The Vikings announced their training camp dates this past week and, for the first time in several years, the performance down in Mankato may end up going a long way to determining the starting lineup for Week 1 of the regular season and beyond.
Although we’re a little more than two months out from when those Mankato battles will begin, there will be a lot more intrigue at several positions barring a trade or significant free-agent signing in the comings weeks. Here is a current breakdown of positions and what battles may be in place when training camp opens and the competition begins in earnest.
Quarterback – This position is as set as any on the team. Christian Ponder is the starter. Joe Webb is the versatile backup who would likely take over in the event of injury. Sage Rosenfels is the veteran influence that can help bring Ponder along by serving as a coach on the sidelines that can help Ponder get an in-game handle on the defensive looks he’s getting. Barring injuries, these three are all but set in stone.
Running Back – The lingering question here is whether Adrian Peterson will be ready or not. Even if he is far ahead of schedule, his workload in training camp and the preseason will likely be extremely limited. As a result, third-year man Toby Gerhart (who suffered a less serious knee injury last year) will likely shoulder most of the load. Lex Hilliard, Jordan Todman and Derrick Coleman will likely compete for the third RB spot, but there may be a spirited battle for the fullback position. The Vikings historically have only kept one fullback because of the 53-man numbers game. That may not be good news because the Vikings have three players competing for a roster spot at fullback. Jerome Felton, Ryan D’Imperio and Matt Asiata may be competing for just one roster spot.
Wide Receiver – The only certainty is that Percy Harvin will enter the season as the No. 1 player on the depth chart. Jerome Simpson will likely be the other starter, but he will miss the first three games after being hit with a suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in April. The biggest issue may be how many wide receivers the Vikings keep in 2012. Veteran Michael Jenkins will likely have the upper hand early on to be the other primary starter while Simpson is forced to sit out, but that is far from a guarantee. Beyond that, it could be a wide open competition. Rookies Jarius Wright and Greg Childs are almost guaranteed roster spots in their rookie season, which would already bring the total to five if all of them are healthy. There may only be one more spot available. The problem is that, as the roster is configured, six players may be competing for just one spot on the 53-man roster – Devin Aromashodu, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Stephen Burton, Kerry Taylor, Bryan Walters and Kamar Jorden. It will be a wide-open competition that will have its share of roster casualties.
Tight End – The Vikings are thrilled with the potential of second-year man Kyle Rudolph and the only significant splash they made in the free-agent market was to sign John Carlson. Both are primarily receiving tight ends, so the team will be looking to fill the void in blocking that went away with the retirement of Jim Kleinsasser and the team opting not to re-sign Visanthe Shiancoe. Rookie Rhett Ellison was taken in the fourth round of last month’s draft, so the team clearly sees roster value in him, which likely increases the list to three “locks” to make the final roster. Allen Reisner and Mickey Shuler may end up competing for a final roster spot that doesn’t exist. If the Vikings keep four tight ends, it will have to come at the expense of another position.
Offensive Line – There are four certainties at this point about the O-line. Matt Kalil, John Sullivan, Phil Loadholt and Charlie Johnson are all but locked into starting spots and the only open battle would appear to be at right guard, where Geoff Schwartz and Brandon Fusco are expected to do battle in camp. The team is likely going to keep nine or 10 O-linemen on the final roster, but not more than 10. As a result, the competition for backup spots will be fierce. Fans will need a program to figure out who’s who at training camp because, at the moment, the Vikings have 15 offensive linemen on the roster and at least five will have to go – making this one of the more competitive battles to look forward to heading into training camp.
Defensive Line – Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison are locked in as starters, but there will be plenty of competition for roster spots. Letroy Guion, Fred Evans, Everson Griffen and Christian Ballard are likely to take up four more spots. The Vikings historically keep more than eight defensive linemen (nine is a workable number), which is good, because they have 16 defensive linemen and may have to get rid of as many as half of them before the regular season starts.
Linebacker – The Vikings haven’t re-signed E.J. Henderson, which leaves a void in the middle of the corps. Chad Greenway has played at a Pro Bowl level the last two seasons. Erin Henderson likely has the inside track to winning the other outside position, but there will be a free-for-all at for the starting MLB spot and backup spots, which often include players with special-teams value. Six or seven players is the likely number. Those vying for a precious few spots include Jasper Brinkley, rookie Audie Cole and unproven Marvin Mitchell, Larry Dean, Solomon Elimimian, Corey Paredes and Tyler Nielsen. Given the lack of depth all around, the Vikings might want to get to the table and reunite the Henderson brothers.
Cornerback – Antoine Winfield is the best of the group, but he will be entering his 14th season and is nearing the end of the line. Chris Cook has been welcomed back to the family, but is likely on double-secret probation within the organization and will have to fly right to live up to his potential. If both Winfield and Cook can be counted on, the addition of rookie Josh Robinson may just be a bonus. The team will likely keep five or even six corners, depending on how they opt to determine special-teams value. With three spots already claimed (at this point), there will be plenty of competition for the other two or three spots between Asher Allen, Chris Carr, Zack Bowman, Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton. It could be a cut-throat competition that won’t be decided until the final preseason game.
Safety – No tears were shed when Tyrell Johnson was allowed to leave free agency and the concussion history of Husain Abdullah (four in 18 months) may be the reason he hasn’t been re-signed. Rookie Harrison Smith is almost a lock to be the starter at one safety spot and the competition for the other starting job will be a battle waged between Mistral Raymond, Jamarca Sanford, rookie Robert Blanton and Eric Frampton. Chances are the Vikings will keep just four safeties, so one of them will likely have to become a roster casualty – perhaps one of the more difficult cuts the team will have to make.
Special Teams – A couple of months back, this would have seemed like a no-brainer – Ryan Longwell at kicker, Chris Kluwe at punter and Cullen Loeffler at long snapper. However, the release of Longwell has opened the door for rookie Blair Walsh, who will be given every opportunity to win the kicking job in camp. Kluwe and Loeffler appear to be locks for their position, but, a month ago the same was said for Longwell.
It’s been a long time since the Vikings went to training camp with so many roster spots open for the taking. It should make camp a destination location for Vikings fans because, this time around, what happens in Mankato on a daily basis will go a long way to determining who ends up on the 2012 Vikings roster.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.