Breaking down the battle for Vikings' roster spots
The Minnesota Vikings are younger than they were a year ago, but are they better?
We'll have a better idea after they visit defending NFC champion San Francisco for a primetime preseason game on Sunday (7 p.m., KTTC). The Vikings' starters are expected to play into the second half against a 49ers defense that was third in the NFL in yards allowed last season.
Now that training camp and half of the preseason is complete, here's a look at who has roster spots locked up and who is still battling for a job:
On the roster (15): G Jeff Baca, G/C Joe Berger, G Travis Bond, G Brandon Fusco, OL Tyler Holmes, T/G Charlie Johnson, T Matt Kalil, T Brandon Keith, OL Troy Kropog, T Phil Loadholt, T DeMarcus Love, T Kevin Murphy, G Seth Olsen, C John Sullivan, C Camden Wentz.
Locks: Kalil, Sullivan, Loadholt, Johnson, Fusco.
Likely in: Berger, Baca, Olsen.
Battling for a spot: Bond, Holmes, Keith, Kropog, Love, Murphy, Wentz.
Outlook: The starting five from last year's playoff run is locked in. Loadholt is on a new four-year, $25 million contract, while Kalil looks on his way to becoming one of the top tackles in the league. Sullivan was a first alternate for the Pro Bowl last season and looks to be recovered from microfracture surgery he had in January on his left knee. Berger likely makes the team because of his versatility and experience; he has been around the NFL for nearly a decade. Olsen has good size and he started four games for the Colts last season, while Baca, a sixth-round pick this spring, has performed well in camp, though has struggled at time in games. Bond, a rookie seventh-round pick, could be destined for the practice squad, as could Murphy, who was on the Vikings' practice squad during the 2012 season. Love, a sixth-round pick in 2011, was on the bubble to begin with, but likely cost himself a spot after he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance, resulting in a four-game suspension. There's a good chance the Vikings will watch for backup linemen as other teams in the NFL make their final cuts.
On the roster (4): McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, James Vandenberg.
Locks: Ponder, Cassel.
Likely in: Bethel-Thompson.
Battling for a spot: Vandenberg.
Outlook: When Joe Webb looked overmatched in a playoff game at Lambeau Field back in January, the Vikings realized the importance of having a servicable backup. At the very least, Cassel can command the huddle and run an offense without looking lost. Ponder, in his third season with the Vikings, will be given every chance to prove he deserves to be a starter in the NFL. Cassel likely won't see the field unless Ponder is injured or the Vikings decide, for whatever reason, he won't be back next season. Bethel-Thompson spent all of 2012 as the Vikings' third QB. The Vikings like the 25-year-old's strong arm; receivers reportedly told him in training camp last year to stop throwing the ball so hard. Vandenberg, an undrafted rookie who could be a contender for the practice squad, threw just seven TD passes while taking every snap at the University of Iowa last year.
On the roster (8): RB Matt Asiata, RB Joe Banyard, FB Jerome Felton, RB Toby Gerhart, FB Zach Line, RB Adrian Peterson, RB Bradley Randle, RB Jerodis Williams.
Locks: Peterson, Gerhart, Felton.
Battling for a spot: Asiata, Banyard, Line, Randle, Williams.
Outlook: Adrian Peterson is the MVP. Toby Gerhart is firmly established as his backup. Jerome Felton is a Pro Bowl fullback. Enough said about those three. Asiata made the team last season by having a standout training camp. He's likely first in line to earn a roster spot after the three players who are locked in. Asiata has gained the coaches' confidence because of solid special teams play and his attention to detail, such as picking up blitzing defenders. Line's chances of landing on the active roster increased when Felton underwent an emergency appendectomy on Aug. 14. The Vikings have indicated that Felton will be back for the regular season, but if his recovery lingers, Line could find himself on the roster. Rhett Ellison, a fourth-round pick in 2012 who is listed as a tight end, could also play fullback.
On the roster (12): LaMark Brown, Stephen Burton, Greg Childs (on PUP list), Erik Highsmith, Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Rodney Smith, Chris Summers, Adam Thielen, Joe Webb, Jarius Wright.
Locks: Jennings, Patterson, Simpson, Wright.
Likely in: Burton.
Battling for a spot: Brown, Childs, Highsmith, Smith, Summers, Thielen, Webb.
Outlook: Jennings has become an instant locker room leader. Simpson hopes to show Vikings coaches and fans what he can do when 100 percent healthy. Wright came on strong in the second half of 2012, particularly when Percy Harvin went on IR. And the team traded back into the first round in April's draft to get Patterson, who they expect is a future star. Webb's future as a Viking depends on whether coaches decide to keep five or six receivers on the roster. Burton has played well enough in the preseason to earn the fifth spot. Webb has shown flashes, but has been unable to distinguish himself consistently. He hasn't excelled at opportunities to return kicks or punts, either.
On the roster (5): Colin Anderson, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Kyle Rudolph.
Locks: Rudolph, Ellison.
Likely in: Carlson.
Battling for a spot: Anderson, Ford.
Outlook: Rudolph finished his rookie season by winning the MVP award at the Pro Bowl. If he continues to develop, he will be one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league. Ellison's versatility makes him a lock to be on the team. The 2012 fourth-round pick can play tight end or fullback, can catch the ball and block well, and play on special teams. Carlson is likely in because of the five-year, $25 million deal the Vikings gave him prior to last season. He played in 14 games, but caught just eight balls for 43 yards. If he doesn't become a more valuable part of the offense this season, he likely won't receive another chance. Ford spent time on three practice squads last season, in Minnesota, Dallas and Philadelphia. He has played well so far in the preseason, but may be squeezed out because there simply isn't a roster spot for a fourth tight end.
On the roster (16): DE Jared Allen, DT Chase Baker, DT Christian Ballard, DT Everett Dawkins, DT Fred Evans, DT Shariff Floyd, DT Letroy Guion, DE Everson Griffen, DE Lawrence Jackson, DE Marquis Jackson, DE George Johnson, DT Anthony McCloud, DE D'Aundre Reed, DE Brian Robison, DE Collins Ukwu, DT Kevin Williams.
Locks: Allen, Floyd, Guion, Griffen, Robison, Williams.
Likely in: Evans, L. Jackson.
Battling for a spot: Baker, Ballard, Dawkins, M. Jackson, Johnson, McCloud, Reed, Ukwu.
Outlook: Allen and Williams are locked in to start at their positions, though they may not take as many snaps as they have in past seasons. Allen couldn't play much more. He was in on more than 93 percent of the team's defensive plays last season. The Vikings have ample depth along the line, allowing for Allen to take some plays off in running situations in order to be fresh for pass-rushing downs. Floyd was one of the Vikings three first-round picks in April. He will slowly work his way into the rotation after having a minor procedure done on his left knee earlier this week. Guion will likely start alongside Williams at tackle, while Griffen could supplant Robison as the starting end opposite Allen. Griffen had a breakout season in 2012 with a career-best 36 tackles and eight sacks. Evans provides a solid veteran backup at tackle, as does Lawrence Jackson at defensive end. Jackson, a former first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, has averaged four sacks per season. Ballard was being counted on to be a key member of the rotation, coach Leslie Frazier said, but he left the team for personal reasons over the weekend. No timetable has been given for his return.
On the roster (10): Desmond Bishop, Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Gerald Hodges, Stanford Keglar, Michael Mauti, Tyrone McKenzie, Marvin Mitchell.
Locks: Greenway, Henderson.
Likely in: Bishop, Dean.
Battling for a spot: Cole, Hodges, Keglar, Mauti, McKenzie, Mitchell.
Outlook: Greenway enters his eighth season having led the team in tackles the past two years. He was a Second Team AP All-Pro last season, when he earned his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. Henderson has locked up the middle linebacker job after recording 112 tackles and three sacks last season. Bishop would be included in the "locks" category had he not missed the first preseason game and more than a week of training camp practices with a groin injury. Coach Leslie Frazier has said Bishop's performance over the final two weeks of the preseason will determine if he's a Viking or if he has to look for work elsewhere. Dean is a solid backup LB and a strong contributor on special teams. Likewise for Cole, who made the 53-man roster last year and played in six games, including the Wild Card playoff loss at Green Bay. A pair of 2013 draft picks — Hodges (fourth round) and Mauti (seventh) — have been impressive so far and could both crack the active roster. Mitchell's performance impressed the Vikings' coaches when Bishop was recovering from his groin injury. He's a sleeper to make the team as a veteran backup and special teamer.
On the roster (9): Brandon Burton, Chris Cook, Bobby Felder, A.J. Jefferson, Greg McCoy, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Roderick Williams.
Locks: Cook, Rhodes, Robinson.
Likely in: Jefferson.
Battling for a spot: Burton, Felder, McCoy, Sherels, Williams.
Outlook: Cook is the veteran leader of this group and he'll be expected to mentor first-rounder Rhodes, who is expected to open the season as a starter. Robinson is being given every chance to win the starting nickelback job, but the 2012 third-round draft pick is still learning how to cover slot receivers. Jefferson came over in a trade with Arizona last season and started seven games. He has just one interception in 33 career games. Sherels and Felder could be directly competing for a job. Sherels has been a solid punt returner for two seasons, while Felder has flashed with a big punt return in a preseason game at Buffalo, and Felder has shown decent coverage skills at corner.
On the roster (7): Brandan Bishop, Robert Blanton, Darius Eubanks, Mistral Raymond, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo, Harrison Smith.
Locks: Sanford, Smith.
Battling for a spot: Bishop, Blanton, Eubanks, Raymond, Sendejo.
Outlook: Smith, a first-round pick in 2012, earned All-Rookie Team honors after recording 129 total tackles and three interceptions, two of which he returned for TDs. He's given the Vikings what they've lacked at the safety spot for years — a physical player with cover skills who's not afraid to hit hard. Sanford, a 2009 draft pick, is the old man of the secondary, having been with the team longer than any other defensive back on the roster. He appears to have locked down the starting spot opposite Smith. Blanton and Raymond both played in more than half of the team's games in 2012, while Sendejo has played in 16 games over the past two seasons and has recorded 16 special-teams tackles. If the Vikings keep five safeties, Sendejo will likely be on the team. Raymond and Blanton likely have the third and fourth spots sewn up.
On the roster (3): P Jeff Locke, LS Cullen Loeffler, K Blair Walsh.
Locks: Locke, Loeffler, Walsh.
Outlook: No secrets here. The Vikings like their specialists and have no one in camp to challenge them. They think they've found a kicking gem in the draft for a second consecutive season. Last year, they used a sixth-round pick on Walsh, who converted 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, including all 10 of his tries from 50-plus yards. He made the Pro Bowl and was named First Team All-Pro by the Associated Press. This year, special teams coach Mike Priefer lobbied hard and convinced the team to cut veteran punter Chris Kluwe and use a fifth-rounder on Locke. So far, so good. Locke has been impressive in two preseason games, putting three punts inside the 15 against Buffalo last week. He had a career net average of 39.5 yards per kick on 275 kicks over four seasons at UCLA. Loeffler enters his 10th season in the NFL — all in Minnesota — having played in 139 career games. Loeffler, 32, signed a three-year contract extension during the 2011 season.