The Vikings left training camp in Mankato on Thursday, Aug. 16, with clarity in a few areas. Despite a handful of erratic days, Christian Ponder showed some growth. Run defense is an early concern, but the secondary should improve. The offensive line looks more cohesive. Team goals are to maximize potential and surprise a few people on the way.
But one glaring question likely will persist well beyond Friday night's preseason home opener against Buffalo:
Without Jerome Simpson for the first three games, will Ponder be comfortable stretching the field with any receiver save Percy Harvin?
Stephen Burton flashed his downfield ability in the preseason opener, catching a 52-yard pass from Ponder, but to say he's a surefire NFL threat is premature.
Three weeks of training camp served as an amalgam of highlights and miscues for the backup receivers. On the final day of camp, four receivers dropped passes during routine individual work, against no defense, prompting Ponder to yell: "Come on, guys. Come on." In the Vikings' 52 offensive plays during a Harvin-less preseason opener, Kerry Taylor was the only receiver with more than one catch.
For the second consecutive year, wide receivers coach George Stewart faces the challenge of developing unproven youth.
So he's made a promise to himself that he has the next 2-1/2 weeks to fulfill.
"We are going to have five quality receivers on the field against Jacksonville," Stewart said. "And I feel confident
Harvin is the only roster lock, leaving nine receivers fighting for four or five spots.
But the competition might not be as wide open as it appears on paper. Several players already have an inside track. It's highly unlikely general manager Rick Spielman would cut rookie Jarius Wright, a fourth-round draft pick. And Michael Jenkins just took a base salary pay cut from $2.5 million to $1 million. Though the Vikings made no assurances that the pay cut equaled a roster spot, it's believed the reduction enhances Jenkins' chances.
Burton appears to be the front-runner among the remaining seven -- ahead of Devin Aromashodu, Taylor, Bryan Walters, Emmanuel Arceneaux, Kamar Jorden and A.J. Love.
The Vikings were intrigued enough by Burton's combination of size and speed to start him last week against San Francisco. He produced the downfield gain but on an inside route dropped a pass from Ponder that wasn't perfectly thrown but still catchable.
Stewart said Burton has "great speed." Consistency will be crucial for the 2011 seventh-round pick after he played in three NFL games as a rookie last year.
"In terms of ceiling, Steve is a work in progress," Stewart said. "He's still getting better every day. He will be a guy in our future who gives us a chance to win on Sundays."
Aromashodu is in the mix. He showed occasional playmaking ability last year but had difficulty creating separation consistently. The coaches have asked him to improve his downfield ability, and Stewart said he's seeing strides in that area. Aromashodu and third-string quarterback Sage Rosenfels connected on a go-route pass this week.
Don't forget about Arceneaux or Taylor. The former has improved "more than any young man I've worked with in 25 years" since coming from the Canadian Football League, Stewart said. That doesn't mean he's a full-time NFL receiver yet, but Stewart said he's getting close.
Taylor's size (6 feet, 200 pounds) could hinder him on a team already committed to Harvin and Wright, but he's a polished receiver who can play inside and out. He keeps hanging around, often getting reps with the second team while Arceneaux and Wright are mostly third-teamers. The former practice squad player could find an NFL role somewhere, just maybe not in Minnesota.
Bryan Walters (6-0, 190) caught three passes for the Chargers last season but appears to have an uphill climb. Love (6-2, 205) and Jorden (6-1, 203) are long shots, with Jorden's hand/wrist injury virtually taking him out of the race.
Stewart is bracing for some separation in the coming weeks.
"It will sort itself out," he said.