Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, let’s take a glance at the linebackers.
We knew first-year head coach Mike Zimmer would be looking for a different style of linebacker than the Vikings had in their Cover Two days under former coach Leslie Frazier. That belief was confirmed on the first night of the draft when the Vikings selected Anthony Barr, a disruptive pass rusher from UCLA, with their first pick of the draft.
The selection of Barr surprised some because a number of draft analysts had pegged him as a better fit for a 3-4 defense. But it didn’t take long for Barr to make the Vikings look good for their selection. The rookie made a number of big plays in the first half of the season, none bigger than his walk-off touchdown in the overtime win over the Buccaneers.
The Vikings started a pair of veterans in Chad Greenway and Jasper Brinkley alongside Barr. Greenway, though, battled a few injuries — including painful broken ribs, which snapped his lengthy Ironman streak — and Father Time. Brinkley was serviceable in a run-stopping role.
Injuries to Barr and Greenway created opportunities for Gerald Hodges and Audie Cole. Both showed flashes of starting potential as reserves, but the team might again have to add talent at linebacker this offseason.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Barr was garnering NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year hype when a knee injury ended his season prematurely. While his tackling left more to be desired, Barr was a playmaker all over the field, including in coverage, which was a pleasant surprise to those outside the organization. Barr looked like a future star while filled the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three recoveries in 12 games. And while there are no guarantees, one can expect Barr to be better in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings are entering another offseason with a need at middle linebacker. Brinkley was serviceable in 2014 while playing at the league minimum, but the Vikings, not trusting him to cover, had to remove him from the field when they used their nickel package. He ended up playing just 42.5 percent of the snaps despite being a starter. The Vikings would like to have a three-down middle linebacker, giving them the flexibility to stay in their base defense more if those chose. Those guys are tough to find.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Barr led the way with a plus-9.3 grade. Cole, thanks to strong performances in Week 16 and 17, was right behind him at plus-8.7. Hodges was a plus-8.4. And Brinkley was a plus-2.5 (he was a plus-7.7 against the run). On the flip side, Greenway was a negative-15.9, the worst grade among all Vikings defenders.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 33 — defensive stops for Barr, most on the team according to PFF.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: One of the toughest decisions the Vikings must make, at least from an emotional standpoint, is whether to keep Greenway. The 32-year-old is scheduled to have a cap hit of $8.8 million in 2015, which is simply too high for his production. Greenway, who took a $1 million pay cut to remain with the team in 2014, has said he wants to finish his career with the Vikings and is willing to take another pay cut to stick around, though he does have limits for how much salary he is willing to sacrifice. Brinkley is an unrestricted free agent who could also be gone, but at the very least he could bring value as a backup.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Moderate. Led by Barr, the Vikings have some talented youngsters at the position. It’s unclear if Hodges and Cole can be full-time starters, but they certainly have earned opportunities to compete for a starting job in the offseason. Rookie outside linebacker Brandon Watts is also an intriguing prospect. But, as I wrote above, the Vikings lack a true every-down middle linebacker (yes, Cole has played some middle linebacker, but that might not be his best position in the pros). The Vikings will look to find a middle linebacker who can both defend the run and cover. That would take care of two problems: upgrading over Brinkley and finding a way to keep Greenway out of the nickel package — should he return in 2015.
Seahawks defensive tackle Kevin Williams wasn’t the only former member of the Vikings’ defensive line room to land face up looking at the sunshine of success after losing his job in Minnesota a year ago at this time.
Before talking to Williams during Seattle’s Super Bowl media day on Tuesday, we bumped into former Vikings defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who is a defensive assistant with the Patriots.
“You just want easier access than you’re getting over there with Tom [Brady],” Daly joked when he saw a familiar face approaching.
Indeed. The one-on-one did feel more comfortable than the one-on-1,000 over by Tom’s area inside the U.S. Airways Center.
Daly had two stints with the Vikings. His first one as assistant defensive line coach lasted from 2006-08. The second one as defensive line coach lasted from 2012 until Leslie Frazier and most of his staff was fired after last season.
So how did he get fired in Minnesota and end up with a model franchise making its sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
“It just kind of happened, and I’m fortunate it did,” Daly said. “I knew a couple of people on staff who knew Bill, and they had an opening. It’s funny how things work in this league. One minute, you’re out of work wondering what’s going to happen to you. The next minute, you’re standing at the Super Bowl.”
One of those connections was Patriots assistant Chad O’Shea, who had worked with Daly during his first stint with the Vikings. Another was Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, whom he worked with in St. Louis.
Daly said Tuesday that he met with Mike Zimmer before he was let go.
“I have tremendous respect for Mike and all that he has done in this league,” Daly said. “He went in a different direction, and that’s fine. That happens. It’s a business. I’m happy with where I am.”
Daly also said he had yet to connect with Williams at the Super Bowl. The two not only worked together in Minnesota, Daly, a 17-year coaching veteran, also coached Williams at Oklahoma State.
“I’m extremely happy for Kevin,” Daly said. “There’s no better guy in the league. Tremendous player, tremendous leader in the locker room. A quiet leader. I wish him the best of luck, except for on Sunday. I don’t want him to win on Sunday.”
So much for the Vikings “probably” being the frontrunner to sign wide receiver Duron Carter.
Carter, the son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter who worked out for his dad’s old team three weeks ago, reportedly will sign a contract with the Colts.
After failing to make the Vikings roster after a tryout two years ago, Carter landed in the Canadian Football League and became one of that league’s most productive receivers, catching 75 passes for 1,030 yards and seven touchdowns for the Montreal Alouettes this past season. His production and potential helped him draw the interest of NFL teams after his season ended.
The 23-year-old had recently narrowed his choices down to the Vikings and the Colts after meeting with several NFL teams over the past month.
Carter’s meeting with the Vikings, which came after his initial visit with the Colts, was on Jan. 11. After dinner with wide receivers coach George Stewart the night before, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound receiver worked out for the team at Winter Park.
“The Vikings are No. 1, but I might as well go around and see what everybody is talking about,” Carter told my Star Tribune colleague, Mark Craig, after the workout.
But apparently Carter has decided to join the Colts, who have won back-to-back AFC South titles and have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, over the Vikings.
ESPN, who employs Cris Carter, first reported that Duron Carter was finalizing a deal with the Colts.
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we will break down the safety position.
The final position battle to be won — arguably by default — at the end of training camp this past summer was the other safety spot next to Harrison Smith. The Vikings tried a few different players there, including veteran signees Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman, but head coach Mike Zimmer opted to go with Robert Blanton, despite Blanton missing a chunk of camp with an injury.
While one usually only noticed Blanton when he was getting trucked by a big running back like Eddie Lacy in the open field, Smith was impossible to miss. The third-year safety thrived in Zimmer’s scheme as a do-it-all weapon, blitzing, covering and dropping into zones. He was the only NFL defensive back with at least five interceptions and three sacks, and he added 93 tackles. Smith should have been playing in the Pro Bowl two days ago, but he did not get an invite.
Back to Blanton, the third-year safety suffered a leg injury in Week 14 and missed one game. When he returned to the lineup in Week 16, the Vikings instead started Andrew Sendejo next to Smith.
Heading into this offseason, that second starting safety spot is once again in flux for the Vikings.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Smith thrived under Zimmer and is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s very best safeties, if he isn’t there already. Smith’s play was a major factor in the Vikings improving to seventh in the NFL in pass defense last season, and he should only get better in 2015 now that he and his teammates are more comfortable with Zimmer’s scheme. But first, the Vikings have decisions to make with Smith. Picking up his fifth-year option for 2016 is a no-brainer, and signing him to a contract extension before the 2015 season would seem to be a wise move.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: The Vikings were able to get by with Blanton and then Sendejo in the starting lineup, but this remains a position that they can upgrade. More on that in a minute.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Smith was one of the league’s highest graded safeties, per their grading, with a plus-17.9 grade. Blanton was surprisingly a plus-8.8, curious because the Vikings benched him and all. Sendejo was a plus-2.7 and rookie Antone Exum was a plus-0.2 in limited action.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: seven — team-leading tackles for a loss (not including sacks) for Smith.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: The Vikings have a young group of safeties who are all 27 or under. Sendejo is the only one who is not on his rookie deal anymore, but he is still under contract for 2015. So all of these guys are safe — at least until final roster cuts at the end of the preseason.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Pretty high. I’m sure the Vikings can do worse than Blanton or Sendejo (or Exum, who remains an unknown at this point) next to Smith, but they can also do a lot better. Finding a rangy safety to pair with Smith would allow them to keep him closer to the line, where he can cause problems as a run defender and pass rusher when he isn’t dropping into coverage. There are some intriguing (and perhaps expensive) options scheduled to reach free agency, led by Devin McCourty and Rahim Moore. Drafting a safety is also an option, of course.
So you’re Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. Would you rather …
A, Go to U.S. Airways Center and sit for an hour as reporters and freak shows — sometimes one in the same, mind you — badger you with even more questions about deflated footballs and your suspected roles in said deflation during the annual Super Bowl Media Day lunacy.
B, Move kickoff up five days, drive out to Glendale and face what could go down in history as one of the best, if not the best, defenses the league has ever seen.
Option B isn’t available, so the Patriots quarterback and coach — barring last-minute advice from Marshawn Lynch — will face the media. Again.
Before the Access Vikings blog heads down the street, probably wearing shorts, although it could be a tad chilly at 60 or so, we thought we’d share the thoughts of a fairly prominent ex-Viking who was known to throw a few passes in his day.
And, yes, add Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton to the list of people who don’t believe pretty much anything Brady or Belichick has been saying as they’ve categorically denied any involvement or knowledge of the Patriots using deflated footballs in the first half of their AFC Championship game win over the Colts.
Q: What are your thoughts on `Deflate-gate,’ Fran?
A: “This has been going on for a lot of years. We always rubbed the balls down and got them ready when I played. But we didn’t, in my era, deflate the balls. When you deflate the balls, it’s easier to throw it and easier to catch it. And you don’t fumble as much.
“It is wrong. And the NFL has said nothing. Nothing.”
Q: Do you think Brady
ordered the co de red! had anything to do with it?
A: “The thing that I know is that when we would get the slickness off the footballs, I touched every ball before the game. I was in charge of that. They didn’t rub the footballs more than I wanted or less than I wanted. I took charge of that. Today, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, all those guys, I guarantee they make sure those footballs are exactly how they want them.
“Nobody put a needle in that ball to reduce the air out of it without Tom Brady telling them what he wants. Without him instructing it. Impossible to do. Not going to happen.”
Q: What did you think of his press conference last week then?
A: “I think it was a typical NFL press conference. They had coached him and coached him what to say. And I would say the league office was involved with that press conference. They haven’t addressed the issue. Nobody has identified who was responsible. This is a typical NFL coverup. And they aren’t going to say anything about it until after the Super Bowl because how will the Super Bowl be with Belichick and Brady being suspended. I don’t think it would be too good.”
Q: Are you surprised?
A: No. Not when you see what goes on in the league. Here’s the thing that is the most massive coverup of all time. One that nobody talks about in the NFL. Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) gives guys an edge and they are rampant in the National Football League. And who do you know that talks about it? Nobody.”
|New England||2/1/15 5:30 PM|
|William & Mary||100|
|South Dakota St||86|
|San Jose St||52|
|San Jose St||80||FINAL|
|San Diego State||50||FINAL|
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