Rookie cornerback Trae Waynes as a starter on opening day?
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said after Thursday’s practice. But aiming and expecting are two different things. And even then you have to take what Edwards said with a grain of salt.
Edwards said Waynes, the team’s first-round pick in the 2015 draft (No. 11 overall), showed definite improvement through three preseason games.
“He’s gotten better week to week,” Edwards said. “First week to second, he got better at some things we asked him to get better at. And, in the third game, we thought he got better. Hopefully this week we’ll see some improvement with things we worked on in practice.”
Now, when Edwards talks about Waynes starting, he’s more than likely talking about having him as the third cornerback in the team’s nickel defense.
Waynes is listed behind veteran Terence Newman at left cornerback. But he has been getting most of the snaps as the third corner in nickel situations, with Newman moving inside.
So while the Vikings might be aiming for Waynes to start, or even be the starting nickel, it appears he’ll have to show more consistent production to do so by opening day. “That’s what we’re all working for, but we’ll take it week to week,” Edwards said. “We have two more [preseason] games to go, and we’ll keep evaluating through the process.”
WHAT WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR
Finally, a big Teddy Bridgewater-to-Mike Wallace connection. It came during a seven-on-seven drill when Wallace ran down the left sidelines and grabbed a long Bridgewater pass with one hand.
The next step, of course, is to see it in games. Wallace, brought in during the off-season, has been pretty quiet in the preseason, with just one reception.
Don’t worry, Bridgewater says.
“We do want to get Mike going heading into the regular season,” Bridgewater said. “And he’s a guy who is going to be huge for us in the pass game. He’s going to force teams to give us different looks this year. So we definitely want to get him going, whether it’s this week or definitely going into Week 1.’’
Special teams coach Mike Priefer said, after some intense film work with Blair Walsh on Sunday and a strong week of practice, he expects his kicker to rebound from a difficult game Saturday.
Walsh, coming off an up-and-down 2014 regular season, has struggled during the preseason, going 2-for-6 on field goals. Saturday against Oakland, in the swirling winds at TCF Bank Stadium, he missed two field goals inside 40 yards and an extra point as well as a 49-yard field goal attempt.
“He owned up to it, he came in early on Sunday morning and we watched the tape,” Priefer said. “Some of the mistakes he made were uncommon for him. He’s worked real hard this week to tweak his technique. I just think he needs to get his confidence back. And I think he had a good week of practice. I look forward to him rebounding well this week.”
Center John Sullivan, whose back spasms have kept him out of practice since Thursday of last week, missed practice again. Also missing were T Carter Bykowski (pectoral) and DT Shamar Stephen (knee). TE MyCole Pruitt (knee) was able to do some early work in drills. TE Rhett Ellison, who left practice early Wednesday, was back at work Thursday with a bandage on his nose.
The wisdom of crowds — and statistics — suggested the Twins had three major areas that they either could or should address as last month’s non-waiver trade deadline approached: shortstop, catcher and the bullpen.
Kurt Suzuki, after a nice first half of 2014 that netted him an All-Star appearance at Target Field, dropped off considerably in the second half and had a .590 OPS in late July this year — nearly 100 points below the MLB average for a catcher.
At shortstop, the Twins had started with Danny Santana and tried both Eduardo Escobar and Eduardo Nunez. They even gave Jorge Polanco a brief audition. Santana was a disaster at the plate and in the field (16 errors in 64 starts). None of the others had distinguished themselves in 2015 as a clear-cut starter, with Escobar’s offensive numbers lagging after a strong 2014 season holding down the position. Escobar’s OPS of .653 in late July was about 30 points below the league average for shortstops.
And the bullpen, after good work during the Twins’ hot 42-game stretch early in the season, was fading. Glen Perkins, nearly unhittable before the All-Star break, blew two saves and took two losses between July 18 and July 28. Their bullpen ERA in June was 4.38 and in July it was 4.15.
Of those three areas, of course, the Twins upgraded just one at the deadline — and one that appeared tepid, at best, when they grabbed righthanded reliever Kevin Jepsen from Tampa Bay.
It is a cliche to suggest that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, but in the case of the Twins and their approach to shortstop and catcher, it appears to be true. And in the case of Jepsen, the trade has had a far greater impact than most of us initially thought it would.
I don’t know exactly how close the Twins were to making moves at catcher or shortstop or really who was available for what price. What I do know is that if the Twins took a calculated risk that Suzuki and Escobar had underperformed to that point in the season and were therefore statistically likely to surge after the deadline — therefore providing the kind of upgrade they could have hoped for in a trade — it paid off in both cases.
Escobar is the most dramatic example. Even before his two-homer game Wednesday, his August OPS was .812 as he claimed a much stronger hold on the shortstop job. With Thursday factored in, Escobar since the trade deadline is now slashing .292/.554/.915 and has his overall season OPS (though not all at-bats came as a shortstop) is up to .712 — about 30 points higher now than the MLB average for a shortstop.
OPS is not an end-all stat, but it is a good reference point for offensive success. Suzuki had a .690 career OPS going into this season. Much of that was bolstered by better seasons at the plate earlier in his career than in recent years, but his .727 mark last season at least gave the Twins hope that his .590 pre-deadline mark was bound to improve. That is exactly what has happened so far. Suzuki’s slash line of .279/.361/.694 since the trade deadline won’t win him any awards, but it compares reasonably well to the MLB averages for catchers in 2015: .240/.382/.685. He’s had several clutch hits this month — yes, those can be circumstantial, particularly in a small sample — including a huge two-run single to rally the Twins over Baltimore in the second game of what has become a six-game winning streak.
The bullpen help offered by Jepsen has proven to be the thing the Twins really needed to go outside the organization to get. It’s not to say they couldn’t be where they are now without it, but it’s hard to imagine navigating the past few weeks — in particular the last week with Glen Perkins unavailable much of the time with neck and back issues — without Jepsen. Since his forgettable first outing with the Twins (two runs allowed in just 1/3 of an inning), he’s been lights out. He’s pitched in a rather remarkable 13 games in the last 23 days (Aug. 4 through Wednesday) with this line: 12.1 IP, 5 hits, 0 runs, 2 BB, 10 Ks, 2 holds, 3 saves.
Included in that: Jepsen has pitched in each of the Twins’ last five games, all wins. All three saves have come in the last five games. Two were one-run wins and another was a two-run win, and he has had 1-2-3 innings in all of them. He also pitched in the other two games, finishing the 11-7 win with a scoreless ninth and providing a scoreless 10th in the 12-inning win at Baltimore. So yes, imagine this winning streak without Jepsen. Does it happen? Doubtful.
Long story short: While many of us ripped the Twins for not doing enough at the deadline while other teams made splashy moves, their one lower-key move to get Jepsen (added to in August during the waiver trade period with the Neal Cotts acquisition) and faith in their in-house talent has put them (for now) in prime postseason position.
Gerald Hodges has never played middle linebacker. Not in peewee. Not in his high school days in New Jersey. And not in his four years at Linebacker U.
“I never thought I’d be playing middle linebacker, either,” Hodges said.
But when the Vikings’ first-string defense takes the field against the Cowboys on Saturday, Hodges will get the first start of his life at middle linebacker.
The Vikings have given starts to Audie Cole and rookie Eric Kendricks at the position this preseason. But coach Mike Zimmer also wants to get a look at Hodges, who impressed as a reserve at outside linebacker last season.
After all, Hodges might be one of the team’s three best linebackers at the moment, and that would be one way to get the 24-year-old onto the field.
The coaching staff warmed to Hodges last season after he made a bunch of plays when filling in for weak-side linebacker Chad Greenway or strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr. He made 66 tackles, batted down seven passes and returned an early interception for a touchdown in the win over the Jets.
This spring, Hodges impressed the coaching staff with an improved attention to detail in the classroom and also when he practiced with more discipline.
“I think they know I love the game of football and I think they’re starting to believe and trust in me that I’m able to go out there and play top-of-the-line football,” Hodges said. “So I’m going to continue to earn their trust.”
Zimmer first started giving Hodges some reps at middle linebacker early in training camp three weeks ago. This week was the first during which Hodges received significant practice snaps at that spot.
Hodges said the transition’s biggest challenge has been getting used to new alignments and diagnosing different pre-snap reads. But “once the running back has the ball, it’s just play football from there,” Hodges said.
Zimmer, too, downplayed the difficulty of Hodges making the switch.
“I don’t know how tough it is, honestly,” he said. “When I was [coaching] in college, I had a nose tackle move there and he played pretty good.”
Hodges’ audition against the Cowboys might be limited to only a dozen or two snaps because Kendricks will replace him when the Vikings use sub packages. But Hodges knows this is “definitely a huge opportunity.”
“First snap, I’m going in there and playing like a starter,” Hodges said.
As the Twins complete a rugged 10-game road trip tonight at Tampa Bay, they now have more home games than road dates remaining. That's important for a club that's been far better this season at Target Field than on the road.