When I first strated writing about the Vikings, I reached out to the main man in Vikings Blogging, Mike Wobschall, since then he has been my main source of info when it comes to getting the inside scoop on whats going on in Winter Park. Not only has he been a valuable resource in getting my blog off the ground, but he also seems to be a genuine, stand up guy who’s always willing to answer fan questions, whether it be on Twitter, @wobby, or in his Monday Morning Mailbag on Vikings.com. So I was pretty excited to hear what Wobby had seen at OTA’s and to get some inside perspective on things. Enjoy!
TVA: Hey Mike! It’s been a busy few weeks at Winter Park. Whats the overall atmosphere like around Vikings headquarters right now?
MW: There is an upbeat atmosphere at Winter Park with OTAs and mini-camp complete and training camp on the horizon. The Vikings maintained an intense level of competition during the 10 OTAs and they also saw 100% attendance during Phase 3 of the offseason program. I believe that is all a function of the leadership provided by head coach Leslie Frazier and the veterans on this team, and I also believe this team refuses to feel satisfied with last season’s playoff run and first-round exit.
TVA: So there are plenty of storylines to follow with this team right now, but I would like to address the one glaring question mark first. What’s going on with the MLB position? Is Erin Henderson the clear front runner to win the starting job? Or could we be hearing a lot more about someone like Audie Cole in the weeks to come?
MW: My sense at this point is that Erin Henderson will be the starting MIKE (middle) linebacker. Of course that’s always subject to change based on level of play and injury, but I believe Henderson is in the middle of transitioning from WILL to MIKE and I also believe he’ll be a good fit at the new position, for 2013 at least. There are three reasons I like Henderson in the middle. First, he has the instincts and intelligence to play the position. He is usually in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t win every battle or make every play – no player does that. But he is in the right spot at the right time and that’s the top priority. Secondly, he has the size (6-3, 244) to play in the middle of a 4-3 defense. He’ll need that size to mix it up with the big, burly offensive linemen of the NFC North. In addition to that size, Henderson has the athleticism to cover TEs while playing in this defense. Thirdly, Henderson already plays MIKE in the nickel package, and I like the idea of the nickel MIKE being the same player as the base defense MIKE.
With all of that being said, I do think you’ll hear quite a bit about other players at the position who will be pushing Henderson (and others) for playing time. Cole seems poised to compete for more playing time on defense, rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti figure to work their way into the mix to some extent (Hodges more than Mauti initially), and veterans Larry Dean, Tyrone McKenize and Marvin Mitchell will rely on their experience and knowledge of the defense to challenge for playing time.
TVA: The fans are looking for all three first round picks to make an immediate impact, of the three guys was there one that stood out to you as a sure fire week one play maker? Or is it still a bit too early to tell?
MW: Might be too early to tell this, but because of the positions they play I think Cordarrelle Patterson and Xavier Rhodes have a better chance to impact immediately than Sharrif Floyd. I expect Floyd to start the season playing behind Kevin Williams at the 3-technique, so it’ll be hard for him to make a profound impact right away. But Rhodes will be a starter on defense and I expect Patterson to win the competition for kickoff return duties, so those two will have a chance from the start to make an impact.
TVA: I didn’t hear much about our new punter, Jeff Locke, over the past few weeks, how did he look out there? Not just with the leg but also as a holder?
MW: I didn’t get a chance to observe him much during OTAs because of the inclement weather that forced the specialists to find alternative ways to practice. From what I’ve heard in talking to players and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, though, it sounds like Locke has been impressive so far both as a punter and holder. I will withhold further comment until I can watch him work.
TVA: Cordarrele Patterson has obviously impressed some folks up there as I have heard reports that he has already been given the nod at starting kick returner, but from what you’ve seen so far, what can fans expect from him in the passing game this year?
MW: Patterson has not won the job as the starting kickoff returner. I expect he will, but he hasn’t yet. As a receiver, though, fans should temper their expectations at first because it’s a challenge to play the position as a rookie and he’s going to be competing with several talented pass catchers for passes. Eventually, though, fans will see in Patterson a dynamic offensive weapon who can play X or Z receiver and who can line up in the backfield as well.
TVA: Well thats why I love to go straight to the source, because I have heard multiple reports that he had already won that spot, apparently I was misinformed! Which one of the later round picks stood out to you at OTA’s? And why?
MW: Everett Dawkins because of his size (6-2, 300) and attitude.
TVA: Another guy we haven’t heard much about is Greg Childs. From what I HAVE seen of him I really love his attitude about his situation, how are things going with his rehab, and can we expect to see him contribute this season?
MW: I don’t have an official update on Childs’ rehab. He has been at Winter Park rehabbing his injury since last August and I’ve been impressed with his attitude and outlook. I don’t have a timetable for what to expect and when to expect it, but I’m optimistic he’ll return to the field at some point in 2013.
TVA: One of the hot topics over these past few weeks is QB turned WR, Joe Webb. How is he handling the position change, and does he have a realistic shot at making the final roster?
MW: I’ve actually been impressed with the progress Webb has made as a technician at wide receiver. He has already begun to look more comfortable doing things such as running routes, run blocking and high-pointing the football when battling for position against a cornerback. I feel as though Webb has a great chance to win a roster spot, and at the time he switched positions I wasn’t sure if I’d ever feel that way. But I do now, and we haven’t even gotten to training camp yet.
TVA: Given the historic season one Adrian Peterson had last year, it’s tough to imagine that he wasn’t 100% healthy, but the reality of a knee injury is that it takes 2 years to fully come back from one. How did he look out there?
MW: Adrian looked fresh, energized and better than ever during OTAs. The Vikings coaching staff did a great job of managing his reps during the 10 practices and I expect them to continue doing that during mini-camp, training camp and the preseason.
TVA: Which one of the young DB’s in the secondary is stepping up as an emotional leader/role model in the absence of Antoine Winfield?
MW: There’s no question that Harrison Smith is a budding star, both as a player and a leader. He is coming off an impressive rookie season and is clearly poised to take another big step forward in that regard during the 2013 season. Defensive backs coach Joe Woods says Smith has “swagger” and I would agree with that. He has the attitude and demeanor of a star and a leader.
TVA: Awesome! Definitely think we have a stud roaming the defensive backfield! Were there any veterans that really stood out in OTA’s? If so, why?
MW: John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph were both standouts. Carlson is healthy and the difference in how he performs on the field compared to last year when he was injured is really quite profound. Carlson was constantly making route catches and often times making circus-style catches during practice. The same goes for Rudolph. He is on the same page as quarterback Christian Ponder so often, and so often it’s Rudolph who is making a remarkable catch to salvage a play or score a touchdown.
TVA: One of the other guys that really seems to have his head in the right place going into this season is the embattled QB. Last year we were able to point toward a lack of talent at the WR position, but with the additions the team has made this year there is no room for excuses, How did Ponder look out there? How’s the chemistry looking with some of those new WR’s?
MW: Ponder looked great during OTAs. I saw noticeable improvement from him throughout the 2012 season, and once again I’m noticing improvement from him as the offseason program progresses. He has command of the offense and has clearly improved his footwork and mechanics. The chemistry he has with Carlson, Rudolph and Jarius Wright is great, and he’s working on that chemistry with new receivers such as Greg Jennings and Patterson. To improve the passing offense, though, the Vikings must play better around Ponder in 2013. Yes, the pressure is one Ponder to perform. But the Vikings need to pass block better in 2013, and the receivers need to be better in 2013 in order for Ponder to deliver. The quarterback gets all the attention and scrutiny in the NFL, that goes with the territory. But it’s also important for the team to play well around the quarterback.
TVA: Agreed. A lot of people don’t realize that he was not to blame for all the discrepancies in the pass game, and Speaking of last years WR group, one guy that really under-performed was Jerome Simpson. What was the thought process in bringing him back?
MW: Clearly injuries hampered Simpson last season. His production was low, but for the short amount of time that he was healthy it was clear he had a skill set that could make him a valuable part of a passing offense. Since his production was low and his playing time was sparse last season, he didn’t command much attention on the open market. Therefore the Vikings were able to bring him back to the team for another season at a very affordable price. Given his potential and his upside and given the Vikings need for talent at receiver, it was a wise move for the Vikings to bring Simpson back. I’m excited he’s still on the team and I think he’ll be an important piece of the puzzle in 2013.
TVA: Well his head seems to be in the right place, he was obviously very happy to be given a second chance by the Vikes. Finally, what area of the team would you say needs the most improvement going into training camp?
MW: Last season the Vikings defense ranked just 27th in the NFL on 3rd down. Opponents converted 3rd downs at a 41.3% clip. That number has to change, and it has to change drastically if the Vikings want to take the next step as a team. Most certainly the other two phases (offense, special teams) have improvements to make as well, but given some of the personnel changes on defense I think this is an important stat for the defense to monitor. It starts on 1st down, where the Vikings were last in the League in giving up 4+ yards on 1st down. And it continues with the passing defense in general, where the Vikings ranked 25th in opponents passer rating (92.3). The Vikings must do a better job of getting off the field quicker on defense, as this will put less pressure on the special teams group and it will eventually yield better field position for the offense.
TVA: Thanks for your time, Mike! We look forward to hearing more news and developments as we head into training camp! Please find some stories to keep us entertained over these next 6 weeks, a brutal time of year that I call “The Abyss”.