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FIVE Position Battles To Watch During Preseason Game #4


Photo – Aj Mansour (KFAN)

By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
@AjKFAN

Minneapolis, MN – The fourth preseason game in the NFL isn’t accompanied by all of the pomp and circumstance that the previous three possessed. Leading up to the final preseason bout, you never know what you’re going to get. In preseason games one, two and three, you have a chance to see starters, you have a chance to see stars and mostly, you have a chance to get a feel for what your favorite squad may look like in the upcoming season. For preseason game number four, all of those exciting plot lines will be stuck on the sideline wearing baseball caps and no pads.

For the Minnesota Vikings, preseason game number for is tonight at Mall of America Field against the Tennessee Titans. But just because the stars will be lining the sidelines, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any story lines to follow. And even better, we’ve done the work for you! Here are five position battles that are still up for grabs for you to hone in on during the fourth and final preseason game.

Starting Punt Returner – #35 Marcus Sherels vs #31 Bobby Felder

For the past two seasons Marcus Sherels has served admirably as the Minnesota Vikings starting punt returner, spot kickoff returner and backup corner back. Over that time, Sherels was known to be a sure handed option when receiving opposing punts but never made himself known as a dynamic punt returner. Outside of one punt return against the Detroit Lions in 2012, Sherels fought his way to an unimpressive 8.7 yards per return average.

Enter Bobby Felder.

A member of the 2012 Minnesota practice squad, Felder joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of Nicholls State. Felder earned an invite to Training Camp once again in 2013 and began to turn some heads with his kick and punt returning ability. With the kick returner spot already snatched up by rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, Felder began to focus most of his attention on the punt return gig. Through no fault of his own, the incumbent punt returner Marcus Sherels missed the third preseason game (father’s funeral) and Felder took advantage of the opportunity.

Having already proven he is a sure handed returner, Felder averaged 20 yards per return against a good San Francisco special teams unit. Felder also made himself noticed in the Buffalo (preseason week 2) game stopping back-to-back plays on the goal line serving as a cornerback.

As it stands now, I would give Bobby Felder the slight edge over Marcus Sherels.

Fifth Wide Receiver – #11 Stephen Burton vs #14 Joe Webb…

Everybody and their mother has been following Joe Webb’s transition from backup quarterback to reserve wide receiver. They’ve rejoiced the highs and lamented in the lows, but this competition and Joe’s attempt at making this 2013 Vikings squad is going to come down to the final week of preseason play.

Webb is locked up in a battle for the fifth wide receiver spot with third year Vikings wide-out Stephen Burton. Judging solely on receiving talent, Burton has to have the edge having player wide receiver all three of his years as a pro and four years at West Texas A&M. That said, Webb’s athletic ability and general likability have kept him in the mix up until the final week.

Both players have added roles as backup kick returners and gunners on the punt coverage team, but at the end of the day, whether or not they make this team will likely be judged on their receiving ability. So far this preseason Burton has the edge in the passing game having reeled in six catches for 98 yards. Over that time Joe Webb has managed to tally five catches for 27 yards but flashed Sunday night with an impressive red zone jump-ball catch for a TD.

It should also be noted that the possibility remains that the Vikings could keep six wide receivers and thing their roster our else where.

As it stands now, the edge has to go to Stephen Burton who has proven a more well-rounded wide receiver.

Starting Weak side Linebacker – Desmond Bishop vs Marvin Mitchell

This particular position battle wasn’t on anybody’s radar when Training Camp opened towards the end of July but here we are a month later with a serious battle for the starting weak side linebacker position.

Having signed with the Vikings during the offseason, Desmond Bishop came to Minnesota with heaps of experience acquired while serving as a dominant inside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers 3-4 defensive scheme. A severe leg injury and one missed season later and Bishop has latched on with a new team and is fighting for a starting spot.

Marvin Mitchell, a seven year NFL veteran, has spent time with the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins and last year with the Vikings throughout his career but has only started in five total games (including playoffs). Mitchell has made a name for himself in Minnesota on special teams but is looking to take advantage of Erin Henderson’s switch to the middle and earn himself a starting spot.

When the preseason schedule began, Mitchell had a firm grasp on the position but as the first three weeks have gone by, Bishop has been gaining steam and even saw snaps with the first-team defense Sunday night in San Francisco. Continuing to get back into the swing of things, Bishop has fought his way to being the Vikings second leading tackler this preseason with 13 tackles (Felder has 14) and is even seeing some time in the backup middle linebacker role as well. Despite the potential starting role, both players will be active Thursday night as Bishop continues to get acclimated and Mitchell fights for his role.

As it stands now, Bishop is gaining steam fast and it looks as if he will usurp Mitchell for that starting spot by the time that Week 1 rolls around.

Starting Cornerback (Opposite Chris Cook) – Xavier Rhodes vs Josh Robinson

When rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes was drafted with the 25th pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft it was assume that he would serve as the team’s starting cornerback opposite of Chris Cook. A tall (6’1″), big (210lbs) and fast (4.39 40yd) cornerback sounds like it would be a big asset in a division that has been terrorized by the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson over the past few seasons. But for some reason, Josh Robinson continues to be slotted in as the starting corner opposite Cook?

In fairness to Josh, he’s no slouch either. Drafted 66th overall by the Vikings in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Robinson posted the fasted 40-yard dash time (4.33) in that draft class and started in six games for the Vikings in 2012. All of that said Josh’s 5’10”, 199lb frame is a liability in the passing game and his tackling has been suspect.

To date, neither player has jumped up and grabbed control of the position. Rhodes has been plagued by injuries this preseason and Robinson is trending in the wrong direction after a poor performance in San Francisco that saw him targeted on five straight completions including a touchdown pass to Quinton Patton. Both players are in line to make the final 53-man roster, but their starting status is what’s up in the air.

As it stands now, Rhodes may get the job by default and will be forced to learn on the job as the season plays out.

Reserve Tackle – DeMarcus Love vs Kevin Murphy vs Brandon Keith

It often goes overlooked but reserve tackle is one of the more important positions on a football team. The combination of size and talent is so rare that quality tackles are rarely available on the free agent market. That said, injuries do happen and were Phil Loadholt or Matt Kalil to miss time with an ailment, the Vikings would need someone capable to step up and do the job during their absence.

DeMarcus Love was a sixth round selection by the Vikings in 2011 and his career has not necessarily panned out the way that he had hoped. During his rookie season, Love spent all 16 weeks on the team’s 53-man roster but remained inactive throughout its entirety. 2012 saw much of the same disappointment as Love was placed on Injured Reserve before it began with a torn pectoral muscle. Sadly, 2013 is shaping up for much of the same with Love. As it stands now, Love is facing a four game suspension for Performance Enhancing Drugs, an infraction that could easily spell the end of his time in Minnesota with the Vikings.

Kevin Murphy is a second year player who spent all of 2012 on the Vikings practice squad and was retained for a second stint this year. Murphy has seen considerable time in the preseason and the suspension of DeMarcus Love may very well have opened the door for him to make the squad. His work ethic and 6’7″, 305lb frame don’t hurt either!

Having last played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, Brandon Keith started in 11 games before being placed on the Injured Reserve list with an ankle injury. Keith sat out the entirety of the 2012 season and signed with the Vikings during free agency. Keith is a four year veteran but got a swallowed up a little so far in Training Camp.

As it stands now, Kevin Murphy has to be the front-runner. Thursday night may be the final decision maker.

Aj Mansour covers Minnesota Sports for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Vikings updates and breaking Vikings news, follow Aj on Twitter. @AjKFAN

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