Sunday, July 5, 2015

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The NFL just completed one of its most misunderstood, but widely covered offseason events, the NFL Combine. Sure, the Combine features some of the most talented athletic bodies in the world competing against each other in feats of strength, speed and endurance. But any front office executive that isn’t lying to you will tell you that the most important event at the Combine is the medical evaluation. Or hold on, it’s the interviews. No, no… it’s the illegal tampering and soft free agent bargaining.

My sources tell me all three things are in fact the single most important thing.

At the very least NFL Insiders want to say that the Combine contains many an event that hardly reaches our eyes and rarely reaches our ears. Some of this is just because NFL Insiders see value in being Insiders, and there’s nothing cool about being an Insider unless there’s information they have that you don’t. But most of this is true, which means that it’s inevitable that rumors leak out and speculation runs wild.

Given that nearly everybody has a vested interest in lying to the public when it comes to football (or at the very least, they think they do even when they don’t), a lot of these rumors are bunk. People who are well within the know can be reliable when it comes to how they acquired the knowledge they peddle, but may not be reliable  in terms of how honest they are or what they choose to hold back.

That said, the Combine has produced quite a few rumors that we can speculate on, many of which may impact the Vikings.

The Vikings were without their top two running backs, their most productive offensive lineman this season, and their starting cornerback duo.  As if the odds weren’t stacked enough against them, Minnesota had to play the potent offense of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, so expectations were minimal as fans filed into the Metrodome.

The Vikings, however, had no-names show up big on their way to a 48-30 beatdown of the Eagles.  Here are ten things I noticed about the game:

1.  NFL Network reported prior to the game that Matt Cassel would remain with the Vikings into 2014.  The understanding is that both Cassel and the Vikings have the option to void the second year of his contract following the season, so I was surprised to see such a concrete report come across the TV.  Cassel then proceeded to have one of the best games of his career.  He finished 26 of 35 for 382 yards and two touchdowns.  He threw one interception and took three sacks, but for the most part he was sharp and poised on his way to a 116.6 quarterback rating.  He also ran for 19 yards and another score.  These are the types of games we just never saw out of Christian Ponder and it is no wonder that Cassel’s future with the franchise suddenly looks far brighter than Ponder’s.  Jennings had never before, in his entire career, caught 11 passes in one game.

2.  Greg Jennings continued to show that he can better reward the Vikings for their investment when Cassel is at the helm.  His best game as a Vikings so far came to the tune of 13 targets, 11 catches, 163 yards, and a touchdown.  Jennings continues to be precise with his route running and the main difference lately seems to be that he now has a quarterback willing and able to take advantage of his talents.

The overtime victory against the rival Bears on Sunday was a positive step for Vikings fans that just wanted the team to prove they still know how to win football games, but a step back for those that want to see the Vikings nab the first overall selection of the 2014 NFL Draft.

The mixed emotions about this win don’t end there, though.  A win is a win, but this was not a pretty one, and there is certainly a great deal of things we saw on Sunday that were beyond worrisome.  I’ve decided to split the difference and will look at five things I liked and five things I didn’t following the 23-20 victory.

FIVE POSITIVES

1.  Matt Cassel Shows Stones

When Christian Ponder had to exit early it was Matt Cassel, not Josh Freeman, who was dressed and ready to take the reigns.  Cassel came in as a reserve, but played in a way that should clearly give him a leg up in the quarterback conversation in Minnesota.  He went 20 for 33 and a touchdown.  His lone pick was not his fault in the slightest, as tight end Rhett Ellison bobbled a perfect strike, and it really should have ended up being a second touchdown on the statline.  The only reason it wasn’t a touchdown for the Bears, by all appearances, was Cassel’s hustle as he chased down linebacker Khaseem Greene after he returned the ball for 49 yards.  Cassel may not be the starter next week against Baltimore, because no decision regarding this team ever seems to be the obvious one, but he showed up big after the Vikings offense netted just 16 passing yards through the first half with Ponder at the helm.

2. Nobody Does It Better

Much was written about Adrian Peterson’s greatness Monday, after the future Hall of Famer broke the 10,000 rushing yard threshold Sunday, but I’m so in awe of his everyday accomplishments that I can’t even begin to put into words how prolific his career has been thus far.  Peterson ran for 211 yards on 35 carries (6.0 yard average) against the Bears and seemingly willed the offense down the field at times, including moments in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and you just know he is the still a player that makes his team a competitor week-in and week-out.  Even when they are a bad team.

When Rick Spielman decided to win a bidding war with Chicago for the services of right tackle Phil Loadholt, he was willing to make veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield a casualty by sending him packing.  At the time, I opined that the Vikings not only lost their best cornerback as a result, but that they also lost their best linebacker and defensive leader.

Then, through free agency and the NFL Draft, the Vikings refused to make considerable investment into the linebacker position despite numerous opportunities.  Some third day Draft picks, and injury-prone free agent Desmond Bishop, amounted to no immediate upgrade to the starting linebacker positions.  Instead, the team was willing to move forward with Erin Henderson manning the middle.

Now, I am on record as being supportive of Henderson.  I think he has played better than many fans give him credit for.  Until last week, he led the team in tackles.  Only ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison have more sacks than his three.  He leads the Vikings with nine tackles for a loss, is tied for a team lead with two interceptions, and leads all the linebackers with three defended passes.  Those stats, however, have not been enough for fans and analysts to grant Henderson immunity from criticism as the Vikings currently place 29th in pass defense and 24th against the run.

Henderson was expected to step up, take command of the defense, and instead the entire unit has been on a season-long campaign of collapse.  With Winfield gone, and Kevin Williams and Jared Allen clearly on their way out, it seemed natural to look for a leader on defense to ease the transition.  Instead, Henderson has been at the center of a defense that has shown no ability to stop opponents, and instead of being a vocal leader that speaks of consistency and accountability he has found himself in the center of controversy.

That is exactly what you don’t look for in a team leader.

Last week, news broke that Henderson had been picked up for DWI and possession of a controlled substance.  The details are murky right now, and he claims this isn’t the “personal reason” he had for missing last week’s game, but Henderson has a long ways to go before anybody will consider him a legitimate leader on defense.

Henderson counts as the third Vikings player in three weeks to hit the police blotter, which prompted General Manager Rick Spielman to release a public statement, and the Vikings brass cannot be happy about any of this.  Surely this issue will come up when end-of-season evaluations of Henderson’s value are being performed and I can’t imagine the front office will be content relying so heavily on him in 2014 and beyond.

Perhaps the best case scenario, for Henderson, is to end up back at the weakside spot.

That would certainly seem like a preferred alternative to being out of a job.

I mentioned during our Monday night live chat that I didn’t think the Vikings could manage to swing a trade that sent Jared Allen to a contender while stockpiling draft picks for the upcoming offseason.

My reasoning was simply that there were too many obstacles standing in the way of a deadline deal.  Allen’s age (31), dipping production, and price tag would make potential suitors balk before shelling out anything lucrative.  In addition, Allen could really only be considered by teams running the 4-3, which eliminated roughly half the league right off the bat.  The demand is also just not there, as evidenced by how long aging defensive ends with big names sat on the open market this past offseason.

Now, the Vikings were undoubtedly willing to listen to offers today despite all of the obstacles, and a roller coaster ride of reports indicated Allen was drawing at least some interest.  All of the various reports essentially culminated to the following: The Seahawks and Broncos expressed interest, and the Vikings wanted a second round pick or possibly a third rounder, but a deal couldn’t get done.

Thus, Jared Allen will be a Viking for the remainder of this season as expected, and is likely to move on to another team after his contract expires and free agency opens.

Now, a lot of people have been providing bad information regarding a potential 2015 compensatory pick the Vikings could get for Allen’s departure.  The Vikings will not be eligible for a third round pick.  Allen is over 30 years old and has ten years of NFL experience, which means the best pick the Vikings could receive for letting him walk is a fifth rounder.  This little known rule apparently has some NFL reporters confused, but the Steelers learned this lesson the hard way when Alan Faneca bolted as a free agent, and it even impacted the Vikings back when Jerry Ball departed Minnesota.

Jared Allen has provided us with some of our favorite memories in recent years, and he will be missed, but at this point it seems like he will be leaving for good and the Vikings will get very little in return for letting him.

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