TRAINING CAMP GOALS
With this being the fourth training camp under coach Jim Schwartz and coordinators Scott Linehan (offense) and Gunther Cunningham (defense), most of the system installation work is done and the Lions can use training camp to focus on a couple of weak spots from last season.
1. Improve the running game. They should know fairly early on in camp whether running backs Jahvid Best (concussions) and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles) will be healthy enough to provide the one-two punch they are hoping for. If not, they will have veteran Kevin Smith and would probably have to make a move to add another veteran back.
2. Settle the secondary. Two spots are secure - Chris Houston at left cornerback and Louis Delmas at one of the safety spots. The other two are wide open. Recently signed free agent Sean Jones will battle incumbent Amari Spievey and veteran Erik Coleman for the other safety spot. That should be one of the best battles of camp. At right corner, Aaron Berry will face a stiff challenge from veteran Alphonso Smith and rookies Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood.
PLAYER TO WATCH
All eyes will be on Jahvid Best. When he's been available, he has provided the offense with a multi-dimensional threat similar to what Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles provided the Saints the last few years - a big-play threat running and receiving out of the backfield.
But Best has had three concussions the last two seasons, two within three months last season. He took part in all the offseason conditioning work, but hasn't been cleared for contact. He is expected to take another series of concussions tests the week prior to training camp. Both Best and the Lions are optimistic that he will be cleared.
Even if he is cleared, though, there is no way to predict what will happen the next time he takes a blow to the head. It will be interesting to see how the Lions walk that line between getting him ready for the season and protecting him against another head shot.
ON THE HOT SEAT
It's time for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to identify himself as a football player. Is he the quarterback-destroying force he was during his rookie season in 2010 or is he the under-producing, hot-headed, personal foul machine he was last season?
The Lions need him to be, and are paying him to be, the former. The success of Gunther Cunningham's defensive system is predicated on getting pressure from the defensive front four. When Suh is blowing up the middle and drawing two and three blockers, the path is cleared for the defensive ends to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and ball carriers.
--Cornerback Aaron Berry was arrested June 23 for driving under the influence as well as two charges for causing damage to an unattended vehicle and two counts of failing to stop and give enforcement to police. Berry allegedly hit two parked cars and then left the scene. He was eventually apprehended at 4:45 a.m.
In a statement, Berry said, "I want to offer a sincere apology to the Lions organization, Lions fans, the coaches and all my teammates for my actions this past weekend. This is not the example I want to set for young people and it's certainly not what my team and coaches expect from me. I promise to do everything in my power to make sure this never happens again. I understand these are just words and it will be my future actions that ultimately will speak for me."
A statement from the Lions said, "We are extremely disappointed in the reports involving Aaron Berry and the incident in Pennsylvania this past weekend. This is not the standard of behavior we expect from any member of our organization. We have strongly and repeatedly emphasized the need to be accountable on and off the field, which makes this incident with Aaron all the more disappointing. We will have further comments regarding this situation when appropriate."
The incident with Berry was the sixth arrest by a Lions player this offseason.
--Coach Jim Schwartz characterized his team's entire offseason program as "outstanding." But, almost in the same breath, he cautioned against reading too much into 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp.
"I don't mean to be nonchalant, but it's mini-camp and it's OTAs," he said. "It's not football. It's not even a practice, excuse me Allen Iverson. We're sort of installing our preparation for practice. You can't get all 'yippy' and 'hurrah' and start thinking you are in a different spot with your team based on stuff that's not a true evaluation of talent or a true evaluation of where we are and where we are going to go."
--That said, comparing where the Lions are today coming out of the offseason program to where they were the first year of the Schwartz era, is night and day. "We are at a different point in our installation than we've ever been," he said. "We're in the fourth year with our offensive and defensive system, the third year of our special teams system. We've put some new wrinkles in but we are not starting from scratch. After the first couple of OTAs we probably had in as much as we installed the entire offseason my first year. We're in a better spot."
--Several veteran safeties have worked out for the Lions this offseason, including Oshiomogho Atogwe, Chris Crocker, Sean Jones and Deon Grant. But before pulling the trigger on any of those, general manager Martin Mayhew said he wanted to take a long look at younger players on his roster like Ricardo Silva, Alonzo Lawrence, Don Carey and Sam Proctor. He's taken the same stance with the running back position.
"I like the group of guys we have," Mayhew said, referring to Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith. "If they are healthy, and that's a really big if, that's an outstanding group of players. But the injury question with all three is a concern. We talked about adding a guy in the offseason, but the more I see of these guys - of Keiland Williams and Joique Bell - I want to see how it plays out before I go in a different direction."
--Second-year linebacker Doug Hogue, at age 23, has added more than an inch and 15 pounds to his frame. "I've been eating my Wheaties, man," he said, laughing about the extra inch. "Honestly I don't know how it happened. I didn't notice it. When I came back (for offseason workouts) coach (Matt) Burke said, 'Did you grow a little bit?' I said, 'No, I don't think so.' But he took to me to the training room and measured me. Sure enough." Hogue measured 6-2.3 last season. This season, he's 6.3.5. His weight went from 230 to 245. "It's working out for me," Hogue said. "I am dealing with the weight well. I am moving with it."
--Hogue missed the first week of OTAs after a incurring a 46-stitch slash on his left arm. "I was home (Yonkers, New York) Memorial Day weekend helping my sister move," he said. "A big glass mirror fell on me. It was a big, glass, full-body mirror. I was thinking, I hope my arm don't fall off," he said. "Coach (Jim) Schwartz said next time hire somebody. But I am back now and everything is good."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're talking. We're still trying to get things figured out before camp. I want to be there long-term, I want to get a deal done. I don't want to play under the franchise tag. I've been with the team for four, going on five years. Started off a little shaky going 0-16 and I want to be with the team when we make the Super Bowl run. I would prefer not to play on the franchise tag but we have a lot of time in front of us. I think the deadline is July 16 and hopefully we get something figured out before then. I haven't really thought past that point." -- DE Cliff Avril to NFL Network on his holdout.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions signed eight-year veteran safety Sean Jones to a one-year deal. They released undrafted rookie safety Sam Proctor. Jones, a starter for the Browns, Eagles and the Bucs, will be in the mix for the starting spot opposite Louis Delmas. Jones and veteran Erik Coleman are battling to unseat incumbent Amari Spievey.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
The only question remaining about Stafford is what he can do for an encore after throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns last season. For starters, he can be better on third downs and be more efficient and productive in the red zone. Hill returns to provide a capable veteran backup. The question is whether the Lions will carry three quarterbacks on the roster. Both Moore and Archer are a step back from Drew Stanton, who has moved on to Indianapolis. Moore's lack of arm strength was glaring at minicamp, which is why they brought back Arena League vet Archer. It is possible they would stash one of the two on the practice squad.
The Lions have put their faith in the health of Best and Leshoure. There is no certainty with either, except for the fact that Leshoure will be suspended for the first two games for violating the league's conduct code. Smith looked strong and healthy during OTAs and minicamp, but he too has battled injuries. Of the other backups, only Williams has a chance to make the roster, which seems to indicate the Lions aren't done tweaking the depth chart at this position.
Other than quarterback, this is the most stable position group on the team. Pettigrew broke his own single-season records for catches and yards last season and was, for all intents and purposes, the Lions' run game. Instead of a traditional run game, they used short, controlled passes to Pettigrew. With Pettigrew and Scheffler, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can create and exploit mismatches against smaller defensive backs, particularly in the red zone. It has been an effective weapon the last two seasons. Heller is used as an H-back, as well as the blocking tight end. The Lions didn't have a fullback on the roster last season and probably won't this season.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson. Backups - Titus Young, Ryan Broyles, Marcus Harris, Stefan Logan, Jarett Dillard, Wallace Miles, Lance Long, Maurice Stovall, Terrence Tolliver, Patrick Edwards, Nate Hughes.
One of the best receiver corps in the league got better. Johnson, the two-time Pro Bowler who signed an eight-year, $132 million contract in March, is coming off the best year of his career (96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns). The emergence of both Burleson and Young (combined 121 catches for 1,182 yards) made defenses play somewhat more honestly against Johnson. Johnson lined up at various spots, including the slot, and though he still attracted multiple coverages, it was harder for defenses to isolate and neutralize him. They have added another versatile and dynamic receiver in Oklahoma rookie Broyles, undrafted rookie burner Edwards and veteran Dillard. It will be quite a fight for the final two receiver spots, with Edwards, Stovall, Hughes and Tolliver all in the hunt.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jeff Backus, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups - T Riley Reiff, RT Corey Hilliard, LT Jason Fox, LT Johnny Culbreath, G/C Dylan Gandy, G Jacques McClendon, C Dan Gerberry, G J.C. Oram, G Rodney Austin.
The Lions would love to see the entire starting unit remain intact for a third straight season, even though Backus is 34 and Raiola 33. But they won't be too sad if first-round draft pick Reiff breaks into the lineup. The coaching staff praised Reiff's work through OTAs and minicamp and expect him to contribute this season. His best chance at unseating a starter will be at right tackle. Cherilus has been up and down through his first three seasons, though this is the first year he's not coming off surgery. Fox was expected to challenge for a spot in the rotation at tackle, too, but his oft-injured knee flared up again at the end of minicamp. He will need to stay healthy throughout camp to make the squad.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Cliff Avril, LT Ndamukong Suh, RT Corey Williams, RE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups - LE Lawrence Jackson, DT Nick Fairley, DT Sammie Hill, DT Andre Fluellen, RE Willie Young, DE Everette Brown, DE Ronnell Lewis, DE Eddie McClam, DE Ugo Chinasa, DT Michael Cosgrove.
The only serious question here is whether Avril will miss any time. He has until July 16 to work out a long-term deal or sign his $10.6 million franchise tender. Although negotiations continue, it's more likely he will have to sign the tender if he wants to play this season. He has said that he wouldn't turn his nose up at $10.6 million; the question is whether he will hold out for a while before signing. The eight-man rotation appears set, though Brown will have a chance at cracking it, especially if Avril holds out. Rookie Lewis will make his mark on special teams this season. Veteran Fluellen, a key backup at both tackle and end, could be on the bubble this season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups - OLB Doug Hogue, OLB Tahir Whitehead, OLB Travis Lewis, MLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Slade Norris, OLB Carmen Messina, MLB Ronnie Sneed.
Easily the most improved position group last season with the addition of Tulloch and Durant, the question now is can it take another step? Levy, who moved from middle to outside linebacker last season, should be more stable at the position. He was mostly a two-down player last season, taken out on passing downs. It will be interesting to see how much his cover ability improves. There should be an intense battle for the fourth linebacker spot between second-year man Hogue and rookie Whitehead. Hogue grew nearly a full inch and gained 15 pounds in the offseason and the coaching staff was raving about Whitehead's speed and athleticism. Veteran Ashlee Palmer has moved to middle linebacker, but he will have to beat out rookie Travis Lewis to keep a roster spot.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Chris Houston, RCB Aaron Berry, S Louis Delmas, S Amari Spievey. Backups - CB Jacob Lacey, CB Alphonso Smith, CB Bill Bentley, CB Jonte Green, CB Chris Greenwood, S Erik Coleman, S Sean Smith, S John Wendling, S Don Carey, S Ricardo Silva, S Ross Weaver.
The Lions weren't able to land any marquee draft picks or free agents to shore up this troubled position. What they did instead was go for quantity. The hope is that from the three drafted rookie corners - Bentley, Green and Greenwood - they will, at the very least, improve their depth. They are very confident about starting Berry at right corner. He was essentially the right corner at the end of last season with Eric Wright moving into the slot. That was the direction they were going, even if they could have re-signed Wright. Lacey, a free-agent signee, has the inside track on the nickel corner spot. Veteran Smith will have to beat out one of the rookies to keep his roster spot, which could be tough because Smith does not contribute on special teams. It's a make-or-break camp for Spievey. The safety spot opposite Delmas is his to lose, but veterans Smith and Coleman, as well as Carey, will give him no margin for error.
The best battle of camp could be between punters Graham and Donahue. Donahue, a heavy-footed boomer, unseated veteran Nick Harris last season, but injured his quad during the bye week. Graham, a savvy, directional kicker, took over and stabilized the punt team. With the strength of the Lions' offense, you would think a trusted directional kicker would have more value than a somewhat erratic, long-ball hitter. Return ace Logan is also fighting for his roster spot. The Lions are giving several players a chance to claim the punt return duties - most prominently Broyles and Edwards.
Green Bay Packers
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Large construction cranes have towered over Lambeau Field, where expansion of the famed stadium has been fast and furious this offseason with the addition of new scoreboards and more seats.
The building hasn't stopped there.
General manager Ted Thompson has charged head coach Mike McCarthy and coordinator Dom Capers to repair the defense after the Packers fell hard to the bottom of the NFL rankings last season. They allowed a league-record 4,796 net passing yards.
"For us in the secondary, it stings a great deal to be attached to the worst passing defense in the league," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said.
The makeover started in the spring when Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players, to go with a few free-agent acquisitions, and will pick up in earnest when camp begins July 26.
For the Packers to cut down on the abundance of big plays allowed, their pass rush must get better. First-round draft pick Nick Perry is being paired with Clay Matthews at outside linebacker to hammer away at the latter.
2. Green Bay's electrifying offense, led by league MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, covered a lot of the blemishes by the defense in a 15-1 regular season.
As Rodgers and his talented cast of receivers look to set the bar higher after the Packers racked up the second-highest points total (560) in league history, they will be reminded every day in camp about the importance of a clean effort.
Four turnovers, including three fumbles, and a half-dozen dropped passes ultimately derailed Green Bay's bid to repeat as Super Bowl champion in a 37-20 loss to the upstart New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Ball security will be drilled over and over as the Packers look to stay out in front of opposing defenses that think they have figured out McCarthy's pass-centric scheme.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Running back James Starks. With Rodgers behind center, it's no secret the Packers want to throw the football. They haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher the last two seasons but have a player capable of doing big things with Starks, if he's given the opportunities.
Starks enters the preseason as the lead back after splitting the duties last season with veteran Ryan Grant. The Packers took a pass on re-signing Grant as a free agent.
Starks is stoked for the season. He's leaner and faster, not to mention motivated to silence his doubters who note his litany of leg injuries that kept him from playing a full season his first two years in the league.
A healthy Starks has the goods to keep Green Bay from being a predictable, one-dimensional offense.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Cornerback Sam Shields. Shields equaled the number of interceptions (four) he had as an undrafted rookie in 2010, but his second pro season was a letdown by comparison. Questions about his aggressiveness, or lack thereof, as a frequently deployed nickel back were raised after Shields had a slew of missed tackles. Capers isn't without options for replacing Shields if he doesn't make amends in the preseason, what with the second-round selection of Vanderbilt playmaker Casey Hayward, the offseason emergence of second-year player Davon House and veteran fallback Jarrett Bush.
--Inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said A.J. Hawk needs to make big plays for the team and Hawk doesn't disagree.
Said Moss of Hawk's 2011 season, "His year was just quiet. When he got in, there wasn't a lot of tackle production and there weren't interceptions so you look at his stat line and you say, 'Well, what the hell did he do last year?' A.J. is not a problem. A.J. is not an issue. A.J. didn't play poorly last year. He just didn't make those impact plays. I'm fine with what A.J. is doing.
"But on the flipside of that, you want your guys being impactful and making plays. He didn't do it last year and I'm sure he's not satisfied. He's going to respond accordingly."
Said Hawk, who had 10 passes defenses in 2010 to go with three interceptions, but had no interceptions and three defenses passed last season, "The year before I think I had three picks and got my hands on a lot of balls. Last year, for whatever reason, I didn't even get my hands on many. That's a difference."
--Given the unsettled situation they likely will have with their defensive line at the start of next season, the idea of the Packers' bringing Johnny Jolly back to the mix may not be far-fetched.
For a reunion to happen, however, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would first have to reinstate Jolly.
For Jolly's part, the 29-year-old defensive lineman is ready to make a comeback after being out of football the last two seasons because of the indefinite suspension imposed by Goodell for repeat offenses of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Jolly told the National Football Post that he recently sent a letter to Goodell for the purpose of applying for reinstatement.
"I know that the NFL doesn't need me," Jolly said in the online report. "I need it way more than it needs me. I really want to be a part of it, and I am hoping to go back and show that I am a good, reliable citizen that the league and others can depend on and trust."
The Packers have held Jolly's rights since he was suspended before the 2010 season in the wake of being arrested and charged for possession of codeine. Jolly is on the reserve/suspended list.
Repeated run-ins with the law the last couple years landed Jolly in prison in his home state of Texas. He served six months of a six-year sentence before being released this May on what the judge ruled "shock probation" for enduring the shock of being behind bars.
Jolly received 10 years of probation for the early release.
Saying he's a changed man, Jolly is focused on playing again in the NFL. He said he worked out regularly when he was in prison and continues to be diligent about getting into football-playing shape with the hope of dropping 10 pounds from his current weight of 332.
Jolly is hopeful the Packers will take him back, provided he's reinstated by Goodell.
"I think they would," Jolly said. "I am dedicated to really make a change in my life and come back and be a positive role model. I think I have a great shot at going back to those guys. They're a great organization. The coaches are very good; the players are good. I know they have supported me 100 percent."
Whether the Packers would be interested in giving Jolly a second chance in football is uncertain.
The only public comments that have been made by a team official since word circulated about Jolly's application for reinstatement came from President Mark Murphy, who addressed the Milwaukee Jewish Federation at a luncheon June 19 in Milwaukee.
"At this point, we haven't heard from the league," Murphy told reporters. "The bigger concern is (for Jolly) to lead a productive life from here on out. He's been out of football for a couple of years."
The Packers took Jolly out of Texas A&M in the sixth round of the 2006 draft. He was a primary starter at tackle and end for Green Bay from 2007 to '09. He had an interception, a forced fumble and a career-high 10 pass breakups in 2009.
Green Bay's defensive line figures to be thin at the outset of the season with Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Mike Neal (four games) suspended for league violations. Neal is trying to appeal his suspension for a second time. Hargrove was at NFL headquarters in New York City on June 18 for an appeals hearing, along with three former New Orleans Saints teammates who also were implicated in the Saints' bounty program.
--As the Packers wrapped up their offseason program with an abbreviated minicamp of two days, head coach Mike McCarthy gave no indication the team would add a quarterback before training camp opens July 25.
As the understudies to reigning league MVP Rodgers, Harrell and Coleman have zero experience in a regular-season NFL game. Harrell has been with the Packers the last two seasons, primarily on their practice squad. The team selected Coleman in the seventh round of this year's draft.
"Graham's getting better," McCarthy said at the end of the minicamp June 14. "We've had Graham in our program for some time. Really, the preseason games will be the biggest challenge for Graham. That'll be his true test because the classroom, the fundamentals, he's hitting all of the targets that you like to see. But, I'm anxious to see him play in the games. Mentally, he's prepared himself, he knows the offense, he's done a very good job with the protection adjustments, just all of the little nuances of our offense that takes a little more time."
As for an early progress report on Coleman after two months into the system, McCarthy had mixed reviews.
"B.J.'s exciting," McCarthy said. "He's a whirl a minute. He has a lot of questions, he's always talking, a lot of energy. A talented young man, but he's got a lot to learn."
--A few Packers could be thinking revenge when Green Bay hosts the archrival Chicago Bears in a Thursday night game in Week 2 next season.
That's because the Bears manhandled the Packers by a score of 10-2 in the inaugural Rivalry Cup golf event played June 18 at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago.
"Not the best ... we got killed," Packers kicker Mason Crosby tweeted afterward.
Green Bay's team of eight players for the match-play competition included Murphy, Crosby, punter Tim Masthay, fullback John Kuhn, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, and former Packers players Lynn Dickey, Craig Hentrich and Bill Schroeder.
The Rivalry Cup, patterned after golf's prestigious Ryder Cup that will be played at Medinah in September, raised money for charity.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Does skeet shooting - the fine motor skill of hand-eye coordination of skeet shooting - help us win football games? I don't think so. But, the opportunity for those guys to be out there in a different environment and continue to build relationships, I think, is vital to team chemistry." - Head coach Mike McCarthy, on canceling a minicamp practice to take the team to a gun range for clay shooting.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Hamstring issues, or the threat of them, reared their ugly head in the latter part of the Packers' offseason program this spring.
All-Pro Clay Matthews was held out of team drills during organized team activities and the subsequent minicamp as a precaution given his history of having hamstring and other leg injuries his first three years in the league.
A hamstring injury kept fellow outside linebacker Frank Zombo from participating in OTAs and the minicamp.
Still, at the conclusion of the spring workouts June 14, head coach Mike McCarthy professed optimism about what he expects of the team's physical well-being when the players report for training camp July 25.
"Frankly, I've been very impressed with the way our team has left here and then have come back for training camp," McCarthy said. "We really haven't had conditioning issues in the past, and I don't think that'll be the case this year."
McCarthy said Mark Lovat, the team's strength and conditioning coordinator, addressed the players in the final team meeting of the offseason program. Lovat has each player on an individualized conditioning plan for them to follow during the long break before training camp.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Aaron Rodgers. Backups - Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman.
The ultracompetitive Rodgers is challenging himself to be better than how he performed in 2011, which statistically was the most efficient season by a quarterback in NFL history. Rodgers' record-setting passer rating of 122.5 included 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions, the latter of which the reigning first-time league MVP is motivated to cut to almost next to nothing. Anything would seem possible for the 28-year-old to achieve as he goes into just his fifth season as a starter and on the verge of breaking the bank - he has three years left on a six-year contract extension signed during the 2008 season, but his $8 million salary this season is a bargain for the Packers. Team management is banking on Rodgers' getting through another season unscathed. After letting the emerging Matt Flynn flee in free agency to Seattle for a starting opportunity, Green Bay hasn't been inclined to give Rodgers a veteran backup. That leaves Harrell and Coleman, who have zero snaps of meaningful NFL playing experience. Harrell, who learned behind Rodgers and Flynn the previous two years, is a stronger player with increased velocity on his throws and more attuned with the scheme. Coleman, a seventh-round draft pick this year out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, has potential to follow in the progressive footsteps of Flynn but will need time to hone his passing skills.
Ryan Grant is out of the team picture for the first time since his midseason breakthrough in 2007. Though Grant, who turns 30 in December, still sits without a team as a free agent and would be open to returning, general manager Ted Thompson is committed to a youth movement at the halfback position. The time has come for Starks to show he can be a lead back after working in a time share with Grant last season. Starks, who excels between the tackles, ran for a team-high 578 yards last season. Yet, a troubling injury history precedes him - he's played in a total of only 16 regular-season games his first two pro seasons. Just the same, Green is a big question mark as he attempts to return from a torn ACL that ended his rookie season in late October. Green is expected to be ready for the start of training camp and, if fully recovered, has the punishing and breakaway attributes to push Starks for playing time. Saine's heady disposition and good hands make him a reliable situational back, as he displayed as an undrafted rookie down the stretch of last season. This year's undrafted pair of USC's Tyler and Minnesota's Bennett are long shots to win a roster spot. The Packers have a luxury with Kuhn, a first-time Pro Bowl choice last season who's as integral as a short-yardage ball carrier and receiver as he is as a formidable blocker.
It's put-up-or-shut-up time for the loquacious Finley. He fancies himself as the premier tight end in the league - and well he could be with his indefensible tall frame, quickness and sheer athleticism - but dropping the ball as Finley did with great frequency (team-high 14 times) in 2011 doesn't curry favor with Rodgers. Thompson made a short-term investment by giving his designated franchise player a two-year, $14 million contract in hopes Finley will finally bust loose after posting career highs of 55 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. The likelihood Quarless will open camp on the physically unable to perform list after suffering a torn ACL and other ligament damage in December paves the way for Taylor and Williams to get involved in the passing game after being mostly nonfactors on offense as rookies. Rodgers is a big fan of the 6-foot-3, 254-pound Taylor, who excelled on special teams. Crabtree takes care of the dirty work as the unit's best blocker.
Arguably the league's most talented receiving corps, thanks in part to the guy (Rodgers) flinging the football with optimum precision, is far from settled. Some of the toughest decisions to be made by Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy by the end of camp will come with this deep position. Going to the extreme of keeping six wideouts is all but a given. The locks are Jennings, Nelson, Cobb and presumably Driver, who, at 37 and fresh off his "Dancing with the Stars" title, took a $2 million pay cut on the final year of his contract in exchange for job security. Fellow incumbent Jones is a starting-caliber player who has trade possibilities if two players from a group of young prospects are deemed worthy of making the roster cut. The front-runners are the 6-4, 232-pound Gurley and former QB Borel, who can hold his own against Driver and Cobb in the slot. Jennings, who is in a contract year, and Nelson (68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 TDs in 2011) are undeniably the big-play threats. The electric Cobb may be put in a frequently used position to join them.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Marshall Newhouse, LG T.J. Lang, C Jeff Saturday, RG Josh Sitton, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups - T Derek Sherrod, C/G Evan Dietrich-Smith, T Andrew Datko, G Ray Dominguez, C Sampson Genus, C Tommie Draheim, G Jaymes Brooks, G Don Barclay, G Grant Cook, T Herb Taylor, T Mike McCabe, T Shea Allard.
Thompson bid adieu in the offseason to two of the team's all-time top linemen - cutting 12-year left tackle Chad Clifton and allowing center Scott Wells to sign with the St. Louis Rams in free agency. Yet, Green Bay's previously well-regarded O-line just might be better for those departures. The Packers signed Saturday, the trusted All-Pro sidekick of Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts, to replace Wells. Saturday turned 37 in June but has been durable in the twilight of his impressive career, starting every game the last three seasons. Last season provided a glimpse at life after Clifton, when Newhouse played the majority of games for the injury-riddled veteran. Newhouse struggled on occasion, allowing a team-high nine sacks, but the coaches are confident those growing pains will do him a world of good going into this season. Protecting Rodgers' back side is Newhouse's job to lose, though Sherrod, last year's first-round draft pick, will have a shot to compete for the job after missing the offseason to recover from a late-season broken leg. Lang should be poised to build on a solid first season as the starter at left guard going into the final year of his contract. The right side of the line is as good as it gets with Sitton and Bulaga (one sack allowed in 2011) on the cusp of Pro Bowl recognition. Dietrich-Smith gives the team flexibility and starting experience in the interior. The 6-6 Datko, a seventh-round pick this year, has long-term starting potential if he can put his injury history behind him.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Ryan Pickett, RDE Jerel Worthy, NT B.J. Raji. Backups - DE Anthony Hargrove, DE Mike Neal, DE C.J. Wilson, DE Phillip Merling, DT Daniel Muir, DE Jarius Wynn, DT Mike Daniels, DE Lawrence Guy, DT Johnny Jones.
The position has the most depth through offseason acquisitions this year - and for good reason. As it stands, the Packers will open the season Sept. 9 with league suspensions of eight and four games being served by Hargrove and Neal, respectively. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently upheld the suspension for Hargrove, who was punished for his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal after the Packers signed the eighth-year veteran to a modest one-year, $825,000 contract. They took similar low-risk flyers on Muir and Merling, who never panned out as a second-round draft pick with the Miami Dolphins, to give the line reinforcements. Further additions came early in the draft with Worthy in the second round and Daniels in the fourth round. Worthy, a powerful and quick player at Michigan State, will have a significant role from the outset, being paired with Raji as the pass-rushing nickel linemen. By doing so, the intent is to get Raji back playing at a superb level after his production waned last season (three sacks). Pickett, the graybeard of the bunch at 32, remains serviceable on early downs, when Wilson also could have a role with Hargrove and Neal away. Daniels has playing potential as a rookie, but no one knows for sure after he missed the offseason workouts to complete his recovery from January shoulder surgery.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Nick Perry, ILB Desmond Bishop, ILB A.J. Hawk, OLB Clay Matthews. Backups - ILB D.J. Smith, OLB Erik Walden, ILB Terrell Manning, OLB Frank Zombo, ILB Brad Jones, OLB Vic So'oto, ILB Robert Francois, OLB Dezman Moses, ILB Jamari Lattimore.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn't waste any time shaking up the lineup in an effort to shake his unit out of its pass-rushing doldrums from last season. No sooner did Perry arrive as this year's first-round draft pick than Capers plugged the former USC standout in at left- or strong-side linebacker and moved Matthews to the right or weak side in Green Bay's 3-4 front. If the tenacious Perry can successfully make the conversion from hand-in-the-ground defensive end to stand-up linebacker - and it's a relatively big 'if' right now - then All-Pro Matthews should benefit after languishing with a career-low six sacks in 2011. Former starters Walden and Zombo still could be summoned for playing time if Capers tries to mix things up with his schemes, but those veterans are on the bubble for making the final roster what with the upside for So'oto as a second-year player and the pass-rushing exploits this spring by undrafted rookie Moses, a converted defensive end. The competition for backup spots on the inside also should be fierce behind Bishop, who's a playmaker when healthy, and Hawk, the underwhelming first-rounder in whom the coaches still have faith after six years. Smith has the assignment-sure, big-play capabilities to push Hawk aside, as exhibited in a three-game starting stint as a rookie last season. Manning also will warrant attention, playing with a chip on his shoulder after falling to the fifth round in this year's draft. Onetime starter Jones and Lattimore were moved inside in the offseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Tramon Williams, FS Morgan Burnett, SS Charlie Peprah. Backups - CB Sam Shields, CB Jarrett Bush, CB Davon House, CB Casey Hayward, CB Brandian Ross, CB Otis Merrill, CB Dion Turner, S M.D. Jennings, S Jerron McMillian, S Anthony Levine, S Sean Richardson, S Micah Pellerin.
McCarthy isn't a fan of circulating depth charts in the offseason, so the Packers don't have one - at least for public consumption. That has piqued the curiosity of fervent and casual observers of the team alike as they wait on what will come of replacing Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whom the team released amid concerns about his wanting to attempt a comeback from a severe neck injury sustained last season. Many assume Woodson is the logical choice, given his hybrid style of play the last few seasons. An all-out position switch for Woodson, 35, doesn't seem likely, however, because he's valuable as a cover guy in the slot. The team-high 18 missed tackles by Woodson last season isn't conducive for a safety to anchor the box as the Packers look to the emerging Burnett to assume Collins' vital and effective role of patrolling the back end. Unassuming veteran Peprah played more than 1,000 snaps after the injury to Collins but was a liability in coverage. Jennings, who got in on defense for all of 10 plays as an undrafted rookie last season, and McMillian, a fourth-round draft pick this year, are contenders for a part-time role if Woodson winds up playing some safety. As much as Woodson, Williams and then-undrafted rookie Shields dazzled as a trio in the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, diminished production by Williams (in part because of nerve damage in a shoulder) and Shields (10 missed tackles) last season left the Packers with some warts at cornerback. Shields is on shaky ground to remain the nickel back and may wind up being overtaken by veteran role player Bush, a revamped House (zero plays on defense as a rookie in 2011) or Hayward, an intriguing second-round draft pick this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby, P Tim Masthay, LS Brett Goode, KR/PR Randall Cobb.
The explosiveness by Cobb on returns, highlighted by a league-record-tying 108-yard kickoff runback for a touchdown in the season opener and an 80-yard scoring run on a punt, gave the Packers the final piece of having a potent trifecta of specialists. Cobb's dual role isn't expected to change going into the season, never mind the increased activity he should have on offense. Crosby and Masthay are going on season three together with the team's kicking duties, along with the trusted Goode as the trigger man. Crosby was next to automatic last season, converting 26 of 30 field-goal attempts (including the playoffs) for a career-high percentage of 86.7 and banging through a team-record 58-yard field goal. Masthay also turned in a superior season of strength (45.6 average) and placement (23 punts inside the 20).
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Make Christian Ponder comfortable. Every move the Vikings made this offseason is worthless if their starting quarterback isn't finally up to speed in his second season. Ponder got a free pass last season because of the NFL lockout and the fact that he sat behind Donovan McNabb through the first six weeks of the season. This year is different. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line, added targets at receiver and tight end and brought in some much-needed secondary help in hopes that Ponder won't have to win divisional shootouts with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Training camp is a vital period for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He must put all these pieces together and give Ponder the confidence to succeed.
2. Secondary comes first. There's a reason the Vikings have lost 11 consecutive NFC North games. They couldn't stop Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler and their high-powered passing attacks. Despite having the best pass rush in the league a year ago, the Vikings still had the worst secondary in franchise history. Injuries, ineffectiveness and off-the-field problems left them without the talent or a clue for how to defend the NFL's best quarterbacks and big receivers. This year should be much better. For starters, cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook return from a season in which they missed a combined 21 games. Quality depth was added behind them with the signing of veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, and the drafting of speedy third-rounder Josh Robinson. At safety, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith immediately improves a ridiculously weak position.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Left tackle Matt Kalil. If you think the pressure is on Ponder, keep an eye on his blindside protector. The Vikings' stagnant offense depends on the massive Kalil living up to the even more massive hype surrounding his fourth overall selection in this year's NFL draft. Kalil could be in for a tough summer since his first NFL assignment is trying to block league sack king Jared Allen every day in training camp. If Kalil fails, the rebuilt offensive line collapses and takes Ponder, the offense and the entire team with it. If Kalil quickly becomes the league's next great left tackle, Ponder's comfort level soars and Musgrave can put more receiving targets in play because he won't have to keep calling max protect. And with more receiving targets to stretch the field, there's more room underneath for the Vikings' running attack and the shifty talent of slot receiver Percy Harvin.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Ultimately, the responsibility for success or failure in the NFL lands on the quarterback's shoulders. The Vikings staked their future on Ponder when they used the 12th overall pick on him in 2011. He's a likeable guy who seems to have the mental makeup for the position. But he's also done nothing to silence those who believe he was a big draft-day reach at No. 12. He posted just two wins as a rookie, and one of them came when his backup, Joe Webb, led the team from behind after Ponder was injured. Ponder also threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns and often made the same mistakes while trying to force balls late into tight coverage. Ponder enjoyed universal patience a year ago. That ends now.
--Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is talking about taking it easy on cornerback Antoine Winfield, at least when it comes to the practice field. Winfield couldn't be happier about it.
"Oh, I love it," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything more. It comes with age. I'll be 35 Sunday. I expect it. This is my 14th season. I want to last 16 games. I want to last the whole season. I feel like, if I'm on the field, our defense plays a lot better. So, I want to be out there and help them."
Winfield missed 11 games last season because of a neck strain and a broken collarbone. The missed time triggered a clause in his contract that dropped this season's base salary from $7 million to $3 million.
Winfield guessed this week that he maybe knows 25 of the 90 players on the team's roster. But he's OK with that.
"I think it's good, considering we were 3-13 last season," he said. "We can't do much worse. Young guys brings energy."
There has been talk that Winfield might move to safety, but he doesn't believe that's a good idea.
"I've played cornerback for so many years, and moving to safety is a totally different technique," he said. "I'm usually coming from the side where I have angles to make tackles. Being a safety, I'm looking at that running back eye to eye. (Facing) a 225-pound, 235-pound running back, there'd be wear and tear. I don't think the body is ready for that."
--The Vikings had one of the worst secondaries in franchise history in 2011. So it's understandable that they've been mixing and matching several different combinations during OTAs and minicamp. One interesting starting combination during minicamp had free-agent acquisition Chris Carr and rookie third-round draft pick Josh Robinson at cornerback instead of Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield.
"Just trying to see guys in different positions, put them in some stressful situations and see how they respond," Frazier said. "Until we get the pads on in Mankato, you have to be careful about passing judgment. But we're trying to do some things to get a feel for where they are mentally and how they work, and that helps us as we prepare for Mankato."
--Wide receiver Stephen Burton, a player the team stood behind despite a miserable rookie training camp a year ago, is a long shot to make the team now that the Vikings have added some talent at the position. He was, however, impressing coaches in OTAs until coming down with pneumonia. He wasn't able to participate in minicamp this week. "But we should have him back for training camp," Frazier said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I found out yesterday laying in the bed, relaxing, and I saw it go across the screen. Whatever the issue is, I'm sure they will get things squared away." - Vikings running back and most popular player Adrian Peterson, when asked when he learned that teammate Percy Harvin, the team's second-most popular player, had requested a trade.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Defensive end Everson Griffen is being given a look at linebacker. Said coach Leslie Frazier, "We want to give him a chance to see if he can help us at that linebacker spot where we're still working with our depth. We're still trying to identify what our depth is going to be at that position."
Griffen was used on a limited basis at linebacker last season. He said, "I'm comfortable. With my athletic ability, I feel like I can come and pretty much do anything. That's not me being cocky. I just feel like I can just come in and adapt to the situation."
--Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave smiles when he talks about Jerome Simpson. A lot.
Calling the team's new split end "exactly what the doctor ordered" for the Vikings' offense, Musgrave believes the former Bengals receiver will give the team the speed and matchup advantages that it sorely lacked a year ago.
"We need somebody with juice like that playing the split end," Musgrave said. "We need to be able to count on somebody from our split end position winning consistently versus man coverage. With the way I think we can run the football, defenses are going to try to take away the run. And we want to make them pay for that through the air."
Simpson caught 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He'll serve a league-imposed three-game suspension to start the season.
--MLB Jasper Brinkley, who is expected to take over for the departed E.J. Henderson as the starting middle linebacker, was held out of the Vikings' minicamp recently. The reason depends on who you choose to believe. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the team is treating Brinkley for a groin injury and is not being held out because of anything related to the major hip surgery that wiped out Brinkley's entire 2011 season. But Brinkley says his injury is "just a process with the hip." General manager Rick Spielman said, "There's some concern there, definitely. The durability is a question right now." Tyrone McKenzie, who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad, has been working with the team's No. 1 defense in Brinkley's absence.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Christian Ponder. Backups - Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels.
Ponder has talked a good game so far. He's talked about learning from his mistakes. He's talked about being patient and not running from the pocket, throwing across his body, forcing balls into shrinking holes and doing all the other things that rookies are often known for. But in 11 games and 10 starts a year ago, he often made the same mistakes after talking about how he needed to learn from them. He had an excuse a year ago. The NFL lockout and the failed Donovan McNabb experiment cost him the preparation needed to have any chance of success as a rookie. He's now had an offseason, and the Vikings have surrounded him with better talent. If he fails now, the team's future is bleak. The coaches also would have to consider starting Webb, whose size, electric running style and strong arm make him the most intriguing player on the roster. The experience and composure that Rosenfels, a 12-year veteran, brings gives the Vikings an enviable situation should their top two quarterbacks go down.
Peterson is ahead of schedule in his return from a gruesome Christmas Eve injury that saw his left knee collapse under a direct shot at Washington. He's had the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments rebuilt and is determined to play in the season opener. The team says it's a realistic goal, but is obviously taking a more protective tone with their face of the franchise. The key to Peterson's multi-faceted talent is his powerful cuts. They give him his elite change of direction and set up his leverage advantage and ability to reach daylight in a blink. Even if Peterson returns for Week 1, look for his touches to be limited. With a run-oriented philosophy, this is why the Vikings used a second-round draft pick on a backup running back (Gerhart) in 2010. Gerhart is fully healed from a minor knee injury at the end of last season. He's also significantly more muscular and is itching to carry the load early on. Gerhart isn't Peterson when it comes to the combination of power, speed and quick-twitch explosion, but he can move a pile and is deceptively nimble for a big back. Felton was signed to give the Vikings a legitimate fullback that can block and catch. The battle for No. 3 running back is one to watch between veteran newcomer Lex Hilliard and Jordan Todman, a shifty second-year guy who was signed off of the Chargers' practice squad during the final week of last season. Whoever wins that job could be getting some significant carries early in the season as Peterson is eased back into the offense.
Rudolph is the starter, but he and Carlson will be on the field together a lot in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's tight-end friendly offense. Musgrave brought that philosophy with him from Atlanta before last season. Like a lot of coordinators, he also wants to duplicate what the Patriots have done with their tight ends the past two years. Without a true No. 1 receiver, the Vikings made Carlson their No. 1 target in free agency this offseason. He and Rudolph are similar players from Notre Dame. Both have good speed for the position, soft hands and a tremendous catch radius. Rudolph, a second-round pick in 2011, has All-Pro potential. His hands are massive and they catch anything that's thrown near them. Ellison is another player to watch. Without a blocking tight end on the roster, the Vikings used a fourth-round pick on Ellison this year. Ellison is a fullback/tight end/H-back hybrid in the mold of a Jim Kleinsasser, the long-time Viking who retired after last season.
Simpson, a free-agent signing from Cincinnati, gives the Vikings the potential for something they've desperately lacked since Sidney Rice was catching deep balls from Brett Favre: A legitimate No. 1 receiver that can line up wide and beat defenders with speed, a lanky frame and ball skills. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they'll have to wait until Week 4 to see all of that in a game that counts. Simpson will serve a three-game suspension after pleading guilty to a felony drug charge. Harvin is the team's most electric receiving threat. But his small build, while incredibly strong, has limited his role in this offense to short and intermediate routes from the slot position. Jenkins is coming back from a knee injury. He'll never live up to being a former first-round pick of the Falcons, but he could be a reliable No. 3 receiver. He runs crisp routes and knows the offense well. Wright and Childs are fourth-round picks from Arkansas. Friends and teammates since third grade, they bring two distinctly different talents that could breathe life into a terrible passing attack. Wright is a shifty slot guy similar to Harvin. Childs, who was slowed by a knee injury during his senior season, is a tall receiver that could come in handy in the red zone. If they both make the team, a sixth receiver position could be up for grabs between Walters, Burton, Aromashodu and Arceneaux. Aromashodu, who is inconsistent but promising as a downfield threat, would have the early advantage.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Geoff Schwartz, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - G/C Joe Berger, LT Patrick Brown, G Chris DeGeare, G/C Brandon Fusco, G Tyler Holmes, T Levi Horn, T DeMarcus Love, T Austin Pasztor, C Quentin Saulsberry, T Darrion Weems.
Those who've cried out for years that the Vikings' offensive line was the team's biggest weakness finally were heard this offseason. The line has been rebuilt. The team released aging starting guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera shortly after the season. They drafted Kalil fourth overall and named him an immediate starter. That moved Johnson, a stopgap starter at left tackle a year ago, to his more natural position at left guard. Johnson gave it all he had a year ago when Bryant McKinnie was released on Day 2 of training camp. But Johnson simply doesn't have the build to play left tackle at a high level. He'll be a much-needed infusion of youth at left guard. The starting right guard job will be determined following a training camp battle between Schwartz and Fusco. Schwartz, 26, missed last season with the Panthers because of a back injury. But he's healthy and comes in with 19 career starts and a tackle-like build at 6-6, 331. Fusco is an overachiever who has turned heads quickly. Despite coming from Division II Slippery Rock and having never played guard before, last year's sixth-round draft pick will either be a starter or a top interior backup. Sullivan, who once struggled against bigger nose tackles, has improved his technique and footwork and has become a leader on the line at center. Loadholt shows flashes of being a dominant right tackle, but is easily the most inconsistent lineman on the team. He needs to achieve that consistency in Year 4. Brown and Love will battle for the No. 1 backup job behind Kalil. Berger is an exceptional backup at center and both guard positions. He had starts at all three spots a year ago and might actually be better than Schwartz and Fusco at right guard.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Brian Robison, NT Letroy Guion, DT Kevin Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups - DE Everson Griffen, NT Fred Evans, DL Christian Ballard, DE Nick Reed, DE D'Aundre Reed, DT Tydreke Powell, DE Ernest Owusu, DE Eric Latimore, DE Anthony Jacobs, DE Trevor Guyton, DE Jeff Charleston, DT Chase Baker.
The ends are the strength of the team. The tackles are a question mark. Robison and Allen combined for 30 sacks a year ago. With 22 sacks, Allen set the franchise record and came within a sack of breaking the NFL mark. Robison replaced Ray Edwards and proved he can be an every-down player. He had a career-high eight sacks and played the run well. Guion is a more natural under tackle, but he's also the second-best tackle behind the aging Williams. So the Vikings moved Guion from under tackle to nose tackle. He'll be undersized, but he's quick and will be an upgrade over Remi Ayodele, who lasted just one year before being released. Williams turns 32 in training camp and often shows his many miles. But if he can stave off nagging knee and foot injuries, he could turn back the clock to a time when he was a dominant All-Pro. After all, this is a contract year for him. Griffen is one of the best young players on the team. He'd be a starter if his position wasn't defensive end. The Vikings will look to get him on the field more at end and continue using him as a fourth linebacker when they go to their 3-4 look. Ballard, a second-year player, also is intriguing because he can play both tackle positions as well as left end. He's a tackle in an end's body.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Erin Henderson, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups - MLB Audie Cole, MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Larry Dean, WLB Solomon Elimimian, SLB Tyrone McKenzie, MLB Tyler Nielson, OLB Corey Paredes.
So far, the Vikings are taking a leap of faith that Brinkley can replace long-time starter and team leader E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker. Henderson remains unsigned, but that could change if the Vikings get desperate enough. Brinkley missed all of last season because of hip surgery. He was then limited in OTAs and minicamp. The team said it was a groin injury, while Brinkley said it was his hip. Brinkley also is a downhill run-stuffer who struggled with the deep middle coverage assignments in the Tampa 2 scheme. Erin Henderson probably will play in the middle in the nickel package. He became a starter a year ago and had a decent season. He was upset the team didn't give him a multi-year contract, but the one-year deal he signed will motivate him this season. Greenway is a steady player who has led the team in tackles the past four years. He doesn't make a lot of splash plays, but the defense also doesn't put him in the best positions to make them. If Brinkley doesn't work out at middle linebacker, Mitchell was an under-the-radar free agent signing that could pay off. Cole is a massive linebacker (6-4, 246) who could find a role as a seventh-round pick.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Chris Cook, FS Harrison Smith, SS Mistral Raymond. Backups - CB Chris Carr, CB Zack Bowman, CB Josh Robinson, CB Brandon Burton, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Nicholas Taylor, CB Corey Gatewood, CB Bobby Felder, S Eric Frampton, S Jamarca Sanford, S Robert Blanton, S Andrew Sendejo.
Winfield is 35 and coming off a season in which he missed 11 games. He's not concerned because his injuries last season (neck, collarbone) weren't to his legs. Cook missed 10 games last year as he battled an arrest and charges for felony domestic assault. Cook was cleared of the charges during the offseason and won't be suspended. So this is the year he finally lives up to the hype. A giant corner at 6-2, 212, Cook was a second-round pick in 2010. Injuries essentially wiped out any chance of him making an impact as a rookie. He was reaching his potential as a big cover corner last year when he was arrested before the seventh game of the season. The backup corners have been immensely upgraded. Robinson, a third-round pick, ran the fastest 40 time at the Combine this year. Bowman and Carr are legitimate NFL starters who were signed in free agency. By trading back into the first round to take Smith at No. 29, the Vikings found at least one new starter at safety. He appears to have the size, speed and instincts to play the position better than anyone the Vikings have had since Darren Sharper left after the 2008 season. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round pick a year ago, got valuable starting experience because of injuries down the stretch in 2011. But he'll have to win back the job in training camp. Sanford will be in the mix, but only because he's the most experienced starter. He's essentially a special teams player who has had to start because the position has been woefully undermanned in recent years. Frampton returns as a special teams leader. Blanton, a converted cornerback, could sneak into the strong safety battle. Helping him is the fact he played alongside Smith at Notre Dame. Sherels, the undrafted surprise who made the practice squad in 2010 and then became the team's top punt returner in 2011, has promise at corner, but might be caught in a numbers situation this year. The Vikings invested a fifth-round pick in Burton a year ago. But he also failed to gain the trust of the coaches despite a desperate need for corners a year ago.
Walsh, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia, faces as much pressure as anyone on the roster this summer. Not only did he replace one of the league's all-time steadiest players in Ryan Longwell, he also is coming off a horrendous season in which he missed 14 of 35 field-goal attempts. The Vikings love his leg strength on kickoffs and insist that his place-kicking woes from last year are correctable. They point to his 90-percent accuracy as an underclassman as proof that he can become an accurate NFL kicker. The Vikings say they will not bring a veteran kicker to camp. But if Walsh crumbles under the pressure, don't be surprised if one arrives soon. Longwell still hasn't been signed to any team. Loeffler returns from a back injury and should be steady as usual. Kluwe is the best punter in team history. He has a big leg and tremendous control closer to the goal line. Harvin is one of the best kick returners in the league, but the Vikings try desperately to limit his touches to keep his 185-pound frame fresh. Sherels is the backup kickoff returner and No. 1 punt returner, but that could change because he's more of a long-shot to make the team now. Jarius Wright could win the punt return job and compete at kick returner. Josh Robinson is another fast rookie who could return kicks. From a coverage standpoint, the team's youth movement should help. Solomon Elimimian was a standout CFL linebacker. He also excelled at special teams and was voted by his peers as the CFL's hardest hitter in 2010 and 2011.
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