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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Vikings offseason snapshot: the wide receivers

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 21st at 1:01pm 289309241

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.

Vikings offseason snapshot: the running backs

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 21st at 7:20am 289162321

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 tackle the running backs.

The running back position figured to be the least of the Vikings’ worries heading into 2014, but it quickly became their biggest headache when perennial Pro Bowl back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse down in Texas two days before their second game of the season.

Peterson would not suit up again in 2014, leaving a sizable void in the backfield as offensive coordinator Norv Turner had built his offense around Peterson and the power running game. Matt Asiata got the first crack at replacing Peterson, but after a few starts the team went with rookie Jerick McKinnon, a more explosive athlete. McKinnon surprised by rushing for 4.8 yards per carry. But after 538 yards on 113 carries, he was lost for the season with a back injury.

The Vikings finished the season out with a three-man committee of Asiata, Joe Banyard and Ben Tate, whom the team claimed off waivers from the Browns and then released a few weeks later.

The Vikings ranked a respectable 11th in the NFL with 4.4 yards per carry without Peterson. But the 29-year-old was missed, and his uncertain future will be the story of the offseason.

ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Questions remain about McKinnon’s ability to be an every-down runner, but the third-round pick out of Georgia Southern showed that at the very least he is capable of playing a large role in a backfield committee, an approach the Vikings could soon adopt. He has the wheels to get to the outside and he can be a receiving weapon out of the backfield. He also showed at times that he may have the willingness and power to run between the tackles some, too.

ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: It’s a big one. The Peterson era in Minnesota may be over, and it has more to do with his contract than his legal issues. Both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have said they would like to have Peterson back in 2015. But Peterson, who turns 30 in a few months, will carry a cap hit of $15.4 million, a league-high for running backs. And in an ESPN interview he scoffed at the suggestion that he take a pay cut to remain with the Vikings. Can he and the Vikings find common ground? Or is Peterson ready for a fresh start elsewhere?

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. There was a lot of red when looking at these backs. Asiata had one of the NFL’s lowest grades at negative-10.0. McKinnon was a negative-1.6 (mostly due to a poor grade in pass protection). Tate was a negative-1.3. And Peterson was a negative-0.2 in one game. Banyard led the tailbacks with a plus-1.9 grade in limited action. Fullback Jerome Felton was a plus-3.7.

STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 336 — yards after contact for Asiata. That means 234 of his 570 yards came before contact, an average of just 1.43 yards before contact per carry for the plodding back.

POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: If Peterson does return to the team in 2015, he will be lining up behind a new lead blocker. Felton, seeing the writing on the wall, has said that he plans to opt out of his contract next month to become a free agent. Felton is a good blocking fullback who should find work elsewhere, but $2.5 million would have been a lot to pay for a player at a position used sparingly.

OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High, if Peterson does not return. McKinnon showed promise and the Vikings like Asiata because he is a selfless player who can do a bunch of things for them. But as we saw in 2014, losing Peterson would leave a sizable void. If the Vikings need to replace Peterson, look for them to do it in the draft. Spielman recently remarked that there are a lot of talented running backs in this draft class, and from a value standpoint, it makes more sense for the Vikings to spend a pick on a young back instead of shelling out cash for a veteran with more tread on his tires.

Vikings offseason snapshot: the quarterbacks

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 23rd at 7:02am 289037711

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 start with the quarterbacks.

The Vikings entered training camp last July with three quarterbacks and little certainty as to which one would start the season behind center. The team two months prior had selected Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick in the draft, and inconsistent veterans Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder returned. Head coach Mike Zimmer declared that it would be a three-way camp competition, but if Ponder was actually in the race, he quickly dropped out of contention.

Cassel, who arrived in Mankato atop the depth chart, kept hold of the starting gig with a sharp camp and preseason. But after an efficient performance in Week 1 and a four-interception afternoon in Week 2, Cassel was lost for the season with a fractured foot in Week 3. The Bridgewater era began.

As is expected of rookies, Bridgewater was up and down early, the lowest point probably being the five total interceptions he threw in back-to-back losses in October. But Bridgewater showed steady improvement and threw at least one touchdown pass in his final 10 games to finish his first season as a pro with 2,919 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and an impressive 6-6 record as a starter.

Needless to say, there will be no quarterback competition this summer. The job is Bridgewater’s.

ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: By playing with poise in spite of a subpar supporting cast without suspended running back Adrian Peterson, Bridgewater gave hope that he could be the long-term solution at quarterback. And the fact that offensive coordinator Norv Turner plans to stick around for a couple more seasons bodes well for Bridgewater as he strives to blossom as a young passer.

ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: Bridgewater threw 12 interceptions in his 12 starts, including three games with multiple interceptions. To be fair, at least a couple of those interceptions ricocheted off a receiver first. But Bridgewater will be looking to cut down on the turnovers in his second season.

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. Bridgewater led the way with a plus-4.5, which ranked 15th among all NFL quarterbacks. Cassel graded as a negative-7.5 in three starts. Ponder was a negative-4.4 in one.

STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 64.4 — completion percentage for Bridgewater, third all-time among rookies. Only Ben Roethlisberger and Robert Griffin III completed a higher percentage as rookies.

POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Ponder is a goner after four seasons in Minnesota. He never lived up to his draft position, but it seems likely that another NFL team will believe it can coax better play out of him. Cassel is expected to be back as the backup despite a $4.75 million cap number in 2015.

OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Low. The Vikings look to be in pretty good shape with Bridgewater and Cassel, an above-average backup option. But they may look to add a third QB to replace Ponder given Turner’s stated preference of carrying three. That passer would likely profile as a developmental type, whether he is a late pick, an undrafted free agent or an inexperienced young veteran like Pat Devlin, who will be around this spring after finishing 2014 on the practice squad.

Craig: Today's conference title picks

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated January 19th at 7:10am 288969911

One man’s opinion on how today’s NFL action will play out …

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

NFC

Packers plus-7 ½ at Seahawks: Seahawks by 10

Why?: The Packers lost by 20 in Seattle with Aaron Rodgers’ mobility at full strength. Granted, that was back in Week 1. A lot has changed since them. But, if anything, Seattle is playing even better defensively the past seven games (56 points allowed) than it was in Week 1. Rodgers won’t be able to get away with having the bum left calf against a defense that’s much better than what he saw at home against Dallas last week.

AFC

Colts plus-6 ½ at Patriots: Patriots by 14

Why?: Bill Belichick has outcoached the Colts in recent meetings, including a 42-20 regular-season win this season, and he’ll do it again. The Colts aren’t sure what to expect. Will they see the team that bludgeoned them with the run during the regular season? Or will they see the team that ran for only 14 yards in beating the Ravens last week? Belichick and his defense also won’t allow a one-dimensional Colts offense to beat them. Colts QB Andrew Luck is good, but not good enough at this point in his career to outmaneuver Belichick at New England with the Super Bowl on the line.

DIVISIONAL ROUND

Record: 3-1. Versus spread: 3-1.

WILD-CARD ROUND

Record: 1-3. Versus spread: 2-2.

Final Regular-season Record: Last week/overall: 12-4/146-90-1. Versus spread: Last week/overall: 9-6-1/125-111-1.

Spielman on Zimmer: 'I thought he did a great job'

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated January 16th at 11:04am 288829951

We’ll preface this blog post with an asterisk to acknowledge that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his hand-picked head coach, Mike Zimmer, are still in that wonderful Kumbaya happy place that all general managers and hand-picked head coaches frolic during their NFL honeymoon periods.

Sometimes, these things last. Often times, they don’t. Typically, if there’s a bonafide franchise quarterback to smooth out the rough edges, trophies are won and good times between coach and GM are extended (See: Green Bay/Mike McCarthy/Ted Thompson/Aaron Rodgers).

The Vikings went 7-9 in Year 1 under Spielman and Zimmer. No one was happy to finish third in the NFC North and miss the playoffs. But there is justifiable optimism in the Vikings’ future based on a promising rookie quarterback that Spielman procured in a draft day trade and a solid coaching staff adept at tutoring quarterbacks and improving defensive production.

Wednesday, Spielman was asked to evaluate Zimmer’s first season. He gushed.

“I thought he did a great job,” Spielman said. “We sit there and I sit there with him on Monday, ask what he was thinking here and those things. I think even he is going to grow next year because this was his first opportunity to be a head coach and there’s no question about his leadership and the respect he has from those guys in the locker room.

“He’s as honest as it gets. He’ll tell you, if he screws up: ‘What do you want me to do? I screwed up.’ I think that helps make us such a good team, because we’re both similar. He talked a little bit during training camp, I put together all these game management things and we went through them. But it’s just like players, they learn by going through those live situations and you have to make those split-second decisions.

“He may have admitted he’d have done some things differently and he’ll continue to grow in that phase. But overall, I thought it was very good for a first-year head coach. Very good.”

The entire football side of the Vikings’ organization spent three days evaluating the roster last week. Spielman said he could see improvement in the working relationship between the coaches and scouting department because of their one year of experience together.

“Just heading into the second year now there’s such a clearer understanding about the direction we need to go as far as what specifically each position trait is required to be effective in this scheme,” Spielman said. “I don’t think 7-9 anyone here is satisfied with that record. We’re excited about the progress, but 7-9, no one is satisfied. I know our expecations are very high between myself and coach Zimmer, where we should be, and we’ll continue to work together to get to that point.”

Spielman was asked if there was anything unexpected with Zimmer.

“No, he’s really a good guy,” Spielman said. “It’s everything I hoped for and envisioned when we went through the process. I think the biggest thing is he probably, out of any new coach, had to deal with more adversity than anyone. How he handled that adversity, to me, he should be highly recognized for it. Because it was never, no matter what hit us, injuries or what else, there was never an excuse. ‘All right, it’s our job as coaches to figure it out.’ And we got positive results out of that.”

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Team Irvin 32 FINAL
Team Carter 28
Portland 0 Postponed
Brooklyn 0
Sacramento 0 Postponed
New York 0
Philadelphia 7:00 PM
New Orleans
Minnesota 7:00 PM
Oklahoma City
Orlando 7:00 PM
Memphis
Boston 8:00 PM
Utah
Denver 9:30 PM
LA Clippers
Army 6:00 PM
American Univ
Wright State 6:00 PM
Detroit
Syracuse 6:00 PM
North Carolina
Cleveland State 6:00 PM
Oakland
Delaware State 6:00 PM
NC Central
High Point 6:00 PM
Presbyterian
Howard 6:30 PM
Bethune-Cookman
Coppin State 6:30 PM
NC A&T
Nicholls 6:30 PM
Northwestern St
Hampton 6:30 PM
SC State
Gardner-Webb 7:00 PM
Campbell
MD-Eastern Shore 7:00 PM
Florida A&M
Stephen F Austin 7:00 PM
Lamar
Central Arkansas 7:00 PM
New Orleans
Norfolk State 7:00 PM
Savannah State
TX A&M-CC 7:00 PM
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Incarnate Word
Milwaukee 7:05 PM
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Alabama A&M
Southern U 7:30 PM
Alabama State
Prairie View 8:00 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff
Texas 8:00 PM
Iowa State
Texas Southern 8:00 PM
Miss Valley St
Senior-North 34 FINAL
Senior-South 13
Long Island 2:00 PM
Bryant
Central Conn St 2:00 PM
St Francis-NY
Fairleigh Dickinson 2:30 PM
Sacred Heart
St Francis-PA 3:00 PM
Wagner
Delaware State 3:00 PM
NC Central
Howard 4:30 PM
Bethune-Cookman
Coppin State 4:30 PM
NC A&T
Hampton 4:30 PM
SC State
Norfolk State 4:45 PM
Savannah State
MD-Eastern Shore 5:00 PM
Florida A&M
Samford 5:00 PM
(25) Chattanooga
Prairie View 5:00 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff
Alcorn State 5:30 PM
Alabama A&M
Southern U 5:30 PM
Alabama State
Texas Southern 5:30 PM
Miss Valley St
(12) Texas A&M 6:00 PM
(1) South Carolina
Robert Morris 6:00 PM
Mount St Marys
East Tenn St 6:00 PM
Mercer
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Illinois 6:00 PM
Michigan
Quinnipiac 0 Postponed
Manhattan 0
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Rider 0
(18) Miss State 8:00 PM
Auburn
(15) Nebraska 8:00 PM
(20) Iowa

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