Minnesota Vikings: Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Each Rookie
July can be a queasy month for most NFL rookies.
You've either been drafted or signed on as a free agent, and you're about to embark on your first-ever NFL training camp. For some, it will also be their last.
You're more than likely coming from a college football program where you were accustomed to being one of the top players on the field every time you snapped on your chin strap.
If you're a Minnesota Vikings rookie, you are now stepping on the same field with the likes of Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Harrison Smith. Your days of knowing that you were better than everyone else are long gone. You're in the big time now.
Whether you were drafted or not, your anxiety level will be pretty high when the Vikings gather for training camp on July 25 in Mankato, Minnesota. You want to impress everyone around you, and the best way to do that is to always be on time, to always give maximum effort and to listen and learn as much as possible.
If you're a highly touted rookie, there are going to be a lot of eyes on you all the time. If you're an undrafted nobody, you're going to have to do something impressive to get anyone to look at you at all.
With training camp now less than a month away, we take a look at what the reasonable expectations are for every Vikings rookie and what their futures might hold.
Linebacker Anthony Barr
Vikings rookie linebacker and first-round pick Anthony Barr will be in the starting lineup when the Vikings open the regular season in September.
At 6'5", 255 pounds with speed and athleticism to spare, Barr could develop into a difference-making linebacker who Minnesota fans haven't seen since Matt Blair.
There is no doubt that Barr is still raw. He's only been a linebacker for two seasons after beginning his career at UCLA as a running back. He was certainly an impact player for the Bruins over the last two years, collecting 23.5 sacks, but he was only sixth on the team in tackles in 2013.
Making Barr's learning curve even steeper during his rookie season is that the Vikings will use him in a variety of different ways. He'll line up as an edge-rusher on plenty of snaps, where he can use his size and speed to get to the quarterback. He'll also be counted on in coverage at times and be expected to pitch in against the run as well.
Barr just might get more attention from head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards at training camp than any other player on the field. Barr is going to have to learn a lot, and he's going to make his share of mistakes along the way.
Minnesota needs Barr to be a difference-maker early on. He's going to have to learn on the job, which isn't ideal, but Barr has the physical skills and football pedigree to handle it.
You certainly hope that any player you draft in the top 10 will ultimately be an All-Pro. Barr will struggle at times in his rookie year, but he'll also make some big plays that will excite everyone about his future.
Linebacker Brandon Watts
Linebacker Brandon Watts is a seventh-round pick out of Georgia Tech who faces an uphill battle to make the Vikings roster out of training camp.
A standout in college, Watts brings speed and versatility to a Minnesota linebacker corps that surely needs both. A heady player, Watts spent time as a punt-gunner in college, and he'll have to prove to the Vikings that he can be a contributor on special teams to have any chance of making the team.
Watts' biggest problem heading into camp is that he's a linebacker trapped in safety's body. Just 6'0", 231 pounds, Watts will have to prove that he can negate his lack of size with speed and tackling ability. He'll have to prove that he won't be physically overwhelmed at the NFL level.
Watts will get a long look from the Vikings as they sorely need to upgrade their speed on defense. Look for Watts to make the team and be a contributor on special teams in his rookie season.
Running Back Jerick McKinnon
The Vikings' third-round pick, running back Jerick McKinnon, can do a little bit of everything, and the Vikings are hoping that he can develop into a change-of-pace back who can spell Adrian Peterson on occasion.
At 5'9", 209 pounds, McKinnon has neither the size nor the speed to be an every-down back in the NFL. What he does have though, is football savvy, having played quarterback in high school and doing a little bit of everything in college at Georgia Southern.
If McKinnon can prove he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield and do enough as a runner when given the opportunity, he can wrest the backup running back job away from Matt Asiata. Asiata is likely the better short-yardage back and a better blocker, so there may be snaps for both of them.
McKinnon should have no trouble making the roster, and his playing time as a rookie might depend on whether or not Peterson can be effective as a receiver out of the backfield.
Cornerbacks Kendall James and Jabari Price
There's good news and bad news for Vikings rookie cornerbacks Kendall James and Jabari Price.
The good news is that they're the only two rookie corners who will be in camp, and after Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn, the competition will be wide open for the remaining cornerback spots.
The bad news is that there are seven other cornerbacks who will be in camp, and as late-round picks, there may only be enough room for one of them to win a job with the Vikings.
Both James and Price are 5'10", and Price weighs 200 pounds to James' 180. Price was used as a gunner in college, so he may have an advantage over James as a special teams contributor.
By most accounts, James is the better athlete of the two, and if he can prove that he can make plays on the ball in pass defense, there will be a spot for him in Minnesota, who is desperate for playmaking corners.
As sixth- and seventh-round picks, normally we'd consider both to be long shots to make the team, but the truth is that they join an open competition at corner in Minnesota. Anyone who proves they can defend the pass against NFL quarterbacks and receivers will be given a long look.
We'll give the slight advantage heading toward camp to James, as he was drafted higher and is reported to be a bit of a better athlete.
Guard David Yankey
Stanford guard David Yankey might have been a little apprehensive watching himself drop during the NFL draft, but he couldn't have landed in a better spot than Minnesota.
Projected by most as a second- or third-round pick, Yankey fell to the Vikings in the fifth round, but he'll immediately be thrust into a battle for the starting left guard spot, where incumbent starter Charlie Johnson was the weakest link on Minnesota's offensive line.
At 6'6", 315 pounds, Yankey has ideal size and leg strength to be a solid starting guard in the NFL. Like most Stanford grads, Yankey is a bright kid who started on the excellent Cardinal offensive line for three years and was a captain last season.
Yankey has a pretty high ceiling and could end up being a late-round steal for the Vikings. Not only will he make the team, but he'll join Johnson and second-year man Jeff Baca in a battle for the starting role.
Offensive Tackle Antonio Richardson
Not only was Antonio "Tiny" Richardson the biggest surprise among the names not called in May's draft, but he was perhaps the biggest person not drafted as well.
The Vikings may have hit the jackpot when they got a signature from Richardson as an undrafted free agent. With a 5.6 predraft grade, Richardson was the highest-rated player to go unselected, and he was ranked higher than 34 offensive linemen who were picked.
At 6'6", 330 pounds, Richardson is a huge offensive tackle who could immediately take on the role of first backup for both Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt on the Vikings depth chart.
Richardson's draft fall is traced back to many teams being scared off by what they perceived as knee issues, but Richardson, as reported by Brian Hall of FoxSports.com, is out to prove everybody wrong.
While Richardson did have minor knee surgery in January of 2013, he played in every game in all three of his seasons at Tennessee and started every game in his last two.
Richardson was seen as every bit as good as his right tackle counterpart at Tennessee, Ja'Wuan James, who was selected in the first round by the Miami Dolphins.
The hope for the Vikings is that Richardson becomes one of those players who, three or four years down the road, nobody can believe went undrafted.
Richardson will be a high-quality backup for the Vikings in 2014.
Defensive Tackle Shamar Stephen
Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was projected as a third-round pick who fell all the way to the Vikings in the seventh round.
Many scouts seemed to think that Stephen played too lethargic at Connecticut and wondered if he has the competitiveness to make it in the NFL.
He sounds like the perfect project for new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.
At 6'5", 310 pounds, Stephen has great size and is viewed as a very good athlete for someone so big. If he can prove he has the desire to make a living playing football, Stephen will be right in the mix for a backup defensive tackle spot with Fred Evans, Tom Johnson, Chase Baker and Kheeston Randall.
With Stephen's size and athleticism, he was certainly worth a seventh-round pick. He could be another really good late-round pick for the Vikings in 2014.
Defensive End Scott Crichton
The Vikings said goodbye to an all-time pass-rushing great in Jared Allen this offseason.
They hope that move is softened a bit by the arrival of third-round pick Scott Crichton, a defensive end out of Oregon State who has the potential to be a high-volume sack guy in the NFL.
At 6'3", 273 pounds, Crichton combines good size and speed with a tenacious effort and strong hands that make him an ideal pass-rusher. Crichton was prone to making big plays for the Beavers—his 10 forced fumbles are a school record, and his 22.5 sacks are the third-most recorded in school history.
Crichton should have an immediate impact at Vikings training camp and is expected to battle veteran Corey Wootton to be the third defensive end in a rotation with starters Brian Robison and Everson Griffen.
Crichton certainly seems to have a higher ceiling than Wootton, and if he can pick up the nuances of rushing the passer at the highest level early in camp, he should be able to earn himself plenty of snaps in the Vikings defense. At the very least, look for him to be a solid contributor on special teams.
Tight End A.C. Leonard
Tight end A.C. Leonard is the perfect type of player to take a chance on as an undrafted free agent.
At this point in his career, he's a one-dimensional player, but his upside in that dimension is extremely high. For a tight end, Leonard is extremely fast, has very good hands and is a good runner after the catch.
Teamed with offensive guru and new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Leonard could turn out to be a true gem for Minnesota.
Highly recruited out of high school, Leonard spent his freshman season at Florida before transferring to Tennessee State after an arrest at Florida.
Leonard's 4.50-second 40-yard dash at the combine was the fastest among tight ends, and his 1.51 10-yard split was equally impressive.
With a red flag in his past, the Vikings will certainly keep a close eye on Leonard during training camp and look for signs of maturity. Teams don't like to spend a lot of money on players who may be character risks, so that will obviously play into how Leonard is evaluated.
Leonard will be the worst blocker among the five tight ends the Vikings have at training camp, but if he can prove to be at least an adequate blocker and his ability to get open and catch is overwhelming, he's got a great shot at sticking with the team.
A player with as high of a ceiling as Leonard might be the perfect candidate for the practice squad.
Wide Receiver Kain Colter
Like it or not, the NFL has become a pass-happy league over the last decade. Rule changes making it tougher on defenders combined with offenses getting more complex have led to record passing numbers, as detailed by FoxSports.com's Reid Forgrave in this article.
With five-receiver sets and defenders unable to impede routes the way they used to, a new type of successful NFL receiver has emerged: smart, super-quick players with good hands who can line up in the slot and find ways to get open right after the snap and then gain three to five more yards after the catch.
You might know them as slot receivers. Wes Welker has been the most successful at it, and now nearly every team is looking for their own version of him.
Enter rookie free agent Kain Colter of the Minnesota Vikings. Colter is a very athletic player who played all over the field at Northwestern, from quarterback, to running back to receiver.
He'll be a receiver in the NFL, and he seems to be tailor-made to excel out of the slot. As a former quarterback, he's a student of the game and quickly understands defensive formations and schemes. At 6'0", 195 pounds, he's not going to outmuscle many defenders, but he'll be able to get open and get quick yards in the manner of the best slot receivers.
Colter will certainly have his hands full transitioning full time to receiver at the highest level. The Vikings have good depth at receiver, and Colter may find himself in a battle with Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith for the fifth receiver spot.
Like Leonard, Colter might be a very good candidate to end up on the Vikings practice squad.
Safety Antone Exum
The Vikings know that Harrison Smith will be their starting free safety. Who will be the starter opposite Smith at the strong safety spot? That's going to be one of the fiercest battles in training camp, with five different players possibly getting a crack at winning the job.
Returning for Minnesota are starter Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo. All of them are similar players—strong tacklers who are tough against the run but leave a little to be desired against the pass.
One of the biggest faults with the Vikings defense over the last five years has been the inability of its defensive backs to come up with interceptions.
The Vikings drafted Antone Exum in the sixth round, and he'll be thrown into the mix at safety after playing both corner and some safety in college. At a very solid 6'0", 215 pounds, the muscular Exum should have no problem with the physical part of the game.
Where he might be able to separate himself from the other strong safety candidates is his ability to defend the pass. The phrase that should jump out at Vikings fans from Exum's NFL.com predraft scouting report is "very good body control and ball skills."
There are certainly a ton of players between Exum and a starting job, but if he can prove that he's a better pass-defender than the guys on hand, he'll get plenty of playing time as a rookie.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy Bridgewater is the future at quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.
The only question now is when that future might begin. As Ben Goessling with ESPN.com reports, the Vikings have stated that they have a three-man competition for the starting job between Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Bridgewater.
That's exactly how the Vikings should be portraying their quarterback scenario. The truth is that the starting job is a two-man race between Cassel and Bridgewater.
The job will be Cassel's as camp opens, and unless Bridgewater is clearly the better option, Minnesota will probably choose to start with Cassel at the helm and give Bridgewater a little time to acclimate to the NFL.
Bridgewater isn't a guy who has needed much time to acclimate at any level. He was a three-year starter at a powerhouse high school in Miami and took over the starting role at Louisville four games into his freshman season.
Bridgewater spent the better part of a year being talked about as one of the top two or three players available in the 2014 draft and only began to slide down boards after a disappointing pro day. The Vikings traded up to be able to draft him with the last pick of the first round.
Reading Bridgewater's predraft scouting report on NFL.com, you can't help but think that perhaps the best comparison is Drew Brees. Bridgewater is a kid who lives and breathes football. Preparation and commitment to the job are never going to be a problem.
The Vikings are set up quite nicely heading toward the 2014 season at quarterback. If Bridgewater wins the job in camp, they can trot him out on opening day and have a seasoned veteran in Cassel as the backup. If Cassel wins the job, Bridgewater can be groomed to take over whenever the coaches see fit.
Everyone just hopes he works out better than the last No. 5 who played quarterback in Minnesota.
The Long Shots
Wide Receivers: Donte Foster and Erik Lora
Running Back: Dominique Williams
Offensive Tackles: Pierce Burton and Matt Hall
Center: Zac Kerin
Guard: Austin Wentworth
Defensive Tackle: Isame Faciane
Defensive Ends: Rakim Cox, Tyler Scott and Jake Snyder
Linebacker: Mike Zimmer
You wouldn't be going that far out on a limb if you guessed that those 12 guys won't be around with the Vikings come September.
They're the long shots, the guys brought to camp to fill out the field, hold dummies and bring a sense of competition to the proceedings.
One thing that you can be guaranteed of, though, is that none of those 12 will be entering camp with that mindset. All these guys could ever ask for is a shot, and they're about to get one.
You never know when you might turn somebody's head. String together a couple of strong practices and a position coach might catalogue it and keep you in mind when it's time to decide who stays and who is sent packing.
Football is a sport that's full of injuries, so you never know when you might get your shot in camp, so these guys will have to approach each practice like it's their last opportunity.
One or two of these guys might surprise everybody and make the roster. There is more than a good chance that one or two might at least get placed on the practice squad.
Auditions begin July 25, and every one of those guys will be ready to put their best foot forward.