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.
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.
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.
|New England||5:30 PM|
|Coll of Charleston||68||FINAL|
|Mount St Marys||77||FINAL|
|William & Mary||84||FINAL|
|Central Conn St||55||FINAL|
|Miss Valley St||75|
|Sam Houston St||63|
|South Dakota St||69|
|East Tenn St||61|
|Long Beach State||65|
|Fla Gulf Coast||74|
|Stephen F Austin||61|
|SE Missouri St||70||FINAL|
|San Jose St||41||FINAL|
|San Diego St||62|
|New Mexico St||53|
|UC Santa Barbara||55||FINAL|
|Utah Valley U||59|
|Mount St Marys||64||FINAL|
|Central Conn St||83||FINAL|
|East Tenn St||48|
|Sam Houston St||74|
|No Dakota State||52||FINAL|
|South Dakota St||82|
|New Mexico St||74||FINAL|
|Utah Valley U||58||FINAL|
|Miss Valley St||74|
|San Diego State||70||FINAL|
|San Jose St||62|
|UC Santa Barbara||54|
|Stephen F Austin||64|
|(7) Oregon State||68|
|SE Missouri St||62||FINAL|
|Fla Gulf Coast||67||FINAL|
|Cal State Fullerton||70||FINAL|
|Long Beach St||74|