Access Vikings

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.

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Berger as ultimate safety net allowed Vikings to strengthen defense

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated May 5th at 11:31am 302568181

Joe Berger, starting left guard.

Go ahead and say it. It won’t hurt nearly as bad as many seem to fear.

The Vikings are at peace with that possibility. And with all due respect to Charlie Johnson, a quality person who gave the Vikings all he had for four seasons, Berger is, for now, a satisfactory upgrade at left guard. He should be viewed as the security blanket who allowed the Vikings to add two key defensive starters in the first two rounds of the draft .

That’s why General Manager Rick Spielman is quick to correct people who start their left-guard questions with, “you didn’t do anything at left guard in free agency …”

Actually, he did. He re-signed Berger, an 11-year veteran with 103 games played and 38 starts at center (21), right guard (14) and left guard (3). In 2011, he started at all three spots in the same season. In 2013, he started at left guard and right guard on consecutive weeks.

“He was one of the priorities that we definitely wanted to sign back because of his versatility, because of his experience,” Spielman said. “We are going to have a very young group of guys coming up behind him, but the one guy that we really wanted to target to keep on our roster from our own UFA’s was Joe Berger.”

David Yankey, a fifth-round draft pick in 2014, is the preferred candidate to start at left guard. But no one  knows what to expect considering he wasn’t physically strong enough to be inserted into a game a year ago. And we know even less about this year’s late-round guard prospects, Tyrus Thompson and Austin Shepherd.

I asked center John Sullivan for his thoughts on Yankey’s progress. Even with a lot more insight, Sullivan seems like the rest of us who are waiting to see if the big kid can cut it on the field.

“It’s hard because you don’t want to single guys out yet,” Sullivan said. “But I will say this. Everybody is in here working incredibly hard [during the offseason conditioning program]. Guys are way stronger than they were at this time a year ago.

“We know that Yankey worked hard in the offseason with his trainer. And he looks good. But it’s about more than this. This is one component of it. But it’s April. The assessments on who’s ready to play are going to be made later. The first step is OTAs. Then you get into real football. And then decisions are made. There are plenty of variables that could change. But as of right now, I think he’s done everything he can do.”

Sullivan hasn’t practiced alongside Yankey or had a chance to see his practice tape.

“He’s a hard worker, I know that,” Sullivan said. “But in terms of breaking down his tape, the scout team analysis when they watch film is done without your starting group. So I’m not sure because I haven’t watched anything.”

Sullivan made it clear that he would welcome Berger as the starter. A year ago, Berger made nine starts at right guard. He was the second-best lineman on the team behind Sullivan. If you need numbers to back up your eyeballs, ProFootballFocus.com has them.

“I think he’s a starting-caliber player on a lot of teams in the league at either guard spot and especially at center,” Sullivan said. “So I’d be happy to play any single game next to any single opponent next to Joe Berger. I don’t know what the plan is. That’s stuff above my pay grade. But he already proved again the second half of last season that he’s more than capable of starting.”

Access Vikings mailbag: Which Vikings picks can play early, who may start at safety and guard, more

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated May 4th at 5:43pm 302465521

In case you missed it, the Vikings drafted 10 players over the weekend, keeping me busy.

I probably should have taken the afternoon off so I could stop thinking about football for a day and instead sip on a cold adult beverage or two outside in this beautiful weather. Alas, I have a serious football addiction, so I figured today was a great day for a mailbag. After all, Vikings fans have questions about how these new rookies fit in and where the team will go from here.

So let’s get to five of the best ones, and then I’ll go unplug for the rest of this lovely day.

With neither me nor the team having seen these guys on the field yet, I really only see two draft picks, on paper, competing for starting jobs and it’s the two kids you just mentioned. I think Kendricks is the best bet to start given who is ahead of him on the depth chart. Waynes is going to start at some point, too, but he will have to beat out Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson to do it in Week 1. Danielle Hunter, a third-round pick, might be able to give the Vikings something as a situational pass rusher, but the team readily admitted that he is going to be a project. To answer your question, the two players I think have a chance to make an impact in 2015 are offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The Vikings said that Clemmings could play either tackle spot, and if Matt Kalil or Phil Loadholt struggles or gets hurt, Clemmings could get a chance there. Diggs could make an impact right away as a returner, and as a receiver he should have the ability to line up at multiple positions. With all the uncertainty at that position, maybe Diggs gets an opportunity and runs with it.

I got into this topic a little in my Vikings Insider column in today’s paper. The Vikings had several needs and they had to pick and choose when to attack them, but I thought the wide receiver position was one they should have tried to address earlier (Diggs was the 20th receiver selected this year). They put off drafting offensive linemen, too, but they did well to pick up a pair of intriguing tackle prospects in Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson. There were two positions they totally ignored, though. Running back is not a need with Adrian Peterson still on the roster so it’s not like this is a big deal, but it was a deep class of ball-carriers and I thought for sure the Vikings would take a flyer on one. The other position was safety. General Manager Rick Spielman is excited about rookie free agent Anthony Harris. Maybe he can compete for a job this year. But the strong safety spot was a weakness last season and could be again in 2015.

Speaking of that safety position, Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo, the two players who started there in 2014, are back. Blanton lost his starting job to Sendejo late in the season and couldn’t reclaim it. The Vikings signed free agent Taylor Mays, who played for head coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati, but I expect he will resume that nickel linebacker role he handled for the Bengals and not seriously compete to start. The X-factor here is 2014 sixth-round pick Antone Exum, whom the Vikings converted back to safety from cornerback as a rookie. Spielman brought him up out of nowhere Saturday at his post-draft press conference and also said the team pretty much knows who Blanton and Sendejo are at this point, and I don’t think that is an argument in their favor. It sounds like the Vikings are hoping Exum seizes the job this summer.

That left guard is on the roster right now, but I have no idea who it will be. Veteran Joe Berger would probably start there if the Vikings had to play today, but ideally someone else steps up so he can slot back into his super-sub role. Spielman was complimentary of 2014 fifth-round pick David Yankey, who was not physically strong enough to compete for playing time as a rookie. He will be a player we will keep an eye on this spring. Austin Shepherd, the seventh-round pick, is going to start off as a guard and maybe they move Clemmings inside once they get a closer look at him. But right now, it looks like it is going to be a battle between Berger and Yankey for the starting job unless a capable veteran guard gets released by another team after the draft.

What’s a mailbag without an Peterson question? Peterson is still on the team after the draft, which over the past two months we have been saying was the most likely scenario. Now the question becomes whether Peterson will hold out. I wouldn’t be surprised if he skips the three-day mandatory minicamp in June to send a message. But I doubt any holdout would last deep into training camp. Peterson cares about his on-field legacy and records, and he knows he can’t afford to willingly sit out another season. As for the contract, the Vikings have absolutely no obligation to give Peterson a new deal. They already gave him a boatload of bonus money in the past and value him enough to pay him $12.75 million this season. But if the two sides can put aside their differences, it does make sense for them to redo his deal. He can get the guaranteed money in 2016 that he wants and the Vikings would avoid being right back in this situation eight months from now.

Vikings pick up fifth-year options for Kalil, Smith

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated May 5th at 12:35am 302455201

The Vikings announced this afternoon that they have picked up the fifth-year options for both of their 2012 first-round draft picks, left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith.

The options, which can only be applied to first-round picks, keep both players under team control through 2016. The options are only guaranteed for major injury, though, so hypothetically, if one or both struggles on the field, the Vikings could just cut them after the 2015 season with no penalty.

Kalil’s option for 2016 is for $11.1 million because he plays offensive tackle and because he was picked in the top 10 selections in 2012. Smith’s option will cost $5.3 million because he is a safety and he was selected after the 10th pick in the first round.

Kalil was a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012 but his level of play has plummeted the past two years.

Smith has become one of the NFL’s best young safeties and was a Pro Bowl candidate in 2014.

Last year, the first time that fifth-year options came into play under the CBA negotiated in 2011, the Vikings declined to pick up their fifth-year option on 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder. The quarterback became a free agent after the season and signed with the Raiders in March.

Fun factoids about the Vikings' 2015 draft class

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated May 4th at 11:40am 302430301

You’ve probably done plenty of research on the Vikings draft class as players, whether you read the scouting reports or watched their highlights. But you might not know much about them as people.

While covering the NFL draft at Winter Park, the Twin Cities media got to chat with all 10 picks on conference calls and we got handed a tall stack of papers with information on each of the players.

Here is a fun factoid for each of the team’s draft picks, starting with top selection Trae Waynes:

— I wrote about this in my story on Waynes for Saturday, but I’ll share it again. The cornerback broke his fibula and ankle and tore three ligaments during his senior football season in high school. But Waynes rehabbed quickly enough to finish third in the state in the 100-meter dash that spring.

— Second-round pick Eric Kendricks is a leap year baby. Asked on a conference call about being the NFL’s youngest player, the linebacker quipped, “Being five and being in the pros is definitely an accomplishment of mine. I’ve dreamt about this since I was three years old.” Good one, rookie.

— Defensive end Danielle Hunter, the team’s third-round pick, got into the sport in a strange way. In fifth grade, he decided to try to chase down a friend on roller skates. He caught the kid, whose dad happened to be a football coach. That coach soon had Hunter, who is from Jamaica, in pads.

— Fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings, a tackle, was a pretty good hoops player, enough that he got interest at the college level in that sport, too. One school offered him a chance to play football and basketball: Duke. But he chose to focus on football and signed on to play at Pittsburgh.

— MyCole Pruitt, named after his mother Colette, didn’t receive a single scholarship offer from an FBS school, perhaps because he didn’t start playing football until his freshman year of high school. The tight end wound up at Southern Illinois, where he was a two-time FCS first-team all-American.

— Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who was selected in the fifth round a few picks after Pruitt, suffered a lacerated kidney in Maryland’s win over Penn State last fall. After a brief absence, Diggs, who was one of the NCAA’s top prospects in 2012, returned to that game and nearly scored a touchdown.

— Offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson, a sixth-round pick, is 23 but already a family man. Thompson got married his redshirt sophomore year at Oklahoma and now has two children. He and his wife both come from a military background. His mother-in-law used to be a sniper in the U.S. military.

— B.J. Dubose is a 284-pound defensive tackle, but the sixth-round pick used to snag passes from Teddy Bridgewater. The Florida natives played on a 7-on-7 team together as teenagers and Dubose was a tight end. They ended up being teammates at Louisville, too, but Dubose moved to defense.

— Seventh-round pick Austin Shepherd, the former Alabama offensive tackle who still start off as a guard here, started the Austin Shepherd Foundation in 2012. Founded in memory of his girlfriend’s brother, who died of bone cancer, the foundation helps support children battling the disease.

— Outside linebacker Edmond Robinson was the first player from tiny Newberry College to ever be invited to the scouting combine. The South Carolina private liberal arts college, which plays at the Div. II level, has fewer than 1,100 students. “Everyone knows everyone,” the seventh-rounder said.

Harris, Heinicke lead Vikings' rookie free agent class

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated May 4th at 1:06pm 302370211

The Vikings have yet to announce which undrafted rookie free agents have agreed to terms with the team following the draft. But at tonight’s National Football Foundation chapter banquet in Minnesota, General Manager Rick Spielman confirmed several of their reported signings.

This year’s rookie free agent class will be highlighted by Virginia safety Anthony Harris, Notre Dame wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

Here are all of the undrafted free agents we know the Vikings have come to terms with:

Justin Coleman, CB, Tennessee

DaVaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame

Anthony Harris, S, Virginia

Taylor Heinicke, QB, Old Dominion

Jordan Leslie, WR, BYU

Gavin Lutman, WR, Pittsburg State

Bobby Vardaro, G, Boston College

This blog will be updated when the full list is announced sometime this week.

For more on the rookie free agent frenzy, read my colleague Mark Craig’s story on it.

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Miami - LP: B. Morris 4 FINAL
Washington - WP: M. Grace 6
NY Yankees - LP: C. Martin 1 FINAL
Toronto - WP: R. Dickey 3
Philadelphia - WP: A. Harang 5 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: A. Wood 2
Tampa Bay - WP: J. Odorizzi 5 FINAL
Boston - LP: C. Buchholz 1
Los Angeles - LP: C. Hatcher 3 FINAL
Milwaukee - WP: M. Blazek 4
Chicago Cubs - LP: P. Strop 9 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: M. Socolovich 10
Oakland - LP: J. Hahn 7 FINAL
Minnesota - WP: P. Hughes 8
Texas - WP: K. Kela 2 FINAL
Houston - LP: C. Qualls 1
Arizona 0 Postponed
Colorado 0
Seattle - WP: F. Hernandez 3 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: M. Shoemaker 2
San Diego - LP: T. Ross 0 FINAL
San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 2
Chicago 99 FINAL
Cleveland 92
LA Clippers 117 FINAL
Houston 101
NY Rangers 0 FINAL
Washington 1

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