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Updated: May 12th, 2014 8:02pm
Zulgad: Vikings still have at least three key questions to answer

Zulgad: Vikings still have at least three key questions to answer

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Vikings' regular-season opener remains four months away, but new coach Mike Zimmer has a pretty good idea of what his roster will look like when the team reports to training camp this July in Mankato.

The last major step in that process occurred over the weekend when general manager Rick Spielman added 10 players via the NFL draft.

A few important questions were answered when play-making linebacker Antony Barr was taken with the ninth selection in the first round, and quarterback-of-the-future Teddy Bridgewater was picked with the 32nd and final selection of the opening round after a trade with Seattle.

But there are still some intriguing questions when it comes to the Vikings' plan for how they are going to use their personnel.

Here are three of them.

Rhodes, Munnerlyn and ... :

The expectation is that 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes and free-agent addition Captain Munnerlyn will be the Vikings' starting cornerbacks.

Rhodes wasn't used nearly enough as a rookie, and will be effective, assuming he can stay healthy. Adding Munnerlyn is a major upgrade over 2010 second-round bust Chris Cook.

But in the pass-happy NFL, two starting cornerbacks are not enough. The Vikings will be in plenty of situations where they must use five defensive backs, including three corners, and that means they will need one more starting-caliber corner to play the outside when Munnerlyn moves inside.

The Vikings used three picks on defensive backs, including two corners, on the third day of the draft but none of them figure to compete for a significant role right away.

That means that of the 10 corners listed on the Vikings' roster, three figure to compete to be on the field in the nickel defense. They are Derek Cox, Shaun Prater and Josh Robinson.

Robinson, a third-round pick by the Vikings in 2012, was put in the very difficult position of trying to replace Antoine Winfield as the inside corner in the nickel defense last season.

Robinson had little to no experience playing that position and struggled to make the adjustment.

If given the chance to play an outside corner, Robinson likely will have a far better chance to succeed.

The most interesting name of the three could be Cox, who opened last season starting for the San Diego Chargers but lost the spot after being benched three times in a four-week span in November. Cox, 27, has good size (6-foot-1) and might intrigue Zimmer after intercepting 12 passes in four seasons with Jacksonville.

He has started 56 of the 63 games he has played in during his five-year NFL career and has 13 interceptions and 39 pass breakups.

Prater was claimed by the Vikings off waivers from the Eagles last October and ended up playing in eight games and starting three times. He finished with one interception.

Zimmer, who was the defensive coordinator for Cincinnati before getting the Vikings job, is familiar with Prater. The Bengals made him a fifth-round pick in 2012 but placed him on waivers last September.

Best guess: While Spielman would love to see Robinson succeed, Cox likely will get the first chance to win the job as the third corner in part because of his experience and the fact Zimmer might want to see if he can bounce back after a poor season.

Two down, one to go

Barr's addition should help solve one of the Vikings' issues at linebacker, he will play on the strong side, but it doesn't take care of the starting job in the middle.

The two primary candidates for that position will be Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole.

Brinkley, a fifth-round pick of the Vikings in 2009, returns after spending one season with the Arizona Cardinals. He started a career-high 15 games for the Vikings in 2012 and was credited with 99 tackles before departing.

Cole was selected in the seventh round in 2012 and started five times in 13 games last season. He had one sack and 45 tackles.

There is an x-factor in all of this and that's how Zimmer plans to use his linebackers.

Since the Vikings figure to use five defensive backs on a consistent basis, Zimmer could have Chad Greenway play in the middle in those situations and thus be a part-time weak-side and part-time middle linebacker.

That would leave the starting middle linebacker on the field only when the Vikings use their base package and not on a consistent basis.

Best guess: Much like our view of Robinson might have been unfairly influenced by his lack of success playing inside in the nickel, our opinion of Brinkley as a middle linebacker also might be unfair.

Brinkely was drafted out of South Carolina with a reputation of being a downhill linebacker who was excellent at stopping the run and known for punishing opponents with his tackles.

But Brinkley was never known for his ability in pass coverage and the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme used by the Vikings' previous coaching staff had to have the ability to drop into coverage. Thus, Brinkley's shortcomings were often exposed because of the system in which he played.

Being the starting middle linebacker in Zimmer's defense could help change our view of Brinkley and it wouldn't be surprising if he gets a chance to work with the first team early in the season.

About that third-down running back

One of the most interesting things to see this season will be the changes made to the Vikings' offense and defense by Norv Turner and Zimmer.

While Zimmer is going to overhaul the defense, Turner will do the same as the new offensive coordinator.

Among the most intriguing things will the third-down packages Turner installs. Since Adrian Peterson's arrival in Minnesota in 2007, there have been three givens or assumptions about the future Hall of Fame running back.

The first is that Peterson is a threat to break a 75-yard run at any moment. The second is that Peterson isn't going to see the football through the air as much as some would like, and the third is that Peterson is going to come off the field on third down because he just isn't good in pass protection.

Turner's presence should change at least one of those three things. He likes to have his running back catch the ball and there is no reason to believe that Peterson will be a complete flop if he gets his hands on the ball in space.

He had a career-high 43 receptions in 2009, when Brett Favre saw no reason not to pass to him, and two years ago Peterson caught 40 passes.

But while Turner might be able to turn Peterson into a big-time threat as a receiver, one fears that trusting him to stay in and pass protect on third down might be dangerous. To put it simply, Peterson just isn't good at that part of his job and up until now he hasn't had to be that effective at protecting the quarterback.

Chester Taylor was outstanding in pass protection and the Vikings used a second-round pick in 2010 on Toby Gerhart to replace Taylor.

But with Gerhart having bolted to Jacksonville as a free agent this offseason, it's unclear if the Vikings have a true third-down back, or if Turner is going to be insistent that he can keep Peterson on the field and somehow cover up for his deficiencies.

The Vikings' depth chart at running back behind Peterson includes Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle and Jerick McKinnon, a third-round pick over the weekend from Georgia Southern. McKinnon could be a change of pace back on third down but to ask him to be trusted in pass protection might be asking too much of the rookie.

Turner has to keep either Matt Cassel or Bridgewater upright at the quarterback position when pressure is sent. It will be interesting to see how he plans to do this and if Peterson will remain on the field in these situations.

Best guess: Turner runs a completely different offense than Brad Childress/Darrell Bevell or Leslie Frazier/Bill Musgrave, meaning it wouldn't be surprising if he comes up with a third-down protection scheme that we've never seen in these parts.

There is a chance that if Peterson remains in the game on third down, he could become a go-to option on check downs. If that's the case, he might be called on to throw a quick chip block but the bulk of the protections in the backfield will go to someone else.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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