Friday, July 27, 2012

10 Players worth watching at Training Camp

Generally speaking, the big-name players tend to get the majority of the attention during training camp. Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Christain Ponder, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Antoine Winfield, et al. will attract the bulk of media coverage and autograph seekers alike. As well, draft picks like Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson and Greg Childs naturally command attention as their NFL careers are launched and the public gets its first look at the newest arrivals and what they may be able to contribute thenceforth.

But what about those players flying under the radar this training camp with a lot to prove and whose play could be pivotal to the Vikings chances this upcoming season. The following is a list of the top ten most interesting players to keep an eye on this training camp/preseason excluding the usual headliners:  

10.  Tyler Nielsen
Because of the success of players like John Randle, James Harrison and Wes Welker, the next great undrafted free agent is always worth keeping an eye out for. There's nothing more exciting for a team or its fanbase than discovering during the course of training camp/preseason that it may have found a "diamond in the rough," let alone possibly the next Victor Cruz. Might there possibly be any in Mankato this year for the Vikings? With holes aplenty on the roster one would think that there's a decent chance an undrafted player makes the team. If it was to be wagered upon, my bet would be on Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen. The Vikings linebacker corp appears less than tenable and lacks depth. Nielsen is tough, gritty and hardworking. He played through injury last season for the Hawkeyes and was a favorite of NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock. If nothing else, special team players are needed and Nielsen could flourish there while providing valuable depth at a position lacking it.  

9.  Charlie Johnson
We heard it throughout the offseason: That by drafting Matt Kalil the Vikings would be killing two birds with one stone on account that Johnson could be kicked over to the left guard position vacated by Steve Hutchinson. But is this as much of a slam dunk as we are lead to believe? Johnson has limited experience at guard, is a bit undersized for the position and his pass-blocking deficiencies can just as easily be exploited at guard as they were at tackle. The Vikings have depth along the offensive line now, so if Johnson has a second consecutive camp where he looks like he doesn't belong in the NFL it shouldn't take the Vikings long to revise their depth chart.   

8.  Nick "the Point Guard" Taylor
The Vikings signed Nick Taylor to a three-year contract. A onetime point guard on the Florida International University basketball team, Taylor burned up the track at 4.27 and 4.34 in the forty at FIU's pro day. The Vikings told Taylor up front he was a long shot to the make the team, but he will get a look at corner, punt returner, and possibly receiver. It will be interesting to see during the course of training camp whether he demonstrates more potential than Brock Lesnar did in 2004.   

7.  Letroy Guion
Over recent years, it can be arguably said that no team has emphasized stopping the run more than the Vikings—and for the most part of the last decade they were very good at it. Last year, though, the Vikings did not feel the need to bring Pat Williams back as a lane-clogging nose-tackle capable of keeping  blockers off the linebackers. The result was that opponents displayed an unprecedented ability to run the ball on them. The Vikings were confident entering the year that Letroy Guion was ready to take the proverbial "next step" and take over for Williams while providing more of a pass rush. But Guion's game actually regressed and the Vikings at times looked completely inept over the nose of the ball. The Vikings gave Guion a contract extension in the offseason expecting him once more to elevate his game and provide an active run-stuffing presence in the middle of their defense. If he cannot step it up the middle of the defense is bound to be exploited again.  

6.  Everson Griffen
The former USC defensive end came into the league with first-round talent, but off the field behavior and an inconsistent motor on it knocked him into the fourth-round where the Vikings decided to gamble on his potential. Ever since, they have searched for ways to get Griffen on the field including using him as a "gunner" on punt coverage last season. This year, the Vikings have announced that they intend to try him at linebacker. A 6'4", 273 lb. LB in a 4-3 defense? It should make for some interesting practices.  

5.  Joe Webb
Bottom line:  If Ponder's 2011 struggles carry over into this preseason, Webb is bound to become quite popular. What is more, it will be intriguing to see whether Webb continues to be featured in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's amateurish "Blazer Formation," even though Webb was about as effective running the Wildcat offshoot as Mark Sanchez was at playing receiver 

4.  Jasper Brinkley
He was annointed the starting MLB when the Vikiings chose not to extend E.J. Henderson nor pursue any of the legitimate "Mike" candidates during free agency (Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne). Two seasons ago, Brinkley struggled mightily in coverage and came off the field on passing downs. He missed the entire year last season to a hip injury. It was most peculiar that the Vikings made no apparent pursuit of an alternative knowing how pertinent a MLB is in a Cover-2 defense—even an up-and-coming Dan Connor, who signed for only $800,000 with Dallas, could have been an upgrade. Brinkley missed valuable practice reps at minicamp while still recovering from injury. The Vikings have played their best defense with strong play up the middle. How Brinkley performs at camp could be telling of how their defense will play this year.   

3.  Brandon Fusco
Since the Vikings drafted Fusco in 2011 he has been compared to former Viking standout Matt Birk, and not just because they were both selected in the sixth-round of the draft. With similar size and skill-sets, Fusco's reputation, though, leans more towards the "nasty" than Birk's finesse game. It is rumored that Fusco has put on in excess of twenty pounds of muscle since being drafted and the Vikings have intimated that he is the leading candidate to start at right guard. If Fusco's play can match his hype the Vikings might have one of the best young offensive lines in the league... and wouldn't that (finally) be something!  

2.  Blair Walsh
The kicking job is all his after the Vikings bid adieu to veteran placekicker Ryan Longwell in the offseason. It was obvious the Vikings wanted to get younger at the position and find someone with a big leg so to take advantage of the new kickoff rules favoring touchbacks over returns. But Walsh's senior year at Georgia was remarkably unimpressive as he converted only 21 of 35 field goal attempts. The Vikings having been on the wrong side of so many close games a year ago, not having a reliable kicker could offset any progress that they've made in other areas on the roster. If the Vikings are forced to bring in another kicker by the end of camp Rick Spielman is going to look rather foolish.   

1.  Chris Cook
It is remarkable to recall that he was the Vikings' first selection in the 2010 NFL draft. His rookie year was plagued by injury and erratic play; his second year was essentially wiped out by a paid leave of absence while awaiting conclusion of his domestic violence trial. Having survived that ordeal, the Vikings welcomed him back with open arms; believing, without a doubt, that an over-sized, athletic corner can pay dividends in a division with mammoth wideouts like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Brandon Marshall in it. Cook then suggested to the media that the leave of absence was probably for the best because — entering but his third season — he now feels "fresh" after missing last year. And what remains the utmost issue in all of this is that nobody knows whether or not Cook is any good. To think what the Vikings have already gone through with him, if they were to find out only now that he can't play... well, draw your own conclusions.  With that said, there is no player with more to prove to the team, his teammates, the fans, and to himself than Chris Cook.