The game doesn't count in the standings. Touchdowns and field goals will be scored, but the points won't matter, just like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". Most starters won't play more than a series or two. There will be dozens of players on the field that won't be on their respective rosters in a few short weeks. The play calling will be bland since the coaches won't want to tip their hands before their impending regular season matchup in six weeks. After the game, fans will know little more about the potential of their teams than they did before the kickoff.
FOOTBALL IS BACK!!
Friday night's game between the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers will count for little more than a symbol of the glorious return of our nation's greatest sport. However, there are still plenty of things to keep an eye on as the Vikings take the field for the first time in 2012:
The Quarterback of the
Christian Ponder was inconsistent last year. Can you blame him? He was a rookie. He had no offseason. He had to watch Donovan McNabb rifle passes into the turf for the first six weeks of the season before he mercifully took over. But this time around, the expectation ante has been upped significantly. You ultimately go as far as your quarterback can take you in the NFL. Nobody expects Ponder to join the upper echelon of QBs in 2012, but making sound decisions during his limited play on Friday would be a step in the right direction.
How wide is the receiving corps?
The awful injury to Greg Childs has weakened a mostly unproven group of wide receivers before the team even took a snap. The Vikings have a ton of young WRs in camp, so it will be interesting to see who can stand out in the crowd. Percy Harvin, Jerome Simpson, and probably Michael Jenkins are the only three that are guaranteed a spot on the team at this point. Stephen Burton has excelled in Mankato, but will it translate to game situations? Will Bryan Walters shine in the return game? Will Emmanuel Arceneaux harness his athletic ability and take the next step? Will Devin Aromashodu prove that he still belongs, or will youngsters like Jarius Wright, Kerry Taylor, or A.J. Love step up instead? (Kamar Jorden is in that mix too, but he's out with a broken hand.) Don't hold your breath for definitive answers to any of these questions on Friday, but hopefully some clarity will start to form.
The Safety Dance
No, not the Men Without Hats song. (And I apologize for getting it stuck in your head for the next four hours.) Starting safety seems to be one of the most wide-open position battles for the Vikings this year. Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford have had the most first team looks in training camp but Harrison Smith has been getting more and more looks. It will be interesting to see if the rookie from Notre Dame can earn his spot on the starting lineup. Hopefully the competition pushes all three to play better along with backups Eric Frampton and Robert Blanton.
D is for Depth
The starting front seven for the Vikings seems pretty set. Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and Brian Robison are probably your opening day defensive linemen. Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley, and Erin Henderson will most likely be the starters at linebacker. But head coach Leslie Frazier and new defensive coordinator Alan Williams have both preached a "hockey line" rotation in their defense this year, meaning much more substitution to keep players fresh. So who will make that second unit that gets the extra playing time this season? Everson Griffen's transition to linebacker could be a big wildcard for the defense. Right now you can basically draw a name out of a hat among Larry Dean, Audie Cole, Marvin Mitchell, Solomon Elimimian, and Tyrone McKenzie as to who the other backup linebackers will be. Fred Evans, D'Aundre Reed, and Trevor Guyton should all get good chances to make their case in San Francisco. Christian Ballard has the skills to succeed in the NFL, but it's unclear if he's better suited at defensive end instead of tackle. These second wave players need to make a splash in the preseason if they're going to make it back to the shore of the 53-man roster.
Cornering the market
Antoine Winfield, Chris Carr, and Chris Cook will be the main three cornerbacks for the Vikings heading into the regular season. It gets very interesting very quickly after that. Reggie Jones and Bobby Felder have come out of nowhere and played very well in training camp--if they play like they have in Mankato thus far, they have a very good chance of making the squad. Their surprising play has put more pressure on players like Brandon Burton, Marcus Sherels, and Zack Bowman. Rookie corner Josh Robinson probably won't get cut due to his high draft status, but his hamstring better improve pretty soon if he hopes to see the field much this year. (It sounds like the injury will keep J-Rob on the sidelines Friday.) The secondary has nowhere to go but up after their avert-your-eyes performance last year. Exactly how far up that is will be determined by what these corners can provide.
There are still plenty of storylines to follow outside of the five we just listed. The O-line needs to prove that they have less gaping holes than the letter "O" they're abbreviated by. The backup tight ends need to show that the Vikings can still run multiple TE sets with John Carlson hurt. New kicker Blair Walsh needs to display accuracy to go with his booming leg. But we'll leave you with one last thing to keep in mind as you watch the game on Friday:
It's just the first preseason game.
As tempting as it can be, don't read too much into anything. It's still ultimately sixty minutes of warmup for the real thing. (That goes for you too, 49ers fans that freak out over anything that Randy Moss might do. Believe us Vikings fans--we know.)