Q&A with Leslie Frazier: 'No question' Vikings committed to Ponder
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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A vertical-speed receiver. A safety who can contribute immediately. A third running back. Multiple players to develop at linebacker.
The list of holes Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier would like the team to fill with their 10 picks in next month's NFL Draft is a long one even without mentioning the question marks at left tackle and cornerback that surely require answers as well.
The state of the roster was a central topic during Frazier's roughly 1-hour session with a small group of reporters at Wednesday's annual NFC coaches breakfast, along with quarterback Christian Ponder's development and plans for several players who have re-signed with the Vikings in the first two weeks of free agency.
The following is a partial transcript of that session:
What is the contingency plan in the backfield if Adrian Peterson isn't ready for Week 1?
"We do have Toby (Gerhart). We are looking to add a third guy in the rotation and have someone available. We want to keep Percy (Harvin) in a multiple role, but not to the point where he's our second tailback. We have to be aware that some guys, even though they are back that first year, aren't completely back from a mental standpoint."
With the signing of John Carlson along with Kyle Rudolph, it seems you'll continue to play a lot of two-tight sets. That means you'll only have two receivers on the field much of the time, and you have Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins. But is a split end to stretch the field vertically still a crucial need?
"I think so. It would just help our offense tremendously, to be able to have that one go-to guy down the field that you know can outrun a coverage. We get so much eight-man front because of Adrian in the past. To have that one guy that can stretch the other team vertically, it would open up things for Adrian. It would open up things for Percy.
"Last year, Percy was getting doubled so much it was one of the reasons we moved him around as much as we did. If you just leave him at the slot, people can pretty much just take him out of the game. If you put the right guy outside, now you get some of those doubles off of (Harvin) and you also make that safety get out of the box.
"Man, our offense could be so much more explosive. It'll open up the middle of the field for John, it'll open up the middle of the field for Kyle, create some mismatches for some key guys. So, hopefully, through the draft, we'll find that guy."
Teams continued to play you with eight-man boxes even after Peterson got hurt the first time in November. With no disrespect to Toby, how much of that was the defense just not fearing what you had on the perimeter?
"Yeah, it's a combination. Toby did a good job of running against the fronts, just like Adrian has. But we just know if we can get people to back up at one of the safeties, we could be so much better from an offensive standpoint. We need to find that guy.
"That's not to say Michael is not going to be a part of the receiving corps and Devin (Aromashodu) and those guys. But we'd like to have one guy that DBs would look at and say, 'Oh, man, I can't (stop him one-on-one)' and coordinators look at and say 'we can't just single this guy outside all day.'
What do you like about the group of receivers in this year's draft?
"It's a pretty deep group. Watching them at the combine and now from our coaches going out to visit some of them. We think we're going to be able to get a real good receiver in this draft. The fact that we're picking as high as we are in each round and now we've got these multiple choices in the fourth round, we think we're going to have a chance to get one of these good receivers."
Why did you bring back Aromashodu?
"Devin did some good things for us last season. Made some big catches for us in key situations. He's a long guy. We feel like another year in our offense, he's going to be a better player than he was a year ago, and he actually had a few other teams that showed some interest in him, but he wanted to come back to our situation. He even had a few more dollars on the table, but he felt like this was the right situation for him. We think that he'll be better next season."
He had the diving touchdown against Kansas City and the six-catch game against Denver, but otherwise he was invisible a lot for how many snaps he played. Why wasn't he more productive?
"I think it was a combination of things. Where we were at the quarterback position and also how much we were featuring both Adrian and Percy. So, it's going to limit some of those touches and some of those things we were trying to do with Kyle and Visanthe (Shiancoe, a free agent who won't be back) as well.
"His star is not going to be quite as bright as those guys. But whoever is playing outside for us, if they can get 26 to 30 catches, but they average say like 18, 19 yards per catch for us? That'll be a big deal now. Even though they may not have the high numbers from a catch standpoint, but if that average is high, that means we're stretching the defense. We're getting those big plays down the field that kind of eluded us on the perimeter a year ago."
You hired Bill Musgrave to install his offense. You drafted Christian Ponder to function in that offense, and everyone in the organization seems to think he can run it well. Joe Webb is a unique guy, but it doesn't seem he hits the mold of that offense. Are you 100% committed to Christian, or do you go into the offseason with any sort of open mind about Joe?
"No, we're committed to Christian. There's no question about it. We really believe that he can do it. He showed flashes last season, especially in those first couple starts that he had. We saw some things. Then we had some bumps in the road where he struggled a little bit. You kind of expect that out of a rookie, and now this next season, having an offseason under his belt, we think he'll take big strides.
"But Joe is a unique guy. There's no question about it. He does some things that sometimes, you stand back and you're like, 'Wow.' That run against Detroit where he set that record, you go, 'Where did that come from? How many guys can do that?' But we need to let Joe work at quarterback this offseason, as opposed to splitting him out, running Wildcat packages for him.
"I told our coaches and I told Joe this: let's let him play quarterback, just quarterback, do the same things that Christian has to do and what we would ask any quarterback to do. Let's see what he does, see how he evolves, and then we'll have a better feel for is it the right thing to do or not? But if you just keep moving him around in different places, how do you make a true assessment of, can he play the position?"
So, in other words, you want him to be asked to do the exact same things as Ponder in practice, get the same type of reps, rather than saying, 'He can do this, so let's just let him do that.'
"Exactly right. You see in our league today what not having a quality backup can do to you. It can really sabotage your season. So, if Joe can be that guy for us, it's going to be good for our football team -- especially the way Christian moves around. He's not going to just be a pocket passer. He wants to move around, especially in the early stages of his career. Eventually, he'll settle down and just be more of a pocket guy."
Is Joe still a candidate to play in other packages?
"Oh yeah, yeah. That possibility is still there for sure."
Just probably not at receiver?
"Probably not at receiver. Probably not as we speak. Something would have to change to make us go down that road."
The season doesn't start today, but if it did, who would be your starting five on the offensive line?
"Oof. We'd probably have to keep Charlie (Johnson, who played left tackle last season) outside for now. We'd have to have Chris DeGeare at one of the guard positions, Brandon Fusco maybe at another guard. But Geoff Schwartz is in there somewhere -- maybe at one of the guard positions -- Phil (Loadholt) at (right) tackle and of course John (Sullivan) at center. But signing Schwartz and having him on our roster at this point, he's going to fit somewhere at one of those guard positions as well."
Your offensive line coach, Jeff Davidson, coached Schwartz in Carolina. Did he come to you and say, 'We need this guy?'
"Yeah, he's very comfortable with him and really thought that he'd be a guy that could add to our football team with his swing ability, playing guard and tackle, thought that he would really be a good addition for our team."
You didn't mention Joe Berger in that list. Would you prefer he be your swing guy inside instead of starting?
"He would rather me say him as a starter. I know he wants to start, and he'll get a chance to compete this year for a starting role. But as we speak today, everything is in flux. Those guys will be fighting for starting roles. So, nothing I say today means anything. They're going to compete when we get to OTAs and we get to training camp and all those jobs are open, probably with the exception of center and the right tackle position."
DeGeare spent all of last season on the practice squad. He did all that bodybuilding stuff during the lockout last summer. Did he just get too muscle-bound? Because it looked like he lost some flexibility.
"He lost some of his flexibility, gained quite a bit of weight. That lockout hurt a lot of guys, especially guys who have weight issues. It hurt him. But once we get started on April 23rd, I'm sure he'll be one of the first guys in the building. He knows what last offseason did to him. It cost him. It cost him dearly. He's learned from it. When he came back, he began to drop some of that weight and began to gain some of his flexibility back as well. But the offseason really hurt him."
Are you hell-bent on addressing left tackle in the draft, or is there any thought of keeping Charlie out there?
"He showed when he was in Indy that he could play some guard and be effective in doing it, but I'm not certain that that's his natural position. But we'd like to have some competition at the left tackle position and just try to upgrade our offensive line as a whole. That's one of the reasons that we made the changes that we made so far. So, we want to upgrade certain positions and we want to have some competition at left tackle."
The question about Charlie at guard seems to be his lower-body strength. Would you prefer just to leave him at left tackle even if he's not the starter?
"Not necessarily leave him at left tackle. I want us to get some competition there and maybe even be able to take a look at him at left guard. He's done it. He's done it well in Indy, and we think he can do it at our place as well.
"So, if that's going to make us better by getting a better left tackle than Charlie was at left tackle and be able to move him to guard, then that's the way you do it. But you want to get your best five out there. If you aren't able to get the left tackle, then Charlie will be in the rotation at left tackle and be in the competition at left tackle."
"We've talked to Jasper about that. The fact that we believe he's healthy now and he has started for us when E.J. was injured in the past. We think he's capable of doing it, but you just haven't had him do it for 16 weeks. But we think he's about ready to take that role, but we will determine that in the weeks and months to come."
Would Erin Henderson be an option there?
"Yeah, Erin gives us some position flexibility, because he can play all three, which is the beauty of his athletic ability. So, that's a plus for us. But we're going to have to look at the linebacker position in the draft. We're going to have to draft one or two linebackers, because we're depleted from a depth standpoint at that position as well. We've got some needs that we have to address at that position."
Brinkley would have to come off the field in the nickel defense, wouldn't he? Because his strength has always been as a downhill player, not covering the deep middle in Tampa-2.
"Well, it's to be determined. We haven't had him for a while, and then not having him at all in the offseason. We've got to take a look at who we draft, who else is on our roster and then make that determination about whether or not he's going to stay on in the nickel.
"We know that Erin has shown that he's a good nickel mike linebacker, so we know that he can get that job done for us. But I don't want to say today that Jasper can't do it until we get a chance to work with him more. "
How do you envision the rotation at nose tackle? Is Letroy Guion the guy?
"Yeah, we want him to be the starting nose. Of course, Fred (Evans) is going to compete with him and push him and try to beat him out. But when we're looking at our depth chart, we pencil Letroy in there and count on him to give us what we're looking for at that nose position. Somebody that can create penetration and create a double team. We need somebody to create a double team at the nose position and not get single-blocked."
Can Letroy anchor against the double team? His strength has always been getting penetration.
"We think he can, but his quickness creates problems for centers, so we want him to utilize that. But he's a powerful guy. We think he will do enough versus double teams to let our linebackers run the way we want them to run."
He had such a good preseason last year, had that one goal-line sequence where he made every play. Why didn't that translate? Just because he was moving between the nose and three-technique?
"That sounds like a coach talking right here. That was our whole conversation right there when he made the decision to sign him. We felt like it's probably not the best thing for him to play both the nose and the three. Let's put him in one position, because he showed flashes when we did let him one position more than the other.
"So, he's one of those guys that is athletic as he is -- you can get enamored with his athletic ability and say, 'Well, he can do this ...' Not so fast. Let him line up at one spot and let him master that one spot, and he'll be a better football player. That was our thinking when we decided to re-sign him."
What is going to determine if Ponder succeeds as an NFL quarterback?
"I think time will be the determining factor. He needs experience. He needs an offseason of working with coaches and understanding the system better, watching more film of opponents. He needs time, and we've got to surround him with the right weapons in key spots and make sure that our offensive line is the way we need it to be so that he doesn't begin to get happy feet and lose confidence if he feels like he has to get rid of the ball sooner than he needs to and I can't go through my reads, can't do the things that a quarterback has to do.
"So, some of it is our being able to put things in place for him and some of it is him gaining experience and going through some of the trials and tribulations that young quarterbacks have to go through."
At times, he seems overly self-critical. How does he get through that?
"You're right. But that's something this offseason we're going to try to attack in different ways and just try to continue to build his confidence up, because at that position, even if you throw two picks in a game, you've got to be able to bounce back and play well. So many people are watching you as the leader of the team, even though he's a young guy.
"That quarterback position, it's just innate. You're the leader. I think he understands that even more now than he did playing last season. In our conversations after the season, that's one of the things we talked about -- just him being able to shake off tough days or tough series. I think most guys that come in the league, they experience that, and that's probably going to be the determining factor (in) whether or not he makes it or not, if he can get past that."
Were there times last season he was breaking the process too much?
"I'd like for him to learn how to go down. Sometimes, the way that he would land wasn't good. We talked to him about that. He'd leave himself subject to injury, going headfirst, not sliding. ... He'll get better with that. But I think over time, he'll stay in the pocket a little longer and do a better job of protecting. But his youth, at times, had a lot to do with him taking off. I think as he gains more experience and more confidence, he'll stay in the pocket and get rid of the ball or do what he needs to do."
He was banged up late last season, got knocked out of a couple games and benched in another. Given his injury history, did that raise a concern?
"Not right now. Some of it was -- those injuries were just injuries you can't do a whole lot about. The concussion, the hip pointer -- the way he got hit, those things happen. Not at this point. You can't say he's going to be an injury-prone guy. It's too early."
Jamarca Sanford is a great special teamer but doesn't look like an NFL-caliber safety. Mistral Raymond was a low-round pick and still is young. Husain Abdullah has the concussions and isn't signed. What are you going to do at safety?
"We definitely have some issues at the safety position with some of the things you just mentioned. So, we're going to have to take a real hard look at the draft to see if we can find someone who can come in and help us.
"But we're not giving up on Mistral. He's young. He's a guy who has potential and we're going to see how he develops. Husain, the concussions -- he's been cleared, but we all know the history of concussions and what happens and the time missed. So, it's a big question mark. And Jamarca -- he did some good things for us last season, so he'll be in the mix, but we're going to have to draft somebody at safety and give them a chance to compete.
"Someone was sharing a statistic with me the other day that there were only 16 rookies who really were difference-makers a year ago, and I think maybe less than a hundred out of however many were drafted that actually started for any extended period of time.
"We've got 10 picks, but you wonder how big of an impact they'll make in that first year as a whole. So, hopefully, the safety position -- whoever we take at safety -- will be one of those that has a big impact on our team, and some of that depends on how high you take the guy sometimes. But whoever we draft at safety probably needs to come in and have an impact for us."
With all the two-deep coverage you play, would you ever consider an in-the-box type of safety? Jamarca has some of those traits, but he's not exactly a big guy either.
"It's hard, just for what you just said. It's hard to just look at a guy who's one-dimensional in today's NFL. Everybody spreads you out now and they make you match up players in the secondary on the athletic tight ends and running backs.
"That safety position in the NFL has changed as much as any position in the NFL. You don't see that one-dimensional safety very much anymore. You better be able to have flexibility from a coverage standpoint. You see more and more people doing what we did with Mistral -- drafting guys that are corners and converting them to safeties. You see it more and more now, just because of the demands of the positions have changed because of the way offenses have changed."
Does Mistral's size and the fact he played cornerback in college make you most intrigued about playing him against some of those tight ends? He certainly needs to get stronger.
"That's part of the thing that's appealing about him and was appealing to us a year ago. This offseason should help him, because you're right, he does have to get a little bit more stronger so he can be more physical. But that's kind of the way teams are moving in that direction today -- a guy who is a hybrid type, can get down and tackle but has cover ability as well, and in college ball, the safety position has changed as well. So, you're getting a different kind of guy today than you did five, six, seven years ago."
What are you going to do with Everson Griffen?
"Hey, he's going to have a good year for us. He's going to come around. He did a great job in spots on special teams for us a year ago. When we did get him some reps at defensive end, he made some plays for us, and we put in our three-down look, dropping him in coverage, he did some good things for us. We're going to get him more reps this next season. But we have high hopes for Everson."
Will you rotate him in more at end?
"We've got to. He showed that he's worth of more snaps than what we gave him. When we went back and looked at his number of snaps versus his production, he needs more snaps."