It’s hard to believe that actual NFL football games are mere weeks away. This is the time of the year when fans are full of bright optimism, that this is the year their team takes the next step. Many Vikings fans from my circles have just that optimism, believing that this year the putrid defense of last cannot possibly fare any worse than they did in 2013 (they really cannot). Can the team rebound from a paltry 5-10-1 season under the new regime of Mike Zimmer?
I was down at training camp last week on the sidelines to snap some photos and get a chance to see the team practice up close. While down there, I was fortunate enough to see the team run drills and watch the offense and defense scrimmage (though we weren’t allowed to take photos of that portion of practice) — the match ups of Xavier Rhodes versus Cordarrelle Patterson and Matt Kalil and Co. versus the freak of nature rookie linebacker Anthony Barr were some of the highlights.
One of the most notable differences from this training camp over the past few years was the very vocal leadership of Mike Zimmer — while he was mostly focusing on the defensive side of the ball, he was a force working with all three levels on the defense. He was up in the faces of those members of his unit who made mistakes — and his loud, choice language left little room to question his true feelings on certain plays. He was adamant about sound, disciplined football, railing the offensive line after their handful of false starts. He was on his guys about proper technique and not letting a single detail go unnoticed. One thing is for sure: Mike Zimmer is a 180° difference between the calm, stoic leadership of Leslie Frazier.
Down in camp, it was quite clear Adrian Peterson was not going to get a whole ton of reps throughout the scrimmage. That left plenty of room for rookie Jared McKinnon to shine. His speed and versatility out of the backfield is a change of pace from Adrian Peterson’s bruising style. His runs and passes caught out of the backfield always electrified the watching crowd.
I also wanted to briefly talk about Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson as the big time leaders on both sides of the ball — these two know they are crucial to the team’s success — they also both know they are fan favorites. After practice was over for the day, these two were the last two players to leave the field. The pair spend time talking with fans, taking photos and signing autographs and truly being a beacon for their sport and their team. Both were on the field a good 35-40 minutes after practice was over spending time with those fans who idolize them. It truly was a sight to marvel at, to see two veterans taking their roles as leaders seriously.
Obviously the biggest story at camp has been the battle for the starting quarterback position, Teddy Bridgewater versus Matt Cassel. The crowd definitely favored Bridgewater and vocally supported his every move on the field. Fresh blood usually is the most favorable option for the casual football fan. While I was impressed with what Bridgewater brought to the table, from what I saw at the scrimmage and the first preseason game, the position is Matt Cassel’s to lose. In the scrimmage he didn’t have a whole lot of flashy plays for the crowd to get behind — but he made quick, decisive throws that mostly hit receivers in stride.
Bridgewater on the other hand was a bit more sporadic. The plays called with him under center were decidedly more mobile, naked bootlegs and the sort, but even in straight drop backs Bridgewater had noticeably less poise in the pocket, getting a little fleet of foot when the pocket began to collapse. This put on full display his running ability, something that riled the crowd up — but this also shows he still has a bit of happy feet when the imposing defense starts to breathe down his neck. His throws, both in the scrimmage and preseason game were not the type of “on the mark” passes that Cassel had been showcasing.
It’s also worth noting that Cassel only played one drive during the first preseason game, while Bridgewater played into the second half. Usually, if this was an actual competition for the job, both would see equal playing time. I think the Vikings are protecting their clear choice for the starter in Cassel and giving Bridgewater the NFL reps he needs to improve at his position.
With all that said, I think Cassel should be the clear cut guy to start Week 1. His experience as an NFL quarterback give him a decided edge over his younger teammate. I think Bridgewater should have a bright future in the NFL, but I think he is one of those cases where he needs to sit behind a veteran leader and learn the ropes before being given the reigns to the offense. He is still young, and rushing him into the most important position in sports before he is ready could destroy any potential he has. Not every first round pick at the quarterback position is NFL ready off the bat — the Andrew Lucks, Russell Wilsons and Matt Ryans of the world are a rarity. I would say Bridgewater might have more success going the Aaron Rodgers route — he could sit back and learn for a season and be ready when he is ready.
The Vikings will wrap up training camp soon, finish off their last three preseason games, finalize their roster down to 53 men, and then the 2014 season will kickoff versus the St. Louis Rams.
Photos by: Matthew Deery (for more photos from training camp, hit the link on the left)