MANKATO, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings carry absolutely zero national expectations with them to training camp this summer. They parted ways with a half-dozen key members of the 2008 and 2009 NFC North champion teams, shifting into a transition period that will make it difficult to compete in a division filled with elite quarterbacks and playoff contenders.
As it turns out, the Vikings are devoid of internal expectations as well. They have in no way conceded a last-place finish in the division, but they appear realistic about their situation. Three days at Minnesota State University, Mankato, revealed an emphasis on the process rather than bottom-line results.
"This is the most focused and probably unassuming camp I've been a part of," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "And that's great. The last three or four years, we've been surrounded by hype, whether it be right or wrong or good or bad. There's been a lot of media fanfare, sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for bad. "
Greenway paused to choose his words carefully.
"There's no good way to say this, but we've sort of regained the youthful focus of having so many guys that are trying to make the team and make an impression. When you have that, you have guys just coming to work. … It's just about our work, less about what's going on outside of us and more about how we can try to get better. We haven't had perfect practices. We have maybe had some exceptional periods here and there. But we're grinding it out and having fun doing it."
"The only thing we're trying to do," cornerback Antoine Winfield said, "is come out each day and work to get better at something, whether it's technique or studying film. We're just trying to get better."
It's obvious the Vikings are more organized and have a clearer vision after a full offseason under general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier. Their camp is less hectic than the one they put together after the 2011 lockout, and as a result, Frazier said, "We've hit the ground running."
That's a good thing, because everyone agrees they have some catching up to do.
"Nobody is going to sit here from the inside and say we're going to be 10-6 and make the playoffs," Greenway said. "No one is going to talk like that, because we know it's about nothing but grinding it out every day. We just want to stack good days on top of each other."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Quarterback Christian Ponder's progress: By all accounts, including the amateur naked eye, Ponder has made strides since the end of an uneven rookie year. His throws in team drills came more often from the pocket than on the run. They were decisive and more accurate than what we saw last year, and Ponder has convinced most everyone surrounding the team that he will be better in his second season.
"He's much, much improved," Frazier said. "I was telling him the other day that we and his teammates all recognize how much more confidence he seems to have. He's communicating more as far as talking to players, telling them where to be and where to line up. He's in his second year. There is still some growth yet and some progress to be made, but he's come along."
During practice, Ponder circulates among veterans and young players with ease, discussing previous plays and keeping the mood light with a goofy but ever-present grin. After overthrowing receiver Jerome Simpson, Ponder stood next to him on the sideline, put his arm around him and said with a smile: "Well, I put it high and outside, just like you wanted it!"
Speaking later with reporters, Ponder said: "This is my team. I'm able to perform so much better and feel so much more comfortable knowing that, and knowing the situation I'm going to be in. I can play and I can prepare, and it's a good feeling."
2. Tailback Adrian Peterson's recovery: Aside from a one-day setback following an allergic reaction, Peterson continued to demonstrate a fanatical determination to rejoin the team in time for its Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. During the first day of my visit, Peterson spent more than 30 minutes trying to beat prescribed times in a 50-yard dash. The next day, he ran stairs at Blakeslee Stadium.
Although no one has an exact date in mind, the sense at camp is that Peterson's off-field recovery is nearing its end. Soon it will be time to be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and add football drills to his routine.
3. Changes up the middle: An overhaul of the middle of the defense remains a work in progress. The Vikings debuted new starters at nose tackle (Letroy Guion) and middle linebacker (Jasper Brinkley), and it's expected that rookie Harrison Smith will soon take over one of the safety spots. "We knew we needed to get better up the middle," Frazier said.
Brinkley has allayed any short-term fear about his availability after injuries limited him during offseason practices. "We missed him this offseason and that was a little scary," Frazier said. "But he's come back this training camp and he's looked good. He hasn't missed a practice. Hasn't missed any drills. You can see that thump he had before his injuries, so we feel good about where he is right now."
Brinkley figures to have limited reps during the season because he has been coming off the field in nickel situations, and Guion probably will serve as a placeholder until the Vikings find a longer-term solution at nose tackle. But Smith projects as a cornerstone player whose ascension to the first team appears imminent. "Drafting Harrison is going to be a good move for us," Frazier said. "He has some range, the athleticism to really help us." Mistral Raymond appears to be the likeliest option to start alongside Smith.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
A favorable early schedule (at home against the Jaguars in Week 1 and at the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2) provides an opportunity for a 2-0 start, a confidence boost that could propel the Vikings to a more successful season than most have projected.
But from a big-picture perspective, the best thing you can say about the Vikings is they are following a clear long-term vision for the first time in years. They have rid themselves of players they believe no longer can contribute, pushed forward a core of young players -- a group that includes Ponder, Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and left tackle Matt Kalil -- and refused to overstep in their search for replacements at other positions.
What we've seen this summer isn't a finished product, but it can be viewed as a clearly identifiable step in building a winning program.
REASON FOR PESSIMISSM
No matter how much progress the Vikings make, they are in a tough division and will compete against teams whose program-building began years ago. The Green Bay Packers, under general manager Ted Thompson, have been at it for eight years. The Chicago Bears' core has been together since the mid-2000s, in most cases, and the Detroit Lions are in Year 4 under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz.
Meanwhile, it's important to view Ponder's progress in the context of division foes. Even if he is much better in 2012, Ponder likely still will be the fourth-best quarterback in the NFC North.
New defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn't expected to make many schematic changes to the Vikings' Tampa 2 structure. "We're just going to try to take the things we've been good at in the past and do them better," Frazier said. With that said, Winfield said he has been encouraged by some minor tweaks that will allow corners "to play more aggressive and have a few more blitzes."
Winfield is healthy at 35 but the Vikings are protecting him with limited reps in camp. He has gotten some work as an outside cornerback, but it's expected he will serve mostly as a slot defender. "Who knows how much I'll be outside,'" he said, "but I'll definitely be inside. That's my home position."
It appears second-year player Brandon Fusco has won the right guard spot, even if by default. Veteran Geoff Schwartz was set to compete with Fusco for the job, but a sports hernia has put Schwartz behind and brought his availability for the start of the season into question.
Placekicker Blair Walsh, drafted to replace veteran Ryan Longwell, demonstrated an accurate and powerful leg early in camp. Unofficially, he missed only two of 26 kicks in team drills in the first nine days of practice, based on full-camp tracking from Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
Tight end John Carlson's knee sprain provided extra practice repetitions for young tight ends Allen Reisner, Mickey Shuler and Rhett Ellison. It appears that Ellison, a fourth-round draft choice from USC, has quickly captured the imagination of his teammates. "We all love that kid," Ponder said. "He's got a little bit of [retired Vikings fullback] Jim Kleinsasser in him. He's tough. We watch his blocks, some of his one-on-one drills against linebackers. He's tough, man. He's got a little crazy in him. Great kid, too, and he's doing really good. ... He's got a little angry side to him. It's pretty cool."
Kalil's matchups with defensive end Jared Allen generated plenty of attention. But Kalil's early-camp performance was also notable for the energy with which he chased downfield blocks. "It's definitely an emphasis for me to finish downfield," Kalil said. "[Offensive line coach Jeff] Davidson makes a good point. You never know what can happen. You can grab a fumble or be there if something bad happens. It's always good to get downfield to be there or try to make that last block. Basically, the more effort, the better."
Greenway is among those who are trying to recalibrate the Vikings' locker room mentality to accommodate the influx of youth. "I think the biggest difference from years past," he said, "is that the veterans are trying to do a better job of embracing the rookies and help them. We need their help now, and we need their help to win now. We need them to come along as fast as possible."
The loss of receiver Greg Childs (knees) on Saturday night was a blow for the team's long-term plans, but in 2012 it's been expected that Simpson, Rudolph and Percy Harvin will be Ponder's top targets. Simpson has worked hard to earn Ponder's trust, while Rudolph's huge catch radius is a comfort for any young quarterback.