MANKATO, Minn. –Even after retiring from the NFL, it took Ben Leber a few years to shake the nerves that cropped up before training camp every season. Now, the former Vikings linebacker simply enjoys being able to take in practice from the sidelines.
"I'm trying as much as I can to shed that mentality and mindset of being a player and feeling like I should be out there," Leber said. "I think, slowly but surely, I'm climbing out of that player role. The years before it was harder to watch practice, but now it's almost fun. I can kind of evaluate it."
Leber brings an interesting perspective from the sideline. He's a former Viking, he's a football fan and he's a media member. He may have hung up his cleats, but he hasn't left the game. Leber is returning as the Vikings preseason sideline simulcast analyst, and this year he will also tandem with Greg Coleman as a sideline reporter for the regular-season games. On top of all that, Leber contributes to the KFAN radio postgame show and works for FOX Sports, covering Big 12 college football.
Even in the midst of a crazy schedule, Leber finds time to spend a few days in Mankato, and he's made a couple of observations so far this year.
Bridgewater has mind of top-tier QB
Leber is looking forward to seeing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's progression from year two to year three. One thing Leber has really appreciated about the quarterback is the way he's stepped up as a leader of the team.
"The way he's kind of taken control of this offense is great," Leber said. "I love his mental toughness."
Leber believes Bridgewater's unassuming personality could lead some people to think he doesn't have an edge. The analyst said that's not the case at all.
"Teddy has the headiness of a top NFL quarterback," Leber said. "He has a good head on his shoulders, and he's willing to take on the pressure, and he's handled the pressure well. [Sometimes] when they call some quick, decisive plays for him, he can get the ball out quickly, he's accurate, he just plays with the fluidity that seems like he's been in the system for a long time."
Leber said one thing he'd like to see Bridgewater develop this season is in making plays that require longer route progressions and reads and "making something out of nothing" if a play starts to break down. With the addition of Alex Boone, Andre Smith and return of a healthy John Sullivan, Leber thinks Bridgewater will have more faith in the offensive line, which will help him in those scenarios.
"To feel confident and comfortable pre-snap is going to help him after the snap," Leber said. "I think he's going to have this confidence that, 'Yeah – these guys are going to get it done.' "
The Vikings 2016 receiving corps will be an asset offensively, as well. Charles Johnson missed a chunk of the 2015 season dealing with a rib issue, and Leber said having him back healthy is key, as well as integrating Minnesota native Adam Thielen.
"A guy like Adam Thielen is going to bring a reliable presence," Leber said. "Adam's going to be where he's supposed to be. So if you get under duress, Teddy knows that he can blindly throw it to a spot, and Adam's going to be there.
"And then you have [Laquon] Treadwell coming along as well," Leber added. "We hope that he can be that guy that does go over the top, can catch a small slant and take it for 80 yards, be that big difference-making type of receiver. So I think Teddy has more weapons. And of course, Adrian Peterson is always a good thing."
A look at the linebacker situation
Leber, who naturally pays close attention to Minnesota's linebacker unit, said, "I think this is probably the most athletic group that they've had in a long time."
Early round draft picks Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are expected to see lots of action for their second and third seasons, and Leber said he's interested in watching how the playing time at weak side linebacker pans out.
Leber and Chad Greenway's careers overlapped for five seasons (2006-2010). With Greenway now entering his 11th season with the Vikings, Leber said his former teammate has proven he can still play. Not only that, but Greenway has continued to learn, develop and adapt over the years, continuing to be an integral part of the roster.
"Chad was in a Tampa 2 style system for the better part of eight years," Leber said. "Then he had to change his whole mental philosophy on defense and learn a whole new verbiage and take command of this defense.
"He took ownership of that," Leber said. "He's almost more valuable now because of his versatility than for his athleticism and everything else […] his head game is so strong right now."