Sunday slant: Vikings on the verge

Five Vikings have the chance to achieve more than most are expecting with a strong training camp, whether it’s an undrafted rookie making the 53-man roster or a deep reserve last year competing for a starting spot.

If the draft provides hope for fans a few months after a weary season, training camp is the preview to the optimism. Who will be that player that sticks out and fans knew little about?

With the Vikings, there have been several training camp stars whose light dims when either roster cuts are made or the regular season challenges their level of ability with the pads on. Safety Kyries Hebert is a prime example.

Former Vikings coach Mike Tice loved Hebert during his initial tryout for the NFL in 2002, which was Tice’s first training camp as a head coach, but Hebert never played a regular-season game for the Vikings. After a game on the roster of the Houston Texans in 2003, he sandwiched a Canadian Football League career with two seasons as part of the Cincinnati Bengals, even starting two games for them.

But, ultimately, the Tice hype evaporated and the Vikings were left to fill their safety spots with other options rather the flash-in-the-training-camp pan that Hebert turned out be, at least with the Vikings.

Some of the following emerging possibilities already have more experience and promise than Hebert. In other words, they warrant watching during the Vikings’ six-week run-up to the start of the regular season.


OT Antonio RichardsonThe real deal is about to begin for the undrafted rookie out of Tennessee. Although those without access to his medical charts viewed Richardson as a potential second-day draft pick, an issue with his knee gave teams serious pause about drafting at him at all. As it turned out, none did, and Richardson said he and the Vikings essentially had an agreement that if he wasn’t drafted they wanted to bring him on board.

Richardson sure made the Tennessee Volunteers coaches happy they finally inserted him into the lineup. According to the NFL Draft Report, prior to Richardson moving into the starting lineup in college, the Volunteers averaged only 90.1 yards per game rushing. In his first year at tackle, they averaged more than 70 yards per game in his blocking lane alone and 160.3 yards rushing overall.

The knee that had cartilage damage repaired in 2012 is back to full health, Richardson said. While he isn’t expected to challenge for a starting job, he has to be considered in the thick of the race for a backup spot, along with Kevin Murphy and Mike Remmers. Getting the pads on will be the true test of Richardson’s effectiveness.

WR Adam ThielenPicking a player on the verge out of the receiving corps was a close exercise between Thielen and rookie Kain Colter, but Thielen is the more polished and experienced receiver, thanks to a year spent learning in the background on the practice squad in 2013. Thielen, a Minnesota State, Mankato product, has looked more confident and competent, in practices this year.

The top four spots at receiver look pretty locked up between Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright, but a bid for a fifth or sixth spot can be strongly contended for by Thielen.

Last year, Thielen spent the entire season on the practice squad. Over the next month on the grounds where he proved his worth as a college player, he should be able to prove worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster.

TE AC LeonardWith 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash and 6-foot-2 height, Leonard looks the part of a pass-receiving tight end. He likely isn’t refined in his skills just yet with only one season at Florida before transferring to Tennessee State, but Leonard has a golden opportunity in front of him.

After essentially being forced to transfer following a suspension from the Gators due to a domestic assault charge in his first season at Florida, he is getting his first chance in the NFL despite not being drafted in May. With Kyle Rudolph the only established pass-catcher in front of him, Leonard could make some noise, and therefore a roster spot for himself, with a strong preseason.


LB Michael MautiThe second-year linebacker spent last season getting used to life in the NFL and continuing to recover from three ACL surgeries while at Penn State. Now the Penn State alumnus has a new defensive scheme to learn and new coaching staff, but, ironically, it might actually be better suited to his skill set.

Mauti’s injuries caused him to fall to the seventh round of the draft, but his downhill approach to the position and ability to diagnose might be a better fit in Mike Zimmer’s scheme than the Tampa-2 base that the Vikings ran last year, one that asks the middle linebacker to drop deep into coverage much of the time on passing downs.

The middle linebacker spot is wide open for the taking and Mauti should be one of the top contenders, at least when it comes to first and second down.

S Robert BlantonIs Blanton a cornerback or a safety? Last year, with a thinning cornerback corps due to injury, Blanton was asked to play the slot receiver more often in the second half of the season. However, he was and is still officially a safety … but obviously one with the potential to cover receivers. That could fit in nicely to the way Zimmer appears to be heading as he disguises coverages and rolls a safety down into the box much more than we’ve seen in recent years.

Unlike some of the other possibilities mentioned above, Blanton faces plenty of competition at the safety position opposite Harrison Smith. Can he pull off the upset and grab more than most are expecting?

That’s really the question for each of the handful of Vikings that could be on the verge of increasing their value in the coming weeks, whether it’s an undrafted rookie finding a roster spot or a bit player last year competing for a starting spot.

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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