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 safeties

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 27th at 10:31am 289934091

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.

Tarkenton 'guarantees' Brady knew all about deflated footballs

Posted by: Mark Craig Updated January 27th at 11:35am 289922141

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.

Or …

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 code 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.”

Vikings offseason snapshot: the cornerbacks

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 26th at 12:13pm 289788751

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 take a gander at the cornerbacks.

After head coach Mike Zimmer took the job in January, no position group was more scrutinized by the respected former defensive coordinator during spring workouts than the cornerbacks. Zimmer, who got his start in the NFL coaching defensive backs for the Cowboys two decades ago, was all over those guys from the start, particularly Xavier Rhodes, who was entering his second season.

The extra attention paid off, particularly for Rhodes, as improved cornerback play helped the Vikings improve from 31st in the NFL in pass defense in 2013 to seventh this past season.

Rhodes blossomed under Zimmer’s tutelage and in the second half of the season was one of the league’s stingiest cornerbacks. But he wasn’t the only one to show improvement. Josh Robinson had some rocky moments (ahem, the first Bears game), but he bounced back from a tough 2013.

Still, despite the emergence of Rhodes, the signing of Captain Munnerlyn and the rebounding of Robinson, the Vikings have plenty of room for improvement at cornerback this offseason.

ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The Vikings may have a lockdown cornerback in Rhodes. How good was he in the second half? From Week 9 on, only three players — Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Chris Culliver — allowed passes to be completed less frequently than Rhodes, according to Pro Football Focus. His rapid development emboldened Zimmer to tweak his scheme so that Rhodes could match up 1-on-1 with the opponent’s top wide-out. Rhodes fared well against Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace and Alshon Jeffery down the stretch, so look for it to continue in 2015.

ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: When they Vikings signed Munnerlyn to a reasonable three-year, $15 million contract last offseason, they did so knowing the value he could potentially bring as a slot defender. They also knew that he could start in the base defense if needed. It turned out that he was indeed the best option, but he had trouble adapting to Zimmer’s schemes and the result was an uneven season as a starter. Munnerlyn must play better in 2015, especially if he’s still starting.

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. The team’s top three corners all finished with positive grades. Rhodes led the group with a plus-3.3 grade (he was a plus-7.3 in pass coverage). Robinson was a plus-2.6. And Munnerlyn was slightly above average at plus-0.3. Marcus Sherels and rookie Jabari Price both received negative grades in limited snaps as reserves.

STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 18 — pass break-ups for Rhodes, which tied for fourth in the league.

POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: The Vikings have no pending free agents at the position. And while there has been a little speculation that Munnerlyn could be released, he’s expected to stick around.

OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: Between moderate and high. The Vikings were a top-10 pass defense with the guys they have, and while they might not desperately need another starting corner, it certainly would be a smart investment. If they can find in free agency or the draft another cornerback with some size to line up on the opposite side of the formation from Rhodes, they could keep Munnerlyn strictly on the inside as a nickel cornerback (it’s worth noting that Zimmer remarked last week at the Senior Bowl “that’s probably what he is”) and could have Robinson on the bench in the event of an injury. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Vikings ignored greater needs and used a high pick on a corner, especially because it typically takes them a couple of years to develop.

Vikings offseason snapshot: the offensive line

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 23rd at 8:59pm 289585351

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 dies

Posted by: Matt Vensel Updated January 22nd at 5:48pm 289492041

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.

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