Competition deep at WR, LB for Vikings

Two of the roster spots that could come down to a numbers game are wide receiver and linebacker, and the overall numbers game at other positions will play a part.

As the Vikings prepare to break training camp, there are two positions that remain more muddied than most – wide receiver and linebacker. There are 12 wide receivers and 10 linebackers currently on the Vikings' 90-man roster and the odds are that, when the final 53-man roster is set, that there will be no more than six players at each position on the final roster.

Barring injuries between now and the final cut-down date on Aug. 31, there are four wide receivers that are guaranteed roster spots – Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson. On the flip side, there are six players who are likely to not survive the final cuts – Lamark Brown, Adam Thielen, Erik Highsmith, Rodney Smith and Chris Summers.

That leaves only three wide receivers potentially battling for one or two roster spots – Stephen Burton, Joe Webb and Greg Childs.

It will be difficult for the Vikings to release Burton because he has been one of the standouts throughout training camp and provided some key blocking on a 61-yard swing pass-turned-touchdown by fullback Zach Line in the preseason opener. Burton caught just five passes last year and his primary contribution was on special teams.

Webb is another player who wasn't expected to be on the bubble, but, following a dismal playoff performance against Green Bay, was pulled out of the quarterback room and supplanted in the wide receivers room. There is no questioning his athleticism, but he hasn't played wide receiver in years since his early days in college. His roster spot may be contingent on other positions more than the wide receiver depth. If there is a cornerback or lineman or safety the team has become enamored with, Webb may be firmly on the bubble. He is a respected teammate who has been a good locker room presence and willing to do what has been asked of him – going from wide receiver to quarterback and back again – without complaint. Like Burton, if Webb is released, it wouldn't be due to a lack of effort.

"I think it will begin to clear up after this second ball game, along with the third ball game," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "Those guys will get some opportunities in these next few weeks. … It's too early right now to order them, I think. We want to get a few more game situations under our belt. This next couple weeks, along with that final preseason game, will create some clarity for us in that area."

Childs remains on the Physically Unable to Perform list after missing his entire rookie season after tearing both of his patellar tendons during the team training camp scrimmage last year. If the team is willing to let him sit a year and put him on injured reserve for a second straight year, he will have the chance to remain with the organization. If he has to measure up to the other receivers on the roster, it could be the end of the road for him.

At linebacker, there are a ton of questions for different reasons. Last year, the Vikings kept seven linebackers on the roster and there is a decent chance they might do the same this year. But, who will stay and who will go?

The only locks are Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. Greenway is a Pro Bowl caliber player who has become a dominant tackler and his production is outstanding. He has become a defensive leader and his spot on the strongside is assured. Henderson was anointed as the middle linebacker when Jasper Brinkley signed away with Arizona and, despite thoughts that he might get pushed back to the weakside with the signing of free agent Desmond Bishop, he remains in the middle and all indications from Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams are that he will stay there. Aside from those two, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

The Vikings have a lot of in-house candidates that have spent time in the team's defensive scheme, including Marvin Mitchell, Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenzie and Audie Cole. Where the problem lies are in the new faces. The Vikings drafted both Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti from Penn State and Rick Spielman is high on both of them, and Bishop comes over from Green Bay with experience and a balky hamstring. Stanford Keglar doesn't stand much of a chance.

Aside from Greenway and Henderson, there will be four or five roster spots dedicated to linebacker. Hodges should have a spot locked because the Vikings made him their first draft pick after their first-round trifecta of choices. He's safe.

Marvin Mitchell is in his seventh season and has more experience than the competition. But, as Vikings fans have learned over the last couple of years, being an older player doesn't always fit into the team's organizational plan. While he should be a favorite to lock down a roster spot, he may be closer to the bubble than some might think.

Bishop was a surprise cut by the Packers in June and, when the Vikings picked him up, he was seen as a virtual lock to land a roster spot. With a team-friendly contract, he has the potential to be a difference-maker because he is a big hitter. But he hasn't played in a game for more than a year and may have to prove a lot in the final three preseason games or he could end up being a roster casualty. The Vikings seem content to develop their own young talent in their own vision. Bishop would be a nice addition if he's healthy, but he has to show more than he has.

Dean and McKenzie both played in all 16 games last year, but both were used almost exclusively on special teams. McKenzie led the team with 20 special teams tackles and Dean was second with 15, but the two combined to have just one assisted tackle with the defense. There is value to special teams aces, but if the Vikings are convinced they can find special teams play from linebackers who can also make an impact on the defensive side of the ball, neither is guaranteed to lock down a roster spot.

Cole was the talk of the preseason last year when he intercepted two passes in one game and brought them both back for touchdowns. While he has done nothing to lose the confidence in the coaching staff, there hasn't been the buzz surrounding him this year that there was in 2012.

Mauti is a guy that the coaching staff, front office and training staff absolutely love. It was questionable if he would be ready for the start of training camp after his third ACL surgery, but he has surpassed all expectations. While roster spots aren't given due to how much coaches may like a player, there is no questioning his passion for the game and willingness to put his body on the line. However, his injury history has to be cause for concern. As things currently stand, it would appear there may only be one roster spot for the two of them. One will likely stay and one will likely go.

"Our backup linebackers are generally our special teams guys. They are some of our core special teams players, so not only do you have to be good on defense as a backup, but we need you to be a solid special teams player for us if you play backup linebacker," Frazier said. "We're going to need that to sort itself out. The competition, the depth there, is better than it has been in recent years. We'll learn a little bit more in these next couple weeks, but it's too early today to really slot them. We need to let things play out in the next couple weeks."

As the Vikings get ready to pack up in Mankato and head back to Winter Park, a lot of the positions have been settled and there won't be a lot of nail-biting when it comes to deciding who remains and who gets a pink slip. But, when it comes to wide receiver and linebacker, there are still some tough decisions that need to be made and those decisions might happen as a result of what those players do in the final three preseason games.


  • Although Frazier wasn't sure which of the next two games Adrian Peterson would play in, he said he does want his star running back to receive some playing time in the preseason.

  • The only two players Frazier didn't anticipate playing Friday night were CB Jacob Lacey (knee) and DT Christian Ballard (personal matter).

    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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