Training camp primer: QB, safety are top position battles to watch
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You can't plug all the holes Minnesota had in one offseason, but the Vikings made a pretty solid effort through free agency and the draft to create competition at the team's problem positions.
Training camp quickly approaches with the first practice on Friday, but we won't get to see pads until Sunday, per NFL rule. Only then will these position battles fully begin, with the obvious priority coming under center:
1. Quarterback - (Bridgewater vs. Cassel) The common thought is Matt Cassel will assume the starting quarterback job for new head coach Mike Zimmer, with rookie Teddy Bridgewater waiting in the wings. Coaches lauded Bridgewater's ability during the offseason, but he's not the first rookie to hear such praise. With a tough schedule out of the gate and a rookie head coach, Bridgewater may need a Russell Wilson-type training camp to displace Cassel just nine months after playing his final game for Louisville, the same way Wilson did Matt Flynn in Seattle. Regardless, Cassel's clock starts ticking the minute he's handed the reins for Week 1 if he wins the job. Bridgewater is the future of the franchise and if he doesn't do it this month, he could become the starter before season's end. We seem so far removed from the days of Christian Ponder supposedly seeing first-team reps in minicamps. Those reps never came and it would be surprising to see Ponder serve anything outside of an emergency quarterback role.
2. Safety - (Sanford vs. the field) The Vikings' 18 defensive backs are more bodies at the positions than any other team in the NFC North. After allowing a league-worst 37 touchdown passes last season, general manager Rick Spielman prioritized the secondary and now it's up to Zimmer to sort them out. Harrison Smith will command one safety spot, while Jamarca Sanford has taken the majority of first-team looks at the other spot. But watch for free agent addition Kurt Coleman, Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton and even rookie Antone Exum to challenge Sanford for his spot in training camp. Sanford has started 41 games for Minnesota since 2011, but he was relegated to a rotational role with Sendejo before Smith's turf toe injury last season. Safeties often play around the line of scrimmage and accumulate a relatively high amount of tackles in Zimmer's previous defenses, meaning Sanford should have the upper hand as he's found most of his success as a physical presence up field. Sanford also has plenty to play for as he tries to earn back some of the money the Vikings cut from him in a restructure. He's also a free agent after this year.
3. Cornerback - (Robinson/Cox/Sherels vs. the field) Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes are expected to be the team's starting corners in a base defense, but everything is up in the air after that. There are likely three spots remaining for the eight other corners - Josh Robinson, Derek Cox, Marcus Sherels, Kendall James, Jabari Price, Julian Posey, Shaun Prater and Robert Steeples. Robinson and Cox are the favorites heading into camp as Robinson took the first-team reps as the third cornerback in offseason work and Cox has more game experience (63) than the other five combined, outside of Sherels. Though Sherels averaged a career-high 15.2 yards per punt return last season, he'll have to prove himself all over again after the team added potential returners in Jerick McKinnon and Kain Colter. Prater, who appeared in eight games for the Vikings last season, was drafted by Zimmer's Cincinnati Bengals in 2012. He's worked mainly as a slot corner behind Munnerlyn.
4. Middle linebacker - (Brinkley vs. Cole, Mauti) If Jasper Brinkley isn't the answer, the Vikings could be back to square one in the middle of their defense. You can't plug all the holes Minnesota had in one offseason, and the middle linebacker position was one lightly mended. The Vikings brought Brinkley back on a one-year deal after he mostly sat on the bench with injuries in Arizona. Though he started 15 games for Minnesota in 2012, Brinkley's responsibilities will be drastically different from the previous Tampa-2 scheme. Once padded practices begin on Sunday, we'll get a glimpse into how confident Zimmer is in Brinkley and if Audie Cole and/or Michael Mauti get looks with the top defense. Cole, who started five games at MLB last year, filled in for rookie Anthony Barr on the strong side when Barr was finishing up college in June and didn't see much work in the middle until Barr returned for mandatory minicamp.
5. Receivers - (Thielen/Smith/Cooper/Colter) Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright are likely locks to make the team, but due to a possible suspension by Jerome Simpson - the Vikings could look to bring on six receivers to start the season. Minnesota is relatively deep at the position, with last year's practice squad holdovers in Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith fighting for a spot with new faces in Josh Cooper, Colter and others. Colter, who received the team's top bonus for an undrafted free agent, made a few impressive grabs in offseason workouts, while Cooper has the benefit of knowing Norv Turner's offense when he was in Cleveland. While there's certain to be a Mr. Mankato (a la Stephen Burton) in the bunch, the next three weeks will be telling as the group jockeys for positioning on the depth chart.