With four preseason games down, we only have one to go. The final preseason game typically doesn't feature starters playing much, if at all. If Teddy and co. do get the nod this Thursday, only one or two series should be expected. With most if not all of the starters reps in the rearview, we can now analyze what type of impressions the starters left with us. In this article I will break down each unit on offense and defense.
Teddy Bridgewater looked extremely good, although not perfect this preseason. He completed 29-35 passes for 295 yards, a touchdown and no picks. He stood tall in the pocket and appeared far more confident than the rookie Teddy Bridgewater we saw last year. Time and time again he went through his progressions and found the open receiver. While there was definitely noticeable improvement here, there was a glaring issue that I noticed. Throwing in stride.
There are two examples of this that come to mind immediately. The first was a pass to Charles Johnson versus the Raiders on a slant route. The ball was thrown behind Johnson and forced him to make a rather difficult grab and prevented him from gaining the yards after the catch that were there had the ball been thrown in stride. The second example came in the same game on a pass to Rudolph. This pass was thrown a bit behind a wide open Rudolph on what I believe was an out route and was dropped.
Jerrick McKinnon manned the starting running back position with Adrian Peterson being rested for the preseason and underwhelmed. On 25 carries he was only able to muster up 40 yards rushing with no touchdowns. While the blame certainly can't all be placed on McKinnon as there were plenty of unblocked rushers that got to him in the backfield, McKinnon needs to do a better job of choosing his holes and hitting them with authority. He also seemed to go down much easier than he did throughout his impressive rookie season.
An area that McKinnon did perform well in was catching passes out of the backfield. He caught 10 balls for 77 yards including a nifty catch and run of about 15 versus the Raiders. While Peterson will get the majority of the carries, if McKinnon can prove to be a useful contributor to the offense out of the backfield on third downs and become a reliable pass protector he just might be able to find his niche on this offense.
Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace each had their moments with the first team offense. Charles Johnson, who just might be the Vikings number one receiver, caught 4 balls for 41 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders. His touchdown came on a beautiful fade route in the back of the end zone. He showed good explosion out of his breaks and improved footwork- something I was looking for closely after hearing he worked out with the "Footwork King". He also displayed good hands, despite not contributing much outside of the Raider game.
Mike Wallace, like Johnson, packed most of his punch into one game. After struggling with drops in the previous preseason games, Wallace came alive against the Cowboys catching 3 passes for 50 yards, including a beautifully lofted 39 yard heave. I'm going to take a brief intermission to talk about this play. Before the snap Teddy anticipates an A gap blitz from a couple of linebackers. He recognizes that he has single coverage on the outside and audibles Mike Wallace into a go route, essentially trusting that Wallace can beat the not-so-fearsome Brandon Carr. Wallace puts the burners on and is able to corral a beautifully thrown ball from Teddy, despite tight coverage, giving us our first real glimpse of the notorious burner at his best.
It seems as though each year everyone expects Kyle Rudolph to have a breakout season. Well, it appears this may finally be the year assuming he avoids injury. Rudolph has served as Teddy's check down option throughout the offseason and should be featured in this Norv Turner offense. Despite one ball thrown behind him that he still should have caught, he has played very well this offseason, catching most passes thrown his way and running shifty routes.
Widely assumed to be the Vikings' weakest position group, the starting offensive line has performed surprisingly well up to this point. Despite losing Phil Loadholt for the season, Teddy has had a relatively clean pocket to work with for much of the preseason. Sure, some of this is due to the fact that he is getting rid of the ball much quicker than last season, but lets give credit where it's due- the offensive line hasn't been nearly as bad as anticipated.... Knock on wood.
Losing Phil Loadholt for the year is certainly going to sting, but perhaps the silver lining in this injury is that the pass blocking may actually improve. Rookie fourth round pick T.J. Clemmings has held his own as a pass protector since replacing Loadholt in the starting lineup, although he has struggled as a run blocker.
In other offensive line news, Brandon Fusco has played well and appears to be at 100% following a season that ended early due to a pectoral injury. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Matt KaBOOM is actually blocking defenders this year! Oh, and Mike Harris has actually played well this preseason, particularly as a run blocker. We just might... might be alright on the offensive line this year.
NOTE: If Kalil disappoints, I will swiftly come back to this article and edit out the rather eager nickname I have given him.
In what was expected to be a heated battle for the starting safety position next to Harrison Smith, it appears Robert Blanton was easily able to hold off second year hopeful Antone Exum and rookie Anthony Harris. Blanton has played solid football in each of his outings thus far. Harrison Smith has been his usual self outside of a terrible angle taken during the Cowboys game on what ended up being a 60+ yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams. Despite this mishap, safety appears to be one of the stronger positions on this roster. Random thought: Anyone remember Madieu Williams now?
This is perhaps the deepest position on the Vikings, and the starters have looked very solid thus far. Xavier Rhodes has looked confident and improved from a technical standpoint in his limited snaps. The other cornerback spot is a little bit up in the air right now. While Terrance Newman is probably the favorite to land the job, recent comments from defensive coordinator George Edwards suggested that the plan is to have rookie first round pick Trae Waynes ready for the opener. Shortly after, Zimmer debunked these comments, but it still doesn't really give us any kind of certainty on who currently occupies the starting position. Newman has looked decent outside of a couple slices of toast, including one with butter and jelly on top from Raider rookie first rounder Amari Cooper.
Trae Waynes on the other hand has steadily improved week-by-week after looking awful in the preseason opener against the Steelers. This past week against the Cowboys was his best showing, in which he prevented numerous deep balls and provided solid coverage all game long. While his coverage is certainly improving, his run defense is still a work in progress. At this point, that may be what keeps Zimmer from naming him a starter.
If cornerback isn't the deepest position on the Vikings' roster, than it's the linebackers. With Anthony Barr essentially the only "lock" to start, there are two linebacker positions available, although most expect Chad Greenway to be given one of the other spots. Each starting linebacker candidate makes a strong case to start.
Eric Kendricks is an all around stud, and this has been on display this preseason. He has been flying around all over the field making shoestring tackles, sacks, pass breakups and providing good coverage. Gerald Hodges has also been all over the field providing good pass and run defense. He also had a good performance as the starting Mike linebacker against the Cowboys. Audie Cole is the hard worker who plays a disciplined style of football, and despite not standing out too much this preseason he has some excellent games on his resume. And then there is Chad Greenway, who is good company for Mike Zimmer on poker night. No, but in all seriousness he has played alright this preseason after finishing the 2014-15 season as one of the worst linebackers in the NFL via Pro Football Focus.
The defensive line has played pretty well. Everson Griffen has been Everson Griffen, with his highlight of the preseason coming on a beautiful spin move during the Buccaneers game that resulted in a sack of Jameis Winston. Sharrif Floyd has looked extremely quick off the snap and menacing versus the run and pass, although he has been a little bit inconsistent. His hands appear to be improved when he wants to use them. I expect this to be more evident once the season starts as he is a bit of an injury prone player who may be holding back a bit because it's preseason and at the end of the day doesn't matter.
Linval Joseph appears to be much improved after an average 2014-15 season. Free Agent acquisitions often play much better in their second year with their new team, and if early indications hold true it seems that this will be the case for Joseph. Brian Robison also appears to have stepped his game up a bit. After a down season, he will need a solid year to hold onto the starting left defensive end spot. He has Scott Crichton and possibly even rookie Dannielle Hunter breathing down his neck.
Lets start with the good. Kick and punt coverage has looked good outside of the Cowboys game, where a couple of big returns were allowed. Jeff Locke has booted solid punts for the most part, and may not be as big of a liability as he was last season.
Now, the bad. Blair Walsh, Blair Walsh, Blair Walsh. Man oh man. What happened? Each year he has seen his field goal percentage dip, and now it appears to have fallen off of a cliff. The man is 4-9 on his field goals in the preseason and has also missed an extra point. I'm having flashbacks of Mason Crosby's awful season a couple of years ago. After recently signing a new contract that suggests he is one of the better kickers in the NFL, there will be high expectations for Walsh this year. The way he is kicking now won't cut it.
Thank you all for reading, don't forget to leave your opinions in the comments below and follow me on twitter @JMcIntireNFL.