MANKATO — For the 48th time, the Minnesota Vikings are Mankato-bound, getting ready for their annual training camp at Minnesota State. The Gage towers may be gone (much to the players’ delight), but the NFL’s reigning MVP is back in town for the first time since Fran Tarkenton showed up in the summer of 1976.
Starting Friday morning, the Vikings are scheduled to hold about 30 practices over the next three weeks as they prepare for what they hope is a return trip to the playoffs.
Here are a few storylines The Free Press’ will be following at this year’s camp. Call it a preseason primer or, just maybe, the five P’s:
This may be Adrian Peterson’s team, but it’s still a quarterback’s league. Christian Ponder is beginning his third NFL season, and Vikings hope it can be a breakout year for him. Unlike last season’s training camp, he has a legitimate backup, if not some competition, with the addition of former Chiefs QB Matt Cassel.
“I really like the way that (Ponder) has matured mentally and just seeing how he has taken the reins from a leadership standpoint,” coach Leslie Frazier said during the June minicamp. “He is more vocal than he has been in the past.”
The Blakeslee Stadium crowds will be scrutinizing every one of Ponder’s throws and hoping to see if he’s got more in his training camp arsenal than a checkdown to Kyle Rudolph.
“I think he’s much better,” Frazier said. “He’s worked his tail off trying to improve his accuracy. Our coaches have put him through a bunch of different drills and through his hard work I think he’s improved in that area. Now we’ve got some things we’ve got to get done in training camp, but he’s put in the work to improve and we are seeing it.
A year ago, Adrian Peterson didn’t do too much during training camp as he went through the final phases of rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee. Folks worried that his lack of hits might hamper him once the season started. That theory got thrown out the window rather quickly, as Peterson had one of the best rushing seasons in NFL history.
So much for training camp.
Once again, Peterson will come to Mankato after having offseason surgery. The abdominal procedure he underwent in February certainly was less serious than the ACL, but last year’s historical season certainly makes one wonder how much on-field work the superstar will need — or get — during his stay in Mankato.
“Good for him and good for us,” Frazier said, “one less thing that we have to deal with. Good health for Adrian Peterson makes us all smile.”
As in ex-Packers. The Vikings sure do love bringing in players from their archrival. But it’s worked out pretty well for them in recent years, with Darren Sharper, Ryan Longwell and, of course Brett Favre (who never did find his way to Mankato, by the way) changing their stripes.
This year, it’s wide receiver Greg Jennings and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop who have gone from green to purple.
Jennings was the big free-agent prize for Minnesota, which has revamped its receiving corps. If he can stay healthy (an issue the last two seasons), he should be able to be a great help to Ponder, as well as to rookie wideout Cordarrelle Patterson.
"It’s ongoing," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said of Jennings' transition. "He’s not going to feel all together comfortable because he was ingrained for those number of years in Green Bay. So there’s a process that we’re working through."
No training camp visit is complete without a close look at the rookies. This year, the Vikings have three first-round draft picks competing for starting jobs.
Besides selecting Patterson, the former Tennessee standout, for the offensive side of the ball, Minnesota drafted Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shore up the defense.
Their next pick wasn't until the fourth round when they grabbed Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges. The linebacking corps is another area that will be closely scrutinized over the next three weeks.
"I can’t wait until the pads get on to see how (Hodges) hits and how he runs around and mixes it up," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "I think that’s what all the coaches are waiting on to see. Right now we are just in shorts, and they all look great so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm and wait until we get pads on."
The first full-pads practice of camp is scheduled for the afternoon of Monday, July 29.
The punter and other special teams players don't do a heck of a lot during training camp. But fans will miss the character that was Chris Kluwe, the Vikings' punter for the last eight years. Whether it was his band, video games, Twitter or politics, Kluwe always had some topics to talk about beyond football. And he sure wasn't afraid to voice his opinion.
The Vikings parted ways with Kluwe after drafting UCLA's Jeff Locke in the fifth round. If Locke has the same kind of success that rookie kicker Blair Walsh had after replacing the popular Longwell last year, Kluwe won't be missed much on the field.
"I like our new punter (Jeff Locke), very talented like we knew he was," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "He’s working very hard. I knew he would be a hard worker. I didn’t realize to this extent.
"He does everything I ask him to do drill-wise and more. He is very contentious. He’s worked very hard as a holder as well, so everything is going in the right direction."
Finally, there's one more big question that needs to be asked this week:
Are you ready for some football?