Note: For those looking for Mr. Cheer Or Die's minicamp "sensory" report, scroll down one entry or click here.
Today, I begin a series of reviews of the Vikings’ May mini-camp with observations on the two positions critical to the Vikings’ 2006 prospects—quarterback and linebacker. And while mini-camp differs dramatically from the regular season, and even from the team’s regular pre-season camp, it does offer a glimpse of some of the things that we can expect out of the 2006 Vikings.
As the Vikings prepare for the 2006 NFL regular season, they can hold fast in the knowledge that their quarterback situation is in solid hands—as long as Brad Johnson does not get injured. The presumed depth chart for Vikings’ quarterbacks has Mike McMahon following Johnson, with J.T. O’Sullivan and Jackson following McMahon, respectively. What that means for the Vikings is that the team either needs to have Johnson stay healthy for 2006 or have either McMahon or O’Sullivan perform well beyond their collective eleven-year league totals.
With no-contact drills the order of the day, the Vikings made a few other discoveries about their current corps of quarterbacks—some good, some not as good, but also not unexpected. For his part, Johnson looked every bit the part of a quarterback capable of leading a West Coast offense. Johnson had very limited mobility in the pocket and limited zip on his passes during mini-camp drills, but he consistently placed the ball in the best possible location under the circumstances. That’s what the Vikings, like most West Coast offense teams, need from their starting quarterback and—barring an injury to Johnson—that’s what it appears they will have this season.
Less certain is what the Vikings have on their depth chart after Johnson. McMahon made some nice throws and showed some ability to move out of the pocket in drills against a phantom defense, but with McMahon everything appears to be about urgency. While Johnson looked calm under center, McMahon looked to be pressing. Likewise with O’Sullivan, who added a few awkward passes as if attempting to solidify his number three role. While it is far too early to know what McMahon and O’Sullivan can offer the Vikings in 2006, the brief, mini-camp preview suggests that Vikings’ fans can expect some stomach churning if either is called upon to lead a West Coast offense clearly designed to emphasize short, precision-passing over vertical slings.
As for arm strength, the clear leader in the Vikings’ quarterbacking corps at his point is Jackson. And one need not have the aid of radar to reach this conclusion. While Johnson touched passes to his receivers, Jackson rocketed them through the air with blazing speed. But where Jackson bested Johnson in velocity, Johnson clearly outshone the rookie in poise—a premium in the Vikings’ West Coast offense.
More so perhaps than his ability to read defenses or to learn an NFL offense, Jackson will need to develop the poise and composure necessary to understand that it’s not always about how quickly the ball gets to the receiver but where and how the ball get to the receiver. Johnson has that figured out. Jackson appears to be some time away from having that down—though, from the looks of things, probably not all that far off.
On several occasions, Jackson zipped passes to receivers twenty yards out with a nice tight spiral. On other occasions, however, Jackson misjudged the speed of his receivers, misread the player that was receiving double-coverage on a play, or tried so hard to show his arm strength that his overly tight grip resulted in duck-like passes. The positive note is that Jackson’s troubles appear to be related to pressing and lack of familiarity with the speed of the NFL. Over time, those issues should resolve themselves. And with that will come greater pocket composure. That won’t help the Vikings’ this season, but it should help the team down the road in a manner that McMahon and O’Sullivan probably cannot.
While the Vikings appear set with their number one quarterback, somewhat the converse appears true of their linebacking corps. With several players either vying for playing time at new positions or outright new to the team, the Vikings’ linebacking corps remains in flux not only on the depth charts but also on the field.
The Vikings used several different players at linebacker during Sunday’s morning drills. Several things stood out from these drills.
The two players who appeared to attract most of the coaches’ verbal attention were rookie first-round pick Chad Greenway and veteran Napoleon Harris. The coaches clearly are intent on ensuring that Greenway is ready to play at the beginning of 2006, often pulling him aside during drills to point out mistakes that they appeared to let slide for others less likely to make the team or to play big minutes. Despite some issues with one particularly awkward sled, Greenway neither particularly impressed nor disappointed on Sunday—a fair start for a rookie on whom the Vikings will be counting in 2006.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the veteran linebacker Harris, who either lacks the speed to keep pace with the tight end—a troubling matter in its own right—or simply is unable to take the proper angle to the ball. Or, more frightening, both. If Harris truly is the best option that the Vikings have at middle linebacker, the team is in for more of the same at that position that Vikings’ fans have seen the past two seasons.
There may be hope yet for Harris, however. For what is most striking about Harris is not his coverage failures, but the difference between him and the other linebackers from a physique perspective. At 255 pounds, Harris is easily the heaviest of the Vikings’ linebackers—ten pounds heavier than the next heaviest linebacker, E.J. Henderson, and twenty pounds heavier than the lightest Vikings’ linebacker, Heath Farwell. Added to that weight difference is the matter that most of Harris’ additional bulk appears to be in his upper body. That might make for some nice drives if and when Harris is able to wrap up a player, but, added to his overall heavier playing weight, it might also explain why Harris has so much difficulty with lateral movement and with staying with the tight end. Reducing the higher weight bench reps might alleviate this problem and offer an easy solution to Harris’ coverage problems. If not, Harris might be on the outside looking in very soon.
Up Next: The Short List—Unknowns With a Shot, Others With Not.