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Updated: March 20th, 2013 10:30pm
Q&A with Leslie Frazier: Spending more time with Vikings 'D' was key

Q&A with Leslie Frazier: Spending more time with Vikings 'D' was key

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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PHOENIX -- Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier spent more than an hour with reporters at the annual NFC coaches' breakfast on Wednesday at the league meetings.

Topics ranged from plans for the team's travel to London in September and the impact of NFL rules changes to the departure of Percy Harvin and a variety of position battles and needs across the Vikings roster.

The following is an edited transcript of that session:

You play Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 at Wembley Stadium. Have you consulted with other coaches about how they approached the London trip?

I have. I have. I've talked to some of the other coaches that have been over there and gotten some ideas of what the problems were, what the pros and cons were of the trip, because I've seen where some of those games have been pretty lopsided and you kind of wonder why. What's the difference? And so I've tried to get some information from other coaches.

What are the cons?

The biggest one is ... getting them in the mindset to prepare for this game as if you were playing a game in the (United) States, because it's far different. The time difference. The atmosphere, even though it's a home game for us, just in talking with some of the other coaches who have (coached) the home team -- it's not a home-field atmosphere. There's no home-field advantage. It's just such a mix of fan appeal. They like American football, but it's not necessarily Pittsburgh-Minnesota at the Metrodome or at Mall of America Field. So, that's probably the biggest challenge, is get them in the mindset of, 'This is a regular-season game out of the country.'

Mike Singletary made the trip when he was with San Francisco, right? Did he give you feedback?

He did, on the travel part of it. Also, the experience of what it was like once they got there and some of the pitfalls, things they had to be aware of. Talked to different guys about their trip, and he was one of them.

Since it's early in the season (Week 4), is it more of a detriment?

It's so close to training camp. Most NFL coaches, they prefer to have a late bye, just from an injury standpoint and then you're that close to training camp. But the fact that it is early gives us a chance to find out where we are as a team. But it's going to be far different than anything we've done as a group. But there are pros and cons to both, early bye or going to Europe late as opposed to late.

Will you take an overnight flight to mitigate the impact of the time change?

I'm not sure exactly what time we'll leave. I know we'll leave that Monday to get there for Tuesday. But I'm not sure exactly what time it will be.

Some teams go in as late as possible. Some go for the whole week. How did you decide?

Well, the home team usually goes a little bit earlier, because there are some things that they want the home team to do. I know on Tuesday we've got some community service events that of our players are going to participate in. That's a big deal from a promotional standpoint. So, that helps if you're the home team. And also, we wanted to go over and try to get acclimated a little bit to the time difference. Not that that seemed to make much of a difference. There are other teams that are going in on a Friday and they've had success. But we felt like it might help us to get out there a little bit early and try to get acclimated.

Will you take four quarterbacks to training camp?

We expect to. As we sit here today, I would think that would be the case.

Is there any chance that you're going to look at Joe in different spots?

That's not in my mindset right now, that he's going to be looked as another position. We're coming into it saying that he's going to be fighting for that other spot on our roster as a quarterback and we'll see how it unfolds. But I talked with him just a few days ago and told him, 'You're a quarterback and want you to come in and battle as a quarterback.'

Sometimes, with four quarterbacks in camp, there really aren't many reps for those guys at the bottom of the depth chart.

That's right. You're exactly right. It's a little bit tougher to evaluate them, and their reps even in the preseason games are going to be limited. But we'll figure out a way to evaluate them.

Early in free agency, you re-signed Jerome Simpson. What have you seen in him that you guys decided to do that?

Prior to his (back) injury, when we had him in the OTAs and even in training camp before the suspension had to take place, we saw flashes of a player who could really stretch the defense. That was one of the attractions when we signed him. Then, when the injury occurred, he got set back a little bit and we didn't see the same Jerome. But we saw a guy who could give us a vertical threat that we were lacking in our offense. We need that and we're hoping he comes back 100 percent and can give us that. That's a need for us on offense -- a guy who can run past defensive backs and make the big plays downfield. We saw a glimpse of it in that Detroit game (on Sept. 30) when he had those pass-interference calls when he really helped open up our offense some.

Before you signed him last year, did you talk to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis about him?

I did. Talked with Marvin. Talked to a lot of people about him to get a better feel for who he was as a person. Had him sit down with a bunch of our players so they could get comfortable with him and also give me feedback on whether or not he could fit in our locker room. Talked to a ton of people about Jerome, because of all the things that we both know. There was a lot of information out there that wasn't positive.

Has he been a fit in your locker room?

He has been. He has not been a disruption by any means. He has done the things that we asked him to do. He can be an emotional guy at times, but you kind of like that about him also.

What are your hopes for Erin Henderson and the next step he takes in his development?

Just want to see him keep developing as a player overall. He does some things well, but there are a number of things which we want to see him improve on. I think it was a good signing on our part to bring him back. He's shown flashes that he can be a good player for us. But the consistency in his game is what we're looking for. We'd rather see that develop with us than someone else. He's so close to being a good all-around outside linebacker, but the consistency in his play is what we're looking for.

What's the biggest hurdle standing between him and that consistent play?

He's a guy who likes to make plays, like most players do. But you need to be able to do it within the scheme of what we're asking you to do. He has some playmaking ability, but the most important thing to do is take care of your assignment first and then some of those big plays that you want to make -- they'll come to you if you're just where you're supposed to be. That comes from just having confidence and just believing in what you're doing, and that consistency will come. But just trusting what the coaches are asking you to do and just be consistently where you're supposed to be.

He'll say his eyes get too big sometimes.

They do. He's looking to make plays. It's gotten him in trouble at times and then other times he's right where he's supposed to be and he'll make some plays. That's what we need to see -- just consistently be where you're supposed to be. Don't go over and try to make someone else's play because you think this is going to happen. Just be where you're supposed to be.

Can that happen five years into a guy's career? Can you change the mentality a guy plays with?

I think you can with some guys. There are others who -- I don't care how many times you tell them -- they think they're smarter than they are and they're going to go try to make a play when it's not their play. And then you have to identify that early on and even though a guy has got some ability, those mental errors, they just kill you as a team. In Erin's case, we've seen enough to know he's capable of correcting that and playing a little more consistently. So, he'll get another opportunity to show he can.

You have expressed opposition to the proposed rule preventing players from initiating contact with their helmets in the open field. (Note: This interview came about an hour before the rule passed 31-1, with the Bengals the only team voting against it.) Is that because it might expose guys to knee injuries?

Well, the little guys aren't going to be tackling the Adrian Petersons of the world up high, I can promise you that. They're going to always try to get leverage and get their pads lower than his pads, and that's what they're taught. Now, from my vantage point, these running backs who have to get their pads down are not able to protect themselves -- you may open yourself up to potential lower-body injuries or at least shoulder injuries if you start just trying to avoid hits with your shoulder. I don't know. Time will tell ... but it seems like you could open up running backs to other injuries.

Guys are taught that from Day 1 in football, aren't they? Get behind your pads, get low -- it's tough to undo that muscle memory. It's different than hitting a receiver coming over the middle.

Yeah, it's such an instinctive position. The guys are just reacting most of the time. If you ask Adrian (Peterson) on some of his runs, 'How did you know that guy was coming from the left or the right?' It's just a sense, just a feel sometimes. It's different when you're making a catch and there's a guy coming to tackle you. I can move to the left or to the right as a defender and get my head out of it. As a running back, it's instincts. For me to start thinking now, 'Oh, man, I've got to lower my shoulder or I've got to turn this' -- I don't know. We'll see.

Is there also a concern, with the way the rule is written, officials may not be able to tell who is initiating the illegal contact with the head?

Well, I know the competition committee has had a lot of discussion about the officials being able to officiate this play, and they feel comfortable that they can get it done. So, we'll see if that's the case.

Adrian throws out that 2,500-yard mark as his goal for next season. Ideally, how do you mesh that goal with the balance you want to attain offensively?

I think it's a good goal to have if you're Adrian Peterson. He's more than capable getting it accomplished, but Adrian will be the first to tell you not at the expense of us winning a championship, bringing a championship to Minnesota. He wants to win a championship like no one else. That's what's on his mind. When I talked to him the other day after we signed Greg Jennings and Cassel, he was excited because he knows that this will help us going forward to get closer to winning a championship. And we didn't even talk about the record. We talked about him being better than he was last year. That subject did come up. But he just wants to win a championship. So, if he were to get that record and we won a championship, he'd be obviously very, very happy. But if he got that record and we didn't win a championship, I don't think it'll mean nearly as much to him.

Is he back to full speed after the sports hernia surgery?

Just about. He's not quite there yet. He's doing more things. Just in talking with him a few days ago, he's doing more things, but he's not quite there yet.

What's the limitation at this point?

Just some of the full-speed running that he needs to be able to do and some of the cutting. He's kind of in moderation for him at this point.

Phil Loadholt was signed to a substantial deal (four years, $25 million) for a right tackle, which is not widely viewed as a core position. Why was it important for you to keep Phil in that spot as opposed to signing someone for less money, managing your cap and moving on?

It was a few different reasons. ... Naturally, he's improved as a player. You saw it this season. We all saw it. He was more consistent than he's been at any point in his career in Minnesota, and Jeff Davidson, what he did with our offensive to develop that continuity -- that really had a lot to do with what Adrian accomplished this year and what accomplished a team in the run game was important. But in my exit interviews with our players, the number one name that kept coming up -- 'Coach, you've got to get this guy signed' -- was Phil Loadholt. And I realized that he was more than just a good player for our team. He has influence in that locker room because of the way he practices, plays with injuries, his performance on the field. And he really epitomizes the type of player we want on our team -- just a tough, physical, smart player, a disciplined guy. And just hearing his teammates coming in my office telling me, 'Coach, we've got to get Phil signed. Hey, what are we going to do? How are we going to get Phil signed?' I'm going, 'Man. Phil.' So, when I talked with Rick and our management, I mentioned Phil Loadholt needs to be priority number one in this offseason when we're talking about re-signing our guys. Fortunately for us, we were able to get it done. But he brings a little bit more to the table than just being a good football player. When you're trying to build a championship team, you need good leadership in the locker room, and he's one of those guys.

Where did you grew the most as a head coach in your second year?

I think having an offseason helped me a whole lot. Just being able to be around the guys and kind of let them get a feel for me in different situations and how I would handle things. That helped my growth as much as anything -- just being able to let them see me interact and react to different things. They know how I was going to handle certain situations when we got into the season. So, my growth was having a chance to work with them in the offseason. That was huge for our team. Huge. And for me.

Did you feel they trusted you? Because you started out fast, you had that wane in the middle and then you came together to get into the playoffs.

I think what we did in the offseason helped them be able to stand pat and not get flustered and doubt when we were 6-6. They believed in one another. They believed in what the coaching staff was trying to do, and they pulled together as opposed to pulling apart. But a lot of that goes back to the investment we made in the offseason. We put some things in place that we could get off to a good start, the way we went through training camp, the OTAs, the minicamps. That helped us to get off to a good start, and I think when we did hit a bump in the road -- like a lot of teams do -- also what we did in the offseason helped us to get through that. So, when I did talk with them about who we were, what we wanted to accomplish, it wasn't like, 'Where did this come from?' A lot of it was things they had heard, shoot, from the time we had started in April 23rd. So, it was the same message over and over. It was no panic. It wasn't that I didn't believe we could get it done. They sensed that and then they rose up and played the way they're capable of playing.

What sort of attendance do you anticipate during the offseason program this year?

I would think it'll be just as good. I don't know if it can be much better than it was a year ago, but I would think it'll be just as good. The OTAs are the big thing for me, man. Having perfect attendance at that is what I'm hoping to have. I know there are going to be some guys in April and May (during the conditioning portion of the program) that may be in and out of town for different reasons. But when we start those 10 OTAs where we're on the field, I'm hoping for perfect attendance. That would be great for us and our team.

Can you still get as much out of OTAs when you can't do press coverage and whatnot?

Yeah, from a physical standpoint, there are some things you can't get out of it. But I think from an approach standpoint and the tone you're trying to set for your team, there's so much you can get out of it -- the tempo, the message that you want to send to your football team and really bringing them together as a unit. More so than at any time in NFL history, those OTAs in the offseason program, to me, that determines if you're going to have a good football season now because of the way training camps are set up. The limited amount of practices you have. The limited times you can wear full pads. No back-to-backs. Training camp in today's NFL -- if you don't get it done in the OTAs and the mandatory minicamps and your Phase 2 of the offseason program, you're catching up when you get to training camp. That's how the game has changed.

After the 2011 season, you talked about honing in more on defense, since that's your background, rather than spreading around so much time to the offense and special teams. How did that end up playing out through the course of the season?

I definitely made an intentional point to learn from my first season and doing what I said then, having my hand in so many things. I still was very involved with what we did on offense, very involved with what we did on special teams, but much more involved with our defense in 2012 than I was in 2011. I just saw some things in '11 where I said I've got to do a better job of being in that room and giving better direction, because that is my background and I made a point to be in more of their strategy meetings, more the game plan meetings, spending more time with those guys than I did my first year as a head coach.

So, you're talking about week to week, you had a larger role in game planning?

And helping the coaches, to see things the way I would see things, but yet still letting them do what they do, but not getting into the game and saying, 'Man, why are we doing this?' or 'Why are we doing that?' So, I had to be more on the front end and making clear, 'This is the direction we need to be going.' And Alan (Williams) was terrific in not getting offended, not taking it personal, but trusting the things that I was saying or wanted him and the rest of the staff to do would be fine, and they did great. Our defense was much, much improved in 2012, which is a big part of our being able to be a playoff team.

Specifically, what were some of the things in 2012 that made you step back and scratch your head?

Well, we had a lot of injuries in our secondary, but we gave up so many big plays in 2011 that, being a guy who's coached the secondary and worked with the defense in the past, it was driving me crazy to see. There were just some things we needed to correct. And part of it was personnel, there's no question about it. But also, there were some other things that we needed to get a handle on, and even what we were doing as a whole on defense and how we were approaching things, I just knew that I needed to do a better job of giving direction about how we wanted to do things fundamentally, how we wanted to install things and what we wanted to say in meetings to the players from an accountability standpoint. So, I needed to just be more vocal in the direction I wanted us to go.

To what degree was the dynamic between Percy Harvin and Christian Ponder a factor in trading Harvin to Seattle?

I don't know if it played a major role. Those guys respected each other, from my impression. It didn't play the role that most would think.

Was their relationship a positive force on the team?

It never countered anything we were trying to do team-wise. What we tried to do game plan-wise on offense or how we tried to approach opponents, the relationship between our quarterback and Percy never interfered with what we were trying to do to win a ballgame.

When the trade was complete, what was your reaction?

Bittersweet. I respect Percy a lot as a player and as a person. Wish things would have worked out in Minnesota. But I'm happy for him, happy that he gets a chance to continue his career, and hopefully, good things will happen for him.

You always tend to be optimistic about things. But in the back of your head, going through that process, after the season ended, were you thinking, 'This is not going to work out?'

Well, I was always hoping that things would work out. He's a good player. He did a lot of good things for our team, as you know. But at the end of the day, it didn't work out -- and in a way it did work out. He's in a good place. I think things will work out for us just fine. So, in the end, I think it'll all work out for the best.

Why didn't it work out?

There are a lot of layers to this situation. And one day, when Dan and Tom and I and Bob will sit down and write this book, we'll divulge all the layers. But it's complicated.

One of your best personality traits is you diffuse situations. Percy often does the opposite of that. In the end was there a personality conflict there in terms of the ways you approach challenges?

I thought we handled a lot of things the right way, right to the very end. For our team to rally the way they did at the end of the season when Percy was on IR, that tells you it didn't become a distraction for our team, because it could have easily -- as valuable as he was to our team -- our guys could have easily said, 'Man, we don't have a chance.' Here's arguably the most valuable player in the league, not participating. He's on injured reserve. They didn't. They stayed focused on ... Chicago, and we needed that win. That was a big game for us. They got in tune with what we had to do. So, I think for the most part we managed the situation the right way, evidenced by the way our team stayed focused on the task at hand.

You got so much production from your draft class last year, and now the Harvin trade has given you even more ammunition for this coming draft. Is that the plan again -- to unleash these young guys and just let them play?

Yeah, our coaching staff has proven they can coach young players and get them to play at a high level. So, being able to draft some guys -- and we have quite a few picks in this 2013 draft -- if we can get the right guys at the right position, we can really improve as a team.

What are your expectations for Christian Ponder this season and where you believe he can go?

I think the addition of Greg (Jennings) will definitely help his growth, along with the development of Kyle Rudolph. That's going to be a big plus. I think having Jerome Simpson at 100 percent, that's going to be a big plus for us as well. But being able to see the consistency of play with Christian -- that's going to come. I had a chance to talk with him (Tuesday). He's actually here in Phoenix. ... And he's working hard. He's doing everything he can to come back and play well, and the way he played down the stretch in that month of December -- that really gave all of us a lot of hope for the future. So, I think he's well on his way to being a very good quarterback in our league.

Would you feel confident rolling with Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson as your top three cornerbacks, as the depth chart stands now? Or does something have to be done?

Oh, no. We want to definitely add more competition at that position. Chris has been injured throughout his career or he's been off the field for different reasons, and then Josh is going into his second season, so you're hoping he'll continue to ascend, but you don't know. Then, A.J. hasn't proven he can do it 16 weeks in a row. So, no, we need to address that position in this draft, for sure.

How much can you trust Chris Cook? Because it hasn't been one issue -- it's been a bunch of different issues and he just hasn't been available.

Well, I know he's more than capable. He's shown it, when he's played, that he can be a very, very good player in our league -- a guy you can really lock up on the best receiver and not worry about it. But being able to stay on the field, and part of what we do is having guys that can be available and that makes a difference when you're a coach. You can't just have talented guys when you're on the field. That's the big question mark regarding Chris. Can he stay on the field an entire season?

What, if anything, prevented Josh Robinson from taking on a bigger role last season? Because once Cook came back from IR, Josh was the odd man out.

I think his youth. Coming out a year early, it was a little bit tougher making that transition over the course of an entire season. There were flashes early on where you saw that this guy is going to be a guy that's going to help our football team. But the consistency over the course of the entire season wasn't quite there. But we think that's going to come, and he'll be a guy we can count on week in and week out going forward.

He's a confident guy, but he didn't always play confidently. Is a matter of becoming confident within the scheme?

I think the biggest thing with Josh is experience. Going through another offseason, getting more games under his belt. He has all the physical tools to get better. Now he has to gain experience along with the confidence that comes with getting experience and having success. The more success he has, the sky's the limit for him.

What was the most recent feedback you got from Antoine Winfield about a possible return?

He made me believe that there was a possibility that things could be worked out here and he would be back in Minnesota. I do know that there are other teams calling him and seeing what his interest is in continuing to play, and he does want to continue to play. But he gave me the impression that he'd like to be able to be back here in Minnesota. Now it's just a matter of, can we work things out financially to his liking as well as our team's liking?

When you spoke earlier in the offseason about putting Winfield in a reduced role, did you mean playing him only in the nickel? Or how fully formed was that plan?

He's comfortable being in that nickel role. He's very comfortable coming back in that role only. That's the best thing for the team and the best thing for him, to be able to keep him on the field this entire season. So, he had no qualms with that. He understands why. ... He's still going to play a lot of snaps.

It wasn't just about what he did on the field last season. With so many young guys in that secondary ...

He was the glue, yeah, yeah. And the way he was in our meeting rooms, at practice and his participation in the offseason program, which -- he's one of those guys that had not been around a lot in the offseason, and he was at everything a year ago. So, his influence, you can't put a dollar figure on that. It made a big difference in our season and the development of a lot of our players on defense as well.

So, hard is it when you have to put a dollar figure on that, as you did a week ago?

That's the business part of our business. He understands it. He mentioned that to me. He understands the business part of it. Now it's just a matter of, can the numbers work?

Was he one of the guys you relied on when it came to discussing how hard guys were working in practice and whatnot?

Without question. I have a group of guys that help me from that standpoint. He's one of them. I meet with them once a week and then sometimes more to get a gauge on where things are in the locker room, what do we need to change, what's going well. And he's a guy I've trusted to give me good input, not always tell me what I want to hear, and he's been very, very honest and frank and that's important when you sit in the seat that I sit in, to have guys like that in the locker room.

As you look at the defensive tackles right now, is it more important to get better play out of your nose or your three-technique?

I thought the combination between Letroy (Guion) and Fred (Evans) worked pretty well. Fred really, really improved a year ago. He came on, which was encouraging. Kevin is at that stage in his career where he's not the Kevin of, say, four or five years ago, but he's still playing quality football. We'll have to see how much he has left this next season, but we need Christian Ballard to really step up and come along. He's at that point in his career where he'll have to really show that he can hold that position down. So, probably, the three-technique is of a little higher priority -- and it usually is in our defense. That guy has to be a big player for us in our defense. So, getting more from that position will help our defense be even better this season.

Ballard's had some good games, but he's had a lot of games where he's blended, too. That's also the position that frees up Chad Greenway, right?

Right. Yeah, we count on that position to create double teams for us and (Ballard)'s got to show that he's capable of making people have to double him and not single-block him. That's what Kevin has been so good at throughout his career, which makes our defense and our run defense so much better. So, we need that from Christian. If he can't do it, then we're going to have to find someone that can. But we're hoping that he can demand those double teams.

Antoine aside, are you concerned with the overall age of your defense? Jared's over 30, Chad Greenway's 30, Brian Robison's 30, Kevin's over 30 -- you've got young players, too, but those are players who might begin declining soon if they haven't already.

As long as they're playing at a high level, you don't get concerned about the number, and Jared is still demanding double teams. People still have to chip him. They still have to keep a tight end in. He can still take over a game. Chad maybe had his best season of his career. But you do have to begin to infuse some young talent and that's where this draft will play a major role in that. We have to address some things on our defensive line, at the linebacker position and ... in the secondary as well.

Chad gets knocked a lot by some of the online scouting services for his coverage. But your defense is built to have a void in the short middle at times. Is there much he can do about that?

Unless you really understand the coverage, it's hard to knock a guy if you're just doing it based off of tape. You don't always know exactly what's required and what you're asking the defense to do. There are times we want the ball thrown underneath in certain coverages we're playing, and then it's a matter of our being able to be good tacklers. Other times, we don't want the ball underneath and we're playing more man or whatever and then there are other things required. So, it's hard to pay a whole lot of attention to some of those services unless you understand what we're trying to do in each situation and the down and distance matters as well. So, it's a lot of factors.

With Jasper Brinkley headed to Arizona, what's your plan at middle linebacker?

Well, we've got the upcoming daft to try to address it and we'll also look at what's available in NFL free agency. It's definitely a position we need to address. We have a void there and we've got to find the right guy. It's a big part of our defense. We have to get better at the middle linebacker position.

Erin's not an option to be the starter there or even the starting nickel, right? You'd like to find someone who can be a three-down mike.

Erin has done it in the nickel situations. But we'd like to find a three-down guy, as you mentioned. That would be ideal. What E.J. (Henderson) did for us is what we're looking for -- a three-down guy. We need to find that.

You want one guy who stays on the field in nickel.

We do. We're looking for a guy who can play the run and still help us in pass defense as well. If we could find that person -- just like finding Harrison (Smith) down the middle of our defense helped us -- finding that middle linebacker, if we could the right guy, our defense will take a big step this next season. We're obviously lacking there right now.

What's the next step for Brandon Fusco?

I think this offseason will help him a lot. Having another year in the system, now coming back and looking himself as a starter and just viewing things a whole differently than he did a year ago, where he was just fighting for a roster spot and hoping that he would hold onto that starting role. So, now, I think his mindset should be a little bit better, where he's coming back the named starter, should have a different approach to the season, to training camp, to the offseason program. It should help him improve.

He beat himself up a little when his playing time was cut. What did you see from him in December that maybe he lacked in October and November, when he was splitting time with Geoff Schwartz?

I think Jeff Davidson did a great job of just challenging him to play at a high level every week and stop looking at himself as a first-year starter. You are a starter in the NFL. You've got to play like it every week and not just a few plays here and there. He accepted that challenge as the season went on and he got better, which is what we need. Now we need to build on that in this offseason and going into the next season.

What's his greatest strength when he's locked in?

Probably his ability to move with some of those big three-techniques. His agility. He's a guy who's pretty athletic for his size and his movement is a plus, along with his natural strength. He's a strong guard. He's extremely strong. But his movement is what impresses you, his athletic ability.

Among the guys who really haven't played much or at all for you yet, off the top of your head, is there anybody you look at and say, 'That's a young guy who's coming to come on in 2013?'

I know there's a guy I'm hoping will be a surprise for us -- and it'd be a monumental surprise -- would be if Greg Childs somehow, some way came back and was a factor. With his size and his athleticism, that would be a big boon for our wide receiver position if that were to happen. And if Audie Cole stepped up and he really improved and took the bit a little bit and got stronger, faster over the offseason, that would really help our football team. And if Robert (Blanton) in our secondary really stepped up and created more competition -- he did a great job on special teams (but was) hurt all of training camp a year ago, hurt during the offseason program -- if he stepped up, that would help us. Stephen Burton -- would love to see him take a step. Can he help our football team? So, we've got a few young guys, and there are some others I'm probably missing, that we'd like to see step up and help us this season.

Is there a concern with Childs, based on what he said last time was an 18-month recovery from one patellar tendon tear, and now he has two? Is there a concern he just can't possibly be the same guy in 2013?

There's a concern because of the history, for sure. We just have to kind of wait and see. But if the way he is working is any indication, there's a very good chance he could possibly get it done. He'd be making history because nobody's ever come back from that injury. But the way he's working gives you hope.

With Blanton making that transition from cornerback to safety last year, how did he come along over the course of the season?

He seemed to become much more natural as the year went on. Missing as much time as he did in training camp with the hamstring really set him back. But once he got back out there and started practicing and got healthy again, he really showed up on special teams. But he began to make the transition from corner to safety as the year went on, understanding space and angles from the safety position, and he plays with a high motor. He plays 100 miles per hour at all times. And he's a pretty smart, athletic guy. So, he gives us hope that he's going to give us something back there with his ball skills as well to help us to get those turnovers that we're always talking about. So, just have to see how he develops this offseason.

Was it significant he held his own in that game where Harrison got ejected?

It was, when you consider how little time he had had at the position and to go out there and play as well as he did -- that was encouraging. That kind of opened all of our eyes up that hey, this guy, he has a chance when given the opportunity.

Is that position all wide open behind Harrison? Is it Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Blanton all competing for the job on equal footing?

No. ... When we start our first practice, Jamarca will line up there. But he also knows in our conversations that we're going to give those other guys a chance to compete for the position. So, he's going to have to raise his level of play and we want Mistral to do the same thing. We want Robert to push him as well. We'll see how it unfolds, but we'll go in with Jamarca being the starter.

Jamarca's such a good special teamer. It might not be the worst thing in the world if somebody else wins that job and he can focus on coverage units.

No doubt. He's one of the best in the NFL. He's special on special teams, without question.

What was your level of satisfaction with the production of the tight end group last season, both from a blocking and pass-catching perspective?

I think Jimmie Johnson did a good job on improving their blocking. Kyle (Rudolph), we didn't draft him because of his blocking skills at Notre Dame, and he has really improved in that area. John Carlson has never been known as a blocker in the National Football League. He improved. He blocked better than he's ever blocked in his career. And of course Rhett (Ellison), he's really the standard for us as far as that is concerned. When a rookie is your best blocker, it's not a bad thing. We knew that when we drafted Rhett, what his strengths were. But we wanted to see improvement from Kyle, we wanted to see improvements obviously in John's game, and we did. Those guys, they understand that we are a team that's going to ride Adrian (Peterson), and we need our tight ends to be able to block and not just be pass-catchers. To their credit, they bought into that and they worked hard at trying to improve their blocking and Jimmie's done a good job of getting that sold.

Is there a possibility that you'll play Rhett more inline this season so that you can detach Kyle more? Because there were several games where Kyle got shut out in terms of receptions and he's one of your best weapons in the middle of the field.

Yeah, we do want to get Rhett on the field a little bit more. We want to get John, even when we're just in two-back situations, on the field more. So, we're going into it thinking we want to take some of those reps off of Kyle that we put on him a year ago. There were times where he didn't come off the field, and we thought that that kind of affected his production as well. So, we want to be careful not to put him out there so much that it affects his route-running and some of the things that he's good at. So, we've got to do a better job of rotating the other guys in.

Can Carlson being healthy and going through a preseason potentially lead to a much bigger role for him?

Without question. I talked with him a few days ago in my office. He knows how important it's going to be for him to stay healthy. There's nobody who wants to stay on the field more than he does, believe me, and just to listen to him talk, I said, 'Man, I feel for him,' because some of the injuries he's had, they haven't been his fault. It's just part of playing the game. He's concerned with getting that reputation about being a guy that's injury-riddled. But he's going to do all he can this offseason to prepare himself to have a great year, and if we can keep him healthy through the offseason, he'll be a big part of our offense.

Is Chris Kluwe your punter?

He's our punter. He's on our roster.

You've got two punters on your roster.

Yeah, we do. We'll see.

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.
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