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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: Vikings

Peterson Reuters

The Vikings start the 2013 season smack in the middle of the pack.  They likely won’t finish there.

The unlikely 2012 wild-card team will get either a lot better with the development of a strong passing game, or a lot worse without it.

And so the focal point of the entire franchise becomes the man who is the most important player on every NFL team:  the quarterback.

The Vikings will go as far as Christian Ponder will take them.  And before we go much farther with that point, let’s defer to the various categories we use for every team.

Strengths.

The Vikings’ biggest strength comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP.  If Peterson, who came within nine yards of the single-season rushing record despite tearing an ACL on Christmas Eve of 2011, runs in 2013 like he ran during the second half of 2012, he could put up 2,500 yards or more.

Helping him try again to topple Eric Dickerson’s record is an offensive line that returns all five starters, even though questions swirl around John Sullivan’s knee, which required microfracture surgery to simulate cartilage growth.  They stepped up to pay right tackle Phil Loadholt, and Matt Kalil had a solid rookie season at left tackle.

Elsewhere on offense, the tight end position features tight end Kyle Rudolph and fullback Jerome Felton.  Both made it to the Pro Bowl; Rudolph was the game’s MVP.

The defensive line continues to be a strong suit for the Vikings, but the winds of change are blowing like that big horn that blares whenever a touchdown is scored.  Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams enter contract years.  The Vikings need rookie Sharrif Floyd to make a quick impact, and they need guys like Brian Robison and Everson Griffen to show that they can get it done if/when Allen is elsewhere in 2014.

The safety position went quickly from perennial weakness to strength with the arrival in 2012 of Harrison Smith.  If he can continue to develop, the Vikings could soon have one of the strongest last lines of defense in the league.

The Vikings have one of the best kickers in the league in 2012 rookie Blair Walsh, and they could have one of the best punters in 2013 rookie Jeff Locke, who was deemed to be good enough after one minicamp to justify jettisoning veteran Chris Kluwe.

Weaknesses.

The Vikings’ biggest weakness, like their biggest strength, comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP.  Similar to the pre-Favre years, the Vikings have been unable to take advantage of the attention paid to Peterson with a passing game that stretches the field, in turn making it easier for Peterson to pile up even more yards.

Despite all the bouquets being thrown to third-year quarterback Christian Ponder, he enters a distinct “prove it or lose it” campaign in Minnesota.  And the verdict could come even before the end of the coming season.  If Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, stinks it up badly enough, Matt Cassel could get a chance to resurrect his own once-promising career.

It’s hard to label the receiver position as a strength or a weakness in isolation, but it doesn’t matter.  Together with Ponder, the unit will be viewed as a weakness until they prove otherwise, with Ponder reaching his potential, free-agent Greg Jennings staying healthy and playing effectively, raw rookie Cordarrelle Patterson making an impact more like Randy Moss and less like Troy Williamson, and veteran Jerome Simpson living up to the hype that made him a free-agent arrival in 2012.

On defense, middle linebacker isn’t a weakness as much as it’s unsettled, with Erin Henderson sliding in from the outside and newcomer Desmond Bishop hoping to get healthy and reacquainted with the 4-3 defense.

The cornerback position also has question marks with the departure of Antoine Winfield, but first-round rookie Xavier Rhodes bolsters a group that features quietly improving former second-rounder Chris Cook.

Changes.

The release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield could be the first gust that will impact the defense in the coming years, with standouts like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams likely making way for cheaper, younger players.  Two of those guys came via round one, with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes joining a gradually improving defense.

With Jasper Brinkley gone for Arizona, the middle linebacker spot is wide open.  Former Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop joins Erin Henderson as the primary candidates to fill the void.

On offense, two new receivers — veteran Greg Jennings and first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson — make it harder for Christian Ponder to cite a lack of weapons if the passing game doesn’t improve.  They replace Percy Harvin, who was shipped to Seattle for more than the Vikings, who made their playoff push without him in 2012, should have gotten.

Finally, one of the most intriguing players on the roster isn’t a new arrival, but he has a new position.  Three years after switching Joe Webb from receiver to quarterback after his rookie minicamp, Webb has returned to the receiver position, where he’ll have to win a roster spot any way he can.

Position battles.

On offense, many of the jobs are set.  Christian Ponder enters the season as the unquestioned starter; questions will arise only if he stinks it up.

The depth chart at receiver starts with Greg Jennings and continues with a cluster of guys who’ll earn their playing time during training camp and the preseason.  Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jarius Wright will battle for playing time.

The biggest question comes at the bottom of the depth chart, where converted quarterback Joe Webb will have to earn his roster spot.  If he can contribute on special teams (he could be returning punts), it’ll help his cause.

First-round rookie Sharrif Floyd will have a chance to take reps from last year’s starters at defensive tackle, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion, even if Floyd doesn’t get a starting job himself.  Generally speaking, the rotation on the defensive line needs to be determined, with the Vikings hoping to get defensive end Everson Griffen on the field.

At linebacker, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop will battle both in the middle and elsewhere, since the guy who loses out on the chance to replace Jasper Brinkley could end up starting on the strong side, across from Chad Greenway.  Don’t rule out Gerald Hodges for some playing time, since he had a very strong offseason.

In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson will fight for a starting spot across from Chris Cook.  A.J. Jefferson could have a chance, too. Robinson also will battle Jacob Lacey for the nickel position.

At safety, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, and Robert Blanton will compete to start alongside Harrison Smith.

Prospects.

The Vikings won three games in 2011 before rebounding in unexpected fashion with a playoff berth in 2012.  The team currently lands somewhere in the middle, and it will skew toward good or bad based on Christian Ponder’s ability to develop into a consistent starting quarterback.

At a time when parity has allowed any team to get to the playoffs, only teams with franchise quarterbacks win Super Bowls.  Still, the Vikings have the ability if Ponder is merely competent to become an elite team, thanks to the skills and abilities of Adrian Peterson, an underrated defense, and a young kicker and punter who can contribute three-pointers and field position.

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Darrell Bevell: Robert Turbin “understands his role”

Robert Turbin AP

Some teams use a running back-by-committee approach.

The Seahawks are not one of those teams.

Marshawn Lynch, of course, will get the vast majority of backfield snaps for Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, and with good reason.

But even a back at the top of his game like Lynch needs a rest once in a while. And when that happens, the Seahawks turn to third-year pro Robert Turbin, who has carved a niche as the backup to Lynch.

The 25-year-old Turbin has been solid in limited opportunities for Seattle, gaining a little more than four yards per carry in 2014 in 83 rushing attempts over the regular season and postseason. He’s never missed a regular season or playoff game, and he’s lost just two fumbles in more than 300 touches on offense in that span.

At Wednesday’s media session, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell praised Turbin’s approach to the game.

“He does a great job. Number one, he understands his role and he embraces that role,” Bevell said, according to a transcript from the NFL. “He doesn’t gripe and complain about the role he is in. He is very prepared. If something happened and he had to play every snap, there would be no question that he would be able to get it done.

“He is a true professional who works hard at his craft. He tries to get better every day. No detail is too small for him. That is why you like guys like that in that role.”

Turbin’s role Sunday figures to be limited — around 10 snaps. But he’s earned that work, and he’s kept it for three seasons now. In a backfield where the starter dominates the carries, Turbin has nonetheless found a way to contribute.

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Pats could get Stork back for Super Bowl

Brady AP

The Patriots won the AFC title without the services of center Bryan Stork, who has a knee problem.  Injured in the divisional round against the Ravens, Stork could be back for Super Bowl XLIX.

According to the official injury report for Wednesday, Stork practiced on a limited basis.  Also practicing on a limited basis on Wednesday were linebacker Dont’a Hightower (shoulder), defensive tackle Chris Jones (elbow), and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (foot).

Quarterback Tom Brady fully participated despite a lingering ankle issue.  His cold apparently isn’t severe enough to merit a mention in the injury report.

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Tyrann Mathieu shares secrets on how to stop Odell Beckham Jr.

Beckham Getty Images

Wednesday’s star-studded edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN included an LSU mini-reunion.  Former Tigers Odell Beckham Jr. (now with the Giants) and Tyrann Mathieu (now with the Cardinals) joined the program to discuss, among other things, how to slow down Beckham.

Mathieu told Paul Burmeister the best way to do it is with a quick jam at the line of scrimmage.

“I think somebody in his face the entire game, it’ll probably give him some trouble,” Mathieu said.

Beckham agreed:  “It’s true, it’s true,” he said.

“That’s probably one of the things that I want to work on the most is just that press game.  I feel like if you can get that first five yards down, I feel very comfortable about the rest of my game,” Beckham said.

Mathieu then got a chance (sort of) to demonstrate when Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed up to throw a pass to Beckham.  To see the whole exchange, click below.

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Broncos hiring Joe Woods as defensive backs coach

Houston Texans v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

The Broncos have added an experienced defensive backs coach to their staff.

Joe Woods, who oversaw the Raiders’ secondary in 2014, has agreed to become Denver’s defensive backs coach, the team said Wednesday night.

The 44-year-old Woods has worked with NFL defensive backs the last 11 seasons. Before his season with Oakland, he had stints with Minnesota (2006-2013) and Tampa Bay (2004-2005).

The news of Woods’ addition comes on the same evening Denver reached a deal with Wade Phillips to become defensive coordinator.

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Seahawks head toward Super Bowl with minimal injuries

Marshawn AP

On Friday, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll declared the shoulder injury to safety Earl Thomas to be “over.”  Technically, it isn’t.  As a practical matter, it is.

Thomas fully participated in the team’s “Competition Wednesday” practice session despite the shoulder injury.  Ditto for tackle Justin Britt (knee), running back Marshawn Lynch (back; pictured), cornerback Richard Sherman (elbow), and guard J.R. Sweezy (ankle).

No injured players practiced on a limited basis or not at all.

The Seahawks will place an official availability label on each player after Friday’s practice.  Barring a setback, it’s hard to imagine any of them to be less than probable.

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Broncos hiring Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator

Wade Phillips AP

Wade Phillips is back for a second tour with the Broncos.

Phillips has agreed to become Denver’s defensive coordinator, the team announced Wednesday night.

Phillips, 67, was the Texans’ defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2013, working with head coach Gary Kubiak, with whom he will team again in Denver.

Phillips’ hiring could signal changes ahead for the Broncos’ defense. A move to a 3-4 scheme is likely; the club employed a “40” front a season ago.

Phillips was the Broncos’ head coach from 1993 through 1994 after a four-season stint as their defensive coordinator (1989-1992). This is his eighth stint as an NFL defensive coordinator. In addition to his prior work in Denver and Houston, he oversaw defenses in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Atlanta and San Diego.

Phillips also has a solid resume as a head coach, posting an 83-69 record. He was 16-17 in his two seasons with Denver.

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Revis, Patriots not talking yet

Revis AP

In March, the $20 million in 2015 compensation due and owing to Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis becomes fully guaranteed.  If the Patriots can’t work out with Revis a new deal before then, they’ll have to decide whether to pay the money or to cut him.

Per a league source, negotiations have not yet commenced between the Patriots and Revis on a new deal that would replace the current one.  The starting point presumably will be a package that pays out at least $20 million in the first year.

If the Patriots aren’t willing to go that high, the question becomes whether other teams will be willing to offer more than what the Patriots would put on the table.  Any team that provides that information to the player’s agent engages in tampering; agents, however, call it “gauging the market” in order to better assess the player’s value.

Multiple teams are expected to be interested in Revis, if he becomes available.  Teams currently believed to be interested include the Jets, Bills, Chiefs, and Browns.

Some think that the tampering charges filed by the Patriots against the Jets, based on public comments made by owner Woody Johnson about his interest in re-signing Revis, were intended primarily to scare the Jets away from pursuing Revis.

Drafted in 2007, Revis was traded to the Buccaneers in 2013.  After one season in Tampa, the Bucs opted not to continue his year-to-year $16 million annual arrangement, due in large part to the shift in defensive philosophy to the Cover 2.  Revis then signed with the Patriots a contract that was viewed as a one-year deal for cap purposes, with a trigger aimed at forcing a new contract or putting Revis back on the market.

To keep Revis off the market, there’s a chance the Patriots will have to fork over 2.5 times the amount they’ll be paying to quarterback Tom Brady in 2015.

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Two more candidates for Eagles job didn’t interview

Chip Kelly AP

The list of folks still in the running for the vacant personnel executive position in Philly could be a lot shorter than the list of men either who said “no thanks” or whose teams said “no touchy.”

Per a league source, the list of men who have declined interviews for the job includes Packers director of college scouting Brian Gutenkunst and Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz.  Their teams either denied requests for permission or the candidates declined the opportunity.

Teams can deny permission because the job does not entail final say over the draft or the 53-man roster.

Earlier this month, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie promoted G.M. Howie Roseman to the position of executive V.P. of football operations, gave coach Chip Kelly full power over personnel, and authorized Kelly to hire his own table-setter from a player standpoint.  Kelly has not yet made a hire, and some believe the perception of a power struggle between Kelly and Roseman has caused some candidates to decide to avoid becoming essentially the buffer between the coach and the guy in charge of negotiating contracts.

Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported that uncertainty exists in the agent community regarding Roseman’s role.  That uncertainty will linger until Kelly’s right-hand man in hired — and possibly longer.

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Report: 49ers likely to hire Geep Chryst as offensive coordinator

Washington Redskins v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The 49ers are likely staying in-house to fill their offensive coordinator vacancy.

The club “is expected” to tab assistant Geep Chryst to oversee the offense, Albert Breer of NFL Media reported Wednesday night.

The 52-year-old Chryst was the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach the last four seasons. He was last an NFL offensive coordinator with the Chargers under Mike Riley in 1999 and 2000. Chryst also has been an offensive assistant with the Panthers (2006-2010) and Cardinals (1996-1998, 2001-2003).

The 49ers’ offense struggled in 2014, with San Francisco finishing 30th in passing yards and 25th in points. It will be interesting to see what changes Chryst makes after a tough season for a talent-laden attack. The progress of starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick bears watching, and some changes could come at the skill positions. Stalwart tailback Frank Gore and wideout Michael Crabtree are both slated to be free agents.

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Fred Jackson: Rex Ryan the right guy to get us over the hump

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

Running back Fred Jackson has been with the Bills for the last nine years and he’s seen a lot of coaches come through the organization in that time.

The last of those coaches was Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract after two years this month. Jackson, a Bills captain in 2014, said on PFT Live Wednesday that he received a mass text from Marrone about his decision and hasn’t heard anything else from the coach about his choice to leave the Bills.

Not that Jackson seems to mind the result of the change all that much. Mike Florio asked Jackson about Rex Ryan and the veteran running back said he thinks Ryan’s the man to get the Bills back into the playoffs.

“I’m extremely excited about it. Rex is Rex. Everybody knows who he is. He’s a boisterous coach that’s gonna come in and have things go his way,” Jackson said. “Teams usually take on the persona of their coaches. I think he’s gonna give us the push we need to get over this hump. We went 9-7, the best we finished in 10 years, and I think he’s going to be the guy that gets us over that hump.”

Given the histories of Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Jackson should be in line for plenty of work in 2015 whether or not C.J. Spiller re-signs with the team. The 2014 history for both coaches speaks to the need of strong quarterback play to balance out the work on even the strongest work on the ground, however.

Jackson also outlined an unlikely career path from Coe College and the Sioux City Bandits to NFL Europe and the Bills that includes cameos from Marv Levy and 49ers coach Jim Tomsula during his visit with Florio, which you can check out in its entirety below.

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Prop Challenge, Day VI — Over-Under on LeGarrette Blount’s rushing attempts: 13.5

LeGarrette Blount AP

Leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, we’ll take a closer look at one proposition bet per day, something we’ve dubbed PFT’s Prop Challenge.

Here’s the idea: we present a prop, do some light analysis, then let you decide which side to take — hypothetically, of course. (Previous examples are at the bottom of this post.)

When the Super Bowl wraps up, we’ll tally the votes and see how well PFT Planet did.

Now, let’s get to today’s prop, which is courtesy of oddsmaker William Hill U.S.:

Over-Under on Patriots tailback LeGarrette Blount’s Super Bowl carries: 13.5.

Over: -110. Under: -110.

When the Patriots and Seahawks met last back in 2012, the Patriots threw 58 passes and attempted 26 rushes. The Patriots played at a quick pace, stuffing 85 plays into 34 minutes. Overall, New England ran one play per 24 seconds.

The question is, will the Pats employ a similar approach this time around? If so, Shane Vereen, not Blount, could be New England’s key back.

On the other hand, if the Patriots have a more balanced attack, then the 6-foot, 250-pound Blount could be busy. He might not get, say, the 30 carries he had vs. Indianapolis in the AFC title game, but clearing 13.5 carries could well be within his reach. If the Patriots want to stick with the run, then Blount will be the back they lean upon.

Blount has only twice received more than 13.5 carries since returning to New England in November, but the oddsmaker’s total seems appropriate. After all, Blount has taken 78.6 percent of the Patriots’ tailback carries in the postseason (33-of-42).

In short, the prop probably comes down to how you see the game playing out. If New England gets ahead, Blount will be busy. If New England falls behind  . . . well, OVER 13.5 carries could be in trouble.

Furthermore, this is a prop that Seattle fans should have a feel for, too. They know their team’s defense well. Can New England establish the run? Will it even try?

Cast your votes and let us know in the comments.

Previous props studied:

Day I: Over-Under on Brandon LaFell’s receiving yards.

Day II: Over-Under on Doug Baldwin’s catches.

Day III: Will Rob Gronkowski score a touchdown?

Day IV: Will there be a one-yard TD in the Super Bowl?

Day V: Over-Under on Tim Wright’s receiving yards.

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Lynch is already among the all-time great postseason runners

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch runs for a first down against the Redskins during their NFL NFC wildcard playoff game in Landover Reuters

Everyone is talking about Marshawn Lynch not talking this week. Which means no one is talking about what Lynch does best, which is run with the ball in his hands, particularly in the playoffs.

That’s too bad, because Lynch has already put together one of the all-time great postseason resumes of any running back in NFL history.

Lynch’s record of postseason runs starts, of course, with the Beast Quake. On January 8, 2011, in Lynch’s first career postseason game, he destroyed the Saints’ defense on his way to a 67-yard touchdown run to seal the Seahawks’ win late in the fourth quarter. Some people consider that the best run in NFL history.

But that game, in which Lynch carried 19 times for 131 yards, was far from Lynch’s only big postseason game. From that postseason debut through his 157-yard day against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Lynch has topped 100 yards in the playoffs five times, and topped 130 yards four times. Only former Broncos running back Terrell Davis, with five 130-yard playoff games, has reached 130 yards in the postseason more often than Lynch.

Players on the Patriots understand what they’re up against when they’re up against Beast Mode.

“I’ve said many times I think he’s the best back in the game,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said today. “With the ball in his hands, catching the ball, running the ball, blocking, yards after contact, you name it. All those areas he leads. He’s amazing when he gets the ball in his hands.”

Added Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, “Marshawn Lynch is a guy that could run through and run over your whole defense if you let him.”

If Lynch does run over the Patriots’ whole defense, he may add a Super Bowl MVP award to his already great postseason resume. Lynch may just go down as the best big-game running back ever.

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Raiders still don’t have a defensive coordinator

Todd Grantham AP

At this point in the offseason, teams without full coaching staffs are scrambling a bit.

Now the Raiders are looking for another defensive coordinator.

According to Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is staying in college.

He had been offered a two-year deal to take the same job with the Raiders, but apparently decided to stay put.

Whether that’s a bad thing for the Raiders is open to interpretation, but being turned down by a college coach is a bad look for an organization trying to overcome a tradition of bad football and bad decisions.

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Report: Nathaniel Hackett to be Jaguars quarterbacks coach

Blake Bortles, A.J. Bouye AP

The Rams interviewed Nathaniel Hackett in their search for a new offensive coordinator, but it looks like he’ll be coaching elsewhere in 2015.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Hackett has pulled his name from consideration in St. Louis and will be joining Gus Bradley’s staff in Jacksonville. Per Rapoport, Hackett is expected be the team’s quarterbacks coach.

Moving the Jacksonville would allow Hackett to continue working with Doug Marrone, who hired Hackett as his offensive coordinator at Syracuse and again with the Bills when Marrone was a head coach. Marrone will be working with the offensive line in Jacksonville while Greg Olson runs the offense.

The move will give Hackett another chance to work with a young quarterback after spending the last two years tutoring Bills 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel. Manuel was benched after four games in 2014, a development that the Jaguars presumably don’t want to see happen with Blake Bortles in his second season.

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Benson’s former heirs want him to undergo psychological tests

Benson Getty Images

The bizarre family feud that has clouded the future of the Saints has taken another strange turn, which for this story is saying something.

According to Andy Grimm of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the daugher and grandchildren of Saints owner Tom Benson have asked a judge to order a psychological evaluation of the 87-year-old.

The court filing cites “a pattern of bizarre behavior,” by Benson, and they want to have him evaluated by a geriatric psychology specialist.

This is the latest in a string of filings from his daughter and grandchildren, after he took control of his sports teams and assets away from them and put them in the hands of his wife Gayle Benson.

Stay tuned, as this story only promises to get weirder and weirder.

 

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