M&J Vikings Camp Preview: Cornerback, schedule among biggest concerns
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The countdown is on as the Vikings prepare to report to training camp at Minnesota State on Thursdayand then start practicing under new coach Mike Zimmer on Friday.
Each day this week at 10 a.m. on the "Mackey & Judd" show we are going to examine different topics involving the Vikings, ending with a prediction of the team's record and finish in the NFC North on Friday.
On Wednesday, we weighed in with two areas of concern.
The third cornerback: In a league where the passing game has become so crucial, and in a division that features Aaron Rodgers, Jay Culter and Matthew Stafford at quarterback, the Vikings must have three good cornerbacks if this defense is going to be successful.
Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, and Captain Munnerlyn, who signed a three-year, $11.25 million contract as a free agent in March, will be the starters but the plan is for Munnerlyn to move inside when the Vikings bring in the nickel defense.
They figure to be in that package on about 50 percent of the defensive snaps, meaning that someone other than Munnerlyn will be lined up opposite of Rhodes much of the time.
Josh Robinson, a third-round pick in 2012, took the first-team reps as the third cornerback in the offseason and likely will get the first crack at winning that job in camp. Robinson had a terrible 2013 season, but many of his struggles came attempting to replace Antoine Winfield inside in the nickel.
It was a position he hadn't previously played and asking Robinson to take over that role was unfair from the get go. Robinson might be just fine playing outside on a full-time basis.
There should be competition for the spot and the biggest challenge could come from Derek Cox, who was signed to a one-year, $780,000 free-agent contract by the Vikings this offseason after a terrible year with the Chargers.
The Vikings are banking on Cox returning to the form he showed before last season when he was in Jacksonville. That earned him a four-year, $20 million deal from San Diego. Part of the problem was that Cox's use in the Chargers' scheme, just like Robinson's use in the Vikings' scheme last season, did not fit his abilities.
Both Robinson and Cox are hoping to prove they can bounce back in 2014. The Vikings also are hoping that's the case because they need one of them to emerge.
A lot on his plate: This is not a huge concern, but it is something that will be interesting to watch unfold.
Zimmer has been in coaching since the late 1970s and has been a defensive assistant in the NFL since the mid-1990s. But at the age of 58, this is his first head coaching opportunity.
This means Zimmer is going to have to make the transition from taking instructions from a head coach to being the guy giving instructions. That shouldn't be a huge issue, but what will be interesting to see is how Zimmer manages all the tasks that go along with being a coach in the NFL.
As a defensive coordinator, Zimmer had to worry about guys on his side of the football but many day-to-day matters were handled by others.
Now, his duties will include making training camp schedules, deciding on regular-season schedules, including when guys eat, meet, etc., counseling any player with troubles, and deciding what is small enough to delegate and what he needs to take on. If someone gets in trouble, guess whose phone will be one of the first to ring?
When questions are asked Thursday about why the Vikings elected to retain special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, it will be Zimmer who has to answer them.
Zimmer strikes you as a guy who loves to coach football. Will he love all the responsibilities that go with being a coach? Probably not, but he's going to have to find a way to create 30 hours in a day much of the time.
Linebackers: As mentioned yesterday, Chad Greenway's age (31) and downturn in production last season - albeit, with a broken wrist - make it even more important for others to step up around him. But that's a lot of pressure to put on rookie Anthony Barr and Jasper Brinkley, who played only sparingly with the Arizona Cardinals last season.
If Greenway is healthy, he should bounce back. But it's pretty likely the Vikings will need others to produce down the depth chart - guys from the group of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Audi Cole, who graded highly in pass coverage according to ProFootballFocus.
If Cole, Mauti or Hodges were forced to play significant snaps, would the Vikings defense stay afloat? They may have no choice.
The schedule: NFL schedules are difficult to analyze because the playoff turnover rate is almost 50%, and because factors can change between August and December. That said, the Vikings' first five games are brutal:
@ St. Louis
vs. New England
@ New Orleans
@ Green Bay
That's three games against three of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time - Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers - a tough road game against an underrated Rams team stuck in an impossible division, and a home game against a Falcons team most people aren't giving enough respect to.
Remember this about Atlanta: Matt Ryan is a top-10 quarterback who will have two healthy stud wide receivers back in the fold in Roddy White and Julio Jones. The Falcons are more likely to bounce back toward playoff contention than to repeat last year's 4-12 record, especially in a division where Carolina lost several key pieces.
If the Vikings can find a way to win a couple of those first five games, the schedule appears to lighten up with games against the Lions, Bills and Bucs, but here's another angle to keep in mind: The Vikings are playing outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, and those two December home games are against the New York Jets and Chicago Bears - two teams accustomed to playing cold weather games in December. That home field advantage dwindles a bit when playing a team like Chicago outdoors on Dec. 28.
Again, it's way too early to make any definitive statements about the schedule. We know nothing about injuries, teams that may nosedive (see: Texans, 2013) or skyrocket (see: Chiefs, 2013), but September and December look like they could be interesting stretches for the Vikings.