Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Vikings Hottest Roster Battles

Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The Vikings have built their roster with a solid core of young players at every position group. When that happens, it means the roster can become very constricted as the coaches formulate the final 53-man roster. Daniel House ushers in the summer heat as he previews the hottest roster battles among the Vikings roster. 

Updated: May 26th, 2016 11:35am

By: Daniel House

The Vikings have built their roster with a solid core of young players at every position group. When that happens, it means the roster can become very constricted as the coaches formulate the final 53-man roster. This year, there are six position groups that will have some difficult battles. The outcome of one or two of these roster decisions could have major implications on the entire construction of the roster. It is only OTAs, but I have found several position groups that I'll be monitoring from now until the final 53-man roster is released in early September.

Over 5,000 Pounds of Competition

I've already written about the difference in coaching styles that values competition over continuity. With that being said, the battle for a spot on the offensive line will be challenging for the current crop of players. The Vikings have about 14 players that could vie for eight or nine roster spots. There is other talent at skill positions, which might mean the Vikings need to keep only eight offensive lineman. The team has invested money into the offensive line this offseason by signing Alex Boone and Andre Smith to free agent contracts. Additionally, they added Willie Beavers in the draft and in the middle of 2015 acquired both Jeremiah Sirles and Nick Easton via trade. However, there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding this position group. John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt are returning from major injuries and Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco will be trying to rebound from poor 2015 campaigns. OTAs are underway and the Vikings currently have a first-team lineup of Jeremiah Sirles (LT), Alex Boone (LG), Joe Berger (C), Brandon Fusco (RG), and Phil Loadholt (RT). Matt Kalil was in uniform but didn't practice, according to reports. There will be a plethora of battles taking place between now and the first regular season game in Tennessee. Expect the Vikings to mix the offensive line with various combinations that can put together the best grouping. If I had to predict (way too early) I would say at least one surprise cut will take place among the offensive line. Matt Kalil or Phil Loadholt are two training camp cuts that wouldn't shock me. The Vikings drafted Willie Beavers for a reason, but I think they'll try to slide him onto the practice squad. The final spot could easily come down to T.J. Clemmings, Jeremiah Sirles, and Austin Shepherd. One of those players will likely need to be released to narrow the group down to nine players.

If I prematurely speculated the nine players I see on the roster in week one, I would choose this mix:

Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Austin Shepherd, Brandon Fusco, John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Alex Boone, Mike Harris, Jeremiah Sirles

Starting Lineup: LT- Kalil, LG- Boone, C- Sullivan, RG- Fusco, RT- Smith

"Finden Sie mir einen Platz"

The wide receiver room seems pretty jammed, but I'm not sure it's as packed as everyone makes it out to be. Stefon Diggs is the main target in the room, but the addition of Laquon Treadwell allows Teddy Bridgwater to sling the ball around. Treadwell is excellent at intermediate routes; specifically slants. He'll win the contested catch battles and will be a significant upgrade in the red zone. Aside from those two, Jarius Wright is a big threat on crossing routes and proved he knows how to get open consistently. Not to mention, Charles Johnson will be at 100% after playing the vast majority of the 2015 season with a debilitating rib injury. He'll provide the wide receiving corps with another vertical weapon they didn't have last season. Finally, Adam Thielen is such a valuable asset on all of the special teams units and was very serviceable in the passing game as well. I don't see any of those players I just discussed not making this team. The real battle will take place between Cordarrelle Patterson and German sensation Moritz Boehringer for the sixth spot. From what I have heard, Patterson is much improved and really focused on improving his football IQ and route running skills this offseason. Boehringer has a very difficult road to the roster, but it's not to say it can't be done. He'll need to prove he can handle the physical cornerbacks and the speed of the game. It seems more logical to stash Boehringer on the practice squad to give him a year of adjustment time. Training camp and the preseason will be huge for two players like Boehringer and Patterson who need to prove they are worthy of a roster spot.

Hinging on the Patellar

The Vikings drafted a jack-of-all-trades by adding David Morgan in the sixth round. He can line up across the field in a variety of ways and was one of the best run blocking tight ends in college football last year. With Rhett Ellison recovering from a major patellar tendon tear, his status is very uncertain for the 2015 season. Morgan can do everything Rhett Ellison would be asked to do in this offense. I wouldn't be surprised if Ellison was placed on the PUP list for the first six weeks of the season and the Vikings kept Kyle Rudolph, MyCole Pruitt, and David Morgan. Aside from Rudolph, it would be a very young tight end group. However, Pruitt could be the bigger threat in the passing game, while Morgan handles the versatile 'dirty work.' The roster decisions at tight end will be heavily impacted by the health and longevity of veteran Rhett Ellison.

Move Over, Greenway

It seems like eons ago that the linebacker room was actually one of the deeper position groups on the Vikings' roster. Now it feels like veteran Chad Greenway needs to take another step forward into the room as it starts to fill up. Valuing the position over the last few seasons by adding Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks proved to be two excellent decisions. They are both so skilled and can be used in many different ways to garner all of their athleticism. Chad Greenway is back for his final season in purple and will be one of the vocal leaders of this team. The front office added two free agents in Travis Lewis and Emmanuel Lamur. Lewis was a spot-starter for the Detroit Lions over his first four seasons in the league. He'll be battling for one of the final roster spots with veteran Audie Cole and 2014 draft pick, Brandon Watts. Emmanuel Lamur has experience in Mike Zimmer's defense as he spent time with him in Cincinnati. Lamur provides excellent length and system knowledge to this linebacker room. Additionally, Edmond Robinson was selected in the 2015 draft and his blend of athleticism/size have really impressed the coaching staff. Finally, the Vikings drafted a tackling machine by adding Kentrell Brothers in the fifth round. He led the SEC in tackles and is well-known as a playmaker. He could challenge for some snaps as the Vikings' middle linebacker in the base 4-3 defense. As I noted earlier, the seventh and final roster spot will likely come down to three players. Audie Cole missed most of the 2015 season with an injury, but was well-liked for his solid tackling and playmaking ability. Travis Lewis has proven himself as a spot-starter in the past and Brandon Watts had durability issues in two short seasons with the Vikings. With other crowded areas on the Vikings' roster, it wouldn't be surprising to see the the team keep only six linebackers and cut the three players I discussed above.

Get in the box, Harry

It's pretty evident the Vikings wanted to improve the strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith. They signed Michael Griffin in free agency and drafted 6'4" safety Jayron Kearse. Andrew Sendejo was re-signed to a contract, despite his less than stellar performance in 2015. Nonetheless, he is a solid special teams contributor and serviceable depth option. Antone Exum was out of position and really struggled in several spot starts last year. I was most impressed with Anthony Harris last year. He started the Arizona Cardinals game when injuries plagued the backend of the Vikings defense. Harris was solid in both coverage and run support, but made a few mental mistakes. I think with some more work he can be the type of safety the coaches are looking for alongside Harrison Smith. Jayron Kearse has length, but his frame is quite slender for a safety. It almost looks odd to see him in the backend of the defense. I'm most interested to see how he handles contact and tackling in the preseason. He has excellent range and average coverage skills, but I want to see how he can tackle in space. I was of the opinion Michael Griffin was brought in as an insurance policy in the event none of the younger guys are legitimate options. Nothing has changed my stance about that. He has experience and ability, but if a younger player performs better, the coaches won't waste a roster spot on a veteran like Griffin who is on the tail end of his career.

Wait, will Sherels make the team????

Somehow the Vikings added Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander in the second round of the draft. His superior skills and strong work ethic are a perfect fit for Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme and philosophy. Alexander might see more reps than any of us first anticipated. On tape, he looks more skilled coming into Minnesota than Trae Waynes. However, I do feel Waynes has progressed nicely and could start opposite of Xavier Rhodes this year. Captain Munnerlyn is entering the final year of his contract and Alexander would perfectly slide into the starting nickel cornerback role in 2017. Terence Newman is back as a veteran presence and may start again if Trae Waynes needs more time to progress into a starter. I'm confident that the coaches are in no hurry to rush Waynes into a starting role if he isn't ready. Finally, it's time to field the 1,000,000 questions about whether Marcus Sherels will make the roster. The premature answer from me is: yes. He is one of the most sure-handed returners in the league and his ability to be a leader on special teams are too valuable to part ways with. However, if there was a year I could see him heading out, this would be the one. The coaches really like Jabari Price and I do too. He is a really good fit for the scheme and leaves the Vikings with more depth at the cornerback position. Keeping six cornerbacks means it will come down to Price or Sherels for the final spot. If that's the case, will the coaches value Price's contributions at cornerback or Marcus Sherels' versatility on special teams? Sherels isn't the better cornerback, but special teams contributions play a huge role in the construction of the roster, particularly when you are deciding between two players.

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