Training camp goals
1. Make Christian Ponder comfortable. Every move the Vikings made this offseason is worthless if their starting quarterback isn't up to speed in his second season. Ponder got a free pass last season because of the NFL lockout and the fact that he sat behind Donovan McNabb through the first six weeks of the season. This year is different. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line, added targets at receiver and tight end and brought in some much-needed secondary help in hopes that Ponder won't have to win divisional shootouts with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Training camp is a vital period for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He must put all these pieces together and give Ponder confidence to succeed.
2. Secondary comes first. There's a reason the Vikings have lost 11 consecutive NFC North games. They couldn't stop Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler and their high-powered passing attacks. Despite having the best pass rush in the league a year ago, the Vikings still had the worst secondary in franchise history. Injuries, ineffectiveness and off-field problems left them without the talent or a clue in how to defend the NFL's best quarterbacks and big receivers. This year should be much better. For starters, cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook return from a season in which they missed a combined 21 games. Quality depth was added behind them with the signing of veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, and the drafting of speedy third-rounder Josh Robinson. At safety, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith immediately improves a ridiculously weak position.
Player to watch
Left tackle Matt Kalil. If you think the pressure is on Ponder, keep an eye on his blindside protector. The Vikings' stagnant offense depends on the massive Kalil living up to the even more massive hype surrounding his fourth overall selection in this year's draft. Kalil could be in for a tough summer since his first NFL assignment is trying to block league sack king Jared Allen every day in training camp. If Kalil fails, the rebuilt line collapses and takes Ponder, the offense and the entire team with it. If Kalil quickly becomes the league's next great left tackle, Ponder's comfort level soars and Musgrave can put more receiving targets in play because he won't have to keep calling max protect. And with more receiving targets to stretch the field, there's more room underneath for the Vikings' running attack and the shifty talent of slot receiver Percy Harvin.
On the hot seat
Ultimately, the responsibility for success or failure in the NFL lands on the quarterback's shoulders. The Vikings staked their future on Ponder when they used the 12th overall pick on him in 2011. He's a likeable guy who seems to have the mental makeup for the position. But he's also done nothing to silence those who believe he was a big draft-day reach. He posted just two wins as a rookie, and one of them came when his backup, Joe Webb, led the team from behind after Ponder was injured. Ponder also threw as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns and often made the same mistakes while trying to force balls late into tight coverage. Ponder enjoyed universal patience a year ago. That ends now.
Strategy and personnel
• Defensive end Everson Griffen is being given a look at linebacker. Said coach Leslie Frazier, "We want to give him a chance to see if he can help us at that linebacker spot where we're still working with our depth."
Griffen was used on a limited basis at linebacker last season. He said, "I'm comfortable. With my athletic ability, I feel like I can come and pretty much do anything. That's not me being cocky. I just feel like I can just come in and adapt to the situation."
• Musgrave smiles when he talks about Jerome Simpson. A lot.
Calling the team's new split end "exactly what the doctor ordered" for the offense, Musgrave believes the former Bengals receiver will give the team the speed and matchup advantages that it sorely lacked a year ago.
"We need somebody with juice like that playing the split end," Musgrave said. "We need to be able to count on somebody from our split end position winning consistently versus man coverage. With the way I think we can run the football, defenses are going to try to take away the run. And we want to make them pay for that through the air."
Simpson caught 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He'll serve a league-imposed three-game suspension to start the season.
Jasper Brinkley, who is expected to take over for the departed E.J. Henderson as the starting middle linebacker, was held out of the Vikings' minicamp recently. The reason depends on who you believe. Frazier said the team is treating Brinkley for a groin injury unrelated to the major hip surgery that wiped out Brinkley's entire 2011 season. But Brinkley says his injury is "just a process with the hip." General manager Rick Spielman said, "There's some concern there, definitely. The durability is a question right now." Tyrone McKenzie, who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad, has been working with the team's No. 1 defense in Brinkley's absence.
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