NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks recently released his list of the 10 most talented teams in 2016, and believe it or not, the Vikings made his top five.
Brooks ranks the teams based upon how many “blue-chip players” are on the roster, which are those regarded as “among the top players in the NFL at their respective positions.” He says “championship teams usually have around eight to 10 blue-chip players on the roster.”
Brooks lists Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith as blue-chip players that should help the Vikings be one of the heavyweight contenders in the NFC.
Not only do the Vikings have a solid core of blue-chip players, but GM Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer are also collecting a growing list of rising young talent.
Acquiring too much talent is never a bad thing for an NFL franchise, that is as long as you’re not a player dangerously close to the 53-man cut bubble.
The Vikings’ coaching staff may need to burn some late-night oil when they begin the process of narrowing this talent-rich team down to the top 53 players. With OTA’s in full swing and the competition process ramping up for training camp, here are six prominent players who might find themselves in peril of losing their roster spots.
1) Shaun Hill
Entering his 15th season in the NFL, the undrafted quarterback from Maryland has carved a nice niche as a quality backup compiling a 16-18 career record. The veteran quarterback has thrown for over 8,000 yards and 49 touchdowns in his career. Hill looked very good in preseason a year ago throwing three touchdown passes and completing 73.5% of his throws. However, rookie Taylor Heinicke was the quarterback that stole the show for the Vikings completing 69.5% of his throws and leading the team with 516 total yards passing. Heinicke will once again get the majority of the work this preseason as well. If the record setting quarterback from Old Dominion can prove that last year was no fluke, he could push Hill for that No. 2 quarterback position. Heinicke’s mobility and natural pocket presence gives him an advantage over the less athletic Hill. If Heinicke can stake his claim as Teddy Bridgewater’s top backup, cutting Hill and his $3,250,000 salary could help offset Harrison Smith’s new monster contract. According to Judd Zulgad, the Vikings are still well under the salary cap, but you can rest assured Rob Brzezinski (executive vice president of football operations) and the other bean counters at Winter Park will be looking for any means available to balance Smith’s new $10 million signing bonus.
2) Audie Cole
Ever since Cole had two pick-sixes on consecutive plays in a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills as a rookie, he’s become a fan favorite in Minnesota. The 2012 seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State has been a productive reserve linebacker for the Vikings racking up 74 career tackles when he’s had the opportunity to step into the lineup. The problem is his opportunities have been few and far between under Mike Zimmer’s leadership. Zimmer and the Vikings have been busy adding linebackers via the draft over past three offseasons selecting Anthony Barr and Brandon Watts in 2014, Eric Kendricks and Edmond Robinson in 2015, and Kentrell Brothers this year. The Vikings also re-signed Chad Greenway and added Bengal’s linebacker Emmanuel Lamur during free agency this year. The Vikings have built a talented and crowded group of linebackers which now puts Cole on the bubble.
3) Rhett Ellison
In Week 17 last season, the Vikings’ best blocking tight end tore the patellar tendon in his right knee. It’s a major injury that could mean Ellison spends the early part of this season on the PUP list. Ellison has started 35 games over the last four seasons and has caught 42 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota. Ellison was the Vikings’ fourth-round pick in 2012 from the University of Southern California. 2015 fifth-round tight end, MyCole Pruitt, and 2016 sixth-round pick, David Morgan, will need to step up and fill Ellison’s role. Zach Line could also get an opportunity to show more of his versatility as a blocker in Ellison’s absence.
4) Scott Crichton
Crichton did not have the breakout year or make the type of leap many thought he would last season. The 2014 third-round defensive end was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a concussion and neck injury in December while only accounting for 8 combined tackles on the year. This season his spot on the 53-man roster is certainly not guaranteed. The Vikings have solid veteran leadership in Everson Griffen and Brian Robison at the top of the defensive end depth chart. 2015 third-round pick, Danielle Hunter, collected 6 sacks and 33 tackles as a rookie flashing an upside that has fans excited to see more. Crichton may struggle winning a final spot on the depth chart as Zach Moore, Justin Trattou and Stephen Weatherly are all in the mix for a roster spot.
5) Antone Exum
Exum had a strong game in his first career start against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 12 filling in for Harrison Smith (inactive with a knee injury). However, Exum fractured a rib against the Seattle Seahawks the following week to end the season on injured reserve. Exum logged 13 total tackles in the first 12 games as a reserve safety last season. In his 144 snaps, Pro Football Focus gave him a 53.7 grade. In the final four regular season games, safety Anthony Harris was promoted to the active roster and also played surprisingly well. Harris saw action in 148 snaps and collected 15 total tackles and a Pro Football Focus grade of 87.0. Harris made his starting NFL debut against the Arizona Cardinals where he led all Vikings with 76 snaps and recorded 10 tackles (six solo). The Vikings signed free agent safety Michael Griffin and also re-signed Andrew Sendejo. Griffin and Sendejo will probably rotate at the starting spot beside Smith in 2016. Exum, Harris and rookie seventh-round pick Jayon Kearse should all be competing for a final roster spot at the safety position.
The Vikings re-signed cornerback Terrence Newman who can play safety if needed. It’s also worth noting that the Vikings re-signed Marcus Sherels to a two year 4 million contract with a whopping 1.5 million guaranteed. Based on his new contract, I think his roster spot is probably safe. So, the Vikings might choose to carry more corners and fewer safeties by trying to hide a couple the young safeties on the practice squad. At any rate, Exum finds himself among one of the most interesting and competitive position battles to watch this preseason.
6) Shamar Stephen
Last season, Stephen was carted off the field with a toe injury against Kansas City on October 18th and was place on season-ending injured reserve. A seventh-round pick by the Vikings in 2014, Stephen saw action in all 16 games his rookie season. However, before landing on IR last year, he only had three total tackles and struggled in run support. The Vikings signed defensive tackle Kendrick Ellis (third-round pick by the Jets in 2011) to replace Stephen on the roster. Ellis has 59 career tackles and recorded 8 of those tackles while playing in the final 10 games as part of a defensive line rotation for the Vikings. Ellis is listed as 6-4 346 pounds and his run stopping advantage might help him steal a roster spot over Stephen in 2016.