The front four of the Vikings has undergone a significant overhaul in the offseason. With the exodus of Ray Edwards from the Vikings roster via free agency, a vacancy was created at defensive end. With the decision not to-resign Pat Williams and the pending suspension of Kevin Williams, a vacancy was created at defensive tackle.
The Vikings have addressed both needs – re-signing Brian Robison to a long-term deal and signing Remi Ayodele in free agency. But the front office had a good idea on draft weekend that the odds were that neither Edwards or Big Pat would be coming back for another season. In drafting Christian Ballard, the Vikings may have found a way to fill backup roles for both tackle and end.
Ballard played both tackle and end at Iowa and, while drafted as a defensive end, has been getting more work on the inside during training camp. It has been overwhelming at times, but Ballard said he isn't sure where he will end up being placed (DT or DE), but he's trying to absorb the playbook as quickly and thoroughly as he can.
"I'm in full rookie mode right now," Ballard said. "I'm just trying to learn to do things and learn techniques. I'm just trying to get better every day. The coaches have a plan for me, so I'm just going to stick with that and try to be prepared for whatever they have planned for me."
Ballard isn't expected to push for a starting job – the team has Jared Allen and Robison penned in at the end spots and has solid depth at DT with Letroy Guion and Fred Evans. The rookie's role is to get up to speed as quickly as possible and he said his Pro Bowl teammates have been a big help in making the transition from college to the NFL.
"Kevin Williams and Jared Allen are both great teachers," Ballard said. "Being around guys like that, you try to suck up all the information that's offered to you and apply it to your game. I can see improvement in some of the things I do already – little things like using leverage a different way. They've been great."
Williams said that he knows what it's like to be the new guy in a training camp, although at times he feels like an old man after making his ninth trip to Mankato. He said Ballard is a willing student and that makes it easier to pass along knowledge.
"I remember what it was like coming in as a rookie," Williams said. "You're trying so hard to prove yourself and make an impression on the coaches. Sometimes you try to do so much you make mistakes. Those are the kind of things that I've told him – just to keep with his assignment and don't try to do too much. He listens to what you say, which makes it easier to give him advice."
The work the veterans have done with Ballard and the other new linemen fighting to fill the open roster spots created without having Edwards and Williams on the team hasn't been lost on head coach Leslie Frazier. Allen and Williams have been on-field leaders, but are working harder to be mentors to the younger players while leading by example.
"If you observe both of them in this camp, the way they're practicing, the way they're leading, it's exactly what you want from a coaching standpoint," Frazier said. "They're great players. When great players practice the way they're practicing – so attentive to detail – you've got to believe that's going to translate into good football when we start playing for real."
Any help veterans like Williams and Allen can provide to players like Ballard will be valuable given the unique circumstances that are going to play out over the next few months. Because of the lockout, rookies were deprived the chance to wean their way into the system. Like everyone else, they had to hit the ground running just days after the lockout. However, for rookies, having little knowledge of the Vikings' Cover-2 scheme and terminology has created a crash course in learning the ins and outs of the playbook.
"There's a lot of information that we've been hit with in the last two weeks," Ballard said. "Sometimes it has seemed like a little too much, but, when that happens, you just have to remember that football is football and it's the same, whether it's college or the NFL. I have to do the same things here that I did in college, just do them faster. The older guys are here to help us and, whenever we have questions, they help us."
Ballard may see more action in the preseason than he does in the entire regular season, barring injuries to the starters, and he admits the progress isn't coming in leaps and bounds, it's much more incremental. However, his goal of being an NFL player is in sight and he's wearing blinders to focus on achieving that goal.
It may take time before Vikings fans see Ballard live up to the promise the Vikings believe he has – continuing the tradition of taking defensive ends in the fourth round, including Allen, Edwards, Robison and Everson Griffen – but Ballard says he expects his learning curve to be shortened by the little improvements he makes behind the scenes.
"It's coming," Ballard said. "Each day I'm seeing things better and improving. As long as you keep doing that, the NFL is going to want you and you can help a team out."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Ballard in ‘full rookie mode'
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