Different experience, similar situations

Lito Sheppard and Chris Cook are both first-year Vikings cornerbacks hoping to earn playing time. They are both new to the team, but Sheppard brings a wealth of NFL experience while Cook is green and growing. Both talked about their initial impressions of the defense and their outlook on being in Minnesota.

As the Vikings opened their first organized team activity last week, they were without starting cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin. Winfield battled foot injuries for much of the 2009 season and there are more questions than answers with Griffin, who suffered a torn ACL in the NFC Championship Game and his availability for the start of the 2010 season is clearly in jeopardy.

However, the OTA practices were the equivalent to the answer to those concerns, as new teammates Chris Cook and Lito Sheppard manned the cornerback positions during practice. Sheppard is a former Pro Bowler who began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles when Vikings head coach served as the Eagles' offensive coordinator. Cook was the first draft pick of the Vikings in April. While both are new to the organization, they have provided the team with a 1-2 insurance punch to keep the cornerback position solid for the team.

Cook, who was also at the rookie camp the weekend after the draft, said that he is feeling his way around and that he is starting to get accustomed to his new surroundings, new coaching staff and new teammates.

"I definitely feel like this is home," Cook said. "I'm out here with some of the veteran guys and seeing how they carry themselves during practice, in the locker room and at meetings. I'm definitely starting to feel like I'm home."

When asked about his impressions now that the vested veteran players have begun trickling in for the offseason workout program, Cook said that he is observing new wrinkles to the professional life every day, but said there was one player that stood out in particular when the veterans began showing up.

"Definitely Lito Sheppard," Cook said. "He's a guy I grew up watching during high school and college. He's definitely one of my favorite corners and to be playing with him? I was in awe when I first saw him."

Sheppard's arrival to Minnesota wasn't one that was expected. Hailed as one of the league's top cornerbacks in the aggressive Eagles defense, he was entering the final year of his contract in 2009 and little progress had been made on an extension. He was traded to the Jets, who signed him to a lucrative four-year extension that was to include a $10 million roster bonus in March. Although the Jets had a dominating defense led by CB Darrelle Revis, Sheppard battled injuries during his season with the Jets and was called out a couple of times by boisterous head coach Rex Ryan. When it came time to make good on the bonus, the Jets opted to release Sheppard, making him an unrestricted free agent.

He comes to the Vikings with something of a chip on his shoulder, but said he isn't dwelling on the last couple of tumultuous seasons.

"I felt like I played well when I was out there," Sheppard said. "I was part of the No. 1 secondary in the league last year. One or two players can't make that happen. The tape don't lie. Whatever product you put on the field is what people look at. I didn't think it was that bad."

Sheppard said the Vikings were a team he was interested in because of their position as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and the uncertainty on the health of Griffin and Winfield factored into his decision. Some have speculated that his familiarity with Childress was a primary factor, but it was far from the only one.

"Not just only Coach Childress, but (defensive coordinator Leslie) Frazier and the type of team they already have in place," Sheppard said. "That played a big role (in signing with the Vikings)."

Sheppard said he isn't expecting to step in and take over anyone's position right away. He said his playing time may be increased if either Griffin or Winfield aren't 100 percent, but his focus is on getting better and making an impression on his new teammates.

"Because of the situation we have as far as injuries go, there's a chance," Sheppard said. "But they never guarantee anything. This is an open competition and I'm looking forward to it.

"It's just about learning the defense and catching up to speed with the guys already here," Sheppard added. "On top of that, just being a good teammate – not stepping on anybody's toes, but coming to prove your point, work hard and just learn from there."

Much the same sentiment holds true for Cook. In many locker rooms, rookies are seen and not heard, as the core of veterans hold sway over the young players. He echoed Sheppard's sentiments that they are coming into a situation that has the team on the cusp of winning the elusive Lombardi Trophy that the franchise has been denied for more than four decades.

"It's very exciting coming into this situation," Cook said. "They were one win away from getting to the Super Bowl and two wins away from winning the Super Bowl. Just coming into that situation is very exciting, having a lot of veteran guys – good guys, good players – around me on offense and defense. I couldn't ask to be put in a better situation than I'm in right now."

In a strange way, given his own situation, Sheppard said he feels in many ways like he is a rookie as well.

"It does in a way," Sheppard said. "I'm kind of new to a lot of things – how they do things around (here). So I'm kind of falling back early and just kind of learning and let everybody else take the lead and hopefully I can pick it up here."

Ideally for the Vikings, Sheppard will work his way into a part-time role with the defense and Cook will be brought along slowly to eventually take over one of the starting spots, which he will be expected to hold down for years in the future. For both Sheppard and Cook, despite their differences in age and experience, the OTAs represent the first baby steps for both. Sheppard said he's ready to hit the ground running, while Cook said he is progressing at the pace in which he expects.

"It's always a learning process when you first start, but I'm getting into a comfort zone," Cook said. "There are a lot of veterans here now and this is the environment I'm coming into and I'm learning from them as I make my way."

While the Vikings coaching staff hopes that neither player will be forced into the starting lineup unless they win the positions outright during the preseason, it's nice to know that, given the uncertainty with Griffin and Winfield, that they are in Minnesota ready to take on whatever roles are asked of them.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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