DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Pro Football Writer
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings will have seven new starters in their base defense this season. The scheme itself is a lot different, too, using more man-to-man coverage, blitzing and disguises than in the past.
After giving up the most points in the NFL last year, the Vikings have been busy undertaking a renovation project that began when Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach. Players showed some progress during training camp, winning all four exhibition games, and now it’s time to gauge improvement for real.
“Keep doing the things that we’ve done in the preseason, we can go out and beat anybody,” Zimmer said. “But we have to go out and do them. We can’t talk about it.”
Three positions were still open as August ended. One, strong safety, has remained that way after the relatively surprising release of veterans Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman. Robert Blanton has been listed first on the depth chart, with Andrew Sendejo behind him, but Zimmer declined to declare a winner.
“We’ll see how it goes in practice this week,” Zimmer said.
Cutting Crocker and Coleman, like so many roster moves in the NFL, came down to special teams. Blanton and Sendejo are two of the team’s best players on those units.
“They had a tough decision upstairs, and I just tried to come in and do my job,” Blanton said.
As for the middle linebacker, with Jasper Brinkley ahead of Audie Cole, Zimmer said he’s decided, without revealing the starter following practice on Monday. Same for nickel cornerback, between Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels. Those announcements will come on Sunday before kickoff at St. Louis, Zimmer said.
The 53-man roster decisions were relatively easier on offense, with a few backup spots left up for grabs after the final exhibition game. The NFL’s expected suspension of wide receiver Jerome Simpson created an opportunity for both Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith, undrafted rookies who spent last year on the practice squad.
For Thielen, the native of Detroit Lakes and product of Minnesota State University, this was a happy weekend. Most of the celebrating was by his friends and family, though. He said between 10 and 15 of his buddies drafted him in their fantasy football league.
“I was like, ‘That’s a bad pick for them,'” Thielen said.
No player’s place is ever guaranteed, but even the NFL minimum salary of $420,000 will be a nice living for now.
“You never know, no matter who you are. Around the league there were a lot of veterans who I would think people didn’t think were going to get cut,” Thielen said. “So you never know, and it’s a good feeling to be here.”
His work on the kickoff coverage and punt return units helped solidify his spot.
“If you’re not a starter in the NFL you have to have that special teams background,” Thielen said. “There’s just not enough roster spots to waste on someone who’s not going to play on special teams, so that was a big emphasis for me.”
Another familiar face for Minnesota fans on the final roster was tight end MarQueis Gray, the former quarterback and wide receiver for the Gophers. He spent last season with Cleveland, making an impression on offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
“He’s trusting me a lot to be here, obviously, because he wants me to be here,” Gray said. “So I’ve just got to make sure I do my part and uphold all the great things he’s said about me.”
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