Episode one: Vikings beat writer Matt Vensel and Digital Sports Editor Michael Rand are joined by columnist Chip Scoggins as they preview the start of Vikings training camp by counting down the most important players on this year's team and debating which players have the most to gain or lose in 2015.
The secondary is the second most important unit to watch during training camp behind the offensive line. There are many questions at cornerback and safety for the Vikings, though they do have options at both positions.
The Vikings have two blue chip pieces in the secondary in Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. They’re are deeper at cornerback with the addition of Terence Newman and Trae Waynes through free agency and the draft. It’s unsure at this point who will start opposite of Rhodes and who will be used in the nickel.
The Vikings added safety Taylor Mays in free agency, but he was cut right before minicamp. Undrafted rookie free agent Anthony Harris was the only addition this offseason at the position as the Vikings seek a safety to pair with Smith. They’ll likely need to find that starter from a trio of players that were on the roster last yar.
We continue our Vikings training camp preview by analyzing the secondary.
SAFE BET STARTERS: Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith
Two of the best players on the Vikings are located in the secondary. Smith was the best player on the team last season and arguably the second best Vikings player on the roster heading into camp behind running back Adrian Peterson. He’s capable of operating at both safety positions with his versatility as a blitzer and a cover safety. He has a very mellow personality, but Smith is very tough. He walked out of Lambeau Field last year in a walking boot after injuring his left ankle in a blowout loss to the Packers in Week 5. Smith still played every snap against Green Bay, and he played every snap the following week against the Lions despite wearing the boot for most of the week.
Rhodes took a big step forward last season flashing his potential as a lockdown cornerback. He thrived in head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, and he even received the opportunity to shadow the best wide receiver in the NFL for a game in Calvin Johnson. He’s another key piece — along with Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Anthony Barr — on this defense that will need to continue to improve in order for the Vikings to have a top 10 defense this year.
BACKUPS: Captain Munnerlyn, Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, Jabari Price, Shaun Prater, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Justin Coleman, Jalil Carter, Robert Blanton, Antone Exum Jr., Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Harris
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Right guard and strong safety are the two biggest question marks heading into training camp. Blanton won the starting strong safety job by default last year despite suffering a hamstring injury during training camp. Andrew Sendejo finished the last three games of the season as the starter, however, even after Blanton recovered from a leg injury during the final month of the season.
The Vikings didn’t use one of their 10 draft picks on a safety despite the glaring hole at the position. Exum is a big reason why, as we found out after the draft from general manager Rick Spielman. Exum converted from a cornerback at Virginia Tech to a safety in the NFL, and the Vikings are still high on the sixth round pick in 2014. He’s expected to be in the mix with Blanton and Sendejo.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Fans expect first round picks to have an immediate impact as rookies, but the cornerback position is one of the most difficult positions to play in the NFL. So how exactly will Zimmer use Waynes this season? The Vikings tried Waynes out not only as an outside cornerback but in the slot during OTAs and minicamp while Captain Munnerlyn was sidelined in a walking boot. The 11th overall pick likely won’t start immediately, but Waynes will get some opportunities to receive snaps this season. Zimmer has raved about how coachable Waynes has been since his Pro Day at Michigan State. We’ll see how quickly he can catch on to Zimmer’s technique and scheme.
We can get cute in our assessment of the Vikings as they barrel toward the start of training camp later this week, picking out this player here or that player there who will influence the team’s ultimate 2015 success.
The return of Adrian Peterson? Yes, of course. The play of the offensive line, particularly Matt Kalil? Certainly. The wide receivers … the defensive backs … the linebackers … the pass rush … important, important, important, important.
But if we’re being honest, it all begins and ends with Teddy Bridgewater. Yes, he will not succeed or fail by himself — and yes, the play of the offensive line will have a direct bearing on all of it — but in this NFL, it has been well-established: the passing game is royal and the QB is the king. If the Vikings are going to live up to their scary preseason hype — Peter King had them sixth (!) in his preseason power rankings last month, and yes that’s sixth in the NFL, not the NFC, the latter of which even might have turned heads — their season almost certainly will hinge on the play of their second-year quarterback.
#Ted had a promising rookie season, getting better as the year went along. He posted passer rating numbers above 114 in three of his final five starts, and this was without Peterson and with an offensive line decimated by injury (and to a degree general ineffectiveness). He was fantastic under pressure, a great trait (and rare one for a rookie).
That said, there are still legitimate reasons to wonder just how good Bridgewater will become. I still don’t know if he’ll ever throw the deep out with great aplomb (though I still don’t know if that’s essential). And nitpickers can still question whether Bridgewater is more game manager than game-changer.
The really good news, though, is that we don’t have to wonder this: if Bridgewater is primed for a sophomore slump. If you are caught up in that notion, having had the term drilled into your head for years, know that it does not apply to NFL quarterbacks.
There is a wealth of good reading out there on the subject, but I still recommend this Georgetown analytics piece as prime evidence that the sophomore slump, as it pertains to NFL QBs, is a myth.
In more artistic pursuits, you might find it to be a very real thing. A musician will spend an entire lifetime crafting songs up to the point of releasing a debut album and then spend the next year or two cramming and pressing for the same creativity in the follow-up. Same goes for a writer consumed by penning the great American novel and then wondering after it’s smashing success how he or she will ever top it. Eventually those who truly are greats will work through this anguish and produce a body of master works … but it might take time well beyond just the second effort.
Quarterbacking, however, is a cumulative effort. Everything Bridgewater has done up to this point is applicable in his second NFL season and should, in fact, help him become even better (as did virtually every QB in that linked piece above).
So feel free to worry about plenty of things with this year’s Vikings — and even Teddy specifically. But don’t worry about him magically becoming worse with age.