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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Spielman's trust in Zimmer's staff evident in Vikings draft

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated May 6th at 12:45pm 302773081

The Vikings draft class finished with the ideal number of selections, 10, for general manager Rick Spielman. Once you take a quick scan at all 10 players, it’s telling what Spielman thinks about head coach Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff.

They can teach. They can develop. They can mold young, raw talent.

The Vikings roster didn’t have any pressing needs heading into the NFL Draft. You could argue they needed to find a starting left guard, but they have a solid veteran option in Joe Berger. None of these players will be forced to start in Week 1, though they will all get the opportunity to snag a starting spot during training camp.

That gives the Vikings coaching staff time to do what it does best — develop.

“I think when you get down, especially into the third day, that if they have the tools that these coaches can work with, they don’t have to come in and be immediate impact player right away,” Spielman said. “Some of these guys may not make our roster, but be great practice squad guys, guys that we have time to develop.”

Outside of the Vikings’ first and second round picks, cornerback Trae Waynes and linebacker Eric Kendricks, the other eight prospects are fairly raw. However, they all possess something the Vikings can’t teach in terms of size, speed, athleticism or versatility.

Defensive end Danielle Hunter, the Vikings’ third round pick, is the most athletic Vikings draft pick in this class. He’s not ready to play immediately, but Hunter, 20, possesses all four of those unteachable qualities. Meanwhile, offensive lineman Austin Shepherd, a seventh round pick, is likely the least athletic Vikings draft pick. Shepherd, however, does have the size, listed at 6-4 and 315 pounds, and versatility along the offensive line that would be appealing with a late round pick.

“As long as they have the traits and the athletic skill set that can play at this level, yet may not be totally polished to where they are going to be and they have upside, I’ll take those guys every day of the week,” Spielman said. “That’s how much belief I have in this coaching staff in developing guys.

Zimmer looked for teachers on his coaching staff that would stress the fundamentals and proper technique at each position as much as he would. It’s only been a year, but it’s clear to see how some of the Vikings young talent improved under Zimmer’s watch.

The defensive line is the Vikings’ biggest strength due to the development of defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Shamar Stephen under defensive line coach Andre Patterson. Xavier Rhodes flashed his potential as a No. 1 cornerback with Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray constantly working on his technique last summer. Heck, even Josh Robinson made strides at the position.

Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer prepared Anthony Barr to start in Week 1 when many, like myself, thought the rookie was too raw to make an immediate impact after playing linebacker for only two years at UCLA.. Now, Barr appears to be a cornerstone piece on the Vikings defense for years to come.

Wide receiver Charles Johnson went from a practice squad player on the Browns to the team’s No. 1 option under wide receivers coach George Stewart.

And of course, there’s some guy named Teddy Bridgewater the Vikings drafted to be the franchise quarterback. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner did a good job developing Bridgewater into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL during the final month of the season.

It’s no wonder why Spielman has complete confidence in the coaching staff. It’s functioning exactly how Spielman and Zimmer envisioned it would last winter.

Now the Vikings have more projects at hand with the latest draft class, and they still have work to do with some of last year’s rookies that essentially had a redshirt season (Yankey, safety Antone Exum and defensive end Scott Crichton). There’s also work to be done with Cordarrelle Patterson, who needs to take the next step in his third season, but you can see the ability this coaching staff has as teachers in Year 1.

Many think that the organization’s success is dependent on Bridgewater’s progress, but that’s only part of the story. Given the trust Spielman has for Zimmer and his staff, the organization’s success hinges on the coaching staff. It has to continue to develop these raw, athletic prospects into serviceable players in order for the Vikings to have any sustainable success in the Zimmer era.

Old Dominion quarterback among Vikings UFA signings

Posted by: Chris Miller Updated May 5th at 6:41pm 302627941

Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke was among 10 undrafted free agents signed by the Vikings as they prepare for this weekend’s rookie minicamp.

The other are Virginia safety Anthony Harris, Notre Dame receiver DaVaris Daniels, Brigham Young receiver Jordan Leslie, Tennessee cornerback Justin Coleman, Iowa State center Tom Farniok, Pittsburg State receiver Gavin Lutman, Boise State fullback Blake Renaud, Saginaw Valley State guard Jesse Somsel and Boston College guard Bobby Vardaro.

Heinicke told the Virginian-Pilot that he was with his family in Atlanta on Saturday, watching the draft, when the Vikings called in the seventh round to say they hoped to sign him as a priority free agent. Heinicke’s contract is not guaranteed, but would be worth $1.3 million over three seasons if he sticks with the team.

Heinicke, 6-1 and 214 pounds, passed for 14,959 yards, sixth most in Division I history, and 132 touchdowns. Teddy Bridgewater, Sean Hill and Mike Kafka are the other quarterbacks on the Vikings roster.

“I can say I’m an NFL quarterback,” Heinicke told the Virginian-Pilot. “Now I have to go out and prove it.”

Harris missed the Senior Bowl because of a shoulder injury, but ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. The 6-1, 185-pounder had 11 interceptions at Virginia.

Daniels, 6-2 and 203, sat out last season at Notre Dame because of academic issues. He had 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. He is the son of former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels.

Leslie, who started his college career at Texas-El Paso, had 55 catches for 779 yards for BYU last season. The 6-3 Leslie led UTEP in receptions in 2013, and got his degree in electrical engineering there before playing for BYU as a grad student.

Coleman, 5-10 and 183, started 38 games and had five interceptions during his career at Tennessee. Farniok, 6-3 and 301, started 47 games for Iowa State and was considered one of the nation’s top centers.

Lutman, 6-4 and 210, caught 13 touchdowns passes for Pittsburg, which lost to Minnesota State Mankato in the Division II playoffs, last season.

Renaud, 6-2 and 255, was the ninth-leading tackler for Boise State last season, but the Vikings project him as a fullback.

Somsel, 6-4 and 315, started three seasons for Saginaw Valley. Vardaro, 6-5 and 310, had 43 career starts for BC.

Vikings will have stiff competition at wide receiver

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated May 6th at 8:25am 302609831

The Vikings didn’t select a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft, passing on someone like Louisville’s DeVante Parker on Thursday. They didn’t pick one on Day 2 either, as names like Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong and Georgia’s Chris Conley came off the board on Friday.

Instead they waited until the fifth round, with the 146th overall pick, to add depth to the position on Saturday. The team’s patience paid off with the selection of Maryland’s Stefon Diggs.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman wants competition at every position on the roster, and it’ll be hard to find another position as competitive as wide receiver heading into Phase 2 of the NFL offseason this summer.

“[Diggs] was a guy, that when we got there at that point, he can do so many things,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “He’s played outside, he’s played in the slot, he’s done some return stuff but probably had a little bit of a year that was down for him and his standards. The multiple things that he can do, and again, any time we see an athlete and ability to develop these guys, and we felt that he’d fit right in that mold.”

The Vikings now have Mike Wallace, who they acquired from the Dolphins this offseason, Charles Johnson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen and Diggs at wide receiver. They’ll likely carry five wide receivers once the roster is trimmed to 53 players (all of that will be determined in training camp). But if the Vikings keep five receivers like they did last year, one of these players will be the odd man out after five preseason games.

Good luck to the Vikings front office and coaching staff if it comes down to that decision.

It’s tough to even assume how it’ll play out in training camp outside of Wallace and Johnson, who are considered the top two receivers on the team. We all know it’s a big season for Patterson, who arguably has the most talent of the six receivers, and he needs to take that next step in Year 3. Wright has displayed flashes, particularly at the end of the season with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, as a downfield threat and a slot receiver that can move the chains. Thielen didn’t receive too many opportunities on offense, finishing with eight catches on 14 targets for 137 yards last year, but he was very impressive on special teams.

Now the Vikings add Diggs to the mix. He was the 19th wide receiver picked in a deep draft at the position. Diggs brings speed and versatility on offense with the ability to be used on special teams. Diggs had 62 catches for 792 yards and five touchdowns last year as a junior. He also averaged 23.9 kickoff yards and 15 punt return yards on special teams.

There are questions about his durability, but Diggs was a viewed as a good value pick in the fifth round by draft analysts.

“I’m a play maker and a dominant competitor,” Diggs said. “Outside of the game, on the practice field and in the game no matter where I am, I like to compete at all costs and I love to win. So that’s the type of attitude I bring to any situation. Now that I am a part of the family, I look forward to working my butt off and doing everything I can.”

We’ll see how it plays out in the coming months, but it’ll be a good competition to watch this summer.

Berger as ultimate safety net allowed Vikings to strengthen defense

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated May 5th at 4:56pm 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.

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