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Vikings expectations as high as a clear sky

MANKATO, Minn. -- Vikings players migrated south on U.S.169 on Thursday in a familiar caravan, hauling their flat-screen TVs, gaming consoles and pillows into Sears Hall before surrendering body and mind to NFL house arrest.

Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson takes a selfie with fans as he checks in during reporting day at the Minnesota Vikings Training Camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato on Thursdays, July 28, 2016. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson takes a selfie with fans as he checks in during reporting day at the Minnesota Vikings Training Camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato on Thursdays, July 28, 2016. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

MANKATO, Minn. - Vikings players migrated south on U.S.169 on Thursday in a familiar caravan, hauling their flat-screen TVs, gaming consoles and pillows into Sears Hall before surrendering body and mind to NFL house arrest.

It never gets old watching professional football players retrofit into college freshmen when training camp opens. Or listening to grown men in replica jerseys howling like banshees behind a rope line hoping a guy half their age will shamble over to sign a bauble.

Everson Griffen took stock of his rural surroundings at Minnesota State Mankato and christened his first news conference of the 2016 season with a sweeping generalization befitting the unfiltered defensive end.

"A lot of houses in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Betcha they got a lot of guns in there, too. Gotta be aware of your surroundings."

Veteran safety Harrison Smith rode the team bus to campus like a common rookie instead of abandoning his vehicle in a college parking lot for 13 days.

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"I'm a bus guy; it's stress free," he said.

Linebacker Chad Greenway, entering his 11th and final season, rocked a T-shirt depicting Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin dressed casually in sports coats and loafers.

With performance expectations high as a cloudless sky, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman raised the table stakes by announcing a contract extension for coach Mike Zimmer, who initially was signed through the 2017 season.

Zimmer said he was not seeking an extension. But owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, confident as reigning NFC North champions and with coffers soon to be overflowing after the opening of the team's $1.1 billion new stadium, secured the popular coach for an even longer term.

Spielman and Zimmer officially are fused at the hip, their fates tied to continued progress, a third-year quarterback and the demands of a rabid fan base frothing at the mouth as if it is 2009 - when Brett Favre and the Vikings caught lightning in a bottle before imploding on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth.

Unlike that magical season and the Greek tragedy that followed, this Vikings team is built to contend for the next five years. Zimmer already is a folk hero in the locker room and public arena. Smith and Griffen are signed long term. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, linebacker Anthony Barr and cornerback Xavier Rhodes could be next.

Optimism is raging, and for good reason. Minnesota's young, multi-talented and hungry defense has the potential to rival the Purple People Eaters' dominance during the 1970s - 40 years after the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance.

Rookie deep-threat receiver Laquon Treadwell, plus a revamped and more ornery offensive line that has taken a blood oath to safeguard Bridgewater, should strengthen a popgun offense preparing for the post-Adrian Peterson era.

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"I think it's going to be very competitive," Spielman said about this abbreviated camp. "I know we're going to have a lot of tough cuts. No one has a free pass."

The ribbon has been cut at U.S. Bank Stadium. The champagne toasts made, walking tours complete. The product will begin taking shape over the next two weeks.

"I'm just trying to get out of that suit and get to work," Zimmer said.

Hype has been growing since the pain and permafrost finally wore off Blair Walsh's missed 27-yard field goal in January that would have nailed down a wild-card victory over Seattle in Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium swan song.

The NFC is ruled by the Carolina Panthers, but their ugly Super Bowl loss to Denver leaves them vulnerable for takeover.

Seattle and Arizona are expected to resume their knife fight in the NFC West. Some dysfunctional team will emerge from the East. The Vikings and Green Bay Packers are expected to take their divisional fight down to a Christmas Eve clash at Lambeau Field.

"Obviously, the expectation level's that much higher. I get that," Zimmer said. "The expectation isn't any higher for me than it was the first year. I think this team understands hard work. I think they understand the things we have to do to get there."

And with that, the old ball coach dragged his straw man out of storage to prop up again as a motivational target during Thursday night's initial team meeting.

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"Some are saying we're not even in the top half of the NFC," Zimmer said. "And I'll mention it to them tonight."

Something special's brewing here. A championship journey has started or an epic fail looms.

The 2016 Vikings are simply too big to bore.

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