wait on a quarterback.

There are a couple of viable explanations for the consistency. One possibility is that Spielman has been crafting the narrative that the Vikings won't force a quarterback pick at No. 8 for months, possibly to ward off teams that might be interested in leapfrogging the Vikings for a QB or to create a market for trading down. The other scenario is that Spielman is staring at the situation, knowing how damaging the fallout could be for him if he misses on another highly drafted passer, and is mulling the possibility that a first-round quarterback might just be too big of a gamble in this draft.

Plenty of people around the league believe the Vikings won't take a quarterback at No. 8, choosing instead to draft a defensive player or trade back a few spots to accumulate more picks before picking a defender. With the caveat that what you hear from people around the league has to be triple-filtered this time of year, I'm inclined to think it's likely the Vikings wait, for a couple reasons. First, the Vikings still have enough defensive needs that they would be helped sooner by a linebacker or defensive back than they would by drafting a quarterback who needs time to develop. There's some legitimacy to Spielman's statements that the Vikings aren't that far away from being back in the playoffs. That's based on how many close games they might have won with only slightly more efficient quarterbacking and a less porous defense last season. If you believe a full season of Cassel and the prospect of defensive improvement is enough for a quick pivot while Adrian Peterson is still in his 20s, wouldn't it be tempting to consider that route?

The second, and probably more important reason for the Vikings to wait on a quarterback, is this: They've seen just how much time and how many resources can be squandered on a quarterback who doesn't pan out. Peterson was 26 when Christian Ponder made his first start for the Vikings. Percy Harvin was a 23-year-old turning into a breakout star, and Jared Allen was in the midst of a 22-sack season at age 29. The Vikings were in the middle of a rebuilding project under Spielman and Leslie Frazier, but those don't have to take that long in the modern NFL when there are cornerstone players in place.

Heading into 2014, though, Harvin, Allen and Frazier are gone, Ponder has lost the benefit of the doubt, and the Vikings are still trying to figure out their long-term answer at quarterback. Spielman outlived Frazier in Minnesota and got a chance to hire his own coach in Mike Zimmer, but he probably can't survive another big swing and miss at quarterback. If the Vikings were to hitch their fortunes to the wrong guy at No. 8, Zimmer could eventually be dragged down with the GM.

It's interesting to think about what might have happened in 2011 if the Vikings had taken Ponder in the second or third round and if they would have felt less compelled to stand by him. Would they have made a play for Robert Griffin III the next year or taken Russell Wilson instead of Josh Robinson in the third round after Frazier and his staff coached Wilson at the Senior Bowl?

The Vikings might have decided to give Ponder time anyway, but it's difficult to argue any team faces the same pressure to stick by a second-day draft pick as it does with the 12th overall selection. It has to be in the back of Spielman's mind that taking a quarterback later in the draft wouldn't carry the same kind of inherent commitment as drafting one in the top 10, in addition to the fact that passing on QB at No. 8 would give him the opportunity to pick from a dynamic group of defensive players. Considering the quarterbacks that could be in next year's class -- such as Florida State's Jameis Winston, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota -- the Vikings had better know how tethered they want to be to a quarterback they would take this year.

The Vikings are in eight days of pre-draft meetings that conclude next Tuesday, when players return to the team facility for a three-day voluntary minicamp. That event will give Zimmer his first real chance to work with players and make some determinations about what he has in Cassel and Ponder. From there, the Vikings can have their final discussions about how they want to approach the quarterback position. But it seems possible, as it has for months, that they are seriously weighing the benefits of waiting if they're not completely enamored with a QB in the first round.

"How many franchise quarterbacks actually come out?" Spielman said earlier this offseason. "Last couple years, there have been a couple guys that have been taken in the second and third rounds that have been successful. I think there’s some depth in this quarterback class. You’re definitely not going to be forced to take a quarterback at 8 unless you’re totally sold on that quarterback. I can guarantee you that it’s not going to be a forced issue.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings' pursuit of former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson began just after the start of the free agency negotiating period on March 8. It was fueled by an obvious connection between Johnson and new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who had been Johnson's defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

Griffen
Johnson
The Vikings, however, finished a five-year, $42.5 million deal with Everson Griffen in the early morning hours March 9, and Johnson had a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Tampa Bay in place just before the start of free agency. Zimmer said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he "lost" out on Johnson because he wanted to be closer to his Selma, Ala., home, but added bringing back Griffen was the Vikings' first priority.

"Michael is a very Southern, country kid," Zimmer said on KFAN-FM in the Twin Cities. "It had nothing to do with football. He wanted to be with me, and I think that was the struggle he was going through -- whether to be with me in Minnesota or close to home. I lost.

"I don't want to give the impression that Michael Johnson was the guy we were going after and Everson was the second guy. We felt like Everson was a guy that, his career is starting to go up and he was the guy that we really put our eggs in his basket first. If it got too out of hand, money-wise or something like that, we were going to move on Michael."

The Vikings would have had to get creative, both with their scheme and their finances, to get Griffen and Johnson. It's hard to envision a scenario in which they would have landed both, but it seemed like they knew fairly early in the process that Johnson wanted to stay home, which probably allowed them to hammer out the Griffen deal in short order. The team had been talking with Griffen's camp in general terms about a new deal for months, but things got serious late on the night of March 8 and early in the morning of March 9.

As we discussed earlier in the month, it was an interesting twist to see Johnson sign with Tampa Bay (where former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is the defensive coordinator) while Griffen stayed in Minnesota with Zimmer, but if Johnson was always itching to play closer to home and Griffen wanted to stay in Minnesota, things might have worked out for both players anyway. Time will tell how the deals worked out for both teams.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.
Before I head off to Bristol, Conn., for a couple days of meetings, let’s reach into the mailbag for our question of the day.

Alex in San Angelo, Texas, asks if the Bucs keep Darrelle Revis, will they still be able to pursue free agents like Jared Allen and Charles Tillman.

The Bucs can keep Revis (and his $16 million cap figure) and still have plenty of room to target the two veteran free agents and others. At the moment, the Bucs have $114.2 million committed toward a cap that’s expected to be $133 million. And I think the cap position will only get better. I suspect you’ll see a few high-priced offensive linemen get released or have their contracts restructured.

Age should keep the price for Allen and Tillman relatively low. The Bucs don’t want to overhaul their team with veteran free agents, but Allen and Tillman are likely exceptions to the rule. The Bucs have needs at defensive end and cornerback. Allen has history with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.
MINNEAPOLIS -- In his introductory news conference as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach, Mike Zimmer made it clear that he wanted to be involved in every aspect of the team, not just the ones where he'd made his reputation as a defensive coordinator for more than a decade.

Zimmer
"I want to hire an offensive coordinator, yes, and I want him to have his ideas, but I want to be the head coach and I want to be in charge of this football team and I want to be in charge of everything that we do here," Zimmer said on Jan. 17. "So there will be times when I’ll go in the offensive room and talk to them about certain plays and doing different things and what I have seen on tape. Being a defensive coach and knowing a lot of things that hurt certain defenses, I know a lot of coaches in this league from playing against them for so long. But my goal is to be the head coach, not the defensive coach, and then have an offensive coach to be the offensive coach."

Zimmer wouldn't have hired an offensive coordinator with as much clout as Norv Turner if he wasn't planning to empower that person, but it's clear Zimmer also won't limit himself to the defensive side of the ball. His predecessor, Leslie Frazier, also became a head coach after working as a defensive coordinator, and seemed too deferential to his coordinators at times. Frazier said on Sept. 16 he had overridden his coordinators' calls on some occasions, and wouldn't hesitate to do so in the future, but the entire reason he was discussing the topic was what had happened the day before in Chicago, when Frazier had castigated himself for not getting more involved in the defensive play-calling at the end of a 31-30 loss to the Chicago Bears, where Jay Cutler found Martellus Bennett for a touchdown with 10 seconds left.

We don't -- and won't -- have all the details on coach/coordinator interactions, so it's difficult to make a full assessment of the relationship, but at a minimum, it seems safe to say Zimmer wants to make sure he's directly involved with the entire sphere of the Vikings' decisions. He spent last Thursday night talking offensive strategy with Turner at the NFL scouting combine, he said, and is intent on tapping Turner's knowledge to learn more about the offense.

"I’m still growing that way," Zimmer said on Friday. "Obviously I’m trying to get all the defensive things in place as far as playbook, terminology and all that and we keep working our way over that. I’m learning offense, the offensive system and things. The one good thing about Norv, we talk about different things and I said, ‘Do you ever do this off of it?’ and he’d say, ‘We used to do that.’ So we communicate.”

Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have said they'll lean heavily on Turner as the Vikings think about taking a quarterback in the draft, but Zimmer won't be shy about weighing in on the decision, either. He'll ultimately be judged on how smoothly he can transition from running one phase of the game to running a whole team, and when the Vikings' biggest offseason move might be on the side of the ball Zimmer hasn't coached, it makes sense for him to get involved quickly.

"It will be a collective decision between Rick and myself and Norv," Zimmer said of the quarterback move. "When I was in Cincinnati, they wanted to find out what kind of defensive players I wanted and guys who I liked and things like that. And just because I liked them didn’t mean they were going to take them. I think it’s important that's the same thing with Norv. I think he’s evaluated quarterbacks a lot longer than I have. I’ve played against them a lot longer than he has. I think it’s part of the process, too.”

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