Minnesota Vikings: What to Watch for at the OTAs

Tim ArcandCorrespondent IMay 19, 2013

Minnesota Vikings: What to Watch for at the OTAs

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    The Minnesota Vikings open their OTAs on May 28 with potentially their youngest roster since 1965. According to data from Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Vikings' 2012 roster had an average age of 25.5 years—and that was before the team released 35-year-old Antoine Winfield and 30-year-old Michael Jenkins.

    Depending on how many of the Vikings' nine new draft picks—and numerous rookie free agents—wind up on the final 53-man roster, this could end up being the youngest team in franchise history.

    The Vikings have been very successful in the draft since 2009, with 12 players either starting or making significant contributions. Since 2007, when the Vikings selected Adrian Peterson seventh overall, every first-round draft pick has become a starter—including the departed Percy Harvin.

    With three first-round picks from the 2013 NFL draft, there will be plenty to keep an eye on as the team progresses to training camp that opens in late July. 

Who You Won't See in the OTAs

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    Last Wednesday, the Vikings announced the signings of fifth-round pick punter Jeff Locke, sixth-round pick offensive lineman Jeff Baca and seventh-round pick offensive lineman Travis Bond. 

    That leaves only the three first-round selections unsigned. Even so, don't expect Locke and Baca at the OTAs. NFL rules do not allow seniors who have been drafted to participate in organized team activities until after their class graduates.

    The Vikings' final OTA is scheduled for June 13—UCLA doesn't finish their school year until June 14—the last day of final exams.

    That means, the first time these two will interact with the most of the team will be at the mandatory minicamp from June 18-20.   

    CORRECTION. 

    In a report from Kevin Seifert's ESPN NFC North blog, Baca and Locke have already graduated and will be able to participate at the Vikings' OTAs. 

How Well Do Repaired Knees Hold Up?

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    It will be very interesting to see how well a couple of players with a history of knee injuries perform in the upcoming OTAs, minicamp and training camp. 

    In the last two drafts, the Minnesota Vikings have used a mid- to late-round pick on players who had promising careers detoured with knee injuries. 

    Last year, it was wide receiver Greg Childs, a fourth-round draft pick from Arkansas, and this year, it's Michael Mauti taken in the seventh round.

    Childs led the Arkansas Razorbacks in receptions and receiving touchdowns as a sophomore in 2009. During his junior year, he suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, cutting his season short.

    Before the injury, he was projected as a potential first-round draft pick, but he was not as effective his senior season, catching only 21 passes for 240 yards. 

    During training camp, he tore the patellar tendon in both knees, ending his rookie season before it even got started. During the offseason, he has been working out at the Vikings' facility in Eden Prairie. According to a report from Tom Pelissero on 1500ESPN, Childs is still not 100 percent, and no timetable is being given. 

    Mauti has suffered a tear to the ACL three times—once to his right knee in 2009 and twice to his left in 2011 and again in 2012.  

    Last season, Mauti came back strong, and with 96 tackles, the second-most for the Nittany Lions. He also had four tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and led Penn State with three interceptions before another injury ended his season. 

    That injury limited his participation in the NFL Scouting Combine to the bench press, where he finished with an impressive 28 reps—the third-most in the combine. 

    Limited to some sprinting and agility drills in the upcoming OTAs, Mauti will have a tough time making the final 53-man roster—and that's assuming he doesn't suffer any setbacks in his rehabilitation. 

Erin Henderson's Transition to Middle Linebacker

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    In 2011, Erin Henderson broke into the Vikings' lineup, starting 11 games at weak-side linebacker. He lined up next to his older brother, E.J. who was the Vikings' middle linebacker that season.

    It would be the only season the brothers would start next to each other as the Vikings did not resign E.J. for the 2012 season. 

    With last year's starter Jasper Brinkley signing with Arizona, Erin is making the shift to middle linebacker, a position his brother played five of his nine seasons with the Vikings. 

    At 6'3" and 242 pounds, Erin is two inches taller than his brother and brings the same mass to the position. 

    The problem with making this move now is that, even though the Vikings return two of their three starting linebackers from last season, only one, strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway, returns to the same position. 

    Henderson is ready for the challenge and is getting tired of all the criticism. In a report from Tom Pelissero from 1500ESPN, he is ready to play angry. In the story he is quoted: 

    Coach told me all the time, "Play angry. You're too nice sometimes. Play angry." I haven't been more pissed in -- I couldn't tell you. I don't think I've ever been this pissed in my entire life, to just hear people talk about stuff that they have no idea what they're talking about.

    That could be a very good sign for the player who has averaged 75 tackles the past two seasons, according to Vikings.com. 

    The full effect of this move won't be known until the actual season begins. 

How Well Gerald Hodges Adapts to the NFL?

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    The move of Erin Henderson to middle linebacker is being made so that Gerald Hodges can take over at weak-side linebacker, a position closer to what he played at Penn State. 

    After Jasper Brinkley signed with the Cardinals, that left last year's seventh-round draft pick, Audie Cole from North Carolina State and six-year veteran backup, Marvin Mitchell as the potential replacements. 

    The Vikings selected Hodges in the fourth round with the 120th overall pick. In his final two seasons at Penn State, he finished with 215 tackles, 18.5 of them for a loss. He also defended 14 passes and had three interceptions. 

    According to his profile from Vikings.com, Hodges' most impressive trait is his pass coverage ability from the linebacker position. It will be interesting to see if he can develop into a three-down linebacker for the Vikings.

    No doubt, like most rookies, he will start at the bottom of the depth chart and need to earn his way into the starting lineup.  

Who Steps Up at Cornerback?

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    With the release of Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' most experienced cornerback is Jacob Lacey who the team signed as a free agent at the end of April.

    Lacey, an undrafted rookie who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, spent three seasons in Indianapolis where he averaged nine starts per season. Last year, he started nine games for the Detroit Lions and comes to the Vikings with 36 starts under his belt.

    Next in experience is Chris Cook, the Vikings' second-round draft pick in 2010. Having yet to participate in an entire season, Cook has started 18 games over three seasons.

    A.J. Jefferson, another undrafted rookie, signed with the Cardinals in 2010. Acquired by the Vikings in a trade before the 2012 season, he has 14 starts the last two years.

    These three total 68 starts and only seven interceptions (six of them by Lacey). Compare that to Winfield, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks, who has started 173 games and has 27 interceptions.

    The youngsters to watch as the final roster takes shape will be second-year player Josh Robinson, the Vikings' third-round pick a year ago, and one of this year's first-round picks, Xavier Rhodes.

    Robinson started six games last season as Cook was able to only play in 10 games.

    Look for head coach Leslie Frazier's first depth chart to have both Robinson and Rhodes listed as backups, making both young men earn their way to the top.  

Where Will Cordarrelle Patterson Line Up?

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    In his only season at Tennessee, Cordarrelle Patterson didn't lead the volunteers in rushing or receiving, but he was the most productive player on the field. 

    He finished second to Justin Hunter in receptions with 46 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns. He also had 25 rushes for 308 yards and three touchdowns and added another 671 yards and a touchdown on 24 kickoff returns and 101 yards and a touchdown on four punt returns.

    In total, he finished the season with 1,858 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns. It will be interesting to see if Patterson replaces Percy Harvin in returning kickoffs. 

How Well Does Joe Webb Go Back to Being a Wide Receiver?

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    The Minnesota Vikings drafted Joe Webb in the sixth round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he played quarterback. Their intent was to move him to wide receiver.

    Then during the team's OTAs and training camp, they moved him to quarterback. Webb worked his way up the depth chart to become the main backup to Christian Ponder last season.

    After a less-than-stellar appearance in the wild-card playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, the decision has been made to give him another try at wide receiver.

    The Vikings obviously like what they have in Webb.

    In his career, he has been more impressive when running the ball than passing. He has four rushing touchdowns compared to three touchdown passes, and his longest run of 65 yards surpasses his longest pass by 19 yards.

    On a positive note, at 6'4", Webb gives the Vikings a big target on the outside. Now the only question remaining is, can he catch the ball? 

Will There Be a Quarterback Controversy?

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    Is it better to be the backup on a great team, or the starter on a terrible one?

    Vikings' new backup quarterback, Matt Cassel, could provide an answer. 

    Drafted by New England in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, he spent three years backing up Tom Brady. Then in 2008, when Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record.  

    Over those four seasons the Patriots were 43-21, making the three of four years. 

    Cassel leveraged the success he had in 2008 to become the starting quarterback in Kansas City—however, the results were not as good.

    In four seasons, he finished with a 19-28 record as the Chiefs starting quarterback as Kansas City would go 23-41 over that time. 

    The Vikings signed Cassel to back up Ponder after he was released from Kansas City after acquiring Alex Smith from San Francisco

    Even though head coach Leslie Frazier has repeatedly indicated that Ponder is the starter, it will be interesting to see what happens as the offseason progresses and the regular season looms. 

Can Greg Jennings Make Christian Ponder a Better Quarterback?

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    This season holds all kinds of potential traps for quarterback Christian Ponder. With the free-agent signing of wide receiver Greg Jennings, the last potential excuse for Ponder's struggles has been eliminated.

    In his 2011 rookie season, the NFL lockout wiped out the entire slate of offseason OTAs. Last year, it was the lack of a true downfield threat at wide receiver.

    This will be Ponder's third year in the NFL. Working against him is the fact that he is a former first-round draft, and he plays in a division with quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. The expectations will be huge for Ponder to build on the Vikings' successful push to make the playoffs last season and actually lead them to a playoff win.

    A big part of that will be the chemistry that develops between Jennings and Ponder. It will be interesting to see how Ponder performs in the passing drills and if he can get the ball into the hands of the Vikings' new No. 1 receiver. 

    In order for this to be a successful combination, Jennings will need patience, and keep reminding himself he is now on the West side of the St. Croix river.