Point one: Percy Harvin looks to be worth the risk. I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't sure Percy Harvin would be the worth the risk with the Vikings' first-round pick. He had several red flags, from injury concerns to character questions, but he avoided drawing the dreaded red dot on vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman's draft board.
That part surprised me a bit. First, I was told at least one team had taken him off their draft board because of concerns about a "hole" in his heel they weren't sure would ever heal. I was also told a couple of other teams had him rated very high on talent but took him off their boards because of the character issues. The Vikings probably researched him harder than any team and convinced themselves that he was worth the risk.
After watching all five practices involving him that were open to the media, between this weekend's minicamp and the previous week's open organized team activity, I have to believe he was the most athletic player among the draft's skilled positions. In 1998, Randy Moss had the deep speed. In 2009, Percy Harvin has unparalleled quickness. He consistently creates separation like few receivers, even the veteran ones.
"I just think anytime you talk about (him in terms of) football, you talk about explosion and somebody that can take it the distance when it is blocked the right way and when it gets in his hands," head coach Brad Childress said. "There is no such thing as too many of those guys, whether it is a tight end, a running back, a wideout or a quarterback. I just think it just adds another piece. It can be more explosive, but that is up to us to put the ball in his hands."
Point two: Harvin looks even better when used properly. It was impressive to see how hard Harvin worked throughout the weekend. He was used as a slot and outside receiver with the first and second teams, as well as a session taking direct snaps as the "Wildcat" on Saturday. He had to have taken more reps than any other skill-position player on the team, maybe any player, period.
Harvin is fun to watch as a receiver, keeping the cornerbacks nervous on which route he'll run, but it gets even more interesting when he's got the ball in the backfield and weaving his way toward an opening in the defense and looking to find the crease that can set him free. The downside, so far, is that he doesn't appear comfortable just yet fielding punts, but once he has the ball secured, his explosiveness returns. A few good blocks in front of him and it seems like it's only a matter of a few seconds and he'll be on the other end of a 40-yard return.
Point three: There's a lot of confidence in John Sullivan. On Sunday, Childress acknowledged what has become apparent the last two weeks – the starting center job is Sullivan's to lose, and there isn't anyone being given enough of a chance to compete with him. Not one person – player or coach – we talked with about Sullivan's progress this offseason has expressed any doubt in his ability to diagnose defenses and make the correct and decisive line calls.
"He was out here last year when (Matt) Birk is at home and he jumped in here last year and he took charge," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevel said. "He is a confident guy. He is a smart guy. So we are getting good calls out of him and good communications."
To add to it, there wasn't a muffed snap that we witnessed all weekend. No doubt Birk will be missed, especially by his good friend Steve Hutchinson, but without full pads on, it's hard to find much criticism of Sullivan at this point.
Point four: Phil Loadholt looks to have the right tackle spot wrapped up. Loadholt is in a little different situation than Sullivan at center. Sullivan doesn't have anyone experienced behind him. Loadholt has incumbent Ryan Cook, who could always resume the tackle spot, but for now Loadholt is getting the vast majority of the first-team snaps at right tackle. Cook is playing mostly right guard in place of injured Anthony Herrera and Artis Hicks is also recovering from offseason surgery. Loadholt is also getting some second-team snaps, too, as the Vikings appear to take the tactic that more snaps will speed Loadholt's progress.
The progress report so far is positive. Loadholt is massive and he appears to be an upgrade already over what the Vikings had at the position. The right side of the line should be no worse for wear for inserting a rookie there.
"We are getting to see a lot of Phil. We are getting to see a lot of other guys that are in there getting a lot of good reps, whether it is against the first team against a guy like Jared Allen – Phil Loadholt can't get a better look than that," Bevell said.
Point five: Kenechi Udeze is making a great comeback, but he's no lock to make the team. Udeze's comeback to date has been called "inspirational" by linebacker Ben Leber and others, and we agree. It's a tremendous story of human perseverance. Udeze is back on the practice field after being diagnosed with leukemia in February 2008. In the last year he's undergone chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. To be working out already is incredible, but it doesn't necessarily ensure anything for his football future … and Udeze and his coaches seem to know it.
"It will be a day-to-day process for him. There are so many things that have to come back, both physically and mentally and the emotional part of this game. Over time he'll get to where he needs to be, but at what pace, who knows?" defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "… There are a number of things that have to happen before we feel comfortable about him playing."
Point six: It's very crowded at cornerback, even with Antoine Winfield missing. Two years ago, the Vikings were working out cornerbacks on a seemingly weekly basis. This offseason, they are stacked with backups behind starters Cedric Griffin and Winfield, the latter being absent for the minicamp. Behind them are Marcus McCauley (who was filling in for Winfield over the weekend), Benny Sapp (who was the nickel back at minicamp), Karl Paymah (who joined Sapp as the oft-used second-team tandem), Asher Allen (the third-round rookie still getting used to the schemes), and Charles Gordon (last year's nickel back who isn't able to practice yet as he recovers from an ankle injury. Any one of the aforementioned backups could end up being in the nickel defense when the Vikings exit training camp, but last year the team ended the season with only four cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. It could be five this year, but even then it would leave five players – McCauley, Sapp, Gordon, Paymah and Allen – fighting for three spots.
At this point, McCauley is the cornerback filling in for Winfield, but you might remember McCauley's struggles last year after entering the season as the favorite to get a role in the nickel defense. He was inactive for six games and started only one. This year, he could be back on track.
"It's an evolution with him," Childress said. "Take yourself back to the Kansas City interchange (in training camp) we had last year. He got hurt after one week of training camp and really had trouble righting himself and lost a big part of what we were doing in terms of being a second-year player. He's healthy right now. He spent all winter here in the offseason program. He's able to work individually with the secondary coaches and it's just the luck of the draw here that he's lined up with the ones again on these terms."
Extra point: E.J. Henderson won't miss a beat. When E.J. Henderson suffered multiple dislocated toes last year, some observers didn't notice a big drop in the defense's production. That's true, to a point. The defense still finished first against the run, but Henderson was playing at a Pro Bowl level before his injury and his eventual successor, Napoleon Harris, isn't even with the team – or any NFL team – at this point. Make no mistake about it: Henderson was missed last year and his reinsertion into the lineup should make the 2009 defense even better.
Editor's note: We'll have more stories on these subjects and others throughout the week as we work our way through all the interviews conducted over the weekend.
Seven Points, Vikings: Minicamp impressions
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