Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Get To Know 'Em: Trae Waynes

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get To Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

Last year I did a number of these posts (here's one on Teddy Bridgewater), and I'll be doing it again this spring as the NFL draft gets closer. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft. And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts to select players to preview. I'm going to focus on players who could be targets for the Vikings in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the draft. The first post in this series was on Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. Now I'm going to hone in on the secondary, and the cornerback spot in particular.

Last season I was thrilled as I watched second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes develop into the kind of player where using the words "shutdown corner" was not wishful thinking. As the season progressed, head coach Mike Zimmer trusted Rhodes to take on some of the league's most lethal wide receivers (Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery, Kelvin Benjamin) one-on-one. And Rhodes won the vast majority of those battles.

But Zimmer couldn't count on the other Viking cornerbacks who played a lot - Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson - to do the same. Wouldn't it be great if the Vikings had not just one, but two, tall, long-armed, speedy cornerbacks to shut down the opponent's passing games?

Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could be that guy.

Waynes is tall for a corner - a legit 6'0 feet. He's got long arms that allow him to play taller than that. And he's fast. His 4.31 40 time at the NFL combine was the fastest time of any corner there. He's also not the biggest guy at 180 pounds. Waynes, and it's not just because they both have dreadlocks, reminds me a lot of Richard Sherman's - tall, gangly, lots of knees, elbows and arms coming at you. If Waynes were to play like Sherman in the NFL, the Vikings would probably sprint to hand in their pick to Roger Goodell at #11 on draft day.  

But is Waynes capable of being Richard Sherman good? His game 2014 game against Nebraska displays Trae Waynes at his best (mostly.)

(Nebraska game video.)

Wayne's played a lot of man-to-man coverage in the five videos I watched of him from the 2014 season. This makes him a guy that has the skills necessary to play in Zimmer's defensive system. Zimmer asked his corners to play a lot of press man-to-man last year. If you can't do that well, you're probably not what Zimmer is looking for.

Waynes does this pretty well. He's got the speed to stay with receivers hip-to-hip, but he also likes to be physical with the WRs and he's good at using the sideline as an extra defender on deep routes. At the 1:10 mark of the Nebraska video, Waynes is matched up with Huskers speed receiver Kenny Bell. Waynes wins the matchup easily. He angles Bell to the sideline, runs with him stride-for-stride and then reads Bell's eyes perfectly to turn and locate the ball just in time to make the interception. It would be hard to play a deep ball any better than that. We see Waynes ability to angle WRs to the sidelines and box them in again at the 7:09 mark of the video as well. This is a skill that not every corner is able to master, but Waynes has a great feel for it.

At the 3:30 mark we see an example of Waynes physical nature at the line of scrimmage. Because Waynes isn't the biggest guy weight-wise, this is encouraging. He isn't afraid to get his hands on opposing WRs in press coverage, and while he got flagged on this play, this is the kind of hand fighting corners and WRs at the NFL level engage in on almost every pass play. That Waynes is willing to do it and often won these physical battles in college should serve him well in the pros. (The flip side to this is Waynes will have a harder time winning them in the NFL where the WRs are bigger and stronger than what he faced in the Big 10.)

Overall in pass coverage, Waynes looks pretty darn good. He can flip his hips smoothly and turn and run with guys. He can stop on a dime and close on short routes in front of him. He also anticipates routes pretty well, and will jump them.

The main criticisms I've heard about Waynes is a) that he got in the habit of freelancing too much at Michigan State and b) that he was a willing, but not terribly effective, tackler. A possible example of Waynes and his freelancing ways can be seen at the 4:54 mark of the Nebraska video. On this pass play, Waynes peels off the guy he is covering when he recognizes Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong is throwing deep into the end zone. No harm was done as the pass was incomplete, but was Waynes encouraged to do this in Michigan State's system or did he just do this on his own? If it's the latter, Zimmer won't put up with this kind of bullshit. He'll expect his corners to follow their assignments to the letter. Or else. I don't think this is a major red flag, but it is something to monitor. If the Vikes draft Waynes, Zimmer and his staff will have to drill this tendency out of him.

On the tackling front, I didn't find myself closing my eyes in horror over Waynes tackling technique. But at 180 pounds, Waynes knows he isn't going to knock people around, either. So he makes a fair amount of leg and ankle tackles, but he'll wrap guys up around the waist and chest as well. He's not near as good a tackler as his old teammate Darqueze Dennard was. However, I wouldn't consider him to be a liability in run support. It is something he will need to get better at, though.

With the Vikings signing Terence Newman last week, drafting Waynes at #11 could be less of a possibility than it was before Newman became a Viking. But Newman is only going to be around one year, and Josh Robinson - the #3 corner on the Vikes depth chart in 2014 - is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2015 season and I don't see him re-signing with Minnesota if he's a backup. And what if Captain Munnerlyn has another poor season in 2015 and is cut during the 2016 offseason? What I'm saying here is the Vikings talent and depth at cornerback could take a big hit in 2016. They will need to address the corner position again in 2016. But will the Vikings be in position to draft a player of Waynes ability a year from now?

Playing in a division where you've got to face Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler two games each every season, you can never have too much talent at cornerback, and Waynes is considered the best of the college lot in 2015.

I would never predict Waynes is going to be a Richard Sherman elite level corner at the NFL level. But his track record in college, and his speed, size and knowledge of the game makes him a guy who would be tough to pass on at #11 if he's available.       

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why it's OK that the Vikings keep signing nobody free agents

The Vikings signed three more free agents this week, and they are ... Taylor Mays, Casey Matthews, and 36-year-old Terence Newman????


This is not the offseason most Vikings fans were hoping for. Minnesota has some roster holes that need to be filled - like left guard and middle linebacker - and they've gone about addressing them by signing a couple of depth guys and a soon--to-be 37 year-old cornerback in a league that is obsessed with youth.

Whoopdeedoo.

It's true the Vikes went after defensive end Michael Johnson hard, and they apparently were after safeties Devin McCourty and Rahim Moore as well. But those players signed elsewhere. So, the Vikings free agency plan has really sucked, hasn't it?

Actually, I don't think so. I can't deny signing a player like McCourty or Johnson or Clint Boling should have made the Vikings a better team in 2015 - on paper anyway. But the team's unwillingness to sign free agents no matter the cost indicates that general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer and his staff are confident they have enough young talent to be a very good team without signing any pricey free agents.

And they might be right. Harrison Smith is a great safety. Everson Griffen was outstanding in his first year as a full-time starter at defensive end. Jerick McKinnon looks like he could be a feature running back. Xavier Rhodes looks very much like a shutdown corner. Teddy Bridgewater. Anthony Barr. Shariff Floyd. Charles Johnson. There is a lot of young, promising talent on the Minnesota Vikings. And, yeah, I  know I left out Matt Kalil and Cordarrelle Patterson. That was on purpose.

The point is, the Vikings have seen what happens when teams (including themselves) dip heavily into the free agent pool and they don't like the results. Ndamukong Suh is a fantastic player. But is signing him going to get the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl? In five seasons in Detroit, the Lions and Suh played in just two Wild Card playoff games. They lost both of them.

It's obvious that Spielman, Zimmer and company believe the smart play is to develop their own guys and use the money they have to pay those young guys when the time comes to sign their second contract (you know Harrison Smith is going to get his at some point over the next six months.)

Considering how many times we see teams have buyer's remorse shortly after signing big-name free agents, I'm willing to roll with this strategy for the foreseeable future - even if it is a bit boring.       

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings, and the waiting game

I've always liked Kevin Seifert's work, from his days as a Vikings beat writer at the Star-Tribune, to his time as ESPN's NFC North blogger and his current gig as a blogger on all things NFL for the worldwide sports leader.

Monday night, Seifert posted a sharp blog about the Adrian Peterson situation, writing that the Vikings are prepared to wait things out and keep Peterson for the 2015 season - no matter what Peterson or his agent Ben Dogra want.

As much as I'd have a hard time cheering for Peterson if he returned to the Vikings next season, this strategy seems sound to me (and, yes, I realize general manager Rick Spielman isn't asking for my opinion on this.)

It's always bugged me when teams trade a star player for 20 cents on the dollar (or release him and get zero cents on the dollar) because that star player wants out and the team doesn't want him to be a "distraction." If Seifert has it right, the Vikings aren't willing to do that. They realize they've got a huge asset, who they are prepared to compensate enormously in 2015, and they aren't willing to trade him for a 4th round pick or whatever it might be. They also realize, especially after Dogra's comments on Monday at the NFL owner's meeting, that Peterson's trade value has never been lower. Other franchises now know for certain that Peterson doesn't want to be in Minnesota, so why offer fair compensation for a player they think the Vikings might be desperate enough to give away in a trade or even release?

An argument has also been made before by some Vikings fans that keeping Peterson would also be the best antidote for the team's pass protection woes. Opposing defenses forced to account for Peterson would change the looks they throw at Teddy Bridgewater. Peterson's presence would force them to devote more schemes and players to stopping the run. In theory, that should result in less blitzing and more favorable coverages for Bridgewater to throw against. An improved Bridgewater + Peterson + Mike Wallace could be a dandy offensive formula in 2015 for the Vikes.

I think Spielman and the Vikings also have it right that Peterson won't be a huge pain in the ass if they don't trade or release him and tell him if he wants to get paid $12 million in 2015, that he best report to Mankato in late July.

Peterson's talked about how much he likes and respects head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer has talked about how much he likes and respects Peterson. The same situation applies for Peterson and his current teammates. Peterson might not like or trust Spielman or Kevin Warren or other people in the front office. He might not like or trust the Minnesota media or even some of the fans anymore, either. But the people he'd be spending the majority of his time with - the players and coaches - have never shown him anything but support.

I think playing in Minnesota for $12 million and with teammates and coaches who like and respect him is a situation that would be bearable for Peterson, especially if the team performs well on the field in 2015.

That figures to be a more likely scenario if Peterson is playing for the Vikings in 2015 as opposed to somewhere else. The Vikings must figure that, too. Which is why they seem to be prepared to play the waiting game with Peterson and Ben Dogra.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Get To Know 'Em: Shaq Thompson

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get To Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

Last year I did a number of these posts (here's one on Teddy Bridgewater), and I'll be doing it again this spring as the NFL draft gets closer. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft. And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts to select players to preview. For now, I'm going to focus on players who could be targets for the Vikings in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the draft.  My first "Get To Know 'Em" post focuses on the Vikings unsettled linebacker situation, and how Washington University linebacker Shaq Thompson could make it a little more settled.

Vikings outside linebacker Chad Greenway was recently named the winner of an award the NFL Player's Association gives out annually to a member for exceptional community service. But it's been a long time since Greenway did anything on the field that was worthy of accolades. At the age of 32, Greenway's considered a liability in both run and pass defense these days and his salary cap hit is high. It appears he'll be back for his 10th season with the Vikes, but it will likely be his last one with the team and the club would be better off if he was a backup rather than a starter.

But who would the Vikings replace him with? Gerald Hodges - who filled in for Greenway for 4 games when he was hurt early in the 2014 season? Perhaps Audie Cole, who is versatile and can play all 3 linebacker positions (strongside, weakside and middle)? Or could it be someone who isn't on the Vikes roster yet?

That someone might just be Shaq Thompson. If you follow the Vikings closely, his name should be familiar to you as he's been identified as a draft target by a number of draft experts, bloggers and the like. And he's been identified as a draft target because he's one of these hybrid players that the Seattle Seahawks' league-best defense has been built on (think safety Cam Chancellor and defensive end Bruce Irvin.) In Thompson's case he's sort of a safety/linebacker hybrid. He's an athletic, quick, undersized (for a linebacker, anyway) guy who has the speed and agility to cover tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers that today's NFL offense's use so frequently. Some draft observers think he could be switched to safety after he is drafted. Here is Draft Breakdown's scouting report on Thompson.

The scouting report is dead on in my view. After watching videos of five of Thompson's games (note: they were from 2013, his sophomore season) on the Draft Breakdown site, he looks like a guy who will be a real asset in pass coverage and won't make much of an impact - positive or negative - when defending the run.

Thompson's play against Oregon State shows off why he's being viewed as a Vikings draft target. Here is the link to that video.

Washington had no problem playing Thompson way off the ball and asking him to cover tight ends and running backs in space. It's something he does extremely well - as Oregon State found out in the 2013 game. Check out the 1:01 mark of the video above. Thompson is all over the tight end in the short middle area of the field and he bats down the pass easily. That throw had no chance. At the 2:04 mark of the video, Thompson is asked to run down the sideline with the OSU tight end and he does it with ease. He's actually in a better position to catch the ball than the tight end. At the 1:39 mark, watch how far Thompson is off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped and how quickly he closes on the OSU running back catching a short screen in the middle of the field. And what Thompson does around the 2:58 mark of the video is the most impressive play of all. He undercuts an out to the sideline intended for the tight end, intercepts it and then jukes and jives his way for a pick-six. Not many NFL linebackers have the ball skills, agility and speed to make that kind of play.

What the Oregon State video doesn't show, but others I have watched do, is Thompson's play as a run defender. As you might expect for a guy listed as 6'0 and 228 pounds, he doesn't have much lead in his pants. If a blocker gets his hands on Thompson, he isn't able to shed that blocker. Thompson is also an ankle tackler. That's not necessarily a bad thing for Thompson. He knows he's not big enough to take guys on chest-to-chest and take them down, so he concentrates on tackling real low. It works for him. Thompson also compensates for his lack of bulk by being quick and slippery and avoiding blockers to make a tackle versus meeting a blocker, shedding the blocker and then making the tackle. Again, considering Thompson's size, that's a wise strategy on his part. But if he plays linebacker in the NFL there are going to be times where his lack of size will hurt him, especially when teams decide to run the ball to his side of the field.

I should note that Thompson isn't known for his pass rushing skills despite being such a quick guy. In the videos I watched, Washington did send him on a few blitzes but it wasn't a frequent occurrence and the results were mixed. Can he improve at this? Sure. But it didn't look like something he was natural doing during his time at Washington. Improvement in this area could take some time.

I'm a bit torn when it comes to Thompson. His pass coverage skills are something the Vikes could really use. However, Minnesota's biggest problem defensively in 2014 was stopping the run. Thompson isn't going to help them in that area. Is he even a three-down player in the NFL? I can imagine Green Bay would run Eddie Lacey at Thompson all day if given the opportunity. (One other note: I don't think Thompson would be the actual replacement for Greenway at strongside linebacker because of his size. The Vikings would probably move Anthony Barr there, and play Thompson on the weakside.)

Thompson doesn't strike me as a guy you pick at #11. But I would be more comfortable choosing him in the second or third round - although it doesn't sound like there is much of a chance he would drop as far as even the early second round. 

If there is anyone Thompson reminds me of, it's New York Giants weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams. Like Thompson, he's light for a linebacker and is listed at 6'4 and about 230 pounds. But he can run and the Giants regularly ask him to cover pass catchers in space. Players like Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul got the glory, but I always felt Williams was a key cog in a defense that helped the Giants make their Super Bowl run in 2011 with his pass coverage ability. But Williams has not always been a three-down player in New York, and he was a sixth round draft pick. Even if Thompson is a better version of Williams, is he someone the Vikings really want to draft so early in the first round?

Then again, the Vikings are believed to be in the market for a strong safety to play alongside free safety Harrison Smith, and Thompson was recruited as a safety out of high school.

Hmmm ...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Vikings 2015 free agency - one week on

OK, we're one week into the NFL free agency period and by now one thing is very clear - Rick Spielman is one boring fucker.

That's not entirely true. He did trade for Mike Wallace and then cut Greg Jennings during a 24-hour period last week. Those were major moves. But as far as free agent signings go, the Vikings general manager has been content to let other teams spend like drunken sailors.

Recent history shows that is probably the smart play. However, it's still a tough pill for impatient fans to swallow at this time of the year.

Anyway, let's recap the week that was in Vikings free agency ...

Best move
Do I have to pick one? I can't choose the Wallace trade because that wasn't a signing of a free agent. As a result, I'll say re-signing Tom Johnson. Whereas free agency is usually about overpaying for a player you need and regretting it later (see Jennings, Greg), Spielman was able to lock up a valuable member of the Vikings defensive line for a price that was fair and reasonable for both sides.

Biggest disappointment
It would have been nice to sign defensive end Michael Johnson. The Vikings would have gotten a 28-year-old starting caliber end who played his best ball under Mike Zimmer, is strong defending the run and could have given Everson Griffen and Brian Robison a breather without a drop-off in play. It didn't happen. What's more disappointing is Johnson probably used the Vikes as leverage to get that sweet deal from his old Bengals team. Oh well, there is always George Selvie.

Biggest WTF issue 
That Chad Greenway is still on the roster, and at his prescribed salary cap hit of $8.8 million. I expected Greenway to be back with the Vikings in 2015 when Zimmer talked recently about how he can still be a starting linebacker in the NFL. What I didn't expect was that the Vikings wouldn't have restructured his contract by now - especially when Greenway has indicated he wants to retire a Viking and would be open to restructuring discussions. so, the Vikings just cut a productive player (Jennings) because he wouldn't restructure his contract to a dollar figure more to the Vikings liking, but they'll keep Greenway - who many observers consider to be the unproductive and past his prime - at his bloated figure?

I really thought getting Greenway to accept a pay cut would be one of the Spielman's first tasks. Maybe it happens this week?????

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Vikings Offseason: Greg Jennings Gets His Walking Papers

Greg Jennings - thanks for your two years of solid service.

And that's a big part of the reason why Jennings isn't a Viking any longer isn't it? In two seasons with the Vikings he averaged 63 catches, 773 yards and 5 touchdowns. That's not bad production, but it's not the kind of numbers you want from a guy who was going to count $11 million towards your salary cap in 2015.

When the news hit Friday night that the Vikes had traded for Mike Wallace, I wondered if Jennings was going to get cut. Jennings was a great guy in the community, he liked Minnesota (which we can't say applies with Wallace) and he seemed like a leader and a fantastic mentor for young players like Ted Bridgewater. But being a great guy only takes you so far in pro football where winning really is everything. During his two years in Minnesota, the Vikes won 12 games, lost 19 and tied one.

Vikings fans can only hope Wallace (who is younger and faster, but not cheaper, than Jennings) is a pivotal piece in improving that winning percentage in 2015.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Vikings Offseason: Hello, Mike Wallace

I didn't see this one coming.

Trading for wide receiver Mike Wallace gives the Vikings their first legitimate deep threat at wide receiver since Randy Moss and his first tour of duty in Minnesota, although some people will question whether starting quarterback Ted Bridgewater has the accuracy on deep throws and arm strength to take advantage of Wallace's main asset.

Still, I won't argue that on paper adding Wallace won't help the Vikings passing game considerably.

I do have some concerns about acquiring Wallace, however. The concerns center around Wallace's attitude. Like a lot of top receivers, he appears to be a diva with dickheadish tendencies. That is not a trait I like to see in Viking players, and it isn't one that will help the Vikings lockeroom.

I also wonder what this trade means for Greg Jennings and his future with the team. He hasn't lived up to his contract and he has a cap hit of $11 million this season, but he's been a solid enough player who also seems to be a valuable mentor to the Vikings young players. The Vikings can't be thinking of keeping both Wallace and Jennings at their current high salaries? Is a release of Jennings coming soon?