Every NFL preseason sees players praised or criticized for their performances in practice settings. We try to figure out from their play during drills, intersquad scrimmages and exhibition games if a player is ascending or descending.
I think those are tough calls to make because the players aren't performing in real game situations against the best an opponent can throw at them. However, that's not stopping me from providing some opinions on a few Viking players who have stood out - for good reasons and bad - since training camp started in late July. Is what we've seen, read and heard about these players going to prove to be fact or fiction when the real games start? Let me pontificate for a spell.
Christian Ponder: I'm trying not to read too much into his play against Buffalo Friday night nor his two-pass performance against Houston last week. Against Buffalo, Ponder didn't have time to do much other than try to avoid getting sacked (he wasn't very successful). Still, what Vikings fans have learned is that Ponder was somewhere between awful and mediocre for a good portion of training camp (if you don't believe me, check out Arif Hasan's twitter timeline, and if you don't believe Arif, join the thousands of Vikings rubes who refuse to believe Ponder might not be the Second Coming.) Then Ponder started playing pretty well the last three or four days of training camp. Then the Bills game happened.
So is CP7 about to start playing like a #12 overall draft pick is supposed to play like? I hope it happens. I truly do. My strong suspicion is that what we've been hearing about and seeing in Ponder - the shifting from Good Christian to Bad Christian to Horrible Christian, and back again - is the real Christian. He's going to be inconsistent, playing well enough sometimes, and not very well other times. Get ready for a roller coaster ride with Ponder and lots of chatter throughout the season about what college quarterback the Vikings should target in 2014 draft.
Stephen Burton: Here is a guy who has been a model of consistency during training camp. And he's had two pretty solid performances in the preseason games. He even has media sceptics like ESPN 1500's Judd Zulgad on the Burton Bandwagon. This all sounds very familiar to me, though. I seem to remember tweets and a few mentions in stories last year of how Burton was looking good, a much improved player compared to his rookie year. And didn't he have a couple of promising preseason games as well? Didn't he catch a long pass from Ponder against San Francisco that got some fans (like me) thinking Burton was going to be a receiving threat in 2012. Then he caught five passes for 35 yards the entire season. I think Burton will make the team, and he does block very well for a wide receiver, which can be kind of useful. But wide receivers are paid to catch passes, not block. I expect when the 2013 season is over, Burton's receiving stats will look a lot like his 2012 receiving stats.
Erin Henderson: I wrote a few weeks ago that I expected rookie Mike Mauti to be the Vikings starting middle linebacker at some point this season. But Henderson has been sticking guys with authority in training camp based on the reports I've read. There are worries about his pass coverage ability, but he's got to be an upgrade over Jasper Brinkley and brother E.J. Henderson, who was not himself in 2011. I believe what we're hearing about Henderson is legit. He will play the run well in the middle, but his pass coverage as a middle linebacker will be a work in progress. The Vikings won't get star play out of Henderson, but he will be serviceable, and as he's shown in the past, on some Sundays he will be pretty good.
Fred Evans: Nobody who has watched the Vikings training camp closely can understand why the team doesn't make Evans the starting nose tackle over Letroy Guion. Pro Football Focus's Sam Monson concurs. Evans had a pretty good year in 2012 as a part-time nose tackle playing around 20-25 snaps a game. He consistently got into the opponents backfield and was a disruptive player. The thing with Evans is he's never been more than a part-time player. So the coaches must think Evans is best in short doses. I don't think we'll see much of a change here in 2013. The Vikings can make Evans a starter over Guion, but I expect his playing time will remain the same as it has been in the past and he will be as productive with that playing time as he was in 2012. That's good news for the Vikings. Now if the team could only get Guion to play at the same level.
Chris Cook: I have to admit Cook hasn't actually been the subject of many tweets or writeups since training camp began. But I think that's significant in itself. With Antoine Winfield gone, the Vikings need another cornerback to emerge as one of the best players and leaders on the defense. Now entering his fourth season, Cook should be that guy. Mostly what I'm getting from the coverage of the Vikings training camp is that Cook has been a bit invisible. He's not being noted as a standout in drills or scrimmages. He's not making many "flash" plays - interceptions, tipping away passes, strong tackles, that sort of stuff. He does seem to be having trouble covering Greg Jennings. That's worrisome because Cook will be asked to cover wide receivers as good or better than Jennings all season. Personally, I think this is the year Cook ascends and lives up to his high second round draft position - not that you'd be able to tell from how he's been doing this summer ....