Training camp preview: Scouting the Vikings' defensive backs
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Each weekday until the Minnesota Vikings report to training camp on July 29, 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero breaks down the roster at another position, based on offseason practice observations and conversations with coaches, scouts and personnel people around the NFL. Day 1: defensive backs.
On the roster (15)
Though Sanford (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) will get work at both safety spots during camp, the smart money is on Johnson (6-0, 207) and Williams (6-1, 203) returning as the starting tandem. A second-round draft pick out of Arkansas State in 2008, Johnson is too talented for the Vikings to risk slowing his development, and a full year's starting experience should pay dividends. Williams, 28, knows how to direct traffic and is regarded as an adequate starter when healthy. The pair got as much practice time as any starters this summer, and coaches are optimistic communication will be much improved. Sanford, the seventh-round pick who made one start as a rookie in 2009, is the clear No. 3 safety ahead of Abdullah (6-0, 204). Frampton (5-11, 205) has appeared in every game the past two seasons, mostly on special teams (18 tackles last season).
Two-time Pro Bowl pick Winfield (5-9, 180) returns at left cornerback. At age 33, his days as an elite corner probably are over, but he remains a solid starter and apparently is over the foot injury that hobbled him in 2009. Ninth-year pro Sheppard (5-10, 194) also has made a couple of Pro Bowls, but he's lost speed at age 29, is on his third team in three years and spent nearly seven weeks on the street after the New York Jets cut him in March. Sheppard took most of the offseason reps at right cornerback and probably will open the season there, barring a miraculous recovery for Griffin (6-0, 203), who had issues even before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the NFC championship game on Jan. 24. It's tough to imagine Griffin being ready to play in the Sept. 9 opener -- much less start -- roughly seven months after surgery. Top draft pick Cook (6-2, 212) remains somewhat raw, tweaked a hamstring the first day of minicamp and will have to come on quickly to have a shot at contributing early in the season. Allen (5-9, 194), a third-round pick out of Georgia in 2009, made a positive impression in offseason practices and could factor in subpackages. Sapp (5-9, 190) is limited physically, but he's so scrappy and instinctive the Vikings gave him a two-year, $3.8 million deal in March.
Assuming Winfield and Sheppard start, the competition for nickel and dime duties will be intense. Sapp is strictly a nickel, while Allen and Winfield have the flexibility to play the slot as well as the edge. Cook, Griffin and probably Sheppard are outside guys only. Griffin's health may make this a fluid situation through the early portion of the season.
Sherels (5-10, 175) needed a rookie-camp tryout just to get signed, but he opened some eyes with his productivity in OTAs and minicamp. The former Gopher has speed -- he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 and 4.41 seconds at his campus workout. He'll also get a look on punt returns.
One NFL scout's take on ... rookie Chris Cook
"Physical guy, holds run support, gives you great size. Good, but not great speed (4.43-second 40 at the combine). I think he's more of a press-zone type corner who, if he plays corner, will give them a size presence that plays zones well in (coordinator) Leslie Frazier's defense. In the Cover-2 defense, you want your corners to be run supporters, so I would assume that they would be happy with their selection of Chris Cook, because he'll fit their scheme, and if you're playing more zone than man and you're putting your corners in press situations, that'll be more fitting for him. I think equally, you could even be teased by the idea of this guy being a possible flex player between corner and safety."
The Vikings defense ranked 16th last season in net yards per pass play (6.0), 19th in passing yards allowed (218.4 per game), tied for 26th in interceptions (11) and 27th in opponent passer rating (92.5). That was in spite of a dangerous pass rush that generated an NFL-best 48 sacks. Winfield's health, the additions of Cook and Sheppard and the development of Johnson all point to this unit being improved in 2010. But lingering questions -- in particular, about safety play and plans at right cornerback -- has scouts ranking the secondary as one of the Vikings' potential weaknesses entering camp.