Trio of roster-fringe defenders show well

Roster battles are shaping up throughout the defense as fringe players try to make a preseason impact. Three of them had some solid moments in the preseason opener.

Shamar Stephen was the big man in the middle that general manager Rick Spielman had a hard time passing up in the draft.

With the third day of the 2014 draft in its final round, Spielman, who admits to loving the action of a good trade, turned down offers for other teams to move up. He saw a big man in the middle of a defense that could move, and it was the general manager that moved to add the Connecticut nose tackle to join Mike Zimmer’s defense.

At 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, Stephen was the first of three seventh-round draft picks for the Vikings and got his first taste of NFL action Friday night in Minnesota’s 10-6 win over the Oakland Raiders. He played in 31 snaps, almost half of the time the defense was on the field.

“It was a great experience, especially being on the field for the first time. It went good,” Stephen said. “I felt good (Friday night). I’m just going to keep working on the fundamentals and techniques I need to work on.”

He ended up leading the team with five tackles and a few times caused confusion in the offensive backfield while penetrating past his blocker. Three of his tackles came in the first half and Stephen could be pushing players like veteran Fred Evans for a roster spot.

“It felt good playing out there today. It definitely felt like I can compete at this level,” he said. “It was a good experience.”

Cornerback Shaun Prater was another Viking with a solid impression in the preseason opener, although Prater is a veteran and much more familiar with Zimmer’s defense.

“Shaun is a tough kid. He’s been with me before in Cincinnati, and he’ll go out and compete all day long,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think in coverage in the back end we were tight enough on a few of those throws so we’ve got to work on contesting. Like I said on the first day I was here, we’ve got to contest catches better than what we did, we’ve got to rush the quarterback better than what we did.”

Prater finished with two tackles and was officially credited with one pass defensed, although it appeared he got his hand on another incompletion, in 27 snaps on defense.

“It wasn’t too bad. I wish I could have intercepted them. I was just a step too short or a step too slow,” he said.

“On the post, I had to undercut it just for me to have a chance to knock it down. Otherwise they would have called a flag and I would have went through his body. Quick thinking.”

He did give up a 16-yard pass, but that was called back for offensive holding.

He admits that his familiarity with Zimmer’s defense is an advantage for him while most of his teammates are going through their first training camp with Zimmer as a head coach.

“This is actually my third camp with him. I started camp every year with Zim so I’ve pretty much got it down,” he said. “I’ve been studying spring and summer for the past three years. Now it feels like when you’re going into your junior or senior year of college and you’ve finally got the defense down. That’s how I feel.”

Like Prater, linebacker Audie Cole is entering his third NFL season, but this is his first time through with Zimmer as his head coach. Cole has also had the challenge of switching from middle linebacker to outside linebacker and back again during the offseason.

Now he is back in the middle of the defense and trying to get the calls right.

“I think I’m going to stay in the middle, but I thought I was going to be on the outside first. I don’t really know. I just do whatever they ask me to do,” he said.

“I’m pretty comfortable, but I still make mistakes, like all of us probably made a few mistakes (Friday) night. That’s the thing you’ve got to cut out. I think a lot of guys are pretty comfortable with what we’re doing. We just can’t give things up.”

He appeared to have a relatively strong performance against the Raiders. He stopped running back Latavius Murray for no gain on one play and dropped running back Kory Sheets for a 1-yard loss on a pass play, finishing with four tackles in 21 defensive snaps.

“I was just kind of doing what I was supposed to do, following my key and getting to my guys,” he said. “Fortunately, I got a couple plays behind the line of scrimmage. Just trying to find the ball.”

Cole appears to be engrossed in a battle for the middle linebacker spot with Jasper Brinkley, who is currently the starter. Brinkley has the edge in experience, but Cole has the versatility to play a couple different linebacker spots and can close down passing lanes with his 6-foot-5, 239-pound frame.

The challenge for him will be making the right calls if he is tasked with playing time at middle linebacker. It’s a role he embraces.

“I don’t think it’s harder. I kind of like doing that. I think it actually makes it easier for me because if I’m involved, I’m getting everyone on the same page,” he said. “I know what page we’re on because I’m kind of in the middle of it. It keeps me involved.”

He and numerous other players on the roster fringe are hoping he continues to stay involved and part of Zimmer’s long-term plans.

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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