Carlson returns, trying to learn quickly

Tight end John Carlson, the Vikings' biggest free-agent addition in the offseason, returned to practice Monday for the first time since spraining an MCL on July 31.

While the Minnesota Vikings conducted practices this past month, John Carlson watched from behind the huddle, a white ball cap on his 6-foot-5 frame signaling his nonparticipation in the drills.

As closely as he studied his new team's playbook and tried to grasp his assignments, Carlson's sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee kept him from full immersion in the offense until returning to the field this week. With the season opener less than two weeks away, Carlson has plenty of catching up to do.

"I'm kind of feeling my way through things at times, but I think the more reps I get the more comfortable I'll get," Carlson said Monday, his first full-pad workout since he was hurt on July 31. "I was at every practice. I watched all the team periods. I went to all the meetings and that stuff, but it's different to learn an offense on paper or to watch it as opposed to taking the physical reps, communicating with the tackle, seeing and reading coverages, running the correct route, making the correct adjustments. I need to get that really quickly, but it'll come."

The Vikings (29th in the AP Pro32 rankings) cautiously restocked their roster this year, mostly using their 10 draft picks and one-year prove-it contracts on veterans to fill in the holes.

Carlson was the exception, signing a five-year deal worth as much as $25 million, though only about $9 million is guaranteed. The Litchfield, Minn., native and Notre Dame product missed last season with Seattle because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder. So he hasn't played in a real NFL game since the Seahawks were in the playoffs after the 2010 season.

"Well, injuries happen in football. I've kind of had a string of them here, but I'm trying to do my best to put my best foot forward and forget about what's happened in the past and try to get back to 100 percent and focus on what's ahead," Carlson said.

The Vikings liked the way he looked on Monday, at least.

"I think he's more comfortable with that brace now. So I think he's going to be all right," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We've just got to keep stacking days on top of each other, but he was better today."

With the prevalence of two tight-end sets in their offense, the Vikings signed Carlson to pair with Kyle Rudolph, a fellow former Fighting Irish star. They've got the kind of pass-catching and route-running skills to beat linebackers in man-to-man coverage and give quarterback Christian Ponder some options to throw to, provided of course they can stay healthy.

Carlson's former Notre Dame roommate, Vikings center John Sullivan, hasn't been worried about his buddy's ability to bounce back.

"He's always in shape, which is a big part of the battle when you miss that much time," Sullivan said, adding: "He's a very experienced guy. He's a very smart guy. He's been in this league for a long time so I'm sure that'll be easy for him to get back into playing shape mentally and physically."

Learning coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense is his biggest challenge now, but that's nothing new. From Gil Haskell to Gregg Knapp to Jeremy Bates to Darrell Bevell, Carlson played for four offensive coordinators with the Seahawks in his first four seasons in the NFL.

"Every year I've been in the NFL it's kind of been starting over. So from that standpoint I'm just trying to learn as much as I can every day," Carlson said.

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