Saturday, August 4, 2012

Training camp injuries threaten Minnesota Vikings rebuilding effort

Well, these training camp injuries are really starting to sour my mood.

In the span of a couple of days, some potential important contributors to the 2012 Minnesota Vikings have gone down with serious injuries.

Geoff Schwartz looks like he will be out a month - at least - with a hernia. And rookie wideout Greg Childs has suffered what some are saying are injuries to both his knees that will put him on the shelf for 2012.

The Schwartz injury is not ideal, but at least the Vikings have options. Brandon Fusco was getting first team reps at right guard anyway and Joe Berger can fill in there as well.

Childs is another matter. Jerome Simpson is the Vikings de facto deep threat at wide receiver, but he's suspended for the first three games. Childs' height (he's 6'3), long arms, leaping ability and deceptive speed made him an intriguing option to serve in that role while Simpson is out. Plus, Simpson is only signed for one year and he could sign elsewhere in 2013 if he has a successful 2012. Childs, meanwhile, is under the Vikings control for the next four years and if he turns out to be good the Vikings have that goodness for four seasons (and at a cheap price). I wonder if this could even end Childs' pro career before it's started. Major injuries to both knees? I'm sure it's happened, but I've never heard of it. Just not a good week for the Vikings on the injury front.     

Hilliard vs. Todman
The Vikings coaching staff watches these guys everyday, so you have to give them the benefit of the doubt, still I furrow my brow when I read a guy is the favorite to win the number three running back job because he plays special teams well.

Overall, Lex Hilliard doesn't seem to do anything that wows you. But he's a veteran, he's been through the NFL wars, and he's a good special teams player. Jordan Todman - who is fighting Hilliard for the number three running back spot - has great speed, he's just not much of a special teams guy right now.

For a team that was as offensively challenged as the Vikings were in 2011, I'd prefer to give the player with the ability to make big plays a roster spot over a player who is just there. Todman seems like he has a little Darren Sproules in him, whereas Lex Hilliard is, well, Lex Hilliard.


  1. I actually really respect the thinking that gives somewhat inferior position players spots on the special team.

    How often do you see the third RB taking snaps? Adrian Peterson missed 4 games, and Booker still only had 13 run attempts. But they are expected to contribute for every special teams play, of which there are significantly more than 13 of.

    The likelihood that a 3rd back or 6th CB sees the field is so much lower than the likelihood that they have to make a play on special teams, that the marginal value between an OK backup and a decent backup is irrelevant compared to the marginal value of a poor special teams player and a good special teams player.

    Also, the Vikings have stated they want their 3rd back not to be just a change-of-pace back, but contribute in every phase of play—running, blocking, catching and special teams. Hilliard is a much better blocker from what I've seen and the reports coming in from camp.

  2. Arif:

    I take your point but disagree with it. Booker only had 13 rush attempts because he isn't any good. That he wasn't able to take snaps from Peterson - whose pass blocking has always been spotty and who isn't a natural pass catcher out of the backfield - or Gerhart, whose pass blocking and pass catching is also so-so at this stage, says a lot about his abilities. If you've got somebody as a third down back who can provide some big-play ability as a runner and pass catcher he'd get more snaps than Booker ever did.

    I haven't seen Todman in action and you have, but if Todman flashed the ability to take a screen pass and turn it into a 20 or 30 yard gain - something a guy like Sproules does frequently - I think that's worth more than keeping a guy who might make the occasional tackle on special teams and can pass block a bit.

    1. Actually, Hilliard's not looking too bad. There's an argument to be had that he is a more complete player than Todman. He's a great blocker, and his pass-catching ability might be a bit better (hard to tell), but completions will have higher YAC with Todman. Lex is very clearly a power runner, and it is hard to determine a power runner's effectiveness in the offseason. Seems like he can punch through holes, but you won't get big gains. I think for a lot of people, you want your third back to be a pass blocker more than anything else, because your third back isn't going to be a very effective runner regardless.

      I think Todman is very risk/reward. Extremely fast, but I haven't seen enough to say whether he reads holes/zone blocking well or not. Good news is that he's both agile in small spaces and fast on the bigger field. But he's one-dimensional in that respect. Fast and quick and not much else. I saw him tackled in the backfield more often than Gerhart or Hilliard, and potentially more than Coleman (which might be irrelevant because of uneven camp snap counts).

      I took a quick look at good running attacks that had two good backs. The third backs generally don't get very many rushes. Panthers (7), Steelers (22), Broncos (18), 49ers (32), Eagles (23). The most I could find with an offense featuring a premier back was the Texans with 45. I suppose you could count Kahlil Bell (79), but there were two injuries—one for a relatively long time—on that roster. The point is that third backs rarely make plays (2 a game or so), and the difference is enough that I definitely consider special teams talent more than position talent.

      That doesn't mean I don't think that these players should meet a threshold for talent at their stated position; they should be able to make some plays without screwing the team.

      If only there was an effective special teams plus/minus, but low snap counts and poor player participation data would make that useless. As it is, I think the difference between a good player on special teams and a poor player is generally about a half a yard to a yard on average. That means your 10 players (excluding the specialist) can swing you 5-10 yards per special teams play.

      Using advancednflstats' WPA calculator, that looks like a 2% change in win probability per play, which is more than what the third down back usually provides.

    2. Arif:

      My thinking is that Todman would get more touches as a pass receiver than as a runner. But add them up and that adds a few plays to a third running back's snap count. It's splitting hairs, I guess. I'm also looking long-term with this. If the idea is to give young players a shot and develop players that will help the Vikings in 2013 and 2014 when (hopefully) they are ready to contend for the playoffs, why not keep the risk/reward guy instead of the plugger?

      It's one of the Vikings lesser worries, though.

  3. The Childs injury is upsetting. He may have been fragile come the regular season anyway, though.