NFC North: Minnesota Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS -- Though Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wouldn't reveal his starters at strong safety or middle linebacker when he was asked about them on Monday, the Vikings' unofficial depth chart would suggest little has changed at those two positions.

The Vikings listed Jasper Brinkley as their starting middle linebacker and Robert Blanton as their top strong safety before their Week 1 game against the St. Louis Rams, keeping both players in the same spots they occupied throughout the preseason.

Depth charts are worth about as much as the paper they're printed on, of course (and in this case, we're looking at an electronic version of the chart), but the listing at least suggests the Vikings haven't changed their thinking on the two positions since the end of the preseason.

Brinkley figures to come off the field in passing situations, and his strength against the run keeps him ahead of Audie Cole for now. And if Blanton can show the instincts in coverage that led the Vikings to put him in their first-team defense during organized team activities and minicamp, their safety concerns might be alleviated for now, especially against a Rams offense that could sputter with Shaun Hill replacing Sam Bradford at quarterbakc.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The first time MarQueis Gray played at TCF Bank Stadium, he was a quarterback for the University of Minnesota. He ended his career with the Gophers as a wide receiver, and his next game at the stadium will presumably come as a tight end for the Minnesota Vikings as the next step in a career arc that's already doubled back on itself.

The Vikings claimed Gray off waivers Sunday, reuniting him with offensive coordinator Norv Turner after he spent the 2013 season with the Cleveland Browns. Gray was released Saturday and quickly drew the Vikings' interest because of his familiarity with Turner's system.

"I believe he had a big say so in me coming here," Gray said of Turner. "I believe he's trusting me a lot to be here. I've just got to make sure I do my part and uphold all the great things he's said about me."

Gray appeared in 12 games for the Browns last season, catching two passes and rushing six times but mostly working as a blocking tight end. That part of the game -- and the physical toll it exacts on his body -- remains the biggest adjustment after his time as a quarterback and receiver, he said.

"I've mainly tried to bulk up my strength. That's the main focus since I switched to tight end," he said. "I've been able to catch. It's just the blocking aspect I'm getting used to."

The Browns used at least two tight ends on 466 plays last year, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That was the fourth most in the league, and with Rhett Ellison the only other tight end on the Vikings' roster behind starter Kyle Rudolph, Gray could find work as an H-back if he proves able to handle the full scope of the offense. He got to work re-acclimating himself to Turner's offense after going through training camp with new Browns coordinator Kyle Shanahan and was still trying to brush up on it after a day of travel to the Twin Cities Sunday and about three hours of sleep Sunday night.

When Gray gets into the locker room for the Vikings' home opener Sept. 14, though, he shouldn't feel out of place at all.

"I probably thought (I'd be back) as an away opponent, not as a home (game)," he said. "I can't wait to be back on that field."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- After nearly four months of evaluation, a handful of injuries and the release of two veterans over the weekend, the Minnesota Vikings still apparently haven't settled on a starting safety opposite Harrison Smith -- at least not one coach Mike Zimmer was comfortable sharing on Monday.

"I don't know yet," Zimmer said when asked who will start next to Smith in the Vikings' regular-season opener against St. Louis on Sunday. "We'll see."

Robert Blanton has been atop the depth chart since the Vikings released their first one during training camp, and seems like the logical pick to start next to his former Notre Dame teammate. Blanton missed part of training camp with a hamstring injury, but came back before the Vikings' third preseason game against Kansas City and seems healthy now.

"He's a smart guy," Zimmer said. "Sometimes when you make the transition from corner to safety (as Blanton did), it takes those guys a while, but he's a smart guy. You have a little bit more athletic ability, usually."

Smith said he won't be affected in any major way by who starts next to him on Sunday, and was coy when asked if he knew who the starter would be. It seemed like Smith's partner might be 34-year-old Chris Crocker, who came out of retirement for a third consecutive year to play for Zimmer and started a pair of games next to Smith in training camp.

The Vikings, however, released Crocker on Saturday, along with Kurt Coleman, when they concluded they "had a lot of the same guys," as Zimmer put it.

However short his time was with the Vikings, though, Crocker helped Smith's development in the team's defense.

"He was like having a coach in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the field," Smith said. "In between plays, he'd say, 'Hey, Harry, watch out for this coming up here,' and he was right most of the time. Even though he was only here for a little bit, I learned a ton from that guy.

"Just having that time with Crocker was good. I kind of had Antoine (Winfield) to look to when I was a rookie, just to see how a pro prepares. I never really had a safety to look at who was an old, old guy -- I called him the 'old man' every day. He kind of showed me again what it was like to be a professional and to really understand the game."

Should the Vikings start Blanton on Sunday, his experience in coverage will likely be a big part of the reason he's got the job. The Vikings will put their safeties in man coverage much more often than they did in their old regime, and Blanton seemed to separate himself from competition during the team's OTAs and minicamp because of his coverage skills.

"It's going to be fun for us (safeties)," Smith said. "We get to do pretty much everything, all levels of the defense: down near the line, dropping down like linebackers, playing deep, covering man-to-man. We get to do pretty much everything."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who was hit in the left calf by a stray bullet in an Aug. 9 nightclub shooting in Minneapolis, returned to practice for the first time since the shooting on Monday, working out with the Minnesota Vikings as they prepare for their season opener on Sunday.

Joseph had said last week that he would be ready for the start of the regular season, and his participation in practice on Monday would suggest he's still on track to play, as would the Vikings' decision to cut nose tackle Fred Evans and start the season with only rookie Shamar Stephen backing up Joseph.

Offensive tackle Phil Loadholt was also back at practice on Monday, nine days after bruising his ankle in a preseason game against Kansas City. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith, as well as linebackers Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges, also returned from injuries.

The Vikings were without fullback Zach Line at practice, and linebacker Michael Mauti left early. Tackle Mike Harris, whom the Vikings claimed off waivers on Sunday, was watching practice on Monday.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We'd talked earlier about the Vikings putting some pieces in place for their practice squad. That group is now almost complete.

The team officially announced the signings of running back Joe Banyard, wide receiver Kain Colter, tight end Chase Ford and tackle Mike Remmers to its practice squad, also announcing it had signed center Zac Kerin, wide receiver Donte Foster, cornerback Kendall James, defensive tackle Isame Faciane and defensive end Justin Trattou to the group. The Vikings' practice squad is at nine, and the final spot could be slotted for offensive lineman Austin Wentworth, whom the Vikings waived on Sunday; a league source said the team was hoping to add Wentworth to the practice squad if he made it through waivers.

For now, though, the nine-man practice squad breaks down like this: one running back, two receivers, one tight end, two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen and one cornerback. All nine players went through training camp with the Vikings, and the team's decision to retain James means it still has control of all 10 players it selected in the May draft.

There could more roster moves coming in the next several days -- it wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings add another safety after releasing Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman on Saturday -- but apart from some minor tinkering, the Vikings' 2014 squad appears to be mostly in place.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' roster is set at 53 players for now, although a NFL roster is always in some state of flux. That's important to remember with the Vikings' roster, particularly at a pair of positions where the team's depth suggests more roster moves could eventually be coming.

The Vikings kept just two tight ends on their roster, cutting Allen Reisner and Chase Ford (who'd missed all of training camp with a broken foot). They also purged their safety position after a open audition process for a starting spot opposite Harrison Smith, and now have just four safeties on the roster (Smith, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo and rookie Antone Exum) after cutting Kurt Coleman and Chris Crocker and placing Jamarca Sanford on injured reserve.

While the Vikings didn't keep much depth at those positions, they stocked up at others, hang onto five running backs (Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, Jerome Felton and Zach Line) and keeping eight linebackers (Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley, Anthony Barr, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole, Larry Dean and Brandon Watts). They'll also keep five receivers, though another roster move could come once Jerome Simpson finishes a three-week suspension. The team also retained nine of its 10 picks from this year's draft, only letting go of cornerback Kendall James.

What's important to remember is the Vikings' 53-man roster isn't a finished product. It could change by tomorrow if the team is interested in some of the veterans now on the open market, and will certainly change throughout the 2014 season. For now, though, here's how it looks:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
RUNNING BACKS (5)
WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
TIGHT ENDS (2)
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
LINEBACKERS (8)
DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)
SPECIALISTS (3)
Most significant move: When coach Mike Zimmer brought safety Chris Crocker out of retirement for the third consecutive year and the Minnesota Vikings signed him to a one-year deal during training camp, it seemed likely the 34-year-old would make the roster and could possibly win the starting safety job next to Harrison Smith. Crocker, however, didn't even make the roster out of training camp, as the Vikings slashed a number of veteran safeties from their roster. Crocker was cut, along with free-agent addition Kurt Coleman, and the Vikings put safety Jamarca Sanford on injured reserve after he injured his quadriceps on a special-teams play against Kansas City. That means, after a long audition at safety, the Vikings will head into the season with just four: Smith, Robert Blanton, Andrew Sendejo and rookie Antone Exum. Could another veteran pickup be on the way?

Show of faith in Joseph, Stephen: The Vikings' decision to release defensive tackle Fred Evans came as a bit of a surprise, considering the team re-signed Evans to a one-year, $1 million contract in March. But the move to let go of the veteran means the Vikings are confident in two things: that nose tackle Linval Joseph will be healthy for the start of the regular season after being hit in the leg by a stray bullet Aug. 9 in a Minneapolis nightclub and that seventh-round pick Shamar Stephen can handle significant work at defensive tackle. Stephen saw plenty of playing time at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions during camp, and defensive line coach Andre Patterson remarked the Vikings got a steal in the draft. The decision to keep him means the Vikings stuck with nine of the 10 players they drafted in May (cornerback Kendall James was the only player cut).

What's next: The Vikings will be able to assemble their 10-man practice squad Sunday; according to league sources, they're hoping to retain a number of the players they cut Saturday, such as wide receiver Kain Colter, tackle Mike Remmers and running back Joe Banyard. They'll begin practicing with their 53-man roster Monday, as they prepare for the regular-season opener against the St. Louis Rams.

Vikings moves: G Jeff Baca, DT Chase Baker, RB Joe Banyard, WR Kain Colter, S Kurt Coleman, S Chris Crocker, DT Fred Evans, DT Isame Faciane, TE Chase Ford, WR Donte Foster, CB Kendall James, LB Justin Jackson, C Zac Kerin, CB Julian Posey, TE Allen Reisner, T Mike Remmers,, T Antonio Richardson (placed on injured reserve), S Jamarca Sanford (placed on injured reserve), DE Justin Trattou, RB Dominique Williams, LB Mike Zimmer
Sanford
MINNEAPOLIS -- Safety Jamarca Sanford, who missed most of the Minnesota Vikings' offsesason program and preseason with a spate of injuries, will spend the season on injured reserve, according to a league source.

Sanford's latest injury, a quadriceps strain he sustained while playing special teams in the Vikings' third preseason game against Kansas City, didn't seem likely to keep him out for the entire season, but the move allows the Vikings to retain his rights for the 2014 season. Sanford will be a free agent after the season, but the Vikings could re-sign him, instead of letting him leave for another team sometime this season.

The team has also released defensive tackle Fred Evans, according to a league source, which bodes well for both Linval Joseph's health and rookie Shamar Stephen's chances of making the team.

Joseph, who was struck in the left calf by a stray bullet in a nightclub shooting on Aug. 9, said last week he will be ready for the Vikings' regular-season debut on Sept. 7. Vikings coaches had also spoken highly of Stephen, a seventh-round pick from Connecticut who had played both the nose and three-technique tackle positions during the preseason, and it seems unlikely the team would release Evans if it didn't expect Joseph to be ready and Stephen to be ready for significant playing time as a rookie.

The Vikings have to reduce their roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET/3 p.m. CT.
Examining the Minnesota Vikings' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Coach Mike Zimmer said he didn't think the Vikings would only carry two quarterbacks, effectively quashing the idea the Vikings could cut Ponder to free up a spot elsewhere. Ponder received his first significant work of the preseason in the Vikings' final exhibition, and could still have some value in an emergency if the Vikings aren't ready to put Bridgewater on the field and they need someone to fill in for an injured or ineffective Cassel.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

Asiata has played well during training camp and is listed ahead of McKinnon for the No. 2 running back spot behind Peterson at the moment. At the very least, both could have distinct roles behind Peterson, with Asiata as a downhill runner and McKinnon as a threat in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

General manager Rick Spielman singled out Thielen -- who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad -- as a player who had improved from last year during the Vikings' minicamp, and the Minnesota State product continued to get better throughout training camp, making contributions on special teams in addition to his work as a receiver. Undrafted free agent Kain Colter received an $8,000 signing bonus from the Vikings, but the 6-foot-5 Smith sneaks in ahead of him to give the group a bigger target; he showed on Saturday night what his size can do for him when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Bridgewater on a fade route.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Even though Chase Ford is making progress in his recovery from a broken foot, he didn't play in a preseason game, and as much as the Vikings seemed to want to keep him, they might have to look elsewhere. If he is still hurt, that could open the door for Reisner, who caught a pair of touchdown passes from Bridgewater in goal-line situations on Saturday.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The Vikings seem set with their starting five from last season, which means Yankey will have to wait for a chance to push Johnson at left guard; everyone from Zimmer to offensive line coach Jeff Davidson seems to like the continuity the Vikings have enjoyed on the line. The Vikings worked Ducasse at tackle on Thursday night against Tennessee, and his ability to play both the guard and tackle spots might help the Vikings solve their question mark at the swing tackle spot.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

This might be the deepest position group on the Vikings' roster, and they could all play in Zimmer's defensive line rotation. Wootton and Crichton give the Vikings a pair of versatile backups who can play inside or outside, and Johnson and Evans figure to be the primary backups at three-technique and nose tackle, respectively. Johnson has also seen time as the three-technique tackle in the Vikings' nickel rush package. If there's one player on the roster who could compel the Vikings to make room somewhere else, it might be Shamar Stephen, the seventh-round pick who has impressed Vikings coaches throughout camp and has seen time at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions.

LINEBACKERS (7)

In Cincinnati, Zimmer had linebacking groups of just six and five players, respectively, after training camp the past two seasons. If the position is similarly staffed this season, it could mean the Vikings will cut seventh-round pick Brandon Watts. There are plenty of questions at the position -- none of the three spots in the base defense is completely solidified -- but in Barr, Hodges, Mauti and Cole, the Vikings have some young talent to work with. Dean keeps his roster spot because of his continued contributions on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (11)

This position might have been the Vikings' biggest liability last season, and it remains unsettled even after the preseason. Price has been injured after a strong start to the preseason, and a quadriceps injury took Jamarca Sanford out of action again on Thursday, unable to compete for a starting spot at a safety position Zimmer said is still open. Sanford started the past two years for Leslie Frazier, but he has spent so little time on the field for Zimmer, it would take someone in the front office vouching for him in order for the Vikings to keep him at this point. Short of that, the guess here is he gets cut.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The group returns unchanged from what the Vikings had on their roster last season. Locke punted better toward the end of the season, and has already put in some work getting to know the wind patterns at TCF Bank Stadium.
 

MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite not having Adrian Peterson on the field for the entire preseason, the Minnesota Vikings have found success running the ball, thanks in part to an offensive line that has done an impressive job executing offensive coordinator Norv Turner's power running game.

That success continued in a 19-3 win over the Tennessee Titans to wrap up the exhibition season on Thursday night. Joe Banyard, who's fighting for a roster spot at running back, carried 18 times for 111 yards. Dominique Williams followed with another 15 carries for 58 yards, and Jerick McKinnon gained 23 yards on three carries.

All told, the Vikings ran for 598 yards in four preseason games, averaging 4.75 yards per carry and effectively salting away leads in their final two preseason games. As much as their line has struggled with consistent pass protection in the preseason, the group has been as good as usual opening holes for the run, and should be even better once Peterson is unveiled for the start of the regular season on Sept. 7.

Turner's offense will involve a healthy dose of downfield passes, but the power running element of the scheme is an important facet of the offense, too, and the Vikings should end the preseason encouraged about their ability to create balance on offense.

Here are some other thoughts on the Vikings' final preseason game of the year:
  • The Vikings continued -- or concluded -- their audition at safety, playing Robert Blanton and Kurt Coleman for most of the first half. Andrew Sendejo got a healthy share of playing time in the second half, while injuries again kept Jamarca Sanford out. With the two-year starter missing most of the preseason, it remains to be seen if he'll be able to hang onto a roster spot among a crowded group of safeties.
  • Christian Ponder got his most extensive action of the preseason, hitting 12 of his 15 throws for 121 yards. Ponder, who didn't play in the Vikings' previous two preseason games, figures to make the roster as a third quarterback, but his playing time on Thursday night might have been his final significant action before he hits the open market as a free agent next March.
  • Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who made a nice catch in tight coverage for the Vikings' lone touchdown of the game, left in the second quarter with a hip injury and did not return. Fullback Zach Line --who might have been in need of a good showing to make the roster -- departed in the second half with an ankle injury.
  • The Vikings' swing tackle spot is still in some doubt, and they used much of Thursday's game to take a look at three different players -- Antonio Richardson, Mike Remmers and Austin Wentworth, who rotated at the tackle positions throughout the game. The absence of several linebackers due to injury also gave the Vikings a chance to look at both Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole, the middle linebacking candidates who played next to one another in nickel coverage.
  • Kicker Blair Walsh, who had missed a pair of field goals from more than 50 yards, ended the preseason on a good note, hitting all four of his field goals with a long kick of 45 yards. Jeff Locke also drilled a pair of punts that traveled 50 and 52 yards.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Here's what we know about Adrian Peterson's phone call with Jerry Jones, based on ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta's story and the running back's statement after the piece was published on Thursday afternoon: Jones was handed a phone in his suite at AT&T Stadium on the night of George Strait's final concert. He talked with Peterson for several minutes, and confirmed to Van Natta after the call that Peterson told him he's interested in playing with the Dallas Cowboys at the end of his time with the Minnesota Vikings.

Jones
Jones
Peterson
Peterson
The point at which Peterson's tenure in Minnesota ends is, mostly, up to the Vikings, who have him under contract through the 2017 season and could release him after next season with just a $2.4 million cap hit. So in the meantime, the main question before us is this: Does a casual conversation between a high-profile player and an opposing team official, expressing mutual admiration and general talk about the possibility of working together at a future date, constitute tampering?

NFL rules say if a team is contacted by a player under contract with another club, "the contacted club must immediately report such contact to the owner or operating head of the club which holds the player's rights." Jones told Van Natta he did not contact the Vikings, has not talked with Peterson since the call and did not consider the exchange to constitute tampering. A precedent established six years ago might support his point.

Back then, of course, the Green Bay Packers filed tampering charges against the Vikings for former coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's contact with Brett Favre while the quarterback was weighing his options during the summer of 2008. Favre eventually decided to play, was traded to the New York Jets and wound up with the Vikings a year later, but the NFL dismissed the Packers' tampering claim on the grounds that neither Favre nor the Vikings were soliciting one another.

Were the Vikings to file tampering charges against the Cowboys, they might have a stronger case to make because of Jones' on-the-record confirmations that Peterson expressed interest in playing for the Cowboys and the owner did not report the conversation to the Vikings. But as far as we know, it's not as though Peterson told Jones to trade for him this season, or Jones promised Peterson a job if he should ever leave Minnesota.

A Vikings official would not comment on whether the team would file a tampering claim against the Cowboys, saying the club would defer to the NFL. Peterson has mused openly about the possibility of playing in Texas before, and his phone call with Jones represents a more direct version of those thoughts. If the NFL were to apply the same standard to this phone call that it did to the Vikings' 2008 talks with Favre, though, the Cowboys might not face repercussions for Jones' decision not to report the conversation to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Lost in the discussion over the Minnesota Vikings' retooled offense -- with its slimmed-down tight end, recently installed starting quarterback and more aggressive passing game -- is the fact the unit has been operating to this point without its most important piece. While the Vikings have played three preseason games, moving the ball effectively with their starting offense, running back Adrian Peterson has watched from the sidelines, biding his time until the stakes are high enough to merit the physical toll contact will take on his 29-year-old body.

[+] EnlargePeterson
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings want to get Adrian Peterson to the edge more often this season.
When the Vikings finally pull Peterson out of the garage Sept. 7 in St. Louis, they'll be inserting him in an offense that will ask the 2012 NFL MVP to handle some different tasks from the ones he's typically performed. The Vikings' desire to use Peterson in the passing game has been well-documented and will probably be the most profound change for him this season, but there also will be a subtle change in the ways they use him when he's carrying the ball.

Peterson has done most of his work between the tackles in recent years, often putting together some of his biggest plays on zone runs that gave the running back a chance to read the defense and cut back against the grain if he saw an opportunity. In 2012, Peterson gained 1,536 of his 2,097 yards inside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some of that production came on power runs, but cutback opportunities off zone blocking have always been a major part of Peterson's game. The Vikings' new offense will still have those plays, but it will have a heavier dose of power running looks, including some outside runs like they've shown in the preseason with guard Charlie Johnson pulling around the right side of the line. On those plays, Peterson will have to display enough patience to let his blockers get set up and follow them to a predetermined point of attack. The Vikings have had some of those runs in their playbook in the past; they'll have more of them this year.

"There's some lateral parts to the run game," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "It's a little bit different read for him -- his eyes are probably at a different spot and location than they have been in the past. Any time you're running lateral, there's a degree of patience that comes with it. I think that will help grow his game; he's already got a tremendous package of things he does really well. I think this will just add to it."

The Vikings want to get Peterson on the edge of the field more often, both to maximize his explosiveness and reduce the pounding on his body, and that will inherently put the running back in some new situations. He'll run out of shotgun sets and multiple-receiver formations more often. He'll have to be better in pass protection to stay on the field on third downs, and he'll have to be more reliable catching the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Peterson has dropped 5.5 percent of the passes targeted for him over the last three seasons; that rate is still better than some prominent running backs with similar numbers of targets, such as Marshawn Lynch and Darren McFadden, but it is far higher than the 3.1 percent drop rate from two of the league's best dual-threat backs (Chicago's Matt Forte and Baltimore's Ray Rice).

It's all a significant change for a running back who, for his extraordinary talent, has been more of a specialist than a generalist during his first seven seasons. But Peterson has embraced the offense, saying the scheme is what he's been waiting for his whole career, and added Tuesday that Turner has been "trying to pretty much get me into any type of situation he can in this offense to put the ball in the running back's hands."

Said Wilson: "He's had good days, but there are some days where he's been spectacular in those areas. I'm excited to see what the new and improved Adrian Peterson is going to look like when the opener starts. I think this whole team is excited about what he could bring as a dual-threat player."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three months before the Minnesota Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater, they had constructed a climate in which Bridgewater -- or any young quarterback -- should be able to develop without the pressure of immediate expectations.

The Vikings committed more cash to veteran Matt Cassel when he opted out of his 2014 deal, giving him a two-year, $10 million contract that effectively set him up as the bridge to the team's next young QB. They had hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had Troy Aikman, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in the nascent stages of their careers. They even had Christian Ponder, the former first-round pick who could serve -- at least for a year -- as an emergency option in case Cassel got injured and the Vikings weren't ready to put a rookie on the field.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBy starting Matt Cassel over Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has given his rookie more time to develop.
All of the levers were in place to ensure a healthy environment for Bridgewater to develop. The only question: Would the Vikings pull the right ones?

Based on how new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner handled the first three months of Bridgewater's career in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. Zimmer named Cassel the starting quarterback Monday for the beginning of the regular season, rewarding the veteran for playing well enough to keep the job after he'd called Cassel the team's No. 1 QB on the first day of training camp.

Zimmer said at the time the designation didn't mean anything, but in a subtle way, it did: It set up a system in which Bridgewater would have to outplay Cassel to get the job, removed whatever temptation there might have been to play the rookie right away and sent a message to an offense filled with veterans -- 29-year-old running back Adrian Peterson among them -- that immediate success wouldn't take a backseat to development.

"The team has a lot of confidence in him," Zimmer said of Cassel. "They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team; it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks. I’ve said this before: It’s not always the best player at that position -- and I’m not saying Matt’s not -- but any position, it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now, I feel like that’s the best thing to do."

How this coaching staff handles Bridgewater will play a major role in Zimmer's longevity with the Vikings probably more than how the team fares this season. The decision Zimmer announced on Monday -- and the one his actions had been pointing toward for weeks -- worked on two fronts: It curried favor with players weary of quarterback instability after last season, and it provided more time for Bridgewater to learn in a forgiving environment.

Cassel will be asked to solve a tough St. Louis Rams defense on the road in Week 1, and could possibly have to trade scoring drives with Tom Brady and Brees the next two weeks. That's a daunting task for a rookie, and by assigning it to Cassel, the Vikings can retain some control over the setting in which Bridgewater eventually debuts.

They've been in a position to do that all along, with a sturdy (but not irreplaceable) veteran and an offensive coordinator who has done this before. All the Vikings needed was a rookie coach who would be pragmatic enough to manage it correctly, and it appears that's what Zimmer has done.
The Minnesota Vikings cut 14 players on Monday morning, trimming their roster to 76 players. They'll have one more cut to make before Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, at which all teams must be down to 75 players.

Most significant move: The Vikings signed former San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox to help with their depth at that position, and Cox -- who'd excelled in systems where he'd been able to play press coverage -- seemed like a good fit for the Vikings' defense. Despite a couple interceptions in training camp, he never was able to elevate himself on the team's depth chart, and his release creates more room for young cornerbacks such as Jabari Price to make the team.

Clarity at cornerback: With Cox and Robert Steeples among the players the Vikings released, the team is down to eight cornerbacks on the roster, and it's conceivable as many as six of those players could make the final roster. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are safe, Marcus Sherels would seem almost assured of a roster spot, as well, and three of the remaining five players (Josh Robinson, Jabari Price and Kendall James) were Vikings draft picks. If one of those players gets bumped, it could be James, who hasn't shown much in camp and could get beat out by Shaun Prater, who had an interception in Saturday's game.

Vikings' cuts: The Vikings released 13 players -- S Brandan Bishop, T Pierce Burton, CB Cox, WRs Andy Cruse, Kamar Jorden and Erik Lora, T Kevin Murphy, DT Kheeston Randall, DEs Tyler Scott and Jake Snyder, TE Kory Sperry, CB Robert Steeples and WR Ty Walker -- and waived S Mistral Raymond with an injury designation.
Examining the Minnesota Vikings' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said last week he didn't think the Vikings would only carry two quarterbacks, effectively quashing the idea the Vikings could cut Ponder to free up a spot elsewhere. Ponder hasn't played in the last two preseason games, but could still have some value in an emergency if the Vikings aren't ready to put Bridgewater on the field and they need someone to fill in for an injured or ineffective Cassel.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

Asiata has played well during training camp and is listed ahead of McKinnon for the No. 2 running back spot behind Peterson at the moment. At the very least, both could have distinct roles behind Peterson, with Asiata as a downhill runner and McKinnon as a threat in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman singled out Thielen -- who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad -- as a player who had improved from last year during the Vikings' minicamp, and the Minnesota State product has been the darling of training camp so far. Undrafted free agent Kain Colter got an $8,000 signing bonus from the Vikings, but the 6-foot-5 Smith sneaks in ahead of him to give the group a bigger target; he showed on Saturday night what his size can do for him when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Bridgewater on a fade route.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Even though Chase Ford is making progress in his recovery from a broken foot, he hasn't played in a preseason game, and it's getting harder to envision a scenario where he doesn't stay on the physically-unable-to-perform list to begin the season. If he is still hurt, that could open the door for Reisner, who caught a pair of touchdown passes from Bridgewater in goal-line situations on Saturday.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The Vikings seem set with their starting five from last season, which means Yankey will have to wait for a chance to push Johnson at left guard; everyone from Zimmer to offensive line coach Jeff Davidson seems to like the continuity the Vikings have enjoyed on the line. Richardson was not wearing a knee brace in the Vikings' second preseason game on Saturday night, and seems to be getting healthier after another player rolled up on his leg during training camp. If he's not healthy enough to be the Vikings' swing tackle, Mike Remmers or Kevin Murphy could win the last spot.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

This might be the deepest position group on the Vikings' roster, and they could all play in Zimmer's defensive line rotation. Wootton and Crichton give the Vikings a pair of versatile backups who can play inside or outside, and Johnson and Evans figure to be the primary backups at three-technique and nose tackle, respectively. Johnson has also seen time as the three-technique tackle in the Vikings' nickel rush package. If there's one player on the roster who could compel the Vikings to make room somewhere else, it might be Stephen, the seventh-round pick who has impressed Vikings coaches throughout camp and has seen time at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions.

LINEBACKERS (6)

In Cincinnati, Zimmer had linebacking groups of just six and five players, respectively, after training camp the past two seasons. If the position is similarly staffed this season, it could mean the Vikings will cut seventh-round pick Brandon Watts. There are plenty of questions at the position overall -- none of the three spots in the Vikings' base defense is completely solidified -- but in Barr, Hodges, Mauti and Cole, the Vikings have some young talent to work with.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (11)

This position might have been the Vikings' biggest liability last season, and it remains possibly the most unsettled headed into the final week of the preseason. Price has been injured after a strong start to the preseason, and a quadriceps injury took Jamarca Sanford out of action again on Saturday. Sanford started the last two years for Leslie Frazier, but he's spent so little time on the field for Zimmer, it'd take someone in the front office vouching for him in order for the Vikings to keep him at this point. Short of that, the guess here is he gets cut.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The group returns unchanged from what the Vikings had on their roster last season. Locke punted better toward the end of the season, and has already put in some work getting to know the wind patterns at TCF Bank Stadium.

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