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Postcard from camp: Vikings

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Dennis Dillon had to say about Vikings camp in Mankato, Minn., which he visited on July 26. Read all of our postcards here.

At Minnesota State University in Mankato, an easy, 90-minute drive south from the Twin Cities, where the Vikings are summering for the 47th consecutive year. No other NFL team that goes away for training camp has such a continuous relationship with the same school. Almost as a welcome-back greeting, the weather broke upon the team's arrival last Thursday, with the mercury dropping from near triple digits to the much more palatable high 70s-low 80s during the day. The Vikings will camp here until Aug. 16, about a week longer than usual.

1. If you come here hoping to see Adrian Peterson do some of his fancy dance steps on the field, you're going to be disappointed. The running back still is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery after tearing both his ACL and MCL in a Dec. 24 game against the Redskins. Ever the optimist, Peterson has his sights set on playing in the Sept. 9 season opener against Jacksonville -- less than a full nine months after his surgery. For now, though, he is on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and is working on specific exercises with head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman. Is it possible Peterson could play in a preseason game?

"He's such a unique athlete, it's hard to draw conclusions this early," coach Leslie Frazier said. "He's done so well at every juncture with his rehab. He's been ahead of just about everybody our trainers and doctors have worked with. We'll just monitor it daily and see where he is as time goes on."

In the meantime, third-year back Toby Gerhart will do the heavy lifting in the running game. Gerhart started five games last season and rushed 109 times for 531 yards.

2. What a difference a year makes. Last summer, quarterback Christian Ponder reported to camp as a first-round rookie (12th pick overall) and backup to Donovan McNabb. Now, Ponder is the unquestioned leader of the offense, with 10 starts to his credit.

The former Florida State QB had a decent rookie season -- he completed 158 of 291 passes (54.3 percent) for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- but he admits a four-turnover performance marred further by a hip pointer in a late-season loss to Detroit rattled his confidence. Ponder spent the offseason focusing on getting a better feel for his reads and getting the ball out of his hands more quickly. He looked like a different quarterback early in camp.

"It's night and day different," said center John Sullivan, who spent a lot of time with Ponder during the offseason doing recreational boating on Minnesota's lakes. "He's in control of everything now. His reactions to defensive looks are much quicker and he's confident where he's going with the ball. I don't want to overstate it, because we're only [a few days] in, but he looks a lot better."

3. The pass defense has to improve. The Vikings tied with Philadelphia for the league lead in sacks (50) last season, and end Jared Allen (22) came within half of a sack of tying the NFL single-season record. Yet, the Vikings allowed an alarming 4,019 passing yards and a league-high 34 touchdown passes. You could argue that they had cornerback Antoine Winfield for only five games because of injuries, but no matter how you couch it the secondary didn't hold up its end.

That group will have some turnover in personnel this season. Chris Cook is supposed to start opposite Winfield at cornerback, and second-round rookie Harrison Smith is eventually expected to replace Jamarca Sanford at strong safety -- maybe in time for the season opener.

Matt Kalil, tackle. The Vikings drafted Kalil fourth overall out of USC with the vision of him anchoring the left tackle position for, oh, the next dozen years or so. After the team parted ways with long-time starter Bryant McKinnie last year, Charlie Johnson moved in at tackle. But Johnson is more comfortable at guard. With the 6-foot-7, 308-pound Kalil at left tackle and Johnson on his right hip, the line should be stronger at two positions.

Do you think Ponder was eager to see Kalil get to Mankato on time for the start of training camp? Not only did Ponder pick up Kalil at the Minneapolis airport last week, but also he took him to Winter Park, where Kalil stopped in to sign a four-year contract worth a reported $20 million, and then chauffeured him to Mankato.

Jerome Simpson, receiver. The Vikings didn't exactly burn a path through the free-agent market, but former Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson was a key acquisition. Simpson had a career season in 2011, catching 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns, and he became a YouTube sensation when he vaulted and flipped over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington at the goal line en route to a touchdown. The Vikings think Simpson can add an element to their offense that was missing last year, even if he won't be available for the first three regular season games (he will be suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy).

When opponents would use two and sometimes three defenders to take away Percy Harvin last season, the Vikings didn't have another receiving weapon who could stretch the field vertically. With Simpson and Harvin on the field at the same time, teams will have to be more judicious in their coverage.

"We didn't have an answer away from Percy," Frazier said. "We think with Jerome, we've got that and we can take some of the pressure off of Percy."

The Vikings went 3-13 in 2011 -- the worst record in the franchise's 52-year history. They have a chance for some early success this season because they open with Jacksonville at home and then travel to Indianapolis, where they will face a rebuilding Colts team. They'll face only four playoff teams from 2011 -- the 49ers, Texans, Packers (twice) and Lions (twice) -- but they face a challenging stretch run. Five of their final six games are against the Bears (twice), the Packers (twice) and Houston.

The Vikings have a largely young roster that includes a second-year quarterback and a rookie left tackle, and their franchise running back had knee surgery less than eight months ago. This has the look of a 6-10 season, which won't get the Vikings to the postseason but would be an appreciable improvement over last season.

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