WE MADE IT!
It has been exactly 200 days since the Minnesota Vikings last took the field on that fateful, frigid day at TCF Bank Stadium. We have spent two hundred long, arduous, insufferable days without that nectarous narcotic that makes us bleed purple and gold. At this point we all look like purple-clad versions of Tyrone Biggums.
But today, finally, we all start lining up for our fix of football methadone. The Vikings report for their 51st consecutive (but likely penultimate) Training Camp in Mankato on Thursday, marking the official buildup to that delectable drug we crave most: real live NFL football.
Of course there is much to be decided before the Vikings take the field in Tennessee on September 11. The group of 90 athletes that begin this journey in Mankato will be coldly reduced by nearly 42% in the coming weeks; some of those names on the chopping block will probably surprise us. This Minnesota Vikings team is easily the deepest it has been since the 2009 season with all sorts of dynamic talent. There is no shortage of guys that deserve to be on an NFL roster. But by the end of the preseason, the Vikings still have to whittle that final number of players down to 53 just like everyone else.
So what will the defending NFC North champions look like on Week 1? That remains to be seen. Here are the ten camp battles I’m looking forward to most as the Vikings take the field in Mankato.
Adrian Peterson vs. Third Down
No, not all of these camp battles will be matchups between players vying for starting jobs and roster spots. I’m curious about how the established stars are going to perform as well. We all know that AP is one of the best natural runners the game has ever seen. Even at age 31 we aren’t that concerned about his body slowing down because he’s probably part T-1000. But if he doesn’t want to be on the sidelines watching Jerick McKinnon do his thing on passing downs, he’s going to have to step it up in the secondary aspects of his game. Peterson has claimed to be working more on his pass blocking and receiving skills this offseason; I’m eager to see if it shows in camp. Unfortunately we won’t see it in any preseason games because AP never plays in them, so I’ll be paying special attention to Peterson in 11-on-11 drills this year.
(And by the way, count me in for seeing AP and Jet on the field together for lots of snaps this season. Split backs, McKinnon in the slot, motion, fake/real reverses, Jet in the Wildcat, whatever—I think Norv could do some serious damage with his top two backs out there at the same time.)
Andre Smith vs. T.J. Clemmings vs. Willie Beavers
vs. Phil Loadholt
One of the most intriguing starting position battles of the preseason was suddenly cut short with the retirement of Phil Loadholt. Now it’s basically Andre Smith’s starting job to lose.
But...what if he loses it? Smith was rightfully lauded as a smart pickup by the Vikings and has since been magnified by Loadholt’s retirement. And while Smith was part of a highly rated Cincinnati offensive line, his individual performance was met with mixed results at best. With the safety net of having two viable choices at right tackle suddenly yanked away, it’s up to Smith to fill the gap in order to avoid another O-line mess in 2016.
I’m sure Clemmings has improved, but we saw that he wasn’t ready last year. And as for Beavers: we already saw how starting an ill-prepared rookie fourth-round tackle goes. No thank you.
Joe Berger vs. Mike Harris vs. Brandon Fusco vs. The Bench
I know there’s a lot of Berger vs. John Sullivan at center talk heading into camp. But if Sully’s completely healthy, he’s going to be the starter in the middle. End of story. Matt Kalil is going to start at left tackle because Vikings fans need something to bitch about. Alex Boone is going to be the left guard because Vikings fans need their new Jared-Allen-like quote machine/cult hero out there. What’s most interesting to me is the logjam of incumbent starters that are likely fighting over the one remaining starting position at right guard. Harris had the spot last year and fared pretty well. Fusco used to have the spot until he switched to the left side and blocked like he thought he was still on the right side. Berger has proven that he can fill in anywhere on the interior line.
There’s no clear-cut favorite in this group, although I’d probably give the edge to Harris right now just because he was there last year. It’ll be interesting to see how the coaches use these three in the first- and second-team rotations to start camp.
Trae Waynes vs. Mackensie Alexander vs. Terence Newman
This is one of my favorite matchups of camp. We know Xavier Rhodes has one of the outside corners on lock; we’re pretty sure Captain Munnerlyn has the slot corner role based on his performance last year. Which leaves special teams ace Waynes trying to fulfill the role that the team actually drafted him for in the first round of the 2015 draft. He’ll have to beat out the two extremes of NFL experience to do so: second round rookie Alexander and elder statesman Newman.
Since Waynes looked solid toward the end of last season and Father Time is still undefeated, I’d give a slight edge to Waynes winning the starting outside job. But don’t rule out Alexander for a second—I’m incredibly excited to see what the former Clemson standout can do.
Andrew Sendejo vs. Michael Griffin vs. Anthony Harris vs. Antone Exum Jr. vs. Jayron Kearse vs. Terence Newman
The Vikings could have a titanic defense this year, provided this one perceived weak point in the unit doesn’t prove to be an iceberg. The Vikings still haven’t found the perfect fit for the starter alongside Harrison Smith, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. At this point we should just start an NFL Network reality show called The Other Safety where they put the contestants through physical challenges and eliminate one of the hopeful starters every week.
Wait—come to think of it, that’s kind of what Training Camp is anyway! Let the reality show begin! My money is on Sendejo since that’s what the team’s money is on. My heart says Harris because I was impressed with what he did in a limited role last season.
Brian Robison vs. Danielle Hunter
This battle isn’t getting a lot of run yet but I suspect that it will once we get closer to the season. B-Rob is an all-time Viking both on and off the field. For nine seasons he has been an incredibly consistent and effective pass rusher for the Vikings. But his age is now more than a third of his uniform number and Hunter exploded onto the scene in his rookie season. If Hunter continues to improve this year, he simply must get more snaps to disrupt opposing offenses. Unfortunately that will likely come at the expense of Robison’s playing time. I think the mix of Robison and Hunter will be much more even in 2016, although it remains to be seen just how much each pass rusher will see the field.
Laquon Treadwell vs. Jarius Wright vs. Charles Johnson vs. Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Adam Thielen vs. Math
And you thought the safety competition was a clusterf*ck! I think it’s safe to assume that Stefon Diggs is going to be a starter. As for the second, third, fourth, fifth, and maybe sixth or seventh receivers on the roster? Your guess is as good as mine. Treadwell is the obvious choice as a front runner to get all of Mike Wallace’s wasted snaps from last year, but he’s still an unproven rookie. Wright certainly seems like the slot receiver for now, although his week-to-week production doesn’t exactly make you run to the fantasy football waiver wire. The coaching staff has been singing Patterson’s praises for most of the offseason. Will it actually show up this season? I’ll let Captain O’Hagan from Super Troopers explain my thoughts on that. Johnson is hoping that magical run from 2014 will suddenly reappear and Thielen is hoping that doing all the little things on offense and special teams will keep him in the mix.
The simple fact remains that there aren’t enough snaps, balls, and roster spots to go around with this group. Training Camp is going to be incredibly crucial for each of these players when it comes to deciding who gets what.
Moritz Böhringer vs. Reality
You might have noticed that I left MoBo out of the previous group. That’s because I’m not sure how feasible a roster spot for the 6th rounder out of Germany actually is. Don’t get me wrong—he’s not the super-duper long shot that Babatunde Aiyegbusi was last season. Böhringer has a much more refined skill set and much more high-end football training. Still, I’d be absolutely shocked if he even sniffs the final 53.
(And to be honest, I’m really hoping to be shocked, because then I can say I was there when Disney makes the inevitable feel-good movie Teutonic Touchdown: The Moritz Böhringer Story.)
Chad Greenway vs. Father Time
I’ve already mentioned that the latter is undefeated. Can the former stave him off for one last season of glory?
Yes, I realize we’ve been saying this for at least three years now, and yet Greenway is still here doing his best to delay the inevitable. But with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks already claiming the lion’s share of linebacker snaps and lots of young bodies fighting for the scraps, Greenway’s role on the team is as uncertain as it has ever been heading into the 2016 season. As in, no guarantee he’ll play (or perhaps even make the team?) level of uncertainty.
In my opinion Greenway still brings way too much to the table to completely jettison him. He won’t be out there all the time (or even the majority of the time) but he’ll still find his ways to positively affect the team. There is nothing I would love to see more than the Vikings lifting the Lombardi at the end of the season to let one of the cornerstones of the past decade-plus ride off into the sunset. LET’S DO IT FOR CHAD!!
Teddy Bridgewater vs. Expectations
In all likelihood this is the most important battle of Training Camp as well as the 2016 season. The offensive line should be markedly better. His receiving corps got an uptick in the offseason. He has almost two full years of starting experience under his belt. He still has one of the best running backs in the NFL.
It’s time to take the next step. Most of the advanced metrics have always liked Teddy, but eventually he’s going to have to start racking up the traditional statistics too.
If the Vikings want to ascend to the heights they’re obviously aspiring to this year, they’ll go as far as Bridgewater takes them. Quarterback is still the most important position in sports, and ultimately Bridgewater won’t be an exception to that rule. The bar has officially been raised for Teddy. Let’s see if the third year’s the charm for #5.
Congratulations! You’re now that much closer to the 2016 season and the resolution of this Training Camp battle royale. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
I especially can’t wait to see how it unfolds in person when I’m down in Mankato again this year. I’ll be live covering everything from August 3 through the night scrimmage on August 6. Stay tuned for metric tons more content in the coming days and weeks!