Daniel House analyzes the final preseason game, which was a key night for several 'fringe' players searching for a spot on the 53-man roster. Marcus Sherels provided an energy injection as the Vikings defeated the Titans 24-23 on Thursday evening.
Cassel improves, MBT solidifies
Christian Ponder took the evening off in preparation for the Vikings regular season opener vs. the Detroit Lions on September 8th. This gave backup quarterback Matt Cassel a chance to redeem himself after a less than impressive preseason. Cassel entered for a short stint to start the game and was a perfect 3 for 3 for 48 yards passing. He made a great back shoulder throw to Rodney Smith on a vertical fade. In addition, he added a brilliant pass in the seam to a dragging John Carlson. He made the throws necessary to lead the Vikings to a redzone trip and a Matt Asiata 1-yard touchdown run.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson entered for nearly the entire duration of the game after the short playing time for Matt Cassel. Despite making two or three poor decisions, he managed to play rather well. He had several opportunities to pull down and run the ball, but instead he threaded the needle and was intercepted on one occasion by Titans cornerback, Al Afalava. He managed to finish the evening 19 of 26 for 187 yards, while adding a touchdown and an interception. He solidified himself as a definite option for the Vikings as a third backup quarterback and more importantly is a great developmental piece for this organization.
Asiata impresses, Banyard 'dazzles'
Matt Asiata has had his moments during his preseason campaign this season, some impressive, others less than desirable. Tonight, he showcased a fierce downhill running style, combated with speed and agility that you don't see everyday from a 6 foot 235 pound running back. He finished the final preseason game with a great performance in which he recorded 8 carries for 32 yards and a touchdown. With his problems in pass protection, I have major concerns about his reliability as a third running back. I believe the Vikings were showcasing Asiata for a potential trade in which they could pick up compensation at a position of need.
Joe Banyard provided a skill-set that really intrigues me, especially from a third-down running back standpoint. He not only rushed for 68 yards on 13 carries, but he added 54 yards in the passing game on 7 targets, along with a touchdown. The Vikings have been very successful in the past when they have had running backs with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. For example, Chester Taylor played a pivotal role in third down situations as a pass catcher who extended drives in 2009. I'm not saying Banyard could play as big of a part as Taylor once did, but they definitely have a similar style.
Webb average, Smith emerges, Burton a "lock"
Joe Webb continues to frustrate me, especially based on the way he has played this preseason. Aside from a fade touchdown in the San Francisco game, Webb has been very non-descript. He finished Thursday evening's game with 5 receptions for 38 yards. He recorded one very bad drop on what should have been an easy reception. I hate the thought of Webb taking up a roster spot for a young promising player who could contribute this season. That's why in my latest 53-man roster projection which will be released today, Webb is off the list.
Rodney Smith has slowly been progressing as a developmental project within the Vikings wide receiving corps. In training camp, I expressed my displeasure with his inability to make easy catches during practice. This trend continues into game action, but the interesting fact is he can make extremely difficult catches that require precise body control. I don't see him charging onto the Vikings roster unless the personnel directors believe they will be unable to slide him onto the practice squad. I love his stature and the potential that surrounds a player like Smith, but I don't think he is quite ready for the 53-man roster.
Stephen Burton saw action on the field, but only recorded one reception on two targets, for 14 yards. This tells me the Vikings have a good comfort level from Burton and that he appears to be a "lock" for the active 53-man roster. Given his spectacular training camp and decent preseason, the Vikings have been impressed with the strides Burton has made in the offseason.
Offensive line reserves improve
This area still provides one of my biggest question marks entering regular season play. The Vikings second and third tier offensive lineman have played terrible at times, but looked much improved in Thursday's game vs. the Titans. Remember, they were facing off against fringe players who won't even be in the league come Saturday, but any sign of improvement is encouraging. The area I have the toughest time projecting is among the backup offensive tackles. I have never liked the potential from Kevin Murphy, but he continues to emerge each season with this team. The organization brought in Brandon Keith from the Cardinals and he has done little to prove he is the answer. Neither has emerged and this area could be one group the Vikings look to improve when other teams cut offensive lineman.
On the bright side, I really liked the way Jeff Baca played in last night's contest. He did great things in run blocking and pass protection. He was especially impressive in gaining leverage and in his footwork. Coach Frazier even referenced his play when he talked after the game saying he was one player he stood out in his mind.
Baca will be a rotational player that can provide stability if an injury occurs among the normal grouping of offensive lineman.
Carlson again a pivotal key
John Carlson saw time at the start of the game and it didn't take long for Matt Cassel to target him for a big gain. He ran a beautiful drag route and made a great catch in open space, corralling a 19-yard reception. We continually have witnessed Carlson utilized as a pass catcher in the offense, which bodes well for the Vikings offensive scheme.
Baker makes a strong case
Chase Baker hasn't been a face that most Vikings fans could recognize on the field, but he has made a strong case for a roster spot, amidst injuries on the defensive line. He was placed on the Vikings practice squad last season and has been a developmental piece since he was signed as a undrafted rookie out of Boise State. Last night, he displayed a strong motor and recorded 4 solo tackles, en route to an excellent performance. With experience in the scheme, the Vikings can feel comfortable with Baker filling a backup roster spot until Kevin Williams returns from his knee injury.
Bishop proves he should start, Mauti secures spot
Desmond Bishop saw time in the first quarter of Thursday night's game vs. the Titans and made his presence known from the moment he set foot on the field. After recording two huge plays in gap containment, resulting in two tackles for loss, Bishop solidified his case to start in the base defense for this team. Given he has stayed healthy so far and made an impact in a limited setting, the Vikings may have snatched a 'steal' from the rival Green Bay Packers.
Michael Mauti has proven himself as a prominent run defender, but mainly could use work from a coverage standpoint. With development, Mauti could find himself as the linebacker of the future for the Vikings. The team must make a decision about how they can keep linebacker Audie Cole, or whether they will part ways with him. Cole has been the better player in pass coverage, but Mauti has solidified himself as a run defender. Ultimately, the coaching staff will have the toughest decision at this position while making roster cuts.
Sherels battles, Felder stagnant
Marcus Sherels is a brilliant story of how a walk on talent can defy odds through hard work. His father passed away a few weeks ago, which caused him to miss the pivotal third preseason game. The coaching staff assured Sherels leaving to be with his family wouldn't effect his chance to make the 53-man roster.
Sherels' performance in last night's game provided more stability to his status on the roster, along with the coaching staff's beliefs. He returned a 109-yard kickoff return to start the second half, along with an interception to add to his resume. Despite the concerns of his ability in coverage, the coaching staff loves the play-making ability Sherels can provide for this team from a special teams standpoint.
Bobby Felder has been contesting Sherels for the punt returning job, but after an ankle injury to Felder late in the game, he was never awarded a chance to return a punt. He was less than desirable in coverage and was burned on two occasions vertically. Although I believe Sherels and Felder are similar in coverage skills, only one of them will make this 53-man roster. The only player that could result in both of them finding a spot on the roster, is at the expense of a player like Brandon Burton. Burton has failed to prove he is developing in his third year in a Vikings uniform. If the team feels they have more developmental options with Felder, they may consider parting ways with Burton during roster cuts.
Blanton secures spot
Robert Blanton is a developmental piece, which means he will be a work in progress until he develops more tangibles in this league. He was burned in coverage on two occasions last night, but made several beautiful plays in run support. He had the opportunity to intercept a pass on a poorly thrown ball, but mistimed his jump, causing an incompletion. Through more development, I believe Blanton could develop into a great safety in this league.
Loeffler snaps low
Last night, long snapper Cullen Loefller struggled on two occasions to snap the ball. He was low on both and caused Blair Walsh and company to miss an uncharacteristic 42-yard field goal. The second low snap was recovered well by Jeff Locke and resulted in a 25-yard game cinching field goal. Loeffler needed to be the leader of this group and at this time he is causing a bump in the continuity of Walsh and Locke.
Final Thoughts: The preseason has concluded and the Vikings finished with the same 1-3 record during the exhibition campaign, as they did last year. The first team offense caused some concern, especially among the offensive line and with Christian Ponder at quarterback. With developed schemes and more game-planning, the hope is these problems will be resolved. Many second and third tier players have stepped up and caused coaches to make difficult decisions when roster cuts take place over the next two days. Stay tuned for the latest as roster cuts are made and the 53-man roster is formulated.