Predicting the 53-Man Roster: Exercising is Fun, Even If It is In Futility
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsThough the Vikings still have one more cut to announce in order to get to the 75-man roster that will be the deadline later today, we might as well get around to using this information to help predict a completely inaccurate 53-man roster—despite the fact that the odds of figuring out every fringe player is unlikely, and that we can't account for additions from outside the team.
The roster above is pretty "chalk," with few exceptions. The asterisked positions are the slot receiver, where there's overlap, and the slot cornerback, with the same overlap. There are 51 players above, with Jerome Simpson in parenthesis to signal his upcoming suspension, where he won't count against the roster. The other three players, of course, are Jeff Locke, Cullen Loeffler and Blair Walsh.
It has seven linebackers, which is somewhat unusual. Though the Vikings did that last year, it’s not a common practice among 4-3 teams. Zimmer’s Bengals have kept five and six every year since 2006, except in 2011 when they kept seven.
The Minnesota Vikings have been a little more aggressive with linebackers, with three of those years in the same time span showcasing seven linebackers.
In this case, Michael Mauti’s rapid rise on the special teams depth chart, along with his play when both Brandon Watts and Gerald Hodges were both absent, earn him a spot on the roster for now.
The only other big surprise on the projected roster is Mike Higgins over Chase Ford or Allen Reisner. The Vikings have done all they can to allow Chase Ford to prove himself, but I’m not confident he’ll return to the field without noticeable rust.
Moreover, the Vikings would be able to waive him to injured reserve and keep him on the roster without too much to worry about. Mike Higgins also comes with more athletic potential than Chase Ford, and that may be enough to give him the nod.
The toughest cuts were Kurt Coleman, Shaun Prater, Chase Ford, Chase Baker and Austin Wentworth. Coleman had been in the starting rotation for some time and even has done well as a safety, but one of the safeties that was getting starting snaps was going to get cut, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Robert Blanton; he has been given every chance to prove he can start, and ran with the starters for most of the offseason.
Both Andrew Sendejo and Jamarca Sanford would be easier to cut, but I think both have more natural talent than Coleman, whose saving grace may be his preseason availability than his actual ability. He had a strong showing in the Oakland game, but had some issues elsewhere that look like some of the positioning issues he had with the Eagles. From a preseason performance perspective, Andrew Sendejo may be the biggest cut candidate, given his issues both in the deep zone and manned against a tight end in the Kansas City game.
This next game against Tennessee will be critical for all three safeties and may do enough to swing the outcome.
Don’t be surprised if Chris Crocker gets cut, either. Though he started the last two preseason games and has been the first player to take first team reps in practices, his age is a big concern for a defense building itself around athleticism. He’s slow, and his instincts may not make up for it. Functionally, there is no wrong answer when it comes to whittling down the safeties.
Chase Ford may be the third-best tight end on the roster and he put a lot of good play together for the Vikings at the end of the season, but if playbook familiarity is important, he may be a step behind without the install work of camp to work off of. Given how easy it would be to put him on the injured reserve list, his spot on the roster isn’t very safe. A fully healthy Ford would probably knock Mike Higgins out, but rusty and recovering point to a 2015 spot, not 2014.
Allen Reisner also may fall short to Higgins. Though Reisner catches far better than Higgins, who has issues catching overhead, his play as a blocker is surprisingly bad, especially considering that he was a fullback candidate for some teams. When building a team set up to run the ball, it will be important to make sure the blocking doesn’t break down on the edges.
Chase Baker is a minor favorite of mine, but it's difficult to tell where his spot on the roster is, with all the attention that Shamar Stephen is deservedly getting as both a three-technique and nose tackle player. Unless the Vikings part ways with Tom Johnson—something entirely possible—Chase Baker won't make the team as readily as he did last year.
By far the most difficult cuts were the defensive backs. Already, a player having an unquestionably impactful camp was cut, perhaps as a favor to the veteran to catch on with teams much more quickly. With a rough estimate of 11 defensive backs, one safety in the rotation as a potential starter may not even make the roster. Between Coleman, Crocker, Sanford and Sendejo, one safety is likely to go—especially if the Vikings intend to keep Antone Exum.
At corner, the decision probably comes down to a player receiving a lot of praise and play (Jabari Price), a player with a good camp and a solid end to the 2013 season (Shaun Prater), the punt returner (Marcus Sherels) and a starter on the outside from last year (Josh Robinson).
In this case, Sherels’ much improved play from last year and two years ago keeps him on the roster, as well as his status as perhaps the best current punt returner in the NFL. For Robinson, the Tennessee game will be big, especially because he didn’t play enough of the Kansas City game and his lone memorably play was a pass interference call. His monstrous athletic ability, which is both well-acknowledged and still underrated, may keep him on the roster, as well—Zimmer loves potential.
As for Jabari Price, he’s been getting too much play not to give him a shot on the roster. He’s taking advantage of it, too, and the praise he draws from the coaches is effusive. Though he didn’t play against Kansas City, his camp and preseason is strong enough to maintain the coaches’ interest.
Austin Wentworth was only difficult because of how much the Vikings are showing faith in him. Moving him from the third team in the offseason to the second team early in camp is an indication that the Vikings are at least intrigued by him, especially because he moved from guard back to the tackle position he played in college. His ability to swing inside may win the staff over.
That said, it’s likely that Antonio Richardson has more talent and can provide that backup, especially with the versatile interior players left on the roster. Wentworth may have been given the nod when Phil Loadholt was down temporarily against the Chiefs, but that might only be to see what Wentworth has, not a sign they are no longer big fans of the former Tennessee tackle.
As an aside, it was a little difficult to cut Vlad Ducasse, because despite his abysmal outings for the New York Jets, he did much better with the Minnesota Vikings. He played with better balance over his feet and showed intelligence to go with his potentially newfound technique. It would still be difficult to justify his place on the roster over David Yankey or Joe Berger.
This sets up the following potential practice squad:
The practice squad, of course, is harder to predict than the 53-man roster, but there's no reason not to try. The eligibility rules for the practice squad are a bit confusing. For eight of the ten spots, the rules are as follows:
- No players with three years of practice squad experience are eligible. Seasons that count towards that experience are ones where the player has spent six weeks on a practice squad (previously it was three)
- Any player with two years of practice squad experience can only be on the practice squad if the team is at 53 players.
- No players with two "accrued seasons" is eligible.
- Players with one "accrued season" are eligible only if that season had him with fewer than nine games on the active game-day roster.
- Any player with two "accrued seasons" is eligible for the other two spots, but no more than that.
In this case, it may be the case that Allen Reisner is eligible for the practice squad. He only has one "accrued season," and it was six games. In 2011, he was on a practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster, but spent only four games in 2012 on such a roster. In 2013, he was active on the game-day roster five times, but was then moved to injured reserve (designated for return), which does not count for an "accrued season," but is a "credited season."
Of note, this roster has Christian Ponder on it, mostly because of the extremely strong signals the Vikings are sending about keeping Ponder. Given that the Vikings are not likely to forfeit their gameplanning to their Week 1 opponents via trade, it may be difficult to move on from Ponder.
One last thing: Jeff Locke's performance in the preseason has been somewhat troubling, with some surprisingly short punts in long punt situations and a low hang time. It won't affect the roster for now, but may be a concern going forward.