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Updated: August 23rd, 2012 10:04pm
Pelissero: Knee has left Vikings newcomer John Carlson in tough spot

Pelissero: Knee has left Vikings newcomer John Carlson in tough spot

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

John Carlson's job with the Minnesota Vikings is safe, but he needed this time.

He needed every practice rep he could get in training camp after missing all of last season in Seattle with a torn labrum in one of his shoulders.

Instead, he has been confined to rehabilitation work since July 31, when a teammate landed on the back of his right leg in a drill -- leaving Carlson with a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament that has yet to fully heal.

"The mental side of it, I think, is there," Carlson said this week. "I feel like I know the offense on paper from meetings and all that. But I haven't taken the physical reps. There's going to be some rust to knock off. How quickly I can do that, I don't know."

On Friday, Carlson will miss his third consecutive preseason game. He's a long shot to play in the fourth on a short week Aug. 30 at Houston, where many starters may sit anyway.

That means the Vikings' first look at the two-headed tight end monster they wanted to create by signing Carlson to a five-year, $25 million contract in March probably won't come until the regular-season opener at Jacksonville.

"We're hoping it's more versatile and more productive, but that remains to be seen," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "We have a plan in place and we look forward to putting it into action. But it's still speculative at this point until he gets out there."

The signing of Carlson, 28, caught many around the NFL off-guard because scouts believe Kyle Rudolph, a second-round draft pick 10½ months earlier, has star potential.

Plus, the rebuilding Vikings mostly stayed out of bidding wars in free agency, save for offering $9.1 million in guarantees to lure Carlson away from a visit with Kansas City.

"It seemed like a lot (of money) at the time," an NFC personnel man said. "I remember being surprised that's where he ended up."

The Vikings believed Carlson was a significant upgrade from veteran Visanthe Shiancoe, though. They believed they could get Carlson at an acceptable price because of the time he'd missed.

They also believed Rudolph's 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame would let him grow into a strongside blocking role in addition to creating mismatches in the passing game, allowing his fellow Notre Dame alum Carlson (6-5, 248) to do what he does best.

"He's not going to be a guy that's going to get vertical push at the line of scrimmage," an AFC personnel man said of Carlson, who has 137 receptions for 1,519 yards (11.1 average) and 13 touchdowns in 47 regular-season games over three NFL seasons.

"He's quick with better than average speed. He does have good hands. He's a little more possessional than he is explosive as a receiver. He certainly can move the chains. He has a feel and craft for getting open in some of the soft spots in the zones.

"Is he one of these displaceable, detachable type tight ends who creates mismatches every single play? I don't think I would put him in that category. I think he's a little bit more steady, a little bit more solid. He's a better-than-average starter."

That's what the Vikings believe they'll have once Carlson has regained his health and his bearings. Trouble is, missing 3½ weeks and counting with a knee injury is the last thing Carlson needed to hit the ground running in Week 1.

He said the knee has "progressed significantly" but is now pressing the upper end of the normal two- to four-week recovery time.

"We want to have him be a contributor," Musgrave said, "so as soon as he can, I know he will be back out there with us."

Rookie Rhett Ellison has gotten the bulk of Carlson's reps through two preseason games. Allen Reisner and Mickey Shuler have NFL playing experience, too, and it's worth wondering if the Vikings will keep an extra man at the position, just in case.

None of those players is Carlson in the passing game. But Carlson can't be sure when he'll be himself either.

"Footwork, pad level, hand placement in the run game and keeping the feet driving once you meet contact -- those things, you need reps to get that back," Carlson said. "In the pass game, pass releases, again footwork, running routes, getting proper depths, getting on the same page as the quarterback."

"These are things I've been mentally taking reps at, and I do think that that helps to visualize and go through things in your head. I know that helps. Again, it's not taking the physical reps on the field and not an ideal situation. But this is the situation that I'm in, and I have to make the most of it."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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