The Minnesota Vikings concluded their second week of Organised Team Activities today at Winter Park, the team's practice facility. The importance of OTA's is sometimes played down but for this core group of young players it is essential. It gives them a chance to get to know one another better, for the new additions to familiarise themselves with the Playbook and the coaching staff.
So, these sessions will be invaluable down the line. Head Coach Leslie Frazier will learn a great deal about his players as he formulates plans for the gruelling training camp period.
Here are some observations from the Vikings' first set of off-season workouts:
- These are voluntary workouts for the players, yet all-but-one of the Vikings showed up for the sessions. This is an extremely positive sign for the team's cohesion. Veterans such as MVP Adrian Peterson said they have attended the workouts "To install into the rookies and young members of the team exactly what is expected of them". It is clear the few veterans left on the roster are keen to lead by example. There is no better rolemodel than Peterson, who showed last season just what you can accomplish with hard work. Coming off a severe knee injury (torn ACL), Peterson became the NFL's Most Valuable Player, rushing for 2,097 yards, narrowly missing out on the all-time rushing record. Peterson is also weeks removed from a procedure to repair a Sports Hernia injury, so to see him at voluntary workouts leaves incoming players and rookies with no doubt what is expected of them during their time in the twin cities.
The only absentee was star Defensive End Jared Allen, but even he returned during the second week of team drills. There had been some speculation that Allen was unhappy with his contract situation, but the Pro-Bowler was quick in stating this just wasn't the case. The Vikings appear happy to let their premiere pass-rusher play out the final year of his contract, which will pay him $14.7 million. At 31 years of age, it seems Allen will have to earn a new deal with his play on the field. In truth, this suits both parties perfectly fine, Allen will get the huge payday his stellar performances in the past have deserved. If he has another down year, the Vikings could release him at no cost to them, or re-sign him at a significantly reduced rate.
- If we are to believe the words of Frazier, Tight End Kyle Rudolph is set for a substantial role in the offense this season. Frazier has stated Rudolph has come back a different man this off-season, no doubt benefiting from his Pro-Bowl appearance and a steady first season in the league. The former Notre Dame standout has made noticeable improvements in his route running and pass catching, which will make him Christian Ponder's safety net this season. His teammates have also commented on how much more attentive he has been in team meetings, which has coincided with an improved knowledge of coverages.
If Rudolph is to develop further, he must improve on his run-blocking, as the focal point of the Minnesota offense will remain Adrian Peterson. He didn't seem strong enough at times last season, and will need to put the hours in during the weight sessions to contribute fully to this team. The Vikings do have John Carslon as another Tight End and despite his disappointing output last season, they don't seem ready to give up on him just yet. There's no doubt Rudolph has been the star of OTA's thus far and it is safe to expect a breakout year from the second-year pro.
- Rookie Cornerback Xavier Rhodes cuts an imposing figure when he steps onto the field. The 25th overall pick in this years draft, big things are expected of the Florida State alumni. At 6'2 and 210 lbs, he is extremely big for a corner and his strength and speed have been impressive during initial workouts. He is a little raw, as most corners are coming out of College, yet the early signs indicate that Rhodes could be an NFL starter during his rookie season.
Having Chris Cook at full strength will aid his development, as he will be given the responsibility of covering the opponents number one receiver. They also have Josh Robinson, who will be competing with Rhodes for the starting spot. Whoever wins it is irrelevant, as the Vikings look to have three talented, young corners who should be the backbone of the secondary for many years to come. Training camp will tell us more about Rhodes, as the Vikings are counting on him to provide the press coverage skills they have been sorely missing.
- The sight of Greg Jennings in a Vikings uniform certainly was a strange one. The receiver arrived from rivals Green Bay during the off-season, a five-year $45 million ($17.5 guaranteed) deal enough to take him away from Lambeau Field after 6 years with the Packers.
Jennings has sat some of OTA's with an ankle injury, but the time he has spent on the field have been very encouraging. Christian Ponder has been crying out for a number one receiver, especially with the troublesome Percy Harvin being traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Ponder and the Vikings will be hoping that Jenning's injury troubles are behind him and he can return to the form that made him a two-time Pro Bowler.
- Ponder himself, has taken these sessions to get acquainted with his new receivers. Jennings aside, Ponder's relationship with rookie Cordarrelle Patterson will go a long way to determining whether or not the Quarterback will be a success in the NFL. Even though the traded away Harvin, the Vikings couldn't have done more to put Ponder in a position to succeed. They signed Jennings, drafted Patterson with the 29th overall pick. They also have two pass-catching tight ends and have kept Jerome Simpson on the roster. Add to that their improving offensive line, led by their book end tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, plus Peterson in the backfield, and Ponder has all the ingredients in place.
Even though this is only his third season the the NFL, you get the feeling that this is a 'Make or Break' year for the much-maligned signal caller. A team can only go as far as a Quarterback takes them, and some say the Vikings made the Playoffs last year in-spite of Ponder. Teams will be shutting down the box this year to counteract the threat of Peterson. If Peterson can't replicate the form he showed this season, it will place the teams fortunes squarely on the shoulders of the former 12th overall pick.
With so many defenders stacking the box, the receivers will see a lot of one-on-one coverages, giving them a far better chance of getting open. Ponder will have to work hard this summer on his footwork, timing and his thought process in order for him to utilise the weapons available to him. The Vikings have brought in Matt Cassell, a QB who is looking for a second chance after a disastrous spell in Kansas City. While Ponder is under no immediate pressure in regards to his starting position, a sub-par start to season could see him surpassed by Cassell as the team's number one option.
- Joe Webb is an interesting name to keep an eye on as the summer progresses. He has been used sparingly at the Quarterback position, where the Vikings drafted him 199th overall (6th round) in 2010. He has thrown for 853 yards, 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He has never grasped the position but the Vikings coaching staff have seen enough of Webb's athleticism to suggest that he could help the team in other areas.
During OTA's, Webb has been used primarily as a receiver, while also spending time as a punt and kickoff returner. The reports on Webb have been extremely encouraging. He is said to be 'Catching everything', displaying efficient route running as he gets to grip with another element of the Playbook.
Webb will see this as an opportunity to get on the field for some of the plays that were designed for Harvin. The former Quarterback could be used for Bubble screens, Wildcat formations and even running the ball out of the backfield. If he continues to impress, look for Webb to be a vital element in the offense next season.
- The Defensive line looks to pose some dilemmas for the Vikings going forward, with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Kevin Williams all set to become free agents at the end of the season. We have already spoken about Allen's contract, with Williams possibly being in the same boat. He re-structured his deal recently, making this his final year. The Vikings drafted Shariff Floyd with the 23rd overall pick and he will be Williams' likely successor at the tackle position. Floyd will be involved in the rotation from the outset judging by initial practices gradually pushing the last remaining element of the 'Williams Wall' into the background. For now, the 9th overall pick in 2003 will be counted on to pass his wealth of knowledge onto the next crop of Vikings players, before inevitably departing.
Expect Everson Griffen to have an increased role as a pass-rush specialist this season. He has shown some ability at outside linebacker and defensive end, plus he seems to have answered all the questions surrounding his work ethic and behaviour when he isn't around the team. Griffen has had a history of off-the-field incidents that caused him to fall dramatically in the draft, where he was once considered a top ten pick but fell all the way into the 4th round (100th overall), and has been trying to restore his reputation ever since. With the added incentive of a new contract, expect big things from Griffen in 2013/14.
- So, even though we are very early in the off-season process, the signs all point to the Vikings being on the rise. They had an incredible draft, have young players who have room to develop and have enough veterans around the building to guide the young members of the franchise down the right path.
However, as good as the rest of the team seems to be, it is inevitable that how successful they are will be down to well how much Christian Ponder improves during the summer months.
The Vikings have done all they can, now it's up to him.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_