Notebook: Winfield's return expected to help

Antoine Winfield's veteran experience and leadership is expected to help the secondary rebound from a poor showing at the end of last year. So, too, will having a deeper group to weather injuries and allow Winfield to play his best position. Plus, Toby Gerhart is feeling more comfortable and the fullback battle is one to watch.

Antoine Winfield may be one of the senior members of the Vikings defense, but he is still a key cog in the operation.

When Winfield went down last year with collarbone and neck injuries, it was the start of a series of injuries (to Winfield), ineffectiveness (by Cedric Griffin) and legal issue (with Chris Cook) to the team's top three cornerbacks.

Last offseason, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was almost giddy about having those three back and believed he had the three cornerbacks necessary to effectively operate an NFL pass defense. By the middle of November, however, Winfield was out with injury, Cook was asked to stay away from the team while dealing with felony domestic assault charges that he eventually was found not guilty of, and Griffin never did recover from surgeries to both of his anterior cruciate ligaments over the previous two years.

For the final seven weeks of the season, it was a combination of Asher Allen (now retired), a deflated Griffin (now with Washington), Benny Sapp (still unsigned), Brandon Burton and Marcus Sherels making starts at cornerbacks.

This year, Frazier is back to smiling and has a similar sentiment about his cornerback position. This time, however, the position is a little deeper and has more young prospects. Chris Carr is the veteran acquisition that could contribute immediately in the nickel defense opposite Cook and with Winfield covering the slot receiver. Zack Bowman could also contribute and Josh Robinson, the third-round draft choice, will also be counted on to develop into an eventual starter.

"In today's NFL, you really need three starters in the secondary at corner. You see so much three-, four-, now five-wideout sets that you need three starters," Frazier said. "It would be great for us to have three guys that we like can be starting corners. We'd be so much better if that were to happen. If Chris or Josh or Zack (Bowman) or one of the other guys steps up, it would be great for our team. We need three starting caliber players to compete in today's NFL."

The lack of consistency in the secondary contributed to the Vikings' 26th-ranked pass defense. Winfield pinpointed what he saw as the biggest problem.

"Giving up big plays. We gave up too many big plays. I think third-and-longs hurt us – gave up a lot of those. We just didn't play the proper techniques. We were messing up a lot and that caused us to give up big plays."

Winfield attended the start of organized team activities in May, but he was missing last week. He is expected to return for the team's mandatory minicamp this week and assume his role as the starting left cornerback.

"He provides veteran leadership for some of the new faces that we have in the secondary and he's a great player. He's a tremendous person as well," Frazier said. "His role will be defined by how he performs in the preseason … but we're expecting him to be a vital piece to the puzzle in a lot of ways. We need his leadership, we need his playmaking ability on the football field and he's played a number of years in this league, but we don't think his best football is behind him."

For now, Carr has been the starting cornerback when Winfield hasn't been practicing, and Carr is likely to be the left cornerback when the Vikings go into their nickel defense, with Winfield sliding inside to cover the slot receiver. That also puts him closer to the action to defend the run and blitz the quarterback.

"When people have three wides on the field, that's where we like to line him up, at the slot position," Frazier said. "In years past, there were times when we'd line him up outside for different reasons but … to have three guys you can really count on and let him play the slot position, that would be ideal."

GERHART GETTING COMFORTABLE

Running back Toby Gerhart will likely start the season with an increased role while Adrian Peterson makes his way back from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Last year, Gerhart started four of the final six games while Peterson dealt with an ankle injury and then had his season ended with the knee injury.

In his second season in the NFL, Gerhart rushed 109 times for 531 yards and actually had a better average than Peterson (4.9 yards to Peterson's 4.7-yard average). Gerhart said he felt more comfortable than he did as a rookie.

"I was definitely more comfortable in general all the way around last year. As a rookie, you're new to a system and you don't want to make a mistake," Gerhart said. "I was protecting Brett Favre and I don't want to blow a blitz. I was playing a lot of third downs and (didn't want to) get him blindsided. There was a lot more hesitation in terms of looking, eyes wide open, deer-in-the-headlights type of thing. Last year, I was comfortable, confident and just went out and played, and played instinctually as I always have and I think as a result played better."

THE VERSATILE BACK

One of the interesting battles to watch when training camp gets underway on July 27 will be for the third running back spot.

While Jerome Felton is the frontrunner to earn the fullback position –
"He's got the most experience playing fullback in the NFL," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave acknowledged – Felton might not be available for the start of the season if his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol leads to a conviction. He could be looking at a suspension to start the season if he is convicted.

That could open the door for last year's main fullback, Ryan D'Imperio, or emerging second-year player Matt Asiata.

But there is another option. Lex Hilliard, who is competing with Jordan Todman and Derrick Coleman for the third running back spot, could also give the Vikings some work at fullback.

"There's a lot of competition at the fullback," Musgrave said. "Lex Hilliard is really a tailback that could get us out of the game at the fullback position or do some fullback jobs if asked to do so and he was asked to do little bit of that in Miami."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":"Antoine Winfield may be one of the senior members of the Vikings defense, but he is still a key cog in the operation. When Winfield went down last year with collarbone and neck injuries, it was the start of a series of injuries (to Winfield), ineffectiveness (by Cedric Griffin) and legal issue (with Chris Cook) to the team's top three cornerbacks. Last offseason, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was almost giddy about having those three back and believed he had the three cornerbacks necessary to effectively operate an NFL pass defense. By the middle of November, however, Winfield was out with injury, Cook was asked to stay away from the team while dealing with felony domestic assault charges that he eventually was found not guilty of, and Griffin never did recover from surgeries to both of his anterior cruciate ligaments over the previous two years. For the final seven weeks of the season, it was a combination of Asher Allen (now retired), a deflated Griffin (now with Washington), Benny Sapp (still unsigned), Brandon Burton and Marcus Sherels making starts at cornerbacks. This year, Frazier is back to smiling and has a similar sentiment about his cornerback position. This time, however, the position is a little deeper and has more young prospects. Chris Carr is the veteran acquisition that could contribute immediately in the nickel defense opposite Cook and with Winfield covering the slot receiver. Zack Bowman could also contribute and Josh Robinson, the third-round draft choice, will also be counted on to develop into an eventual starter. \"In today's NFL, you really need three starters in the secondary at corner. You see so much three-, four-, now five-wideout sets that you need three starters,\" Frazier said. \"It would be great for us to have three guys that we like can be starting corners. We'd be so much better if that were to happen. If Chris or Josh or Zack (Bowman) or one of the other guys steps up, it would be great for our team. We need three starting caliber players to compete in today's NFL.\" The lack of consistency in the secondary contributed to the Vikings' 26th-ranked pass defense. Winfield pinpointed what he saw as the biggest problem. \"Giving up big plays. We gave up too many big plays. I think third-and-longs hurt us – gave up a lot of those. We just didn't play the proper techniques. We were messing up a lot and that caused us to give up big plays.\" Winfield attended the start of organized team activities in May, but he was missing last week. He is expected to return for the team's mandatory minicamp this week and assume his role as the starting left cornerback. \"He provides veteran leadership for some of the new faces that we have in the secondary and he's a great player. He's a tremendous person as well,\" Frazier said. \"His role will be defined by how he performs in the preseason … but we're expecting him to be a vital piece to the puzzle in a lot of ways. We need his leadership, we need his playmaking ability on the football field and he's played a number of years in this league, but we don't think his best football is behind him.\" For now, Carr has been the starting cornerback when Winfield hasn't been practicing, and Carr is likely to be the left cornerback when the Vikings go into their nickel defense, with Winfield sliding inside to cover the slot receiver. That also puts him closer to the action to defend the run and blitz the quarterback. \"When people have three wides on the field, that's where we like to line him up, at the slot position,\" Frazier said. \"In years past, there were times when we'd line him up outside for different reasons but … to have three guys you can really count on and let him play the slot position, that would be ideal.\" Running back Toby Gerhart will likely start the season with an increased role while Adrian Peterson makes his way back from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Last year, Gerhart started four of the final six games while Peterson dealt with an ankle injury and then had his season ended with the knee injury. In his second season in the NFL, Gerhart rushed 109 times for 531 yards and actually had a better average than Peterson (4.9 yards to Peterson's 4.7-yard average). Gerhart said he felt more comfortable than he did as a rookie. \"I was definitely more comfortable in general all the way around last year. As a rookie, you're new to a system and you don't want to make a mistake,\" Gerhart said. \"I was protecting Brett Favre and I don't want to blow a blitz. I was playing a lot of third downs and (didn't want to) get him blindsided. There was a lot more hesitation in terms of looking, eyes wide open, deer-in-the-headlights type of thing. Last year, I was comfortable, confident and just went out and played, and played instinctually as I always have and I think as a result played better.\" One of the interesting battles to watch when training camp gets underway on July 27 will be for the third running back spot. 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