Garrett Mills (Brian Bahr/Getty)
Tight end Garrett Mills is getting an opportunity to showcase the athletic skills that served him very well in college. Plus, get thoughts from Chad Greenway, Jared Allen, Ben Leber, Darren Sharper, Drew Radovich and Adrian Peterson.
Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway thought about the tight ends he has studied in the NFL and initially thought of Philadelphia’s L.J. Smith when asked for a comparison for up-and-coming Minnesota tight end Garrett Mills.
However, when Greenway’s college teammate Dallas Clark was mentioned, he thought that was a better comparison.
“I haven’t played against Dallas since college, but the same body type, same size,” Greenway said of Mills. “Dallas isn’t a really big guy, (but) shifty.”
Mills has had to wait some time to showcase his skills at the pro level. He spent the first nine games of his rookie season as a game-day inactive with the New England Patriots, who drafted him in the fourth round, and then was placed on injured reserve. Last year, after the Vikings ignored a request by Bill Belichick to leave Mills unclaimed so the Patriots could sign him to their practice squad, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound tight end spent his first 15 games learning Minnesota’s West Coast Offense as a game-day deactive.
But in the final regular-season game for the Vikings last season, Mills was active and involved, catching two passes against the Denver Broncos. On Monday, he continued where he left off in December, catching three passes on a Monday Night Football contest against the Green Bay Packers.
“I had a general idea going into the game that I’d get some playing time offensively,” he said. “You never really know how much until the game time comes. It was just nice to be able to get in there.”
Mills spent most of the preseason sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in training camp, but he played the final preseason game despite showing some signs of the injury with an apparent limp.
“It was frustrating, but it was something I couldn’t control,” he said of his preseason inactivity. “All I could do was come in here every day, come to practice, do my best and try to make plays in practice and hopefully get my chance on the field.”
Mills’ versatility is the key to his use in the Vikings offense.
“He can play in many different spots. He can play on the line of scrimmage, he can play in the backfield, you saw him split out wide in the game and if the matchups are good it definitely helps us,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “We felt like we had a matchup with linebackers or safeties on him, whether it’s Green Bay’s or anybody’s, we feel that’s a matchup in our favor. I guess you can look at Indianapolis. They use Dallas Clark that way, so it’s a good matchup for us.”
Mills, however, admits that the comparisons to Clark are simply being made too early. Mills has five receptions in two games as a pro. Clark, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, has 180 receptions for 2,242 yards and 25 touchdowns in six seasons with the Colts, whom the Vikings play Sunday.
“I don’t think it’s a fair comparison just because of the things he’s done, the accomplishments he’s made. For me to play two games and have my name mentioned, I don’t think that’s really fair for him,” Mills said.
But Mills had tremendous success in college, ending his career at Tulsa with 201 receptions to rank second all-time among Division I-A tight ends. His 2,389 career receiving yards are also second in the NCAA among tight ends and his 1,235 yards as a senior set the record.
“We kind of knew that I was getting close to it. The coaches there never really made a big deal about it or it wasn’t something that we were trying to shoot for,” he said.
All that production made him a fourth-round draft choice, but Tulsa was the only school to recruit him as a tight end. The others were looking at him as a linebacker.
“I just felt more comfortable (at tight end) and felt like that’s where I could have more success, really at the collegiate level. I wasn’t really thinking ahead to this level. It’s just where I felt more comfortable,” he said.
It shows, and his skills there offer the Vikings something they don’t have with Jim Kleinsasser or Visanthe Shiancoe, their other more experienced tight ends.
“He’s great one-on-one man and getting off coverage. He’s got great feet and he’s just got a great knack for getting open,” Greenway said.
LOOKING FOR NO. 1
Jared Allen is searching for his first sack with the Vikings, but it could be tough to get to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Allen called Manning his unicorn, a guy he just hasn’t been able to sack.
“I’ve had some good games against him, though,” Allen said. “He gets rid of the ball quick. He’s a good quarterback. He knows that offense inside and out. He’s a tough quarterback to sack. He doesn’t get sacked all that often. We’ll get our shots. It’s Week 2 and it’s a crucial week for us because we want to get that first win under our belt and especially at home.”
Manning is known for getting the ball out of his hand quickly and Allen said the Vikings expect a lot of three-step drops from him.
“I don’t want to say it’s a respect issue, but if they know they can’t hold the ball on you, obviously it takes away from them giving up big routes,” he said. “If they have to check it down all the time, it can get frustrating, but you have to create an opportunity. You’ve got to bat balls down, you’ve got to make tackles when you can. If the DBs make them hold the ball one time, you’ve got to make him pay for it.”
Linebacker Ben Leber said three-step drops render the blitzes and four-man rushes ineffective. But, there is hope, Leber said.
“I don’t think they can do that to us the whole game. There are going to be opportunities for us to get to the quarterback,” he said.
Darren Sharper doesn’t have great memories of Manning, either.
His last recollection of facing Manning in the regular season includes giving up five touchdowns in the first half as a member of the Packers defense.
“That’s not a good memory. I’m trying to lose that memory,” Sharper said, giving the current Colts offense a high ranking. “They’re top five as far as trying to stop in the league because the guy pulling the trigger is so good. That’s the main difference.”
Offensive lineman Drew Radovich was a healthy inactive for the Vikings in their season opener. If Artis Hicks’ elbow injury won’t allow him to play, the rookie Radovich could be forced into action.
If Hicks can’t go, Marcus Johnson would get the start at left tackle and Radovich likely would be the primary backup. Johnson and Radovich each spent the majority of the offseason working on the right side of the offensive line, but Radovich said the transition to the left side isn’t all that difficult.
“It’s not extremely difficult. You just have to switch plays in your head. Your techniques are slightly different – left foot up for your post foot and your right foot up as your post foot on the left side. It’s just balancing weight and simple technique things,” Radovich said.
A shoulder injury during the preseason limited Radovich’s work and he said getting a good feel for the speed of the game has been a challenge. But, despite that admission, he said his experiences with USC wouldn’t leave him with any hesitation going against quick Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney.
“No, not at all. You treat every player with the respect they deserve. I’ve battle against Lawrence Jackson and I’ve gone up against Kenechi (Udeze) every day when I was a freshman. There’s not that shock value. It’s just go out there and do your job and use the techniques that you’ve been taught. Just battle every play,” said Radovich, who gets to go up against Jared Allen in practice every day.
Adrian Peterson expects the Vikings’ running game to a focus of opposing defenses much of the year. “When you lead the league in rushing, there’s a lot that comes with that,” he said. “I know they’re going to come in wanting to stop the run and we’re going to have to go out there and establish our tempo, grind the ball and balance it with the pass.”
Safety Darren Sharper said he got hit as he was attempting to scoop up a fumble for a return in Monday night’s loss to Green Bay, but he isn’t likely to scale back the aggressiveness. “I’m going to try to pick it up every time because I trust my hands that I can pick it up and do that,” he said. “In saying, though, if I’m around a whole bunch of people, I do need to fall on it, but I saw clear sailing and I don’t have eyes in the back of my head to see someone that hit me.”