Sunday, July 26, 2015

Day 1 Training Camp Notebook

The Vikings hit the field for their first practice of training camp, but what did the team look like on day one? Daniel House takes you inside his notebook for a closer look. 

Updated: July 26th, 2015 10:22pm

By: Daniel House

It was a warm day in Mankato, MN and the Vikings kicked off their 50th season of training camp on the campus of MSU-Mankato. There was plenty of shuffling around the depth chart and the players participated in many individualized drills for their position groups. Veterans definitely are getting the nod early in camp, but some younger players are already making their push to see extended playing time. It's day one and there is plenty of camp left, but there were many positives and negatives as the Vikings kicked off practices.

I'll tell you more as you take a step inside my training camp notebook:

Reserve quarterbacks are shaky 

Relax and take a deep breath -- Teddy Bridgewater isn't shaky. Bridgewater has so much confidence within this offensive system. You can see he developed a relationship with his wide receivers this off-season. His passes are crisp and I only witnessed three or four poor throws during any portion of practice. However, the reserves behind him weren't able to say the same in their first practice of training camp. The Vikings signed Shaun Hill in free agency to be the backup for Bridgewater. Hill might need to get on the same page with his new pass catchers, but today certainly wasn't his best day at the office. He underthrew several throws and launched a few over the heads of receivers. The same was the case for young newcomers Taylor Heinicke and Mike Kafka. Neither player looked comfortable throwing the ball into tight coverage during 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 passing situations.

Peterson gets a rave welcome

Adrian Peterson practiced in front of the fans for the first time since his suspension took him off the playing field. He entered practice to a loud ovation and acknowledgment from the Vikings fans in attendance. Peterson enters camp looking fresh from a year-long hiatus away from football. On several occasions, Peterson looked so excited to run the ball, he was sprinting into the backside of his offensive lineman. It appeared he might have been more comfortable catching passes out of the backfield. On several check-downs, he hauled in passes in the flat and looked impressive in space. His most impressive play came during a 15-yard reception in the seam over linebacker Brian Peters.

Talent log-jam at wide receiver

The wide receiver position is full of talent and the coaches have to be pleased with the production they witnessed on the first day. Mike Wallace is a hard worker on the practice field and he continually flashed his ability to be a vertical threat for this team. He scooped up some low throws and made tough adjustment catches in traffic. Not to mention, he flashed his straight-line speed in the second level of the defense. He certainly is setting the tone for the younger wide receivers and is being a positive leader for the other players on the roster. Rookie Stefon Diggs looked impressive and smooth as a route runner today. He can plant his feet and make a smooth cut in front of the defensive back. After hauling in the pass, he has the speed to make big plays in the offense. I want to see Diggs handle physical contact at the line of scrimmage, but the early indications are better than I expected. Nonetheless, his performance and fluidity were on full display today. Charles Johnson had some early jitters and dropped several passes in drills. He still managed to get open and gain the separation we are accustomed to from games last year. Finally, Cordarrelle Patterson is the player many fans are hoping can rebound from a disappointing sophomore slump. Patterson looked more comfortable as a route runner and added some tough contested catches in 11-on-11 drills. If he can handle the load of the playbook and the in-game defensive alignments, the rebound will be better than you may expect.

Pruitt is a 'diamond in the rough'

On draft day, Norv Turner pounded his fist on the table for the team to select tight end MyCole Pruitt. In due time, that might just become the "fist pound heard 'round the world." The coaches continually praised the rookie tight end in OTA's and it's easy to see why. Pruitt is a smooth route runner who has excellent hands for a player with his large frame. In 1-on-1 drills against the linebackers, Pruitt consistently had yards of separation from the opposing defensive player. His technique and crisp footwork were very unexpected for this early in training camp. If given the opportunity, Pruitt could be a 'diamond in the rough' in Norv Turner's offense.

Offensive Line work preaches technique

Early in the individual work, offensive line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley spent an extended amount of time working on fundamentals and technique with the offensive lineman. Hand placement and maintaining initiation were two points of emphasis during this session. Mike Harris saw all the reps at right guard, while Brandon Fusco worked at left guard. You can see the coaches are letting the rookies prove themselves early in training camp. Tyrus Thompson was working with the second team at right guard, while T.J. Clemmings was the backup right tackle. During his presser today, Mike Zimmer said Clemmings will be kept at tackle for now. That means unless Thompson dazzles when the pads come on, Mike Harris is likely going to be the starting right guard. It's very tough to analyze offensive and defensive lineman without pads and plenty will change on this depth chart over the next two weeks.

Hunter has a burst, Crichton looks stronger

The defensive line didn't get the chance to rush the passer as hard without pads on, but there were a few evaluations from this group. Danielle Hunter is extremely quick and athletic coming off edge. He was in the backfield and at the quarterback's face on multiple occasions. However, he was matching up in front of Polish sensation Babatunde Aiyegbusi today. This isn't an accurate barometer as Aiyegbusi was beaten three times -- two of which came from Hunter. When the pads come on and 1-on-1 drills take place, Hunter will rotate against better offensive lineman in drills. Scott Crichton handled offensive lineman better than last year and looked stronger from a physical standpoint. He wasn't getting pushed around at the point of attack and actually played aggressive off the edge.

Kendricks is a coverage warrior, Cole gets MLB reps

In a drill that involved linebackers covering running backs and tight ends 1-on-1, Eric Kendricks showed everyone he is truly the talented coverage linebacker many believed he would be. During the two times he ran the drill, Kendricks beautifully defensed both passes with ease. At first, it appeared he was taking a gamble, but he perfectly measured where the pass would be thrown. It seems like only a matter of time before he starts seeing snaps with the first-team. In fact, he started mixing in with Chad Greenway in the nickel packages towards the end of afternoon practice. Today, Audie Cole took all of the first team middle linebacker reps in the 4-3 base package with Chad Greenway and Gerald Hodges playing alongside of him. After recovering from a knee injury, Anthony Barr is being eased back into practicing to regain his conditioning. During the walkthrough he saw starting reps in Hodges' place. Nonetheless, the rotation at linebacker is far from set at this stage of training camp. Kendricks will challenge Audie Cole every day in practice and the preseason. The key will be whether Kendricks can run defend well. Again, that can't be evaluated until pads come on this week, but the rookie is sure making a positive impression early in training camp.

Rhodes has the cornerback 'swagger', Zimmer taking Waynes under his wing

All elite level cornerbacks have a certain level of 'swagger' that is a signature part of their game.  Xavier Rhodes is starting to develop some of that for himself. Today, he had 100% confidence on the field and dared quarterbacks to throw his direction. Last year, he was being coached in a new system, which left him tentative and nervous to make a mistake. There was no point during either session where Rhodes didn't get the job done. He broke up a pass intended for Mike Wallace and added an excellent pass breakup in the 1-on-1 drills. Rhodes is at ease in this system and he hasn't even pressed at the line of scrimmage yet. In fact, all the cornerbacks will benefit from playing the physical man-on-man coverage later in the week. Rookie Trae Waynes was being coached hard by Mike Zimmer during portions of today's practice. It was very similar to the type of instruction Zimmer provided to Xavier Rhodes last season. The main areas of focus were in footwork and technique, which are pivotal foundations of being a defensive back in this system. At this point, Terence Newman is going to see all of the first-team reps and will start in the games until Waynes feels comfortable in the system.

Blanton gets the early first-team looks

It was expected that Robert Blanton would enter camp as the top safety on the depth chart. He saw all the first-team reps at strong safety and there was no rotation at the position. Blanton had one pass breakup and was beaten just once over the top in 11-on-11 drills. There wasn't much activity in the backend today and we will see more deep vertical routes over the coming days. However, Antone Exum Jr. did enter the practice with the second-team and blitzed off the edge. He reached the outside edge of the pocket and deflected Shaun Hill's pass at the line of scrimmage. The battle will continue to brew at strong safety, but Robert Blanton saw all the first-team reps today.

Loeffler and McDermott slug it out

Cullen Loeffler and Kevin McDermott will be slugging it out for the starting long snapper spot. Today, the full punt team didn't do any live work and the drills were very individualized. However, the ball was snapped with Loeffler and McDermott sharing reps at a near 50/50 split. It was difficult to see how well the snaps were being delivered without a rush or live full-team speed. Tomorrow will likely be a kickoff/kick return day, but Tuesday will provide better performance clarity.

Could the coaches 'dig' a new punt returner?

Marcus Sherels is a pesky man and he always seems to be the cat that has nine lives. Odds are always stacked against him and he prevails. Today, he was sharing punt return reps with rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the final portion of punt return drills. Diggs is quick, natural, and comfortable as a punt returner. The same can be said with Sherels, but it could come down to which player provides more value at their natural position. Reps will be divided as camp progresses, but it appears a battle may be on the horizon.

Walsh signs an extension

Between the practice sessions, the Vikings announced kicker Blair Walsh signed a 4-year extension to remain in Minnesota. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, his contract is worth up to $14 million, including $5.25 million guaranteed.

Injury Report

The Vikings placed Casey Matthews on IR with a hip injury, Shamar Stephen (knee) and Davaris Daniels were added to the NFI List, and Josh Robinson (pectoral muscle) was put on PUP.

What's Next? 

Tomorrow the team has a walkthrough from 10:30am-11:30am, followed by an afternoon practice (shells) from 2:45pm-5:00pm.

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