Tuesday, October 6, 2015

After two weeks in Mankato, Minnesota Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is ready to face a real opponent. “We just want to go out and play and it’s going to give us a good judge of where we’re at,” Zimmer said in a press conference Wednesday morning.

The Vikings will open the 2014 preseason against the Oakland Raiders Friday night at TCF Banks Stadium.

While training camp practices have been light and mostly in helmet, shells and shorts, facing off against the Raiders will provide a prime opportunity to see how players react in the heat of a game situation. For the 10 rookie draft picks selected by the Vikings in May, it will mark their first chance to put their talent on tape in a full contact NFL contest.

The Vikings have waived tight end AC Leonard, signalling in all likelihood that his final battery of tests indicated something negative about whatever was causing his headache(s), though likely not bad enough to attached the waived/injured designation on him. If the injury was the sole reason for his being waived from the roster, then he would have a case to force an injury agreement with the team (those agreements typically waive any salary if he plays for a team before a designated recovery period by an agreed-upon doctor between a team and an agent).


It is at least interesting that the Vikings didn’t attach an “injured” designation, because that’s the purported reason he didn’t see the field for the Vikings. He left practice early last week with a headache and had to undergo a number of tests with the team to see the field again. When asked on Monday about Leonard, Zimmer said “He’s got a test today and a test tomorrow. We’ll kind of see where it’s at. We’ll see. We have to put him through all these tests. He seems fine, but you know.”

Yesterday, he talked to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, and though he said he’d “rather not talk about it,” he anticipated returning to the field soon.

Since his release, I’ve been told that he had persistent headache issues at Tennessee State that kept him out of practices, though he would still play in games. Teammates and others have speculated that these are related to a condition giving him migraines, and have been a worry that—coupled with off-field concerns related to a domestic violence charge against his live-in girlfriend—kept him out of the draft entirely.

While on the practice field for a limited time with the Vikings, Leonard flashed a silky running style that hid surprising explosiveness and sometimes shockingly refined route-running, as well as an understanding of how much surface area to expose to contact at the line. He had inconsistent hands, but from an on-field perspective, that weakness would likely have been well worth a look for a third tight end.

Should the Vikings have a backup option at tight end, either on the roster in Mike Higgins, Chase Ford or Allen Reisner, or on the waiver wire, this move will have a little more context. For now, we can only speculate over whether or not the Vikings waived AC Leonard with a backup in mind, and if off-field concerns played a part.

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(photo by Lindsey Young)
(photo by Lindsey Young)

Without a doubt, Captain Munnerlyn proves one of the biggest intrigues at this year’s Vikings training camp.

Munnerlyn signed a three-year free agent deal with Minnesota on March 13 after spending five seasons with the Carolina Panthers. In 2013, the 25-year-old intercepted two passes and returned both for touchdowns. He also tallied a career-high 74 tackles and 3 ½ sacks.

At 5’9”, Munnerlyn has been considered undersized for his position. However, as the numbers indicate, his size poses no disadvantage. “I’ve been shutting up the critics since I got to Carolina,” Munnerlyn said. “They’ve been saying I’m too small, I’m too slow, I’m not big enough. I just go out here and play football and prove to people that they were wrong about me.”

The South Carolina alum also proved he was right about himself; he is more than capable of playing this position.

(photo by Chris Price)
(photo by Chris Price)

As far as dedicated, driven athletes go, few compare to cornerback Marcus Sherels.

His name may not be among the media buzz, but that’s just fine with Sherels. For the fourth-year CB, it’s all about football—and his main goal remains working hard and earning his spot on the roster.

Coach Zimmer stated in his August 4 press conference that he tends to keep more corners on the roster than might be expected. When asked about this, Sherels expressed that it really has no direct impact on him—his mentality will remain the same regardless.

“I have no idea how many [cornerbacks] they’re going to keep,” Sherels said. “I just come out every single day and compete.”

Sherels’ effort has certainly paid off so far. In March, the 26-year-old signed a two-year deal with Minny. He was the first free agent the Vikings signed during the offseason. While his path to the NFL has not been easy, Sherels never complained. He played. Minnesota signed the undrafted Sherels to the practice squad in 2010, and he played in his first pro game in 2011. His most memorable NFL moment thus far occurred in 2012. Ironically on his 25th birthday, the Sept. 30 game against the Lions will forever be a highlight for Sherels:

“my birthday game was pretty special. I scored my first punt return touchdown, and the Vikings won [over Detroit]. It was a great game.”

Vikings fans hope to see more of those returns in the upcoming season, and Sherels shares the enthusiasm. He seems optimistic about how things are going at camp thus far, and it’s obvious he is raring to go:

“I’m just looking forward to coming out, competing, and trying to win every game. We have the new coaching staff here and it’s been great so far […] I focused a lot on stretching and getting my speed back [during the offseason]. The coaches are doing a great job of teaching us—the more reps we get, the more we improve.”

Not only does Sherels see his dream fulfilled of playing for the NFL, but he also feels blessed to play for his home state. A native of Rochester, MN, the CB grew up rooting for the Vikings with his family. Now, he is one.

“It feels great [to play here],” Sherels said. “I don’t know anything other than Minnesota. I love it here […] it’s absolute dream come true.”

During the 2013 season, Sherels set a Vikings record with a 15.2 punt return average and became the first Vikings PR man to have two returns of 50+ yards in a season. He is also only the third Viking to have multiple punt return TDs in a career.

The Vikings released their first unofficial depth chart Tuesday afternoon, and Sherels is currently penciled in at LCB behind Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson. Besides any action Sherels sees at corner, it will also be interesting to see how he is utilized at special teams.

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Earlier today, Norv Turner took the podium and was able to answer some questions about the Vikings offense and Teddy Bridgewater’s development as a quarterback. He seems fairly confident, as you would expect any coach to express at this time of year, but at least provided some solid context for why he thinks Teddy is playing at an “awfully high level.”

Teddy Bridgewater at QB Training Camp 2014

The first, of course, is that Teddy’s interception rate in camp in eleven-on-elevens is fairly low, three for every 150 passes thrown so far—or about eleven in a typical season (though he said 150 is half a season, perhaps hoping the Vikings are constantly ahead in games and willing to rush the ball). That’s a good point.

Further, Turner broke it down into the types of plays that would be a demerit for a quarterback or not, and concluded that Teddy, along with Matt Cassel, only threw one interception that could be characterized as a “bad decision” (by which I assume he means the Greenway interception in the red zone Saturday night). He also threw one interception that was a “great play” by the defense, and one that was a receiver falling in his route (I assume Derek Cox on Adam Thielen).

Norv went on to further contextualize the great play by diminishing the statistic as a camp total—there’s no pass rush and the game isn’t full speed at this point, but he remains impressed.

Beyond that, “there’s things we’re doing with Teddy that we would never call in a game”—a refrain we hear from offensive coordinators in every camp, though it rings true given how often Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees throw bad interceptions in camp only to enter the regular season in pristine condition.

As for me, I’d pump the brakes a little bit more. Teddy’s interceptions in camp aren’t what have concerned me—he is consistently making the correct decision in camp. As of right now, my primary concerns are the high passes in camp that make receptions harder to come by, increase tipped interceptions and reduce yards-after-the-catch. In my estimation, much of this has to come from the fact that he’s been asked to speed up his mechanics and control his drop from center more than he did in Louisville. Time will tell, but for now the future is optimistic and his mistakes are correctable.

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