Vikings’ Spielman discusses roster questions

Like every offseason, the Vikings have decisions to make at certain positions. GM Rick Spielman discussed the question marks, the unquestioned starters and the depth at several positions.

On Wednesday, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman fielded questions from the local media and, as expected, it was a hodgepodge of questions and answers being fired concerning the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2014 season.

The questioning ranged from the struggles of the offensive line to the improvement in the secondary to the kicking woes of Blair Walsh to the question marks surrounding the future of the linebacker corps.

Spielman was quick on his feet with changing directions on a dime and giving his instant analysis to a barrage of questions.

  • When it came to offensive line, Spielman said that poor play of the line came as a surprise to the Vikings. After extending Brandon Fusco during training camp, the Vikings felt they had a strong group that was going to be a big contributor to their success, not a preventer of success.

    “We extended Fusco last year; we feel very strongly about Brandon and felt very strongly about the direction he was headed,” Spielman said. “To be honest with you, as we watched our offensive line through the preseason working together as a unit and even in that first game against St. Louis, we felt that was going to be one of our strengths of our team. But every team has to deal with injuries, we just happened to get hit a lot up front there with that. The other thing too is, as Teddy (Bridgewater) came in, our offense evolved a little bit. All of the sudden we’re making some adjustments because of the injuries up front and making some adjustments to the protection calls because Teddy is a different quarterback than Matt Cassel is. It was kind of on the fly a little bit as our guys kind of learned and kept learning. I thought after that bye week that even with the guys that we were playing with, the (Joe) Bergers and Mike Harrises coming in, it really started clicking and they played pretty good down the stretch in some of those games.”

  • One of the highlights of the 2014 season was the improved play of second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes made great strides in his second season and much of the reason has been a coaching staff willing to put Rhodes on an island. Dead End Rhodes isn’t yet a motto, but it’s coming.

    “That’s a credit to our coaching staff and a credit to Coach Zimmer,” Spielman said. “They kind of pride themselves on getting those guys with some raw ability and developing them. Harrison Smith, we have Sharrif Floyd, Everson (Griffen), we took a chance on Everson, we have some really core pieces in place that are very young and will be together for a while. Now if we can integrate some more pieces around that core, that’s what gives you so much optimism heading into next year.”

  • The Vikings made a couple of big free agent signings with Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn – both of whom were full-time starters in the defense. Neither of them played lights-out football, but Spielman said there were reasons for optimism with both of them.

    “I felt very good about Linval Joseph, thought Captain had an up and down year,” Spielman said. “I think Captain learned a little bit of the new system. We signed Captain as a nickel and he ended up having to be a full-time starter for us. I thought he had some struggles this year but I think he has the potential. I just kind of look back at the history of some of the (unrestricted free agents) and they’re farther along than some rookie draft picks, especially these rookies that come in that are 21, 22, 23 years old. But you know, an example would be like (Visanthe) Shiancoe, when we signed him his first year it was like, ‘Well, he was just OK.’ But then all of the sudden his second year in the system and stuff, he kind of excelled and took off. Sometimes you expect some things right away from those UFAs but also sometimes those guys will take a potential year to understand what’s being asked of them. I know Captain stated he was disappointed in his year and everybody expects him to play at a higher level next year.”

  • Another concern was the kicking of Blair Walsh. After a pair of strong seasons, Walsh had the worst field goal percentage of any kicker in the league. Asked if he feels there is cause for concern with Walsh and the kicking game, Spielman didn’t mince words.

    “No,” Spielman said. “I think he led the league, or was one of the top in the league, in touchbacks on kickoffs. He’s a blue-chip kickoff guy. I think we had a couple of blocks. I think Blair went through a little bit of a slump there, but he was able to come out of it. I think him and even Jeff Locke, and I thought Locke had struggles early, too. But I thought during the second half of the year, Jeff Locke punted the ball very consistently … also learning all of a sudden the conditions in TCF (Bank Stadium). I think that experience in them understanding the winds and how all that all works in that stadium is going to be a huge benefit as they get their opportunity to kick in that stadium again next year.”

  • The line of questioning turned to Chad Greenway’s status. There’s little chance Greenway will return at his current contract. At season’s end, Greenway made it clear he wanted to finish his career as a Viking and Spielman didn’t discount that possibility, saying that Zimmer appreciates the veteran work ethic Greenway provides.

    “I can tell you that with Chad Greenway, I think that Zimmer said this in an earlier press conference, you wish you had 53 Chad Greenways on your roster,” Spielman said. “Not only what he’s done on the field for us but what he does in the community, what he does as a leader in that locker room, you can’t get any better than a Chad Greenway with all those ancillary things. Those things, I’ll keep all those things from a contractual situation internal.”

    Spielman said there are several issues in play when it comes to the linebacker spots, but one constant in 2014 was the high level of play by Anthony Barr before his knee injury.

    “I think there’s a lot of positives,” Spielman said. “I think Anthony will definitely improve. He’s not there yet, but he’s everything that we expected when we drafted him. The uniqueness of his athletic skillset gives us an opportunity to utilize him in a lot of different ways on defense. I’m very excited about the direction he’s headed into next season as well.”

    The depth at linebacker was tested with injuries across the board at different times of the season. Gerald Hodges got his chance to shine, but Spielman is convinced there is depth at the position that will take a step forward in 2015.

    “Hodges came in and did a nice job,” Spielman said. “We didn’t get a chance to see Brandon Watts too much this year, but there’s a guy that had a redshirt year. We’ll see how he develops just because he’s a unique athlete with some speed. Just like every position, we’ll compare to what we currently have. Audie Cole got a chance to play that last game in Chicago and every time he gets an opportunity to play – he got that first opportunity I think a year ago in Green Bay – Audie may not be the best athlete, but he as a knack for making plays. He gets paid to go out there and make plays and when he gets his chances he takes advantage of them. That’s part of the process as you analyze, just like we analyze every guy all the way down our roster to the last practice squad guy and hone in on whether there’s someone out there better or someone we can go out there and get to create competition. That’s our job to do that.”

    If Spielman does have a plan already mapped out, he wasn’t tipping his hand with the media. But from the line of the questioning and the answers he provided, there’s no doubt that Spielman is developing a plan – with the idea of who will be part of that plan and who won’t.

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