Minnesota Vikings: First Impressions from Training Camp

Bill Hubbell@@billyhubbellContributor IJuly 27, 2014

Minnesota Vikings: First Impressions from Training Camp

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings training camp started with a fire alarm that was perhaps as metaphorical as it was literal on Friday morning.

    As reported by CBSlocal.com, players awoke at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning and had to evacuate their dorms as a fire alarm blared. Literally, it turned out to be a false alarm, but metaphorically it was a fitting start for a team that's performed lethargically for the last four seasons.

    There's a palpable excitement in the air in Mankato as things get underway in new head coach Mike Zimmer's first training camp. 

    A new head coaching voice combined with plenty of tense positional battles should make for a very lively and compelling Vikings training camp. When your starting quarterback position is up for grabs and your best player is trying to prove he can have a bigger role, everyone in camp is on high alert and looking to put their best foot forward to impress the new coaches.

    The Vikings' first two days of practice were in helmets and shorts, with the pads being put on Sunday. Here are some very early initial impressions from training camp and what they might mean moving forward.

The Quarterback Competition Is Very Real

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    As reported by ESPN.com's Ben Goessling in June, Vikings coaches have stated that there will be an open competition at quarterback during training camp.

    Zimmer reiterated that at the first day of training camp on Friday. Vikings.com writer Mike Wobschall quoted Zimmer as saying the following:

    "I don't have a starter in mind yet. They're going to determine who the starter is on the practice field, how they go about their business, how they perform in the preseason games."

    Cassel is penciled in as the starter to begin camp, but he and rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater have pretty much split reps through the first weekend of camp, according to Eric Edholm of YahooSports.com. Christian Ponder is getting much fewer reps and figures to be the third-stringer.

    Cassel was re-signed this offseason to be the bridge to whenever the Vikings' next starting quarterback was ready to take over. That next quarterback is Bridgewater, and the next month will go a long way toward determining when he's ready to take over. 

    Both players are saying and doing the right things as camp gets underway. Cassel is a veteran who surely understands the situation he's in: The starting job will remain his as long as he can prove he's the Vikings' best option at the position.

    Bridgewater has begun camp in an impressive fashion and quickly has the Vikings believing they have their quarterback of the future. It just remains to be seen as to when that future begins.

    General manager Rick Spielman was quoted by Matt Vensel in a profile on Bridgewater in the Star Tribune as saying:

    "He’s been extremely impressive in his approach, not only what he’s doing on the field, but what he does off the field."

    And while it might have been coach-speak hyperbole when offensive coordinator Norv Turner told Wobschall, according to NBCSports.com, that the Vikings quarterback situation was, "as good as you could ask for," the truth is they have a veteran and a rookie who will compete for the starting job and a third-stringer who's led the team to the playoffs.

    Most really good NFL teams have an established starter at the most important position on the field when training camp begins. The Vikings don't, but they're taking the smart approach to find out exactly who their starter should be.

Injuries Could Impact Roster Spots

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn didn't participate in the first couple of days of practice, according to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, but neither is injured severely, and both will be back on the field soon.

    Two other players who began camp on the sidelines, tight end Chase Ford and safety Andrew Sendejo, are by no means assured roster spots and missing time could hurt their chances of making the team.

    Sendejo is still dealing with a "lower back ailment" that limited his spring workouts but is expected back soon.

    Goessling stated that "Ford showed up to camp in a walking boot" and could miss significant time after having foot surgery. He also reported that Zimmer wasn't happy that Ford sent out a tweet about his injury just a day after the team had addressed the use of social media.

    None of that adds up very well for Ford, who hopes to join a battle for the third tight end spot with Allen Reisner and undrafted free-agent rookie A.C. Leonard. Fair or not, one of the hard truths about professional football is, especially for fringe players, "out of sight, out of mind."

    For the most part, the Vikings begin training camp very healthy, and they hope to stay that way as the players start hitting each other in earnest this week.

Adrian Peterson Is Catching Passes

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Adrian Peterson remains the Vikings' best player. Minnesota's new coaches know this, so they are trying to figure out ways to keep him on the field for as long as possible, which means getting him more involved in the passing game than he's ever been before.

    ESPN.com's Ben Goessling reported that the Vikings put an emphasis on setting up screen passes for Peterson on the second day of training camp. Zimmer knows firsthand how much of a threat Peterson can be out of the backfield, and Goessling quoted him as saying:

    There are times where he'll double-catch it a little bit, but most of the time, he's pretty darn good. People are afraid of his speed, which gives him some areas to go underneath or beat people to the perimeter. I think he'll be a good weapon.

    I think when I was in Atlanta (in 2007), he caught a (60)-yard swing pass (in his first NFL game) for a touchdown. Once he gets the ball in his hands, if it's in the open field, it's bad news.

    Vikings fans have long been frustrated with the previous staff's inability to utilize Peterson as a receiver. It raised doubts as to whether Peterson simply wasn't good as a receiver or that the coaches didn't want to add that dimension to his responsibilities. 

    Minnesota's new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, has always incorporated his backs into the passing game, and Peterson could obviously be a devastating threat given the ball in space.

    It still remains to be seen if Peterson can figure out the nuances of being a competent receiving threat out of the backfield (how long to hold a block and when and where to peel off and make himself available to the quarterback), but the fact that the Vikings' coaches are exploring the possibilities is encouraging.

Wide Receiver Adam Thielen Is Impressing

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Barring injuries or any major changes, the Vikings know who their first four receivers will be: Greg Jennings, Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright.

    What remains to be seen is who will grab the fifth receiver spot (vacated by the departed Joe Webb) and whether or not they will keep five or six receivers on their roster.

    By most accounts the leading candidate for the fifth spot entering training camp was Adam Thielen, and he's probably moved a step ahead of the other candidates after a brilliant first few days of camp.

    Thielen had the best highlight of the first day of camp, making a diving catch on a pass from Teddy Bridgewater. Vikings players are getting used to Thielen pulling off the spectacular, as Vikings.com writer Mike Wobschall reported linebacker Chad Greenway yelling out "No one's surprised!" from the sidelines.

    Thielen, who played college football at Minnesota State-Mankato, where the Vikings hold their training camp, is in a battle for the fifth receiver spot with Rodney Smith and Kain Colter, among others.

    While it's far too early to try to speculate how the competition will unfold, the guess is that Thielen's sure hands and versatility will win out in a battle with Smith and that Colter might be placed on the practice squad.

Robert Blanton Is the Early Leader at Strong Safety

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Harrison Smith will start at one of the Vikings' safety spots. Who grabs the other starting safety spot will be one of the most intense battles in training camp.

    Jamarca Sanford is the returning starter, and while he's a strong tackler who's pretty decent in coverage, his inability to generate turnovers is a concern. He's intercepted just two passes in 70 career games, and he's dropped far too many balls that could have impacted games.

    Behind Sanford on the depth chart are several players who all seem to be cut from the same cloth. Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Kurt Coleman and Andrew Sendejo are all tough players who can contribute against the run. 

    The Vikings are looking for somebody who can also make plays against the pass. 

    Those five safeties, along with rookie Antone Exum, will have the opportunity to show what they can do in training camp.

    Blanton, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling, is getting most of the early first-team reps at training camp and might be the front-runner to grab the starting spot. 

    Blanton, who played cornerback at Notre Dame in the same secondary as Smith, has been a ferocious tackler from day one with the Vikings, but he has had to work on his coverage and ball skills.

    Again, it's way too early in camp to project a starter in such a tight position race, but Blanton seems to have a new level of confidence; he might just be the guy to beat in the race for the strong safety spot.