Personnel Changes are Trending as the Roster is Set
Image courtesy of Jim Brown, USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings take on the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday, Sept. 7th, but until that day, personnel is still the topic du jour plus a few performances from the last preseason game worth revisiting.
The Vikings cut running back Joe Banyard on Saturday and reports immediately surfaced that the team wanted to retain him on their practice squad. Those reports were verified as he made it though waivers on Sunday and was signed to the Vikings’ practice squad. And who could blame them. Banyard, fresh off an 18-carry, 111-yard performance against the Titans, led the team in rushing this summer. Those are preseason numbers, against second and third team defenses, but Banyard clearly made the roster cut day difficult for the Vikings coaching staff. His time in Purple is not done, as he fortifies the depth of the running backs.
Regarding roster moves, the Vikings weren’t done themselves after the initial cut down, as they claimed former Gopher quarterback and Cleveland Browns tight end MarQueis Gray and former San Diego Charger offensive tackle Mike Harris off waivers on Sunday. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has coached both players--Gray last season in Cleveland and Harris as a Charger in 2012--so perhaps “dancing with the devil the you know rather than the one you don’t” may apply in this situation.
The Vikings had only two tight ends on the 53-man roster, and with Rhett Ellison known as more of a blocking tight end than pass-catching, it makes sense to add an athlete of Gray’s caliber for depth. For his part, Harris can play both tackle spots and that increases the offensive line depth.
In order to make room for them on the roster, the Vikings waived linebacker Larry Dean and offensive tackle Austin Wentworth. Wentworth would have to clear waivers before returning to the Vikings practice squad, but Dean, who has been a prized special teams player, is not eligible. Couple his loss with that of Jamarca Sanford (see below) and special teams coach Mike Priefer is likely scrambling to find players to outfit his kicking teams.
There was some hand wringing concerning the performance of Blair Walsh this preseason, who struggled just a bit in his first two preseason games at TCF Bank Stadium (making just four out of six field goal attempts and one missed extra point). Walsh appears to have put that to rest for the time being as he finished the preseason outdoors on the road and was perfect with his kicks (seven for seven in field goals and hit all four extra points). He did not make any attempts past 50 yards, which was giving him problems in the first two games (and was a strength for him in 2013), but he tweaked his mechanics and performed much better. He still has to figure out the winds at The Bank, and that will come in time, but next weekend he goes inside a dome in St. Louis, which should make him feel right at home.
The rebuilding Vikings are in the midst of a youth movement. It started with the team not re-signing aging defensive linemen Jared Allen (age 32) and Kevin Williams (age 34) and continued on Saturday when the Vikings cut defensive end Fred Evans (age 30) and Chris Crocker (age 34) and put Sanford on the short term IR. The new coaching staff, which includes 58-year-old head coach Mike Zimmer and 62-year-old offensive coordinator Norv Turner, clearly aren’t following the pattern of the previous Vikings coaches, who occasionally brought in experienced players (Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and even Randy Moss) to fill holes in their roster.
Does that say they don’t want to win this season? Does it say that, like the Twins, the future is always coming and never arrives? Hardly. The NFL is a young players’ league and these veteran coaches simply recognize that. It’s a matter of the right blend of veterans and young players that help a team win.
The Vikings might miss Sanford’s excellent special teams play, but he spent plenty of his time in Minnesota as a back up who was pressed into safety duty due to injuries. The team could miss Evans’ solid backup performances and leadership, but the coaches have made it known that it is time for others to step up as leaders. Zimmer has said their decisions are all about what’s best for the team, so the fans have to give him the benefit of the doubt and him the opportunity to prove that.
It’s on Robert Blanton now. The perennial backup safety now looks to become the starting strong safety next to his college teammate Harrison Smith. Blanton missed much of training camp with a pulled hamstring, and the coaches brought in Zimmer disciple Chris Crocker to fill the void. Crocker appears to have been hired like some Baggar Vance-like guru to come in and mentor the younger players and then disappear into the mist once the season begins. Blanton, who was given the position during OTAs and then spit the bit this summer, now must be ready to take on an everyday starting role. The coaches like his skill set for the position, but he has only three starts in the past two seasons. We now have to see if he is ready to take it on full time and can stay healthy long term. Here’s hoping he has a better “golf swing” (metaphorically speaking) than Matt Damon.
Perhaps the most talked about reserve in all of training camp was wide receiver Adam Thielen. The Detroit Lakes native and MSU Mankato alum made most of outstate Minnesota happy by making the final 53-man roster on Saturday. Though he might have benefitted from the suspension of wideout Jerome Simpson which opened a temporary roster spot, it says here Thielen made it on his own right with consistently good play, hustle in every facet of the game and the tough attitude of a Vince Papale-like long shot who made everything of his opportunity.
In the final preseason game, Thielen scored his first-ever touchdown on a pass from Teddy Bridgewater but left the game with what was called an aggravation of a hip injury. As a Mankato native, I whole-heartedly defend this roster decision. Myself and other out-staters are hoping Thielen’s injury is nothing (and he’s “invincible”) and gets a chance to score a touchdown (and much more) in the regular season games s he continues his football career in purple and gold.
As mentioned above, the new coaching staff isn’t content with the status quo. Since the time that Zimmer took the job, the careers of several Vikings past have come to an end. So far, the decisions looked solid, but it remains to be seen how well the special teams play, how well the defensive line performs and how much havoc Jared Allen wreaks in the Vikings backfield during two games this season.
We suspect the roster building is now complete at Winter Park with the announcement of the practice squad. Although the team has only nine players on the squad with one spot left to fill. So, with a new coaching staff trying to find the best players for their new system, look for continued waiver searches—perhaps on the defensive side of the ball.
We are also pleased to announce (for anyone who has been living under a rock) that the preseason has ended and the regular season starts on Thursday, Sept. 4. That means the end of vanilla offenses. That means the end of meaningless stats and outcomes. That also means the end of Vikings games without Adrian Peterson playing in them.