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, we will focus on the offensive line.
The Vikings figured that their offensive line would be a strength in 2014. After all, all five of their starting linemen were back for a third straight season and they figured they had one of the league’s better offensive tackle combos in former Pro Bowler Matt Kalil and big Phil Loadholt.
But offensive line play ended up being one of the team’s biggest weaknesses due to the struggles of Kalil and other starters, along with a bunch of injuries along the offensive line.
Right guard Brandon Fusco, who was rewarded with a contract extension before the season opener then was lost to a torn pectoral muscle two weeks later, was the first starter to go down. In Week 12, Loadholt, their right tackle, suffered a similar season-ending injury. Left guard Charlie Johnson, who struggled mightily in 2014, missed two games late in the season before returning for the finale.
Those injuries forced backup linemen Joe Berger, Mike Harris and Vlad Ducasse into action.
The offensive line played better late in the season, but the Vikings allowed 51 sacks on the season, the fifth-highest total in the league. Kalil was responsible for 12 of them, per Pro Football Focus.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Silver linings are a little harder to spot at this position group, but veteran center John Sullivan was solid in 2014 despite all of the moving parts around him and Fusco, who was becoming one of the league’s better right guards, will be back healthy in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: There are reasons for concern at left guard (they need to find one) and right tackle (Loadholt’s pectoral injury could sideline him until training camp), but they pale in comparison to what is up with Kalil. As a rookie, Kalil, the fourth overall pick in 2012, made the Pro Bowl and looked like a long-term answer at left tackle. He did not play as well in 2013, and after missing workouts this past spring due to offseason knee surgery, Kalil’s performance plummeted. He was one of the league’s worst tackles in pass protection and admittedly endured lapses in confidence. This spring, the Vikings must decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option to secure his services through 2016. It seemed like a no-brainer before the season, but now it will require careful consideration.
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. Sullivan, Berger, Fusco and Loadholt (barely) all earned positive marks, and Sullivan’s plus-5.6 grade was the highest among all Vikings offensive players. But only three NFL offensive tackles graded out worse than Kalil, who was a negative-29.1. Ducasse and Johnson also graded poorly at negative-14.1 and negative-12.1, respectively.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 55 — total pressures allowed by Kalil this past season, per Pro Football Focus. Only Dolphins rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James surrendered more than Kalil, who gave up 12 sacks, seven other quarterback hits and 36 hurries in 16 games.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Johnson is expected to be released, leaving an opening at left guard. Berger, Harris and Ducasse are all scheduled to become free agents. Bringing back Berger, who was solid as a replacement at center and guard, makes sense for both parties. Harris, who just turned 26, is a tougher call. And the Vikings can do better than Ducasse, who will likely be allowed to walk.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High. General Manager Rick Spielman recently said that the team has identified eight positions that need to be improved, and left guard has to be at or near the top of the list. Kalil’s struggles were compounded by the play of Johnson, and the Vikings will look to upgrade at left guard through free agency or the draft. They must also figure out what to do at the left tackle position. Kalil isn’t going anywhere, and the team will give him every opportunity to be the starter again in 2015. But it would be wise to add a reliable backup plan at his position, whether it is signing a veteran with starting experience or drafting another left tackle prospect. And with three backups becoming free agents, the Vikings will have to restock the bottom of their depth chart.
Former Vikings running back Tommy Mason, the first draft pick in franchise history, died Thursday morning in Newport Beach, Calif., at age 75.
“The entire Minnesota Vikings organization is saddened by the loss of Tommy Mason,” Vikings owner and team president Mark Wilf said in a statement. “As the team’s first-ever draft pick, Tommy played a significant role in the history of the franchise. After spending six seasons with the team, he remained a part of the Vikings family, appearing at multiple events over the past several decades. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mason family at this time.”
After a standout collegiate career at Tulane, Mason was selected first overall by the Vikings in the 1961 NFL draft. He played six seasons for the Vikings, earning three Pro Bowl nods and becoming the franchise’s first All-Pro selection in 1963.
Mason rushed for 3,252 yards and 28 touchdowns with the Vikings and caught 151 passes for 1,689 yards and 11 more touchdowns.
“Tommy was an enormous talent,” former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said in a statement. “He was a great player, a humble man and an outstanding teammate. I will always cherish the years I spent with Tommy.”
Knee injuries slowed Mason in his final seasons with the Vikings, and in 1967 he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. He played four seasons there before finishing his career with the Redskins.
“Tommy was as complete of a running back as they come,” long-time Vikings athletic trainer Fred Zamberletti said in a statement. “Because of injuries, Tommy did not have the career that he wanted to have but he was a very talented, hard-running, slashing player. He’ll always be remembered as one of the original Vikings. He will be sorely missed.”
Patrick Reusse wrote a fun profile of Mason as part of the Star Tribune’s “Where Are They Now” series in 2007. You can read that story here.
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 take a look at the tight ends.
Given offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s track record with tight ends, big things were expected of Kyle Rudolph this past season. After all, look what Turner did with guys like Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron in his previous stops. But a pair of injuries limited Rudolph to just nine games.
After Rudolph underwent sports hernia surgery in Week 3, it was up to Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison to hold down the position. Ford showed flashes as a pass-catcher and Ellison fared well as a run blocker. But neither emerged as a consistent threat for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Rudolph returned after the bye week, but it took him a while to resemble his old self. He finally busted out with seven catches for 69 yards in the Week 15, but he suffered knee and ankle injuries and wouldn’t make another catch the rest of the way.
Collectively, that trio combined for 66 catches for 697 yards and four touchdowns — not awful considering the circumstances, but not exactly the big-time production expected under Turner.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Turner will be back as offensive coordinator, and one can presume the plans for his offense won’t go up in smoke like they did in Week 2, when running back Adrian Peterson was lost for the season due to his legal issues. It also didn’t help that Rudolph was lost in Week 3. Rudolph should have a larger role in the offense in 2015, particularly in the red zone…
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: … but only, of course, if Rudolph can remain healthy enough to play. The Vikings are banking on big production from Rudolph, evidenced by the five-year, $36.5 million contract extension they gave him during training camp. But he has missed 15 total games the past two seasons due to injury, and he must stay on the field to reward them for their investment.
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. Ford was the only tight end graded in the green with a plus-4.6 grade. Ellison was slightly below average at negative-0.2. Rudolph was a negative-2.8 overall. Former Gopher MarQueis Gray graded as a negative-1.5 in limited action before he was waived.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: two — passes caught 20 or more yards downfield by Vikings tight ends, both by Ford. In 2013, when Turner coordinated the Browns offense, Cameron was targeted much more often downfield. But the Vikings in 2014 targeted one of their tight ends deep only three times.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: All three tight ends are under contract through the 2015 season.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Very low. The Vikings have three young tight ends who all bring something to the table. The key will be Rudolph staying on the field, but the position is not a priority.
It appears that the Vikings’ coaching staff will remain mostly intact for the upcoming season.
The Jaguars, who had interviewed Vikings running backs coach Kirby Wilson for their offensive coordinator opening, hired Greg Olson instead, meaning that Wilson will remain with the Vikings.
And head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters at the Senior Bowl that the team would elevate Drew Petzing to assistant wide receiver coach, replacing Klint Kubiak, who took a job at Kansas. Petzing served as a coaching assistant for the Vikings last season, his first in Minnesota.
Zimmer also said that the Vikings will extend the contracts for holdovers from Leslie Frazier’s staff, so that means wide receivers coach George Stewart and offensive line Jeff Davidson will return.
That continuity for the coaching staff should be a plus as the second year of the Zimmer era begins.
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’re going to focus on the wide receivers.
How unproductive were the Vikings’ wide receivers this past season? Across the NFL, there were 57 players — including two running backs and nine tight ends — who had more receiving yards than veteran Greg Jennings, who led the team with 742 yards on 59 catches.
Jennings had a salary cap hit of $7 million, and while he did frequent the end zone down the stretch, he didn’t perform like one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the league, which he was.
But Jennings wasn’t the only Vikings wide-out who underwhelmed. Cordarrelle Patterson, a 2013 first-round pick, failed to build on his impressive rookie year. He lost his starting job midway through the season and finished fourth on the team with just 384 receiving yards on 33 receptions.
In the second half of the season, though, the Vikings did get production from a pair of lesser-known wide receivers. Jarius Wright had 588 receiving yards and his 87-yard catch-and-run in OT gave them a thrilling win over the Jets. And Charles Johnson came out of nowhere — aka Cleveland, and the Browns’ practice squad no less — to become rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater’s top target.
Heading into 2015, there are plenty of question marks at wide receiver, a position the Vikings must address this offseason to help Bridgewater take that next step in his development.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The Vikings in recent years have spent significant resources at the wide receiver position — big bucks for Jennings and a high pick for Patterson — but it was Johnson, nabbed from the Browns’ practice squad in September, who ended up being the most productive once Patterson’s struggles created an opportunity for him. In the final seven games of the season, Johnson caught 25 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns. Was Johnson just a flash in the pan? We don’t know. But yes, there is a chance the Vikings found a diamond in the rough with this kid.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: After scoring nine total touchdowns as a rookie, Patterson was hyped as a breakout candidate by national websites and publications — including this one — for 2014. In Week 1, that hype seemed well-placed as Patterson scored on a 67-yard run in a win over the Rams. It turned out to be a mirage, as Patterson didn’t appear to make much progress, if any, as a receiver from his first season to his second. Unable to get open in large part due to a lack of attention to detail when running routes, Patterson was benched and couldn’t play his way back into a significant role. Head coach Mike Zimmer says he has an offseason plan for Patterson, which includes working with a mystery man picked by the team, but it’s on Patterson to get his career back on track.
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. Adam Thielen, who was at the bottom of the depth chart, had the highest grade at plus-1.7 overall (mostly for his run blocking, though). Jennings was merely average at 0.0. And Wright was a negative-1.9, Johnson a negative-2.7 and Patterson a negative-3.5.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 46.9 — passer rating for Vikings quarterbacks when throwing to Patterson, which ranked last among 90 qualifying receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. Patterson had just one touchdown catch and quarterbacks threw five picks when targeting him.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: All five Vikings wide receivers are under contract for 2015. The only player who could potentially be gone is Jennings, though he will probably be back after scoring four touchdowns in the final six games of the season. Jennings will have a cap number of $11 million in 2015. If the team were to cut or release him, they could free up $5 million in cap space, but they would have to eat $6 million in dead money to do it. The Vikings should at least approach him about restructuring his deal to fall in line with his declining production, but would he be receptive?
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High. Jennings’ best days are behind him, and it’s unlikely he will get to the end of that big contract. It’s too early to give up on Patterson, but I also don’t think you can assume he is going to take a big leap forward. Likewise, I don’t think you can assume that Johnson is the real deal, though he certainly could end up having staying power. Look for the Vikings to use a draft pick — potentially one in the first couple days of the draft — to add another receiver for Bridgewater. And if, say, Larry Fitzgerald is cut by the Cardinals, count on his hometown team showing interest.
|Team Irvin||7:15 PM|
|Miami||26||2nd Qtr 11:08|
|Oklahoma City||2:30 PM|
|LA Clippers||5:00 PM|
|Team Toews||4:00 PM|
|South Florida||36||2nd Half 12:21|
|Boston College||10||1st Half 7:29|
|Virginia||18||1st Half 9:41|
|Stony Brook||1:00 PM|
|St Bonaventure||1:00 PM|
|Saint Peters||1:00 PM|
|Seton Hall||2:00 PM|
|Northern Iowa||3:00 PM|
|Notre Dame||5:30 PM|
|Seton Hall||67||2nd Half 7:37|
|St Johns||63||2nd Half 3:13|
|Arkansas||35||2nd Half 11:44|
|Maine||16||1st Half 8:29|
|Vanderbilt||15||1st Half 8:16|
|Lafayette||16||1st Half 8:52|
|James Madison||1:00 PM|
|Coll of Charleston|
|William & Mary|
|Wake Forest||1:00 PM|
|(17) Florida State|
|Georgia Tech||1:00 PM|
|(22) Georgia||1:00 PM|
|Ohio State||1:00 PM|
|Northern Iowa||1:05 PM|
|(2) Connecticut||2:00 PM|
|NC State||2:00 PM|
|(7) Maryland||2:00 PM|
|Illinois State||2:05 PM|
|(14) Kentucky||3:00 PM|
|(9) Oregon State||3:00 PM|
|(13) Arizona State|
|Iowa State||3:30 PM|
|Southern Ill||3:45 PM|
|(15) Duke||4:00 PM|
|(12) North Carolina|
|(21) Minnesota||4:15 PM|
|(11) Stanford||7:00 PM|