Monday, September 1, 2014

The 2014 Minnesota Vikings - how do you like them now?

Here is the Vikings 53-man roster and the practice squad as this post went live. (Note: Larry Dean and Austin Wentworth were cut on Sunday to make room for tight end MarQueis Gray and offensive tackle Mike Harris.) It's possible there could be some slight changes to all of this before Sunday's game arrives, and there will be some changes throughout the season, but this is basically what your 2014 Minnesota Vikings will look like this year. Do you like what you see?

Mike Zimmer

For a rookie head coach, the preseason couldn't have gone much better for Zimmer. The team went 4-0 and dominated its final two opponents. It came out of the preseason pretty healthy and it's two top draft picks - linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Ted Bridgewater - flashed promise.

Now fans will begin to learn what kind of a coach Zimmer is during real games. I noticed during the Titans game that Zimmer was holding a play card. I assume that means he will be calling the defense during the games instead of defensive coordinator George Edwards. The plus side here is Zimmer is a very experienced at this and, based on how his defenses performed in Cincinnati and Dallas, he's very good at it. But Zimmer is new to this head coaching business and I hope calling defensive plays doesn't divert his attention from making other big picture decisions during games. He's responsible for an entire team now. Will being mired in defensive play calling cause him to be poor at other important tasks, like when he should and shouldn't challenge plays and efficiently handling clock management at critical points in a game?

His predecessors - Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier - were not very good at those latter two areas, and they are important to get right consistently. Then again, it's possible Zimmer's defensive play calling will help the Vikes defense perform so well during games that it will make up for his shortcomings in other areas. You might remember the Vikings defense really stunk last year.

Matt Cassel

(Sigh.)

Last year when Matt Cassel played QB for the Vikings it was a welcome sight for me. It meant I didn't have to watch Christian Ponder or Josh Freeman play. This year will have a totally different feel. I will be impatient watching Cassel play. I hope he performs well (but he probably won't more often than he will), because if he does, the Vikings should be more successful than many people - including me - think.

But aren't we just killing time with Cassel? Ted Bridgewater is the future. When Cassel is out there this season handing off to Adrian Peterson, getting sacked, throwing touchdown passes to Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, whatever, I'll be pining for Bridgewater. I'll be wondering how much better he could be than Cassel, how many playoff appearances he'll lead the Vikings to and how many Super Bowls he'll help this franchise win. It is a safe, maybe even a wise, decision by Zimmer to name Cassel the starting QB and let Bridgewater sit and learn for a while. It's also a boring decision. The countdown to the Ted Bridgewater era has already begun in my mind.

Everson Griffen

I think I speak for most Viking fans when I say I wish the team could have re-signed Griffen for a little less money. Griffen looked very good rushing the passer against Arizona and Kansas City though, and I'm encouraged he will be sort of worth the investment. I write "sort of" because few athletes could be "worth" the $6.9 million Griffen will be paid in 2014.  Anyway, I think the combo of Griffen, Brian Robison, Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd is going to be a pretty good starting defensive front four. I expect Griffen will be a major reason why.

Greg Jennings

There's been a lot of buzz about how Kyle Rudolph will thrive in Norv Turner's offense, how Turner will get Peterson more involved in the passing game and how Patterson is a Josh Gordon-like breakout candidate. But nobody seems to be talking about Jennings. To me, Jennings is the glue of the Vikings passing game. All the other receiving targets - Rudolph, Patterson, Jarius Wright , even Jerome Simpson - have the potential to be good-to-excellent players. Jennings, on the other hand, has been very good for a long time.

After the Vikings signed Jennings to a pricey contract in 2013, his 68-catch, 804-yard, 4 TD season was viewed by some as disappointing. I consider it a triumph when you look at the QB situation he was dealt. Right now, Jennings is still the team's best receiver and he's going to have a very good year if the Vikings QBs play solidly more often than not.

As an aside, there were concerns that the Vikings were throwing a lot of money at an "old" player when they signed Jennings in 2013. Jennings turns 31 on Sept. 23, but he strikes me as a guy like Jimmy Smith, a WR who will be good into his mid-30s. He does a lot of things well, he keeps himself in great shape and even if he loses a step or two over the next couple of years, he's still crafty enough to be effective.

The schedule

Even before Sam Bradford went down with a season-ending injury, the Vikes season opener against St. Louis was a very winnable game. Now with a career backup (and former Viking) Shaun Hill starting, the game seems very, very winnable. But is it a "must-win" game?

No, because even if Minnesota loses, it obviously doesn't eliminate them from the playoffs. However, the four games following the Rams contest look pretty brutal. If the Vikings don't beat St. Louis, they face a stretch where they play New England (at home), New Orleans (away), Atlanta (at home) and Green Bay (away). I can easily envision the Vikes going 0-4 in those games, so that leaves them 0-5 in Zimmer's rookie season if they were to lose to St. Louis as well. Uh, oh.

But win in St. Louis and you're 1-0 and the team comes into its home opener against Tom Brady and Patriots with a collective smile on its face. And Zimmer's defenses have had some success against Brady and the Patriots in the past (a 13-6 win in 2013, a 12-0 loss in 2003, but to be fair, there was also a 38-24 loss in 2010.) So maybe the Vikes play inspired ball at their temporary outdoor home in front of a Zimmer-mad crowd and pull off an upset there. So then you're sitting at 2-0 and if you win just one of the next three games (Atlanta at home seems very winnable to me. Matt Ryan to Roddy White and Julio Jones is worrisome, but the Falcons defense was shitty last year), you can get through this murderous stretch 3-2 and in playoff contention. But to my thinking, that 3-2 scenario hinges on beating the Rams.

(Personally, I see the Vikings as a 6-10 or 7-9 team this season.)

The secondary

Yep, it's going to be a problem again this year. I like what I've seen from Captain Munnerlyn. I think Xavier Rhodes is going to be good if he can stay healthy. And safety Harrison Smith is a golden god. But outside of those three guys, I don't trust anybody else on this unit. Robert Blanton as the starting strong safety? Josh Robinson or Marcus Sherels sliding outside when the Vikes go nickel? Shaun Prater, Andrew Sendejo, and rookies Jabari Price and Antone Exum as depth? We'll see.

Are you ready for some football?

It's been a long wait. There are reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic about the 2014 Minnesota Vikings, but it will be an interesting, sometimes joyous, sometimes infuriating journey - just like it is every season.

The 2014 NFL season is here. Go Vikings! And, on Thursday at least, go Seahawks

Friday, August 29, 2014

Trailing clouds of preseason: Vikings-Titans

Vikings-Titans box score

If you watched the Vikings 19-3 win over the Tennessee Titans, you got to watch a lot of players who probably won't play much for the Vikes in 2014. I hope you enjoyed it.

Joe Banyard

What Banyard (18 carries for 111 yards against the Titans) should do is change his name. "Joe Banyard" is too bland. It doesn't make him sound exotic or intriguing. Maybe he needs a nickname? What could he call himself? Hey, it's not my problem.

Another problem for Banyard is that he has no elite skill that separates him from the pack. He's not super fast or super elusive. He catches the ball fine, but he's not Chester Taylor deadly in the pass game. His pass blocking? I have no idea. Basically there are about a dozen running backs that will be cut this week that can give you what Banyard gives you, including the guys already on the Vikings roster.

Scott Crichton, Antone Exum, Brandon Watts

In May, these were three Vikings draftees I was intrigued with beyond the usual suspects. Crichton didn't do anything noteworthy during the preseason. Watts got hurt and didn't play the last two games (practice squad candidate?) The only time I noticed Exum was when he made that big hit against a Titans running back late in the fourth quarter, and he got the worst of the collision and had to come out of the game. (Is he another practice squad candidate? Injury designation candidate?)

Crichton might be a guy who requires some Everson Griffen-like seasoning, taking a season or two to learn the nuances of the pro game before hitting his stride. He was pretty highly regarded during this spring's pre-draft process, as was Griffen back in 2010. He doesn't have the first round athleticism Griffen had, but he also has no character red flags like Griffen had. I don't expect he'll contribute much in 2014. That doesn't mean he's a wasted pick - although the Vikes haven't picked a decent player in the 3rd round of the draft in decades, it seems. I seem to be losing the argument with myself here.

Justin Trattou

Justin Who? Exactly. He isn't a guy I would have expected to notice this preseason. I did notice him, however. He got a sack against the Titans. He got half a sack the week before against Kansas City. He showed nice quickness and an ability to get after the QB during the preseason (albeit against backups like himself). I can't see Trattou making the team. I do see him making some other team that isn't as strong along the defensive line as the Vikings seem to be. Good for him if it happens.

David Yankey

Vikings fans thought the team got a steal when Minnesota plucked Yankey in the 5th round of the draft. He hasn't looked very good in the preseason, but Charlie Johnson - the guy Yankey is supposed to replace at left guard - has played better than expected so maybe it's not a big deal. Still, I've been disappointed with Yankey. I expected him to show more. Instead he looks overmatched.

Rodney Smith

I was a bit miffed that Smith couldn't play against the Titans because of injuries. He's got size (6'5 and 220 pounds) that the Vikes otherwise don't have on their receiving corps and he's looked good during the first three preseason games. But Adam Thielen has looked just as good. I want both guys to stick with the team. Unfortunately, it was going to be difficult for Smith to make that last push without playing and I figured Minnesota was only going to keep five WRs, and so the Vikes would have to cut Smith and probably lose him. So, thank you, Jerome Simpson! Your stupidity probably helps Smith make the team - for the first three games of the season at least.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

National Friday League: the QBs we'll see

The Quarterbacks We'll Face
This is a very simple way to make a prediction about how the season will go for a team: look at the schedule and make a list of the probably QBs you'll be seeing. Obviously there is much more to a team than a quarterback, but if you're going into a season with a huge disadvantage at quarterback in the majority of the games, then you'd better have a good defense. And you can't know for sure what QB you'll face, but you can guess that if it's not the guy listed here, it's somebody worse. Looking at probably opposing QBs is the reason I was slightly optimistic going into 2012 and completely, unrelentingly pessimistic going into 2013. So let's look at the 2014 schedule.

1: Shaun Hill (away)
2: Tom Brady (home)
3. Drew Brees (away)
4. Matt Ryan (home)
5. Aaron Rodgers (away)
6. Matthew Stafford (home)
7. EJ Manuel (away)
8. Josh McCown (Mike Glennon?) (away)
9. Robert Griffin III (home)
10. Jay Cutler (away)
11. Aaron Rodgers (home)
12. Cam Newton (home)
13. Geno Smith (Michael Vick?) (home)
14. Matthew Stafford (away)
15. Ryan Tannehill (away)
16. Jay Cutler (home)

Partly because we've got a tough division for passers, the schedule looks a little rough (though I don't fear Jay Cutler at home or Matthew Stafford anywhere). I count only five potentially bad to below average QBs (Hill, Manuel, McCown, Smith, and Tannehill). But the defensive approach is going to be different this year, so while you could usually count on QBs like Brady or Rodgers just dicing the open spaces in the Tampa 2, I don't know precisely how the Vikes will defend against these QBs.

Looking at this list, let's just say I'm cautiously pessimistic about the season.

Cordarrelle Patterson
I've been repeatedly pessimistic about Patterson throughout the off-season because 1) his success last season was based on very few very big plays (several of them as a runner or returner) and 2) he did not show the ability last season to actually play wide receiver, running routes and getting downfield. To the extent that preseason means anything, Patterson is a player I've really been impressed with. In the preseason he's run a variety of pass routes, and he's caught balls in the mid-range area and downfield. In order to be a good player in 2014, he needed to improve on his receiver skills, and it appears he's done that.

Percy Harvin is a similar player: a unique player with the ball in his hands, dominant on kick returns, rushing attempts, and short passes and screens where he could get the ball and make plays. But Harvin has never really developed into an actual wide receiver either: I've always called him a glorified third down back (he's Darren Sproles with a different position title). Maybe that's the fault of the quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, and overall weak offenses he's had. But Patterson should have better quarterbacks than Harvin had post-Favre, and he already has an offensive coordinator that will require him to run downfield routes, and the offense may not require using their best pass-catching talent in the way Harvin was used.

Matt Cassel
Starting Matt Cassel for week one is the safe, low-risk move. If the opening slate of tough competitors beat the hell out of Matt Cassel, that doesn't mean the same as if they beat the hell out of Teddy Bridgewater. If Cassel starts and sucks, they can go to Bridgewater at any point this season; if Bridgewater starts and sucks, there's really nowhere to go. If it doesn't help Bridgewater's long-term prospects, it will do nothing to jeopardize those prospects: plenty of great QBs start out in that backup spot.

If Matt Cassel starts the year and stinks, it does not matter at all. It will not affect anybody. There are few expectations for the Vikes to compete this season. Mike Zimmer's job isn't in trouble if Cassel stinks: starting Cassel practically announces you're prepping for the future and using a stopgap/bridge until that time comes. And if Cassel plays well, the Vikes win some games, and they have the look of a successful season, then they ride it as far as it goes and Bridgewater starts in 2015.

Anthony Barr
Watching the preseason, it's clear that Anthony Barr is slotted to be a full-time starter who will be used in multiple ways. In the last game I tried to key in on #55, and when the first-team defense was out there, he was out there practically the whole time. Sometimes he rushed the passer from the edge. Sometimes he dropped into coverage. Sometimes he showed blitz. He didn't excel in a notable way, but he also didn't look lost, and it looks like the coaching staff is preparing him for a big role this year.

Sharrif Floyd
August is always a time for players to explain why they'll be better this year than they were last year. For Sharrif Floyd, that explanation is that he's lost 30 pounds and feels healthier for it. That could help increase his playing time: he does say "I feel like I can last a lot longer in the games." That could put him on the field for a higher percentage of snaps (he'll need to) and could improve productivity late in games. And Floyd doesn't seem like Pat Williams, who combined incredible athleticism, quickness, and strength with a simply enormous body: Floyd probably will be better playing smaller.

Floyd was something of a disappointment in 2013. Looking at the Snap Counts at Football Outsiders, the snap percentage leaders in 2013 for DTs was Kevin Williams (61.5%), Floyd (39.3%), Letroy Guion (33.2%), and Fred Evans (30.0%). I'm surprised to see he played that much (in my subjective memory it certainly seemed like Guion made more plays, but the stats say Guion wasn't much different than Floyd--so much for subjective memory). But it seems clear he was drafted to be Kevin Williams' successor in 2014, so now it's time to find out if he can be a disruptive force from the inside.

Also, that Football Outsiders Snap Count feature is amazing. Filtering by team and defensive unit is particularly illuminating (did you know Chad Greenway played 98.7% of defensive snaps last year, and for the hell of it got 19.7% of special teams snaps?).

Defense!
I'm really excited to see what the defense is like this year. I've become almost as bored as I am frustrated by that Tampa 2. More aggressiveness at defending passes over the short middle, and more flexibility with the pass rush from the front seven, would be a welcome change.

Fantasy Box: You are trying to win your league, not the draft
As some of you prepare for your fantasy drafts, this is the most important reminder I can give you: you are trying to win your league, not the draft. Don't worry overmuch about ADP or rankings or even getting laughed at. Draft the players you think will be good when you think you can get them.

For a snake draft, one of my fundamental principles is that there is no such thing as a reach. If you really like a player more than anybody else available, and you don't think that player will be available by the time you pick again, then you should take that player. This is especially true if you pick at or near the beginning or end of a round, and there is a long wait. You take the players you think will be good when you have the chance to take them.

For an auction, many experts will tell you to be flexible and find deals and "value" and let the draft come to you. Bugger that. Experts often talk as if all the players in a positional tier are the same player and will produce the same numbers. This is not true. You have to use your judgment and analysis of the player and situation to determine which players in the tier will perform great and which players in the tier will disappoint.If you have to "overpay" (there's no such thing,* but whatever) for a player you really think will be good, that is better than getting a bargain on a player that you don't think will be as good. As a wise man once said,
I target players, not bargains. If I'm wrong about players, the season won't go well, but I'd rather go into the season with the players I really expect to be good, not the players I happened to be able to get because the auction price was good. I don't mean you should set your heart on one player and pay whatever price he goes for, but you should set your heart on a handful of players, try to get the ones you can get at the best prices, but be willing to pay what the auction market requires to get a few of them.

*If you increase the bid by more than one increment, you could overpay. If you misplay the bidding in a one-on-one bidding war--if your opponent has $20 left and you make the next bid $19 instead of $20, you pay $21 instead of $20--you can overpay. But basically in order to get a player you have to be willing to pay more for him than anybody else in your draft is willing to pay, and if somebody else in the draft is bidding, then to get him you're not overpaying.

Targeting a Quarterback

Running QBs
The first thing to do when deciding on your QB is to look at your league's rules and scoring. You can identify advantages if you see areas in lineups and scoring where certain positions or types of players become advantageous. In my auction league, the scoring heavily favors QBs capable of rushing: 1 point per 40 pass yards and 3 points per pass TD, but 1 point per 10 rush yards and 6 points per rush TD. This gives rushing QBs a huge advantage in scoring. Even on their bad games, if they add 30-40 rush yards to their total, they end up with a reasonable fantasy week, and in their monster games they can crush a traditional dropback passer.

When considering the value of a rushing QB, I try to translate their rushing yards and rushing TDs into passing yards and passing TDs, via fantasy points. Consider a league that awards (a Yahoo! standard) 1 point per 25 pass yards and 4 points per pass TD, and the standard 1 point per 10 rush yards and 6 points per rush TD. If you translate the QB's rushing numbers into passing numbers and add them to that QB's passing numbers, you end up with something like this:

Cam Newton: 5,719 yards, 33 TDs
Russell Wilson: 5,513 yards, 27.5 TDs
Colin Kaepernick: 5,293 yards, 27

I have a feeling if these QBs actually threw for over 5,000 yards and in the neighborhood of 30 TDs, they'd be ranked much higher by a lot of people. They're outperforming QBs like Matt RyanMatthew Stafford or Tony Romo, but with much higher upside (since you can easily envision passing numbers and/or rushing TDs going up for some of these guys). I'm not saying you should target every running QB, but QBs who put up solid passing numbers and great rushing numbers are remarkable fantasy assets.

Low Pass Attempts
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is worth targeting QBs who were successful fantasy scorers despite their team throwing the ball very little.

The basic logic of Regression Toward the Mean is simple: when something one season is to the far extreme, it is likely to move away from that far extreme the following season (either closer to average, or sometimes in the opposite direction). I remember Chase Stuart at Football Perspective warning about high-scoring fantasy QBs whose success was partly based on high attempts, and to look for guys who were good despite low attempts. So it is worth looking at QBs who were successful, efficient passers--and solid fantasy scorers--despite very few pass attempts. It is not hard to imagine a small change in circumstance--the defense becoming slightly weaker, the running game becoming slightly less effective--leading to a jump in pass attempts the next year.

In 2013, the teams with the lowest number of pass attempts featured our three QBs featured above: San Francisco (417), Seattle (420), and Carolina (473) (it's definitely worth noting that these QBs' abilities to run the ball means some of the teams' passing attempts turned into rushing attempts, of course). I expect those teams to have more pass attempts this year. So who to target?

I expect Cam Newton to stay about the same as a fantasy producer. I'm not worried about his WRs because his WRs weren't that good the last two years and he was still a high fantasy scorer. But he's also not really developed at all as a passer (Bill Barnwell shows this clearly). His rushing numbers should keep him productive, but I don't see any reason to expect a big jump in passing numbers.

Russell Wilson has been the most efficient passer of this trio (63.6 completion percentage, 8.1 yards per attempt, 100.6 rating), so he seems to be the player who would most benefit from a climb in pass attempts. Again, I can envision a combination of a declining running game and good but slightly less dominant defense--and the team trusting him more to open things up in his third year--leading to a great increase in his fantasy scoring. Plus he only had one rushing TD with 539--if he rushes for 500 yards again, he will score more TDs. I'd happily target him.

But Colin Kaepernick has amazed me every time I've watched him play. His combination of skills may be unmatched in the NFL right now. And of these three QBs, he has by far the best supporting cast of pass catchers: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, and Vernon Davis are a pretty amazing, diverse supporting cast. If the 49er defense takes a step back, Kaepernick stays healthy, and the 49ers trust him more with the offense in his fourth season, he could be the top fantasy scoring QB this season.

I'm in three very different fantasy football leagues, and in each one I drafted Colin Kaepernick to be my starting QB. One was a 12 team auction league that heavily favors running QBs (I also got Russell Wilson because I view them pretty equally and Wilson's late draft price was right), one was a PPR Dynasty draft where I wanted a young QB, and the other was a standard snake draft where I really played the "Wait on QB" strategy, not taking one until other people had started taking their backups. If I'm wrong about Kaepernick, my wrongness has a fair chance to torpedo my entire fantasy year (although not really: in one league I'd just plug in Wilson, in the dynasty league I seem slated to suck anyway and I'm playing for 2015, and in the other league, there are always free agent QBs to plug in).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2013 Minnesota Vikings reserves to watch out for in 2014: Jarius Wright

Note: This is the third post in a short series looking at Vikings reserves who potentially could play a bigger role with the team in 2014. The first two posts looked at safety Robert Blanton and cornerback Marcus Sherels.This post concentrates on the offense, and wide receiver Jarius Wright.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall I've expected bigger things from Wright before. In March of 2013, I wrote that Wright was a prime candidate to step up his game during the 2013 season.

It was not a prophetic post. Despite appearing in all 16 games for the Vikings (in his rookie 2012 season he dressed for only seven), Wright caught only four more passes (26 compared to 22) than he did in 2012.

Why didn't Wright have the breakout season I envisioned? The Vikings quarterback situation may have had something to do with it.As bad as he was many times in 2012, Christian Ponder was the only QB Wright played with until the Joe Webb playoff game against the Packers. Ponder established a bit of a connection with Wright. In 2013, the Vikings QB merry-go-round - starting with Ponder, then replacing him with Matt Cassel, then replacing Cassel with Josh Freeman, then going back to Ponder, then going back to Cassel again - made it tough for any wide receiver to establish a rapport with a QB. That could have stunted Wright's growth and production because he was a reserve who didn't get a lot of snaps and was playing with a different QB every other week.

The other factor in Wright's failing to break out is that the competition for playing time at wide receiver with the Vikings was a lot stiffer than it had been in 2012. Remember, Wright was inactive for the first nine games of that season. He only started suiting up when Percy Harvin got injured and stopped playing. With Harvin out, Wright was fighting for snaps with Michael Jenkins, a less-than-100-per cent Jerome Simpson and Stephen Burton. In 2013, with Harvin traded to Seattle, Wright was fighting for snaps with Greg Jennings, a healthy Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson.

I'm doubting myself more than usual as I write this post. Is Wright really going to be a more important player for this team this season? He hasn't really shown any signs this preseason that he will be. He hasn't caught a lot of passes, and he hasn't played a lot, either. And when he has, it's been with the backups. It's fair to say Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith have flashed more than Wright has. This makes a guy think that maybe Wright isn't Norv Turner's kind of receiver for whatever reason. I've also heard Turner doesn't run a lot of four WR sets, and because Wright is stuck behind Jennings and Patterson on the depth, and seems to be stuck behind Simpson on the depth chart, well ...

After the Chiefs game, head coach Mike Zimmer was asked why Wright wasn't playing that much. Here is what he said:

"Jarius will get a lot of time this week. We've got a good idea what he can do from practice. With us trying to get the offense installed and get guys in the right place, unfortunately we haven't had enough reps in some of the personnel groups he's been in." 

Hmm.

Anyway, here's why I think Wright will play a bigger role with the Vikings than he did his first two seasons - he's shown an ability to eat up big chunks of yardage when he catches the ball. His 16.7 yards-per-catch average last season was tops on the team. Ten of his 26 catches were for 20 yards or more and 33 of his 48 career catches have resulted in first downs. Meanwhile, he's got an offensive coordinator in Turner who likes to push the ball down the field. Wright's skill set seems to match up with what Turner likes to do even if Wright's size (listed at 5'10 and 180 pounds - although I think he's shorter than that) isn't ideal.

I think the Vikings offense is going to be much better this year than it was in Wright's first two seasons with the club. I think they are going to throw the ball more than they did and they will be more successful doing so. That should mean more opportunities for all the Vikes WRs. There's also the matter of Simpson possibly being suspended for the first three games of this season. If that happens, Wright should take his place as the Vikes #3 WR and he'll play more than he ever has. Given that opportunity, I think he'll play well enough that the Vikes will let him stay in that role, and that could mean he'll put up numbers similar to what Simpson did in 2013 (approximately 50 catches and 700 yards or so, but he'll catch more TD passes than Simpson.) That would represent a career-best season for Wright.

The Vikings will take that. So will Jarius Wright.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Vikings cut some guys, and Matt Cassel is our starter (for now)

The Vikings got to the unpleasant business of cutting players on Monday, letting 13 guys go.

The Vikes still have to cut one more player before the Tuesday deadline, but the only surprise here is Derek Cox, who was a starter in Jacksonville and San Diego and who has a pro pedigree these other guys do not have. Cox also played 29 snaps Saturday night against the Chiefs while the other guys who were cut played very little or not at all. I figured Cox would stick around for at least one more week. Mike Zimmer thought otherwise, and so far has elected to keep corners Kendall James and Julian Posey (neither guy played against the Chiefs) instead.

One final thought about safety Mistral Raymond, a nice fellow who never seemed to be able to stay healthy and didn't do much when he was. He is now the seventh player from Minnesota's 10-man 2011 draft class who is no longer on the team. The three that are still around are tight end Kyle Rudolph, offensive guard Brandon Fusco and quarterback Christian Ponder. Of those three, Rudolph just signed a big contract extension and should be a Viking for a while, Fusco is looking for a big contract extension and will probably get it, and Ponder will be joining Raymond as a member of the ex-Viking alumni the moment the 2014 season ends - if not sooner.

Matt Cassel - do you believe?

I do not believe, but what I believe doesn't matter. Mike Zimmer has named Matt Cassel as the Vikings starting QB.

I won't deny Cassel has looked fine during the preseason. But he's still a placeholder QB. What I'm wondering is how badly Cassel will have to play for Ted Bridgewater gets thrown in there this season, and if Cassel gets hurt, do the Vikes put Bridgewater in then? There has been a theory put out by ESPN's Ben Goessling that the Vikings might turn to Ponder if Cassel were to get hurt or implode if they don't think Bridgewater is ready to play.

Thursday's final preseason game might provide some clues into what the Vikings are thinking regarding this issue. If Bridgewater only plays, say, a quarter and Ponder plays three, that could be a sign they don't want to risk getting Bridgewater injured and that they are confident he can handle the job if Cassel gets hurt or sucks so hard he has to be replaced.

But that's just my theory.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trailing clouds of preseason: Vikings-Chiefs

Vikings 30 Chiefs 12

Does winning matter at all in the preseason?

Most NFL coaches and players will say that it doesn't. Second, third and fourth stringers are playing a lot, and teams don't show opponents their full offensive and defensive game plans. Results aren't supposed to be top of mind.

But what if you're playing really badly? Take Kansas City, for example. A week ago the Chiefs lost to Carolina 28-16. They followed that up by getting smoked by the Vikings. I watched Saturday's game online and so I got the Kansas City feed with the Chiefs commentators calling the game. Late in the fourth quarter the Chiefs sideline guy interviewed Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali and asked him about the team's performance in the game. Hali uttered some cliches and talked about how the Chiefs defense was still "working on things", but the pained look on Hali's face, his body language and his tone of voice revealed something else to me - he thinks the Chiefs are in trouble.

For a team with a rookie head coach and a new offensive and defensive system, and a team coming off a 5-10-1 season, I think winning does matter in the preseason. It sounds like the Viking players have been buying what Mike Zimmer has been selling from day one. But it can't hurt his credibility to be 3-0 in the preseason. And it can't hurt the confidence of almost every member of the Vikings roster to see the team have a little success even during exhibition games. I'm sure they believe in themselves just a little bit more than they did four weeks ago.

In 1992 during Dennis Green's rookie year as an NFL head coach, the Vikings went 4-0 in the preseason, and Green's Vikings then jumped out to a 5-1 start and won the division with a record of 11-5. I'm not saying Zimmer's 2014 Vikings are going to do the same thing. But I do think a strong preseason could help the Vikings overachieve, particularly early in the season when the schedule is very tough.

Should we be concerned about Matt Cassel's play against the Chiefs?

Yes and no. This is the worst Cassel has looked (9-for-17, 152 yards 1 TD and 1 INT). The long TD pass to Cordarrelle Patterson was sublime. The interception he forced to a covered Jerome Simpson was not. The Vikings receivers and O-line didn't help him much, but if the Vikings are going to roll with Cassel as the starting QB (and they are) then we have to accept Cassel for what he is - an average QB who is capable of having some very good games and just as capable of having several stinkers. Performances like Saturday against Kansas City shouldn't surprise us. And there will be more of them.

Is the Vikings defensive line as good as it looked against the Chiefs?

Pacifist Viking once wrote that Vikes fans should focus on the line of scrimmage when they watch their favourite team play because they'd learn a lot about how their interior lines are doing in games.

I still haven't trained myself to watch games that way, but if I did I suspect I'd be pleasantly surprised by the play of defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen so far. I just seem to be noticing them a lot - for good reasons - this preseason. Sharrif Floyd looks like an improved player, as Darren Page points out in this recent post at Vikings Territory. Everson Griffen was a terror Saturday night against Kansas City and Brian Robison wasn't too shabby either. Fred Evans also had a big game getting into the Kansas City backfield early and often. Evans can do this sort of damage, he just never does it consistently. Still, he's great depth to have inside. Third round draft pick Scott Crichton hasn't shown much at defensive end so far, but you can't win them all, and the Vikes do have Corey Wootton to spell Griffen and Robison. I'm pretty pumped about this unit.

Should we be concerned about Matt Kalil?

Yes. Pro Football Focus went over this in the following post. What bothered me in the Chiefs game is that Kalil is an offensive tackle who is supposed to win with his quickness and athletic ability rather than his brute strength. Yet he was beaten by Hali with quickness throughout the game. If Kalil can't get his act together as a pass blocker this season, the Vikes offense won't be as good as it could be. I might as well admit it, I'm officially worried about Matt Kalil.

Friday, August 22, 2014

2013 Minnesota Vikings reserves to watch out for in 2014: Marcus Sherels

Note: This will be the second post in a short series looking at Vikings reserves who potentially could play a bigger role with the team in 2014. The first post looked at Robert Blanton. Next up is cornerback Marcus Sherels.

Remember in the 2012 regular season season finale against the Packers when Antoine Winfield left the game late in the first half with a broken hand and the Vikings were forced to play Sherels in the nickel role? Remember how Green Bay repeatedly picked on Sherels, throwing wide receiver screen after wide receiver screen, realizing Sherels couldn't fight off the blocks at the line of scrimmage and prevent long gains? If you watched Sherels that day there is no way you could have imagined he'd develop into useful NFL cornerback.

However, as Sherels enters his fifth season with the Vikings, I suspect that is what he's becoming. We got glimpses of it last year when he was pressed into service because of injuries, off-the-field issues and ineffectiveness in the Vikings secondary. To my untrained eyes, Sherels played reasonably well when called upon. He recorded six passes defensed in 2013 (he had four combined his first three seasons) and even intercepted a pass - something last year's starting corners, Josh Robinson and Chris Cook, did not do.

I'm no football scout (but you knew that already), but Sherels looked like a more confident guy on the field in 2013, and his play, in my opinion, reflected that confidence. He was no longer a liability when the Vikings played him in the secondary. He actually looked like an asset.

While keeping up with training camp comings and goings, it seems like Sherels is building on what he did last season. His name has been mentioned several times in training camp writeups - intercepting passes, tipping them ,etc., etc.

Will that carry over into games? I don't know, but I did notice last Saturday that Sherels got a fair number of snaps with the Vikes first-team defense against the Arizona Cardinals. Sherels didn't do anything noteworthy with those snaps, but the fact head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards played Sherels that much with the first-team defense suggests they are considering giving Sherels a larger role with the defense than he had in previous seasons.

And let's face it, the Vikings aren't oozing with talent at the cornerback position. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are going to play a lot. After that? Who knows? Sherels is duking it out for playing time with Josh Robinson, Derek Cox and Jabari Price. Of those three players, Robinson was horrible last year and he's currently on Zimmer's shit list, Cox is coming off just as bad a year as Robinson in San Diego. Price is a 7th round draft pick.

So it's possible Sherels wins the Vikings 3rd or 4th cornerback job by default. Or, maybe Sherels wins it on merit - because he's improved so much in two seasons that the Vikes need him.

Either way, I think we'll be seeing Sherels on the field more for defensive purposes than we did in 2013.