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For a Viking fan who hasn't kept up with any of the offseason changes, how would you describe the new product they would be seeing on the first preseason game? -- Charles D. Bluffton, SC
The most recognizable change fans will see in this year's Vikings squad is the defense. There have been significant changes to this side of the ball, both from a personnel standpoint and in terms of scheme and style. This year's Vikings defense will feature a blend of returning contributors – Chad Greenway, Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Brian Robison – and fresh faces, such as rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, space-eating defensive tackle Linval Joseph and veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Also, the Vikings defense under new head coach Mike Zimmer will be a multiple, attacking defense that plays a mix of man and zone coverage and that is not predicated on rushing four and dropping seven into coverage.
On offense, many of last year's contributors will return. But the biggest change will come at the top, with Norv Turner in place as offensive coordinator. Turner brings with him to Minnesota a wealth of experience and success while guiding NFL offenses. His offenses have produced the NFL's leading rusher five times, which is good news for Adrian Peterson, but Turner is also known for his mentorship of quarterbacks and an aggressive mentality when it comes to the passing game.
How are the linebackers shaping out with the mentoring of Mike Zimmer? Who do you see as being starters and what positions and formations do you believe we will be running? -- Joshua S. Dickinson, ND
It's a young group of linebackers, for sure. But they are coming along nicely and I'm anxious to see how the competition for spots on the depth chart unfolds during training camp and in the preseason. There's no question the presence of Zimmer helps this group. But it should also be noted that Greenway provides great mentorship for this group, as well, as do both linebackers coach Adam Zimmer (Mike's son) and defensive coordinator George Edwards, a linebacker coach by trade. With talent on the field, a leader in Greenway and great teachers in the three aforementioned coaches, the Vikings young but athletic linebacker group will make huge strides during camp and will go from a question mark to a strength by season's end.
As for starters and formations, that is all up in the air. In base defense, I expect Jasper Brinkley to be the starter at MIKE when the Vikings open camp, but Michael Mauti will push for that job, too. Greenway and Anthony Barr project to start on the outside. In nickel, it's fair to guess that Greenway and Barr will stay on the field, but there's also a school of thought that suggests it could take Barr a while to be trusted as a starting nickel 'backer, so until then it could be Audie Cole or Gerald Hodges who step onto the field. Or it could be a combination of all of the above. Only time will tell. One thing I am sure of is the linebacker group will be fast, smart and physical, and they will improve as the season progresses. Another thing I'm sure of is Zimmer will be multiple with his defensive looks, particularly with how he uses linebackers.
I've heard a lot about players that are expected to make the leap in 2014. But I haven't heard a lot about how Harrison Smith is going to do. Do you think he is going to also make a leap from good defender to a great defender? Jerick B. Richmond, RI
Yes, I do anticipate a big-time season from Smith in 2014.He is not a one-trick pony at safety – he can bring the hammer in the run game, he can blitz, and he can cover. This versatility will allow the Vikings defensive staff to put Smith in a lot of different positions, and as such I feel Smith will be a key player for the Vikings in 2014.
Which undrafted free agents do you believe have the best chance to stick this year based upon talent and perceived need? -- Mitch K. Los Angeles, CA
It's far too early to offer water-tight predictions on this matter, but in an effort to entertain the question I will submit two names to watch closely once we get to Mankato for training camp. The first is AC Leonard, an undersized but athletic and sure-handed tight end with excellent speed and a knack for getting open. I anticipate he will push Chase Ford for that third tight end spot, which will make for a fun training camp battle to watch next month because Ford is certainly no push-over. The second name is Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, an offensive tackle who played college football at the University of Tennessee. He saw some reps with the first team this spring in Matt Kalil's stead, and what I'll be analyzing with respect to Richardson during camp is his potential to be a reserve swing tackle. Having a backup tackle who can play either side is an extremely valuable commodity for teams as they go through the process of whittling a 90-man roster down to just 53 players at the beginning of September.
How have our rookies picked in the later rounds – David Yankey through Jabari Price – been doing so far this offseason? -- Steffan L. Aarhus, Denmark
Let's not make this more complicated than it needs to be. Below are the players drafted from the fifth round through the seventh round, with a one-liner for each…
OL David Yankey – Came in late because of Pac-12 rules, but projects to compete for a starting spot during camp and at worst will be a valuable swing reserve capable of playing multiple positions.
S Antone Exum – Came in right away and flashed, then cooled off, then started to heat up again. Appears to be making the transition to safety well, but still has a lot to learn.
CB Kendall James – Makes a "wow" play every now and then and is at his best in situations like one-on-ones vs. receivers when his physical talent can shine.
DT Shamar Stephen – Hard to evaluate given contact restrictions during the offseason program, but has the frame to compete for depth chart positioning as a rookie.
LB Brandon Watts – Entrenched in an athletic, competition-filled and young position group, and will need to shine on special teams in order to begin carving a niche for himself on the roster.
DB Jabari Price – Had an impressive spring at Winter Park and seems to be picking up the mental part of the game quickly; anxious to see more of him during training camp.