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Vikings spin a crowded QB carousel

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Make no mistake, most attention and probably all the hype will be focused on the quarterback situation when new head coach Mike Zimmer leads the Minnesota Vikings in their first training camp practice July 25 at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

Former starter Christian Ponder may have sunk to the bottom of a three-man depth chart that includes steady veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in the May draft.

There was chatter about bringing Bridgewater along slowly, but that seemed to dissipate somewhat when Zimmer raved about the rookie’s performance in OTAs and minicamp.

While that high-level drama plays itself out, here are a few other items of importance the Vikings must mull in Mankato:

  • Despite the attention on quarterbacking, linebacker is really the weakest position unless or until first-round draft pick Anthony Barr proves himself. Even if Barr does contribute immediately, the unit is thin and so far there are more questions than obvious answers.

Nine-year veteran Chad Greenway is steady and healthy, but can he keep pace and do all of the things Zimmer will ask of him as a three-down player at age 31? Will Barr be able to transform freakish physical tools into a productive NFL linebacker? Can Jasper Brinkley play well enough to fill the gaping hole at middle linebacker? And who among the several intriguing but unproven prospects — Audie Cole, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, among others — will step forward to provide reliable depth and/or push Brinkley and Barr?

  • Aside from the quarterback controversy, defensive end Everson Griffen has the biggest shoes to fill as he transitions from a physically gifted athlete with unlimited potential to Jared Allen’s replacement as starting right defensive end.

Allen walked away from the Vikings without so much as an offer after six stellar seasons because the Vikings chose instead to invest in Griffen, who, at 26, is six years younger than Allen. Griffen, who has 17.5 career sacks and just one start over four seasons, was given a five-year, $42.5 million deal. If that’s not enough pressure to produce, Allen and his 128.5 career sacks stayed within the NFC North when he signed with the rival Bears.

  • There is also a healthy battle for the nickel cornerback job. The starting cornerbacks are set, but in the pass-crazed NFC North, a reliable nickel corner to play alongside starters Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn is vital.

Eight corners are competing for that nickel-back spot, which needs an upgrade if Zimmer is to turn around the 31st-ranked pass defense. Third-year pro Josh Robinson, who was unimpressive when given the chance to be a starter last season, and free-agent acquisition Derek Cox, who slumped in his only season in San Diego a year ago, are the primary contenders. The dark horse is Shaun Prater, who showed good instincts after signing as a street free agent during last season. Rookies Kendall James and Jabari Price, both Day 3 selections, also are worth watching.

  • There may be some welcome good news in the play of outside linebacker Brandon Watts, a seventh round draft pick this year, 223rd overall.

At 6-foot, 225, Watts lacks ideal size, but possesses the kind of speed and coverage ability that will add depth at a position of weakness and help bolster one of the league’s better special teams units.

With sideline-to-sideline speed and the knack of being able to shadow running backs and tight ends in man coverage, he should be a piece of the rebuilding project at linebacker.

  • Superstar running back Adrian Peterson does not let a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a 29th birthday slow him down. So why would he worry about a bunch of sports writers speculating that an unfriendly salary-cap figure may cause him to be released before the team opens its new stadium in 2016?

Because that is his own reality check.

Peterson talked with USA Today during OTAs about the reality that comes with playing in the NFL, regardless of one’s star status. He should know, since he watched the Vikings trade Percy Harvin and allowed Jared Allen to walk via free agency in back-to-back offseasons.

“If that’s going younger or trying to save money, that’s what it boils down to, no matter what type of talent you are,” Peterson said. “It’s really the unfortunate part of the business, but I’m blessed to still be around, and hopefully, it doesn’t happen to me one day. If it does, then, oh well. I’ll go on and do something different with my career.”

Peterson is the only running back in the league with a salary-cap figure of at least $10 million. After next season, the Vikings could release him without taking on any dead money from a salary-cap figure that will have ballooned to $17 million.

Of course, what few people seem to realize is Peterson also could have his contract redone with a signing bonus that would maintain the compensation level while lowering the cap figure. So it’s not exactly an     either/or situation the Vikings face with Peterson in a year or two.

Assuming he maintains his career-long level of production, Peterson has a hard time picturing the Vikings releasing him.

“I think the organization would take a heavy hit — for real — more so from the fan base,” Peterson told USA Today. “I don’t think it would be like a LeBron (James) situation where they’re burning my jersey, this, that and the other. They might be doing (the opposite) and not buying some season tickets.”

After the final minicamp practice, Peterson was asked to react to another running back claiming to be the best running back in the league.

Chris Johnson used to be that running back. Now, it’s LeSean McCoy.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” Peterson said. “Since I’ve been in the league, every year there’s been a guy that’s better than me. When I came in I had the same mentality. I’m the best, just try to put in the work and go out there and prove it.

“I understand where he’s coming from. I play this game for one reason and that’s to be the best, obviously to win a championship, but personally to be the best player. So I love his mentality.

“You are what you think, but you’ve got to put in the work as well. You think that you’re the second-best, you’re going to remain in that position. But he’s going to have to work extremely hard to surpass me.”

Peterson ran for 2,097 yards less than a year after suffering a torn ACL. So, yeah, he thinks he’s kind of unique. And that goes for his approach to turning 30 next offseason.

“It’s the same thing I thought when they say ACL, you’ll never come back from it,” Peterson said. “It is what is. It doesn’t apply to me. I have a totally different mindset and mind frame, so I’ll just stay in my lane and let everybody else say what they have to say. Because it’s just the way it is.

“So I don’t really get into it and try to prove anything to people. I just go out there and control what I can control and go out there and try to perform every year.”

Asked what age applies to him, Peterson said, “Well, I was talking to (former quarterback Brett) Favre. Forty sounds a good number.”

Take a close look at Peterson this offseason and you’ll see a guy who understands how well other great backs — Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson to name two — performed in Norv Turner’s offenses. Coming off groin surgery, Peterson looks as fit and trim as ever and is as eager as ever despite being upset initially by the firing of Leslie Frazier and most of his coaching staff after last season.

“He’s an ultimate pro to me,” said Turner, the team’s offensive coordinator. “He’s come in here and he understands that there’s a change. I think he’s taking the approach that we as coaches took. You do have to get out of your comfort zone a little bit. It’s new, you have to put time in, and he’s done all of those things. (Wednesday), he was outstanding and I think that’s what happens.”

It’s also clear that Turner will at least try to use Peterson as a receiver out of the backfield more than any other coach has during Peterson’s career. Others have tried as well, but Peterson never has looked comfortable catching the ball.

Turner said that’s not what he has seen this offseason.

“He’s got good hands,” Turner said. “I think he’s comfortable with the routes that we would ask him to run. I think he’s intrigued by it, but you would have to ask him. I think he’s doing really well with it. It’s certainly not the lead part of what we’re doing.

“We threw a screen to him that was as nicely set up as you could ask for and the linemen got out in front. If we can get him in space like that throughout a game, throughout the season it will help all of us.”