Monday, July 31, 2017

Vikings secondary could be special, but kids need to step up

Xavier Rhodes is going to be a Minnesota Viking for a very long time. Yesterday's contract extension, for five years at up to $78 million, makes Rhodes one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. The Vikings have been busy of late locking up their defensive stars, recently giving DE Everson Griffen a new five-year contract worth $58 million. Last offseason the Vikings signed star safety Harrison Smith to a 5-year deal worth $51 million. The size of Rhodes' contract relative to those of Griffen and Smith points up how prized cornerbacks have become in the pass-happy NFL. Rhodes is one of those rare corners who combines shutdown coverage skills with sound run-support ability, making him the total package. The versatile Smith had a bit of a down year in 2016, but he has the talent to be one of the top safeties in the league if he pulls it all together. With Smith and Rhodes both arguably top-5 in the league at their positions, Mike Zimmer has two key pieces in place as he tries to build a dominating secondary. But what about the other pieces? That's where things become a little bit troublesome but also potentially exciting.

On paper, the Vikings should have the parts necessary to put together one of the top secondaries in the NFL. But for the secondary to realize all that on-paper potential, a few of the Vikings' younger, more unproven players will have to step up big time. The Vikings last year filled out their defensive backfield with Andrew Sendejo at the other safety spot alongside Smith, veteran Terence Newman at the other cornerback spot opposite Rhodes and veteran Captain Munnerlyn in the all-important nickle corner position. This year, Minnesota tentatively has Sendejo at safety again, third-year player Trae Waynes at outside corner and Newman locking down the slot after Munnerlyn's departure via free agency. It's possible Newman could play outside as well and kick inside in nickel situations with Waynes then playing outside. Both Sendejo and Newman could be pushed for playing time by younger players. The top challenger for Sendejo's safety job should hypothetically be Jayron Kearse, the physically gifted but very raw safety the Vikings drafted in 2016 out of Clemson. Newman's main competition at slot corner should be 2016 draft pick Mackensie Alexander, also out of Clemson.

After a very strong 2016, the 38-year-old Newman is someone Mike Zimmer believes he can rely on (notwithstanding the odd communication issue), but ideally I'm sure Zimmer would love for Alexander to push Newman in camp and perhaps even squeeze out the old man. Ideally, I'm sure Zimmer would love for Trae Waynes to show that he was worth the #11 overall pick in 2015, or if that's too much at least become reliable enough that he can stay on the field the majority of the time. The inconsistent Andrew Sendejo ideally is someone Zimmer would love to relegate to the bench in favor of Jayron Kearse, a player who has the physical tools to be a good player. It's asking a lot for all three of the Vikings' young potential secondary contributors to come on strong this training camp and make believers of Mike Zimmer. Or is it asking a lot? Certainly, Waynes is someone it's not unreasonable to expect greater things from given where he was drafted. Last year Waynes only got spot action, but he did show improvement over his rookie campaign. Mackensie Alexander was pressed into service at times last year and did not distinguish himself, but he's also someone who bears the burden of expectations after being taken in the second round. Kearse only cost the Vikings a seventh-round pick and was seen as a project player, so perhaps there are not big expectations on him, but still given his length and range he could potentially be an upgrade over Sendejo.

The Vikings should field a solid secondary this season no matter what happens. Two of the five main spots are being filled by arguably elite players, Newman is still performing at a top level and Sendejo is a serviceable safety. But let's dream big and imagine the Vikings taking the next step to become one of the best secondaries in the league. Can they do that with Newman playing a big role at his advanced age, the underwhelming Sendejo still holding down the other safety spot and Waynes still not earning the full faith of his coaching staff? To my mind, for the Vikings to take the next step as a secondary, the young players in that secondary need to take the next step as individuals. Mackensie Alexander needs to learn the slot corner position and become someone Zimmer can trust to hold down that spot, rather than relying on the aging Newman to chase slot corners all over the field. Jayron Kearse needs to sharpen up his technique, learn to use his physical tools and most importantly stay motivated, and become a player Zimmer can deploy both in single-high coverage and near the line of scrimmage in order to maximize scheme flexibility. Of all the Vikings' young players, perhaps the most pressure is on Trae Waynes, who was taken high in the first round and has not lived up to his potential yet. Waynes seemingly has the talent to be at least a good cornerback, and with Rhodes able to shadow the other teams' best receivers, Waynes seemingly should not often be placed in positions where his deficiencies in coverage really burn the team. A Rhodes/Waynes/Smith/Kearse/Alexander secondary could be special. The more-veteran iteration of that secondary, with Waynes still sharing time at outside corner with Newman, would only be good and might actually take a step down if Newman begins showing his age and Sendejo is exposed.

It will be fascinating to watch as camp proceeds to see whether the Vikings' young, promising secondary players begin popping. Because the potential is there for the Vikes' secondary to become very good if not great. But for that potential to be realized, Waynes, Alexander and Kearse have to show that they are worthy of expanded roles. It's great that Minnesota has a pair of elite secondary players on their roster, and a wily veteran in Newman who everyone loves, but for me that's just not enough. I want a truly elite Vikings secondary. Is that asking too much? We'll see.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

After John Sullivan debacle, no one should believe Vikings on Riley Reiff

New Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff suffered some kind of injury on the first day of training camp and has not been seen on the practice field since. This has Vikings fans understandably nervous, in light of last year's rash of offensive line injuries. "Oh no here we go again," is the general sentiment being expressed by fans. The team naturally is downplaying the severity of the injury while releasing the usual statements about how they have total faith in the backup, in this case Rashod Hill. It's all pretty standard stuff from the team and no one should believe for a single second that even one syllable of it is remotely accurate. Most likely, the Vikings are lying to hide the severity of Riley Reiff's injury. And you know what? I don't even blame them for doing it. Teams lie all the time, and they lie for good reasons. But a lie with a sound motivation behind it is still a lie.

Sure, it's perfectly possible that Riley Reiff is okay and everyone is being a little too "the earth is falling" about his condition. Again, such doom-and-gloom is perfectly understandable given the battering fans' psyches took last season with all the injuries and then the collapse after 5-0. Viking fans know how this routine works. There's optimism going into the season, and optimism is almost always rewarded with miserable failure. So maybe Riley Reiff is really fine...but probably he's actually hurt and the team is hiding the severity of his injury for tactical reasons and because they don't want to put a damper on the optimism of training camp. It's the last year in Mankato and they don't want to ruin it with some Debbie Downer stuff about how Riley Reiff, the left tackle they signed for $58 million this offseason, is probably going miss significant time. So until the time comes when they have to make a call on Reiff's status one way or another, they're going to keep saying he's fine. Mike Zimmer, Mr. Tell It Like It Is, is going to keep saying it's not severe...just like he did with John Sullivan, who ended up needing two back surgeries after repeatedly being declared fine.

As fans will remember, it was two years ago that Sullivan went down with a training camp injury that ended up wiping out his entire season. The Vikings in that instance publicly downplayed the severity of the injury, insisting Sullivan was just suffering from back spasms and would "be fine." But week after week Sullivan was held out of practice, until just before the start of the season he was placed on IR-to-return. Even then the Vikings remained optimistic, at least in their public statements, about Sullivan's ability to return. Until Sullivan underwent back surgery and it became clear to everyone that the Pro Bowl-caliber center would not be returning (pretty bad back spasms!). Fortunately for the Vikings, Sullivan's fill-in Joe Berger played exceptionally well in his stead, so well that the following season after Sullivan was healthy again Berger flat out beat him in camp, leading to Sullivan's ultimate release.

Whether the Sullivan situation was a case of the Vikings convincing themselves the player would be okay and being blind-sided by the severity of his injury, or (as is more likely) it was a case of the team knowing the injury was bad and flat-out lying about it, makes no difference. The point is the same either way: Never believe anything the team says about any injured player, ever. Teams will try to finesse a player back to health, hoping that surgery isn't necessary, until the surgery becomes absolutely necessary. And when a player is really injured but for tactical reasons they don't want anyone to know, they will look you right in the eye and tell a falsehood. Regardless of the motivations, the end result is that false information is fed to fans all the time about injuries and no one should ever believe a single word that is said by coaches, front office folks or team-connected reporters. When will I believe Riley Reiff is really okay? When I see him lining up at left tackle for the season opener against the Saints.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Jarius Wright is an idiot if he thinks he's not on the bubble

Vikings WR Jarius Wright, who finds himself sitting precariously on the bubble as training camp begins, told reporters yesterday that anyone who thinks he won't make the 53-man roster is an "idiot." (Via St. Paul Pioneer-Press)
“I’m tired of hearing about ‘Will Jarius Wright make the 53-man roster?’ ‘’ Wright said on the first full-squad day of training camp at Minnesota State Mankato. “So it’s just getting old now. I’ve been the same player since I got here (in 2012). I continue to make plays, and if you think I’m a slouch, then you don’t watch football, and so that makes you an idiot.’’
I guess I'm an idiot because I think Jarius Wright will probably get cut. Well, I'm not 100% sure he'll get cut so maybe I'm half an idiot. I do think it's entirely reasonable to have Wright listed on the bubble as training camp cranks up. What did Wright do last year to demonstrate he should be considered a lock for the 53? Does Wright even know his stats? He only got into 8 games last year, was only targeted 14 times by Sam Bradford and wound up with 11 catches for 67 yards and one touchdown. Not exactly robust numbers. To some, it's a bit of a mystery why Wright seemed to be relegated to non-factor status in the Vikings' offense last year but I don't think it's any kind of a mystery at all. Wright just isn't that good. Problem for Wright is he's a tweener. Has the size of a slot receiver but lacks the niftiness in traffic that makes for a truly good slot man. Has the speed of a deep threat but lacks the size/wing-span. Is not the sort of physical player you can use as a possession receiver. Quite simply, Wright doesn't have a role. That became obvious last year and there's no reason to think it will change this year. 

Even if you're a big Jarius Wright booster - I'm not sure why anyone would be that at this point, but it takes all kinds - you have to admit it doesn't look good for him. The Vikings have lots of receivers fighting for spots in camp after loading up at the position in the draft and free agency. There is nothing idiotic about looking at the situation and deeming Jarius Wright to be in some trouble. Jarius Wright has to know this himself unless he is the true idiot. Or maybe he's just delusional about his abilities. Maybe he's just gone full Bernard Berrian on us. When Berrian became a non-factor in the Vikings' offense, he took zero blame, and claimed he was open on every play. He acted totally perplexed about why he wasn't getting the ball despite being open. Jarius Wright is starting to sound as silly and arrogant as Bernard Berrian. And Berrian at least had some accomplishments on his resume before he began behaving like that. Wright has barely done anything. The truth of Jarius Wright is that he's a spare part player battling for one of the last roster spots, and he could easily be beaten out by any one of a number of receivers on the roster. If he doesn't realize that, and thinks he can just coast his way to a place on the 53 while sniping at the fans, then he'll be gone quick and it won't be much of a loss.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Leslie Frazier deserves a shout out for helping turn Everson Griffen around

Everson Griffen is getting a four-year extension worth a reported $34 million in guarantees (full details of the contract when disclosed will help us decide whether this is a good or bad deal for the Vikings). Whether or not you think Griffen is worth that kind of money, the fact is the Vikings see him as a core player, a solid veteran leader and someone who can help them pursue a Super Bowl title. Once upon a time, the odds seemed to be hugely against Griffen ever becoming the kind of player who would one day be thought of as a key piece to a championship-caliber defense. Once upon a time it seemed Griffen was headed straight for the shitpile.

Long before Griffen made headlines for his sacks or his contract signings (or his charitable work, or for being a team ambassador) he made very different headlines (via Shutdown Corner):

Minnesota Vikings rookie defensive end Everson Griffen had a very bad weekend. 
On Friday night, Griffen was arrested for being drunk in public, and then was released on Saturday morning, as reported by TMZ. Then, on Monday afternoon, he was arrested again after police pulled him over and found him with an invalid drivers license, and Griffen tried to flee on foot. That's when crotch-grabbing and Tasers came in to play. 
From the L.A. Times
Griffen then told [police] "he did not want to go back to jail" and sprinted away from the officers, who caught up with him after a short distance. 
When one of the officers tried to subdue Griffen, he allegedly grabbed the officer in the groin area, the source said. Moments later, officers used a Taser to subdue him, the source said. 
For those of you keeping track at home, that's an arrest, a release, another arrest, an attempt to flee, an alleged crotch assault on a police officer, and then, the coup de grĂ¢ce, the Taser.

I really hope Griffen had a great time between Friday and Monday. 
Griffen, after being drafted in the fourth round, played in 11 games for the Vikings last year, though he never started. He recorded 11 tackles and no sacks in his limited time, and police say he showed the speed of a man who could be chased down by a cop after only a short distance. 

Those kinds of headlines led to people like Mike Florio writing very unflattering things like this (via PFT):

Somehow, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen has made more news this week than he did in all 17 weeks of a lackluster rookie season, combined. 
Two arrests and a scuttled Super Bowl party later, there’s one last item worth mentioning. 
Though Griffen generally has blamed the decision on the NFL, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier tells Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he had a role cancellation of Griffen’s planned Super Bowl party. 
Asked if Frazier told Griffen not to have the party, Frazier said via text, “[S]omething like that.” 
Griffen told Fowler via text that it was “too big a risk” to have the party and that “I’m a football player.” 
Others around the league weren’t impressed by the move.  Said one league source via text, “This Griffen guy is a complete idiot. . . .  He turned a lot of people off in [pre-draft] interviews.   Will be out of NFL soon.” 
If that happens, at least he’ll be able to have Super Bowl parties.

Once a target of PFT snark, Griffen has evolved as a person and a player to become not only one of the NFL's better edge rushers but a genuinely respected veteran and a positive locker room presence and a solid representative of the Vikings brand overall. As you may have noted from the PFT piece quoted above, former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier played a big role in helping Griffen turn himself around by acting as a stabilizing, discipline-imposing force in his life. Griffen came to the Vikings with "character concerns" and early on it seemed those concerns were very warranted. After Griffen was arrested twice in three days in an incident that was splashed all over TMZ and other similar outlets, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he was going to wash out of the league and end up as another sad example of a talented player who lacked the maturity and self-discipline necessary to succeed in the grueling world of the NFL. But, thanks in large part to Frazier's intervention, Griffen put the brakes on his descent and turned himself around and started on the path back uphill to where he is today. And now he is one of the most solid Vikings, not just on the field but off. So solid that the team had no hesitation about giving him $34 million more in guaranteed money.

Leslie Frazier gets a lot of (warranted) hate from Vikings fans for the way things went down during his brief tenure as head coach but his legacy is not all negative. At least he left behind an improved, matured Everson Griffen. If Frazier was good at anything, it was playing father figure to guys like Griffen. Not all players benefitted from his camp counselor guidance (Chris Cook learned zilch, it seems) but a few who were willing to listen did get something positive out of their surrogate-dad-time with Frazier. His Tampa-2 defense may have been a ridiculously shreddable, antiquated joke and his roster management approach may have been at best eccentric - and don't even get me started with his droning, dull, cliche-ridden media engagement attempts - but Frazier was obviously great with players one-on-one. Partially thanks to Frazier, we get to read things like this about Everson Griffen instead of this. Frazier sucked hard as a head coach but at least his time with the Vikings resulted in something positive.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Anti-Bradford Bridgewater fans should declare themselves now

A weird thing is happening this year with Vikings fandom: a lot of supposed fans are rooting, mostly in secret, for the Vikes to fail. What kind of shit fan wants his team to play badly? This isn't one of those years where the Vikings are expected to be bad, so a case can be made that they should tank for a better draft pick. This year the team actually has a chance to be good and make the playoffs. So why are there fucktard fans pulling a Trump-voter move and rooting for things to happen that go against their own interests? What could make fans behave in such a butt-stupid way?

It's all about that guy Teddy Bridgewater. The Return of Teddy. The Great Teddy Narrative. It's simple: Only if the team fails early will Bridgewater get a chance to play. So there are Bridgewater fans, amazing as this seems, who want the Vikings to stumble out of the gate so Sam Bradford is yanked and Teddy Bridgewater, when he comes off the PUP list after game six (cause he's definitely going on the PUP list to start the season, union be damned), gets to save the day. Never mind that, if Bradford plays poorly early in the season, it greatly reduces the team's chances at making the playoffs. If the Vikings are cold early and Bridgewater comes in and heats them up, that just makes the whole Bridgewater To The Rescue scenario that much sweeter for these dimwitted shitbags!

I for one don't want such fans walking around out there thinking they can get away with this bullshit, so here's what I'm calling for: There should be a national registry for Viking fans who plan to root for Sam Bradford to fail. These virulently stupid Bridgewater Super-Boosters/Bradford Haters should have to declare themselves, using real names as well as online handles, so we can keep track of them. If you're a fan who wants the team to do poorly so the certain player you like gets a chance to play and make you feel smart for rooting for them, you are committing the sports fan version of treason and you deserve to be branded with a Scarlet Letter (I'd send you to Gitmo but alas I do not have that much power).

The team matters more than the individual players, always always always. That's the number one rule! Yes Teddy Bridgewater is a very likable young man, yes it's sad what happened to him and it would be great for him to make a comeback...and yes there are lots of stats, advanced and otherwise, that show he's a better quarterback than Sam Bradford (quote them ad nauseum on Twitter, droning repeaters of analytics you only half-understand). Guess what? None of that changes the fact that the smart play for the Vikings is to go into the season with Bradford as the starter and Bridgewater on PUP. Sorry if that puts a damper on your Teddy Lovefest plans. Perhaps you could console yourselves by not worrying about how the Teddy thing plays out - since all that shit is in God and Rick Spielman's hands now anyway - and just root hard for the team you say you love, even with dopey Sam Bradford at quarterback?

The suck part of this whole thing is Bridgewater being dragged into the middle of it. Teddy deserves better than to be associated with a cabal of stupid-asses who don't get what being a fan is all about! Smart fans, whatever you do, don't let the behavior of this small minority of slobbering morons sour you on Teddy Bridgewater. I hope Bridgewater has a great life. It sucks what happened to him. But when it comes to the team I only want what's best for the team and I don't see how Sam Bradford stinking the place up early serves the interests of the team. Help me out here!

If you're one of these treasonous ninnies who secretly will be hoping for Sam Bradford to throw picks, take sacks and generally look horrible this season so your guy Loveable Teddy gets a chance to "prove the doubters wrong" (so many doubters!), declare yourself now. Say in so many words "I want Sam Bradford to fail so my convoluted and totally unrealistic day-dream Bridgewater scenario can happen." Say "I want the Vikings to lose games even though I have the nerve to call myself a Vikings fan." Say "I hope Sam Bradford gets broken in half because Teddy Teddy Teddy." Ignorance such as yours should not be allowed to hide in the shadows. It should have to face up to the cold light of public scrutiny. Most importantly, you should not be allowed to come slinking back like the rats you are when/if the Vikings make a playoff run with Bradford at the helm and Bridgewater sitting on the bench. You should be scorned, ridiculed, stigmatized. Blocked on Twitter, for sure.