Other than Christian Ponder, perhaps no Viking came under as much scrutiny last year as John Carlson.
The tight end signed a five-year, $25 million free agent contract last March and, after an injury-altered preseason, caught only eight passes. That combination of hefty salary (which has been lowered for 2013) and skimpy production is bound to bring out the critics.
Carlson heard them, but he wants little do with conversation about his recent past.
"Last year is last year. That's done with. I'm focused on doing whatever I can to help this team this year and trying to personally take a step forward every day. It sounds simple, but that's kind of the recipe," Carlson said early in training camp.
This year, he appears to be getting more involved. He played in 23 snaps in Friday's preseason game and 22 in the preseason opener, the most of any of the Vikings' tight ends.
The fact that the Vikings are able to get used to Carlson at all this preseason is a bonus.
"It's much better for our offensive coordinator and for our quarterback to be calling plays with him in practice so we can get him involved," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's much better this time around. Everybody is much more comfortable with him."
After spending his first three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Carlson said he didn't feel like an overwhelmed rookie last year transitioning to his first season with the Vikings offense. But …
"I felt a lot of things last year. Like I said, last year is behind me. I'm focused on this year and trying to get better and help this team," he said.
"As a player, I'm always focused on improving every facet of the game. As a tight end we need to run the ball, we need to contribute in the run game, so run blocking, hand placement, fundamentals and techniques with that. Pass protection, the same way. Running routes and focusing on catching balls. I had a couple drops (during one practice). You can't have that. I'm just continually trying to reinforce the fundamentals and techniques that stay consistent in football."
Frazier has maintained that the biggest issue for Carlson was getting hurt during training camp last year. Although the sprained medical collateral ligament on July 31, 2012 wasn't serious, it kept him out of practices during the formative stages of the offense. He missed out on some important weeks of practice while the rest of the pass targets were honing their timing with Ponder.
"When you're a new guy and you come in and you get injured as early as he did and you're trying to develop the timing in between the quarterback and also time to develop a rapport, your teammates, offensive coordinator, no question it set John back a year ago," Frazier said. "But so far he hasn't missed anything, he's had good practices. … It should be good for us, but if you're a new guy coming in and miss a lot of time during training camp like he did, it's going to set you back."
The lack of catches in 2012 were one thing for Carlson. The lack of snaps was another. But perhaps the most telling statistic on just how little he was involved was the number of times he was targeted last year.
His fellow tight end, Kyle Rudolph, was targeted a team-high 94 times in 2012. Percy Harvin, despite missing the final seven games, was targeted 85 times. Eight Vikings were targeted more than 20 times each, but Carlson was not in that group. He was targeted only 14 times – less than Devin Aromashodu, Toby Gerhart, Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Adrian Peterson, Harvin and Rudolph.
So far this year, Carlson has been healthy and available for all of the team's training camp and preseason action to date, giving offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave more opportunities to implement personnel packages in which Carlson excels.
"It adds a bunch, and we're able to really mix and match better," Musgrave said. "We have got our concepts that we believe in and hang our hat on, but with John being healthy, he can go in there and do some of the concepts that we do with three wide receivers and we can go with two receivers and two tight ends instead and we don't feel like we fall off really very far, if any."
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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