1. What role do you see for Dalvin Cook in the Vikings offense in his rookie season?
Nate Leer: I think his role will change as the year goes along. The tendency for NFL coaches, and Vikes head coach Mike Zimmer in particular, is to make rookies earn their snaps. I would bet on Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon getting the most snaps in week 1 of the regular season. That said, if Cook is close to being the talent most people think he is, he will make plays that the other 2 can’t match and quickly carve out touches. To me, he takes over for McKinnon as the change of pace back in the first few weeks of the season. Murray is a complete back so he can play the snaps that require skills that Cook needs to work on such as pass blocking and short yardage running. If Murray stay healthy, he could end up being the starter the whole year. However, Cook might be more productive by the end of the season even with well under 50% of the snaps.
Kras: I believe Nate Leer said it pretty well, Cook will have to earn his reps going into his rookie campaign. I believe the Vikings brought Latavius Murray in to be the lead back in this O this season. I think Cook was a product of exceptional value that the Vikes couldn’t pass up knowing what potential he has. If Cook can produce on the field and learn quickly, I believe his role will expand and he will eat into both Murray’s and Jerick McKinnon’s touches as the season goes on. Injuries can always be a factor and force a player into role much earlier than anticipated so it will be interesting to watch and see how that shakes out. Murray did have an ankle surgery shortly after signing with the Vikings and is expected to be ready for training camp but it will be something to monitor when camp arrives.
2. Is it time to look at the Twins as a serious contender for the postseason or are they still a year or so away?
Kras: So far this Twins team has been a bit of a surprise to me in that I didn’t think they would be above .500 at this point. Sano has been, I think, better than expected considering what he did last season. Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, and Max Kepler have all done a solid job with the bats while providing some pretty good D behind the pitching and limiting the amount of errors in the field this year. The pitching on this Twins team is where I start to get concerned. The starters have exceeded my expectations as I didn’t think they would have anyone to compliment Ervin Santana, who has be outstanding. Hector Santiago and Jose Berrios have been quality starters to go with Santana to be 3 quality options. The back end of the rotation is a bit of a mess with Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Nick Tepesch, and Adalberto Mejia all taking their lumps trying to piece it together. The bullpen is even less stable, in my opinion, with guys like Matt Belisle, Buddy Boshers, Michael Tonkin, and Ryan Pressly all being ineffective for stretches of time. Not being able to consistently bridge the gap from starter to closer has been, and will continue to be, a problem for this team. It is for those reasons that, even if they are contending, I won’t be able to take them as a serious contender.
Nate Leer: Kras nailed it with identifying the bullpen as an area that limits the Twins and keeps them from being a legit contender. We only have to look back to Memorial Day to see a perfect example. Pressly, who has the best arm in the pen, couldn’t protect a big lead and it was downhill from there. I don’t necessarily blame management for the lack of top end arms for late in games because this team was not expected to compete this year. However, my contention in the offseason was that they should have stockpiled more cheap options for the bullpen. That sure would have helped now.
3. Assuming a Jimmy Butler trade is off the table, is there another veteran player for whom you would give up current players and the 1st round pick?
Nate Leer: It’s hard to say who is realistically available. I wouldn’t want a player like Melo and he wouldn’t come here anyway. Eric Bledsoe doesn’t seem like a fit. Paul George would be an awesome fit but how much would it take to get Indy to trade him and would he stay beyond the year left on his contract (he has a player option for 2018-19)? Plus he is a very similar player to Andrew Wiggins who the team definitely should not include in any trades. I think the T-wolves would be better served to use their salary cap space to lure in a free agent – either overpay for a young player they feel can develop or give a big 1-2 year contract to a vet who may have something left. Then they can keep all of their young assets and see who develops into winners.
Kras: When trying to answer this question I was having a hard time thinking of anyone other than Jimmy Butler who would fit the mold of what the Wolves need and what they should potentially give up. With that said, they would be better served to go after a guy like Gordon Hayward in free agency than giving up player assets and draft picks for a guy they think will fit the system but who is still unproven in the league. Whatever the Wolves do, I don’t want them to gamble the future of the team and jeopardize the core of this team.
1. Will Lebron James remain King or will the Golden State Warriors be able to dethrone him in the Finals?
Kras: I have no real vested interest in who wins or loses but last year at this time I thought Golden State would be the winner in 4, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Lebron proved that he belongs in the conversation when talking about the greatest of all time. I am going to go with the Warriors once again. I think the addition of Kevin Durant will be enough to get past King James & Co. With KD, I believe the Warriors will have the O needed to spread the Cleveland D thin enough to get shots and hit the 3-pointers they need to get the job done. Looking ahead to this series, I am going to pick Draymond Green to be MVP and have a great series. Last year, after he got suspended for Game 5, the Warriors lost and Cleveland was given new life. I think Green atones for his past mistakes and gets the Warriors to the promise land.
Nate Leer: Just like last year, I am going to counter Kras’s pick and take LeBron. I think King James is still clearly the best player on the planet and the Cavs have a distinct advantage in the paint. Plus, Golden State has no one who can really shut down lightning quick Kyrie Irving. If Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson can dominate the paint, it should be enough to let LeBron and Kyrie score in bunches. The keys will be rebounding differential and 2nd chance points. If the Cavs can dominate in those areas, it should be enough to help their perimeter studs outlast the Warriors.
2. Will the Nashville Predators be able to outlast the experience of the Pittsburgh Penguins and win their 1st ever Stanley Cup?
Kras: I am cheering for the Preds to win their first Cup in team history. They played arguably the best hockey throughout the playoffs up to this point. The Preds also have a stellar goalie in Pekka Rinne, who looks to be making a bid for the Conn Smythe Trophy. With all that being said, I believe the Penguins are going to win the Cup, again. They have all the veteran talent and help they need in guys such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Matt Cullen. Along with that leadership, the Pens also are getting good play from some of the role players on the team. Guys named Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin are all second or third line guys who are able to show up at the right time and help give this team a boost. With what the Pens are able to do time and time again, it is tough to bet against them winning it all. Regardless of who wins the series, it should be a fun one to watch.
JJ Benz: I am on the same page as Kras on this one. I will be rooting for the Preds to win but the Pens have the experience and the momentum. In most sports, if one team has an easier road to the championship and gets more rest after shorter series, it has the advantage. In the NHL, the stats say the opposite. I thought that it would have go the other way and the more rested team would have the better odds. Pittsburgh is the more talented team and they have the momentum, even though they gave up a 3 goal lead in a victory in game 1. The Preds have a chance to win but they need to try and slow down or muddy up the game which they have been able to do in every series so far in the playoffs. Most of the Cup series have been unpredictable so who knows what will happen.
3. Which breakout or rebound MLB hitter is most likely to keep up their pace for the rest of the year?
Nate Leer: I tend to think 3B Jedd Gyorko of the Cardinals is the most likely to continue to rake all year. He was a high end prospect for the Padres before finding his groove with the Cards. The move to St. Louis put him in a better lineup, better stadium and with better coaches. All of those factors have added up to him unlocking his potential. Maybe he was pressing too much in San Diego or maybe he just needed time to develop but it seems like he has figured out how to hit for average and power. Other candidates have more issues: Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t been healthy for a whole year in forever, Eric Thames is slumping and will certainly have some rough stretches as he acclimates to major league pitching, Mark Reynolds could lose ABs as the Rockies get healthy and Aaron Judge is likely to experience some slumps as he gains experience.
JJ Benz: This is a tough question to answer but I would have to say Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has been a solid player but hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. I like Aaron Judge in the long run. He is having a fantastic year but I don’t see him being able to maintain his current pace. Eric Thames is the real unknown because he has been playing in Korea for the last 5 years. I don’t really know much about him besides he has been raking for the Brewers. Mark Reynolds would be my 2nd choice. He has resurrected his career in Colorado, cutting his strikeouts in half last year. Reynolds is playing in the best offensive ballpark in the league and is in a potent lineup. Reynolds has been an all or nothing hitter with a low average but with good power numbers for most of his career. However, last year he hit .280 and his power numbers were down some so maybe he has made a change in his approach. Jedd Gyorko showed some promise the second half last year and seems to have found his niche in St Louis.