Pelissero: Sorting out Vikings' 90-man roster isn't easy after lockout
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MANKATO, Minn. -- From the time the NFL lockout began in March, it was apparent some rookies could be in trouble.
By the time the lockout ended two weeks ago, the entire offseason had been wiped out, leaving late-round draft picks and undrafted rookies a uniquely small window for trying to learn systems and earn trust from coaches.
Instead of coming here with some idea of which rookies might make the team, the Minnesota Vikings' coaching staff arrived relatively blind, aside from pre-draft work and word from scouts.
Instead of working with players who at least had been in meeting rooms and improving fundamentals for a couple of months, coaches are piggybacking that work onto rookies' already-heavy load in training camp.
It all has coaches and personnel men trying to guard against discrimination when it comes to young players who have a hard enough time beating out veterans for roster spots -- much less doing it at a time key decision-makers may be more concerned with getting their top 53 players up to speed than sorting out the other 37.
"Some of the coaches were talking about that very fact this morning in the locker room," coach Leslie Frazier said this past weekend. "You have to be careful pushing those guys to the side and saying, 'They're not going to be ready, they're not going to learn the system in time.' Then, all of a sudden, you cut a very good football player that just needed a little bit more time.
"In our case, we're putting them out there right away, letting them compete. We're not going to put a road block up just because we haven't been able to be around them. We drafted those guys for a reason. We signed them for a reason."
The first big opportunity for those rookies to make their mark comes in Saturday's preseason opener at Tennessee.
The following is a position-by-position look at the Vikings' roster, which stood at the maximum 90 players as practice was set to resume on Monday morning. (Rookies are marked with an asterisk.)
Good bet: Joe Webb.
Long shot: Rhett Bomar.
The skinny: McNabb (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) has much to prove on a one-year contract after his lost season in Washington. His arm looks live, but he's a West Coast lifer getting a crash course in an unfamiliar offense and protections. Ponder (6-2, 229), the No. 12 overall draft pick, has been a beat slow with his reads and throws -- no surprise, given the volume he's been asked to handle in his first week of NFL practices. Webb (6-4, 220) has taken some second-team reps, too, but his rare athletic traits figure to place him in a multi-position role, perhaps handling certain packages at quarterback and receiver. Bomar (6-2, 225) was picking up scraps and might have harpooned his practice-squad chances with a drunk-driving arrest early Sunday morning.
Running backs (7)
Good bet: HB Lorenzo Booker.
On the bubble: FB Ryan D'Imperio.
The skinny: Peterson (6-1, 217) has asked coaches to get him more involved in the passing game as he enters the final year of a rookie contract the Vikings want to extend sooner than later. His top backup should be Gerhart (6-0, 231), a second-round pick in 2010 who looks more confident but no more elusive. Booker (5-10, 191) has the inside track as a third-down option and return man after showing some juice late last season. With Tahi gone, D'Imperio (6-3, 241) is getting a long look after a year's development but remains raw, even for special teams. If he flops in the preseason, the Vikings may scan the street or let tight ends do the dirty work instead. The only other fullback is Asiata (5-11, 229), who spent four injury-plagued years as a halfback at Utah. Davis (5-10, 212) has been in camps with Detroit and Miami since going undrafted out of Auburn in 2009. Robinson (5-9, 191) is among Iowa State's career rushing leaders but hasn't done much to grab attention so far.
Lock: Percy Harvin.
The skinny: One of the most NFL's productive receivers when healthy last season, Harvin (5-11, 184) has dropped about 10 pounds, says he's migraine-free and is drawing praise for taking on a leadership role. The Vikings plan to start him at flanker and Berrian (6-1, 185) at split end, where the 30-year-old can run the intermediate-to-deep routes that suit him best in the last year of his restructured contract. Jenkins (6-4, 217) knows the nuts of coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense from their days in Atlanta, has deceptive speed and figures to see time at every receiver spot. Jaymar Johnson (6-0, 176) appears to have made major strides with his body and approach during his year on injured reserve, giving him more opportunities in practice than Camarillo (6-1, 190), who remains strictly a slot guy. Arceneaux (6-2, 210) runs well and was productive in the CFL, but he needs to refine his route-running and catch the speed of the American game. Aromashodu (6-2, 201) signed a one-year deal and has a similar body type to former Chicago Bears teammate Iglesias (6-1, 205), who has zero NFL catches to Aromashodu's 41. Hands appear to be a question on Burton (6-1, 224), the classic height/weight/speed project the Vikings drafted in the seventh round out of West Texas A&M. Holmes (6-5, 208) in enormous but not particularly fluid, despite breaking almost every school receiving record at tiny Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan. Domonique Johnson (6-4, 221) runs a 4.6-range 40, transferred from UCLA to run-first Cal-Poly and once had five touchdown catches in game.
Tight ends (6)
Good bet: Jimmy Kleinsasser.
On the bubble: Jeff Dugan.
The skinny: Shiancoe (6-4, 250) likes Musgrave's tight end-friendly offense, which could pay dividends as he tries to right his production in the passing game in a contract year at age 31. The addition of Rudolph (6-6, 258) should break up some double teams, although the rookie second-round pick from Notre Dame probably will be used more often in pattern from the backside until his blocking is up to snuff. At 34, Kleinsasser (6-3, 272) remains one of the NFL's best blocking tight ends and seems likely to spend plenty of time helping out on McNabb's blind side. Versatility and work ethic may not save Dugan (6-4, 258) after years of clinging on the bottom of the roster, although his fate could be tied to D'Imperio's. Reisner (6-3, 255) and Barham (6-4, 264) were one-year starters at Iowa and North Carolina, respectively.
Offensive linemen (17)
Departures: LT Bryant McKinnie (released).
The skinny: The pressure is on Johnson (6-4, 305) to fill the hole vacated by McKinnie, whose weight-related release was met with surprisingly little angst in the locker room. The Indianapolis Colts' interest in re-signing Johnson was tepid, his body is better-suited for guard and he benefited greatly from a shotgun-heavy offense directed by a quick-release quarterback. Still, he'd have to falter badly to change coaches' minds about flipping over Loadholt (6-8, 343), who is in fantastic shape but isn't thought to have the feet for left tackle. Though Hutchinson (6-5, 313) is in decline at age 33, he remains an above-average starter when healthy -- which hasn't been the case much of the past two seasons. Sullivan (6-4, 301) may be down to his last chance to show he can be physical and durable enough to keep the Vikings from trying Cooper (6-2, 291) or even Fusco (6-4, 306), the developmental sixth-round pick from Division II Slippery Rock. Herrera (6-2, 315) is on the camp/physically unable to perform list as he recovers from knee and triceps surgeries, but coaches haven't ruled him out for the opener. If he's not ready, it'll probably be the big second-year pro DeGeare (6-4, 335) or Cook (6-6, 328), who re-signed on Thursday and has proven valuable in a jack-of-all-trades role. Love (6-4, 315), the smart sixth-round pick from Arkansas, has been working at left tackle but could get a look at guard, too. Kooistra (6-6, 335) is a 30-year-old career backup who has played in 84 games, but only four over the past two seasons. Brown (6-5, 310), Olsen (6-5, 312) and Welch (6-6, 300) all spent time on the practice squad last season, with Brown doing stints on three teams' 53-man rosters. Amituanai (6-3, 335), Huntley (6-3, 330) and Isom (6-3, 315) all were undrafted and are working inside.
Defensive linemen (14)
The skinny: Less consistent than coaches wanted last season, veterans Allen (6-6, 270) and Williams (6-5, 311) have set the tone for the defense's dominant performance through one week of camp. Robison (6-3, 259) has held up well, too, although the real test in replacing Edwards will come when he's asked to play 70 snaps a game. Signed for three years and $9 million, Ayodele (6-2, 318) is penciled in to replace Pat Williams at nose tackle on running downs and looks the part. Guion (6-4, 303) is a penetrating three-technique, figures to play on passing downs and might end up starting the first four games if Kevin Williams is suspended. A tumultuous offseason hasn't slowed the progress of Griffen (6-3, 273), who has the speed rush to play on passing downs and appears determined to show he can play the power game, too. Ballard (6-4, 283), the fourth-round pick from Iowa, has impressive athleticism for his size and room to grow. He's been taking second- and third-team turns inside along with Evans (6-4, 305) and Johnson (6-2, 285), who may be down to their last shots. Awasom (6-4, 270) spent the past two seasons in the UFL and hasn't done much to suggest he'll make the leap at age 27, although coaches are giving him plenty of opportunities. McKinley (6-6, 282), the former Gopher, was in camp briefly a year ago and doesn't look much different. Akinniyi (6-4, 256) had 20 tackles and three sacks in his lone season at North Carolina State after three at Northeastern, which dropped football. Whitlock (6-3, 294) signed on Friday.
On the bubble: OLB Ross Homan*.
Departures: WLB Ben Leber (unsigned).
The skinny: The Vikings are working on a long-term extension with Greenway (6-2, 242), whose arrow continues to point up at age 28. E.J. Henderson (6-1, 245) is entering a contract year as well, but even if he matches last season's performance, what will a team pay for a 31-year-old middleman with a titanium rod in his leg? His brother, Erin, is getting the first crack at the weakside job vacated by Leber, who shouldn't be out of work for much longer. If Erin Henderson falters, physical Brinkley (6-1, 252) probably would be the next man in, although both have significant limitations in coverage. Onatolu (6-2, 225) was the third man in the mix until he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot that likely will sideline him another week at least. Farwell (6-0, 235) has gotten a few first-team reps, too, but he's not built for a starting role. Homan (6-0, 240) is the darkhorse -- size notwithstanding, he has the awareness and instincts to back up all three positions and perhaps more. Washington (6-3, 258) has kicked around with four NFL teams, playing in three games with Miami as an undrafted rookie in 2007 and none since. Dean (6-0, 226) was a consensus Division II All-American at Valdosta State, where he broke the school record for tackles. Gilmore (6-4, 295), from Southern Oregon, has to be the biggest 4-3 linebacker in any NFL camp.
Defensive backs (17)
The skinny: Still on top of his game at age 34, Winfield (5-9, 180) is the only sure thing in the secondary. He'll once again start at left cornerback and cover the slot in the nickel defense. Griffin (6-0, 203) has taken the lion's share of reps at right cornerback, but can he keep up in game situations on two reconstructed knees? If not, it'll probably be Cook (6-2, 212) or Allen (5-9, 214), who has an inferior skill set but remains neck-and-neck with Cook for the third spot in the nickel. Undrafted out of Northeastern in 2009, Parks (5-11, 182) has gotten some first-team work, too, and also is getting action on kick returns after finishing last season on the practice squad. Coaches have high hopes for Burton (5-11, 190), the fifth-round pick from Utah, but he's not a particularly physical player on the perimeter and figures as more of a contributing backup. Sherels (5-10, 175), the ex-Gopher, just keeps giving himself a chance. Abdullah (6-0, 204) held up OK in his first season as starter and is penciled in for a second, although that isn't a lock. It's Johnson (6-0, 207) or Sanford (5-10, 200) for the spot vacated by Williams' release, and neither has distinguished himself so far. Frampton (5-11, 205) is a special-teamer all the way, albeit a good one. Raymond (6-1, 194), the sixth-round pick from South Florida, is working at safety and could get a look at cornerback sometime, too. Castille (6-0, 190) is another practice squad holdover. Torrence (6-0, 190), from Ohio State, has done more to draw attention than fellow undrafted rookies Adingpu (6-0, 202), Hill (5-11, 207) and Gipson (5-10, 190), who has been absent because of a family emergency.
Long shot: PK Nate Whitaker*.
The skinny: No one has been more accurate the past two seasons than Longwell (6-0, 200), a free-agent priority who re-signed for four years and $12 million -- outpacing his prior deal at age 36. The new kickoff rules sure didn't hurt him. Kluwe (6-4, 215) is coming off his best season and won't have any competition. Neither will Loeffler (6-5, 241), who hasn't missed a game in seven seasons. Whitaker (5-9, 183), an undrafted rookie from Stanford, will be gone in the first round of cuts.