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Minnesota Vikings Training Camp evaluations: offense and special teams

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Eric Thompson recaps his coverage of Vikings Training Camp by providing overall thoughts about the offense and evaluating every single player in camp.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

As the final day of 2016 Minnesota Vikings Training Camp in Mankato gets underway, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I saw during my time at camp last week. I spent Wednesday through Saturday in Mankato, taking notes on the team as a whole as well as individual players throughout the eight practices I watched in person.

As with my previous four years covering camp, the walkthroughs served as little more than a live depth chart. The afternoon padded practices (especially the Saturday night session at Blakeslee Stadium) gave me a much better idea of how the players and team were performing.

Are you wondering about any specific player in camp? Look no further, because I will offer my opinions on each and every player on the 90-man roster. Today we’ll go over the offense and special teams, and Wednesday we’ll talk about the defensive side of the ball.

Overall offensive observations

The biggest question most fans had entering camp was about the offensive line. From what I saw, it should definitely be better; just don’t expect it to be great. The Vikings’ defensive line is a great litmus test because it should be one of the better units in the NFL this season. For the most part, the starting O-line did a decent enough job against their formidable counterparts. The run blocking was pretty sound while the pass blocking was more up-and-down. There are still questions about who will go where at center and right guard, but the Week 1 personnel should be better than what the team had to endure last season.

The backup blockers didn’t fare nearly as well as the first team. With the retirement of Phil Loadholt and a couple injuries early, the increased depth that we anticipated on the front lines won’t be as plentiful as we hoped. Just one or two injuries could derail any perceived improvement over the 2015 season.

The run game will always be formidable with Adrian Peterson in the backfield. That’s no surprise. But there’s one run formation I’m particularly excited about. The “13” personnel with Kyle Rudolph, MyCole Pruitt, and David Morgan in at tight end, Adrian Peterson alone in the backfield, and Laquon Treadwell as the lone wide receiver. That short-yardage package looked nearly unstoppable in practice and still gives the team plenty of play-action options. (The wide receiver in this package often included Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, or Charles Johnson in practice; I’m most excited about Treadwell because he has already shown his run blocking acumen.) Keep an eye on when Norv Turner uses that formation in the preseason, because I think it could be deadly.

The passing game won’t put up pinball numbers but it has a chance to be uniquely tricky to game plan against. I don’t see any individual pass catcher putting up numbers that would make fantasy owners drool, with the possible exception of Diggs. (Maybe Rudolph if he goes big on touchdowns.) But the aerial attack could be a “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” Diggs has seen plenty of action in the slot, which will be a matchup problem. Rudolph and Pruitt can both get open in two tight end sets. Johnson, Treadwell, Jarius Wright, and Thielen might not be upper echelon wide receivers but each can contribute in their own unique ways. Jerick McKinnon should catch some passes too. Turner should be able to mix up the looks and shuffle his personnel enough to keep opposing defenses on their heels. If the Vikings offense is predictable again this season, it’s nobody’s fault but their own.

As it stands right now, if Teddy Bridgewater happens to miss any extended time this season, the outlook isn’t great. The Taylor Heinicke non-football injury has made the depth chart incredibly thin after the starting quarterback. Let’s start there with the individual player evaluations.

Quarterbacks

Teddy Bridgewater: I have said all offseason that in order for the Vikings to take the next step and be a serious Super Bowl contender, Teddy has to make the next step as a quarterback. After watching him closely for four days, I can tell you this: so far so good. Bridgewater’s deep ball is markedly better. His willingness and ability to make less conservative throws have increased. It’s a cliché, but Bridgewater has a lot more zip on his passes. They just sound different when they hit his receivers’ hands. Has Bridgewater had a perfect camp? No. There have been interceptions and missed throws. But every part of his game seems like it’s heading in a positive direction, from his arm strength to his leadership. The potential to take “the leap” this season certainly seems to be there.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

Shaun Hill: I’ll start with the good: Hill actually looked really crisp in the night practice. He was accurate and made very few mistakes. I’ll finish with the bad: Hill didn’t look very good in any of the other practices I watched. At this point in his career, Hill might be able to keep the team afloat for a spot start or two. If it’s any longer...let’s just pray Teddy stays healthy. #PrayForTeddy

Joel Stave: When the Vikings signed the rookie from Wisconsin, I had Badgers fan friends ask me in bewilderment what the team was thinking. I still don’t have much of an answer for them. Stave has ideal size and a picture-perfect delivery for an NFL quarterback. It’s just too bad that none of the other traits he possesses make him an NFL quarterback. Stave had his moments, but some of his passes were comically off the mark. Get well soon, Taylor Heinicke.

Running backs

Adrian Peterson: Yep, he’s still one of the best runners in the game, if not the best. His burst and explosiveness haven’t slipped a bit. His pass blocking seemed serviceable but I didn’t see him do it enough to form a definite opinion either way. At this point I think we know what we have in AP—a stud running back that still has his flaws on passing downs. And that’s better than most teams’ running back situations.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

Jerick McKinnon: Jet was limited with a lower back injury for most of last week so he was a little tough to evaluate. But just like with AP, I think we know what we have with McKinnon: an excellent change of pace back that can fill the void on third down and make some big plays.

Matt Asiata: I apologize for being the Department of Redundancy Department here, but there isn’t a whole lot new to report on Asiata either. We know him too. He can do a bit of everything as long as you don’t ask him to be flashy doing it.

C.J. Ham: I was impressed with Ham’s vision and one-cut attacking the hole between the tackles. I didn’t see much lateral ability though, and he was stuffed in goal line drills too often for someone with his size and skill set. I think the Duluth native is going to be a long shot.

Jhurell Pressley: I really liked Pressley’s ability to jump-cut and bounce his runs to the outside. He was pretty decent catching the ball out of the backfield as well. If you could somehow combine the strengths of Ham and Pressley, you’d have a running back worthy of the final roster. But since that kind of genetic engineering is still at least a few years away, I think both will be on the outside looking in.

Kevin Monangai: To be honest I was surprised when the Vikings added another running back to fill out an open spot on the 90-man roster. But Monangai is actually pretty decent. He’s quick, bounced outside really well, and looked good in the few opportunities he got catching the ball. He still isn’t making the final 53 though.

Fullbacks

Zach Line: Line was a bit dinged up as well so I didn’t get to see a ton of him. What I did see was just fine. If the Vikings decide to keep a fullback, Line is going to be that fullback. Personally I wouldn’t mind dropping the position from the final 53 since the team has two tight ends on the roster that make great H-backs. But Norv seems to love his fullbacks, so my guess is that Line makes it.

Blake Renaud: Renaud got plenty of reps with the first team while Line was out and didn’t do anything to make you think he deserves to pass Line on the depth chart. Once again the Practice Squad is the best-case scenario for him.

Wide receivers

Stefon Diggs: It’s a shame that you can’t win the coveted “Mr. Mankato” Award two years in a row, because Diggs probably deserves it. As much as he surprised everyone in his rookie camp last year, he has been even more impressive in 2016. He is easily Teddy Bridgewater’s favorite target and I anticipate that the statistics will reflect that this season. He might not be the classic WR1 but he’s going to line up all over the field and cause problems for any defense he faces.

Charles Johnson: I still can’t believe that Johnson is currently an assumed starter this far into camp. I thought he was right on the edge of making the roster at all heading into Mankato. But you know what? Johnson has earned it. The rapport he had with Bridgewater down the stretch of the 2014 season appears to be back. Let’s hope it actually translates over to the regular season.

Laquon Treadwell: If the first-round wide receiver isn’t a Week 1 starter—and I don’t believe he will be as of right now—you shouldn’t consider his camp a failure. The performances of Diggs and Johnson in camp have been positive a lot more than Treadwell’s has been negative. The rookie’s route running was better than I expected and his run blocking is as good as advertised. I thought he had an excellent performance in the Saturday night practice, making a couple of nice contested catches. But in order to crack the starting lineup Treadwell is going to have to be more consistent. He’ll have to clean up the lulls in concentration and show more abilities in the red zone. And I think that will come. Remember, the guy is just over a week into his NFL career. I’m excited to see what he can show in Cincinnati.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

Adam Thielen: From undrafted free agent long shot to the practice squad to a heralded special teams ace to a...first team wide receiver?! I can’t believe it either but that just might be the case for Thielen. He was getting a lot of reps with the 1’s as an outside receiver in three-wide sets and he looked the part out there. He made a couple of great catches in the night practice. And yes, Thielen is still a big part of the special teams units. It’ll be interesting to see how many offensive snaps he actually gets when the games start to count. It certainly looks like it will be significantly more than last season.

Jarius Wright: I was surprised to see Wright firmly entrenched with the second team for most of every practice I watched. Perhaps we’re reading too much into it. The team already knows what they have in Wright—a reliable slot receiver that can help you move the chains and make a big play here and there—so maybe they were just trying to see what they had in other players like Thielen and Treadwell. Or perhaps Wright will see a significantly reduced role and lose most of his slot snaps to Diggs. We’ll see.

Cordarrelle Patterson: If Flash wants to make an impact as a wide receiver again, he’s going to have to play catch up. He sat out for most of last week and it isn’t like any of the players currently ahead of him on the depth chart are having poor camps. He’s still going to make the team as a kick returner, but he has his work cut out for him if he wants to contribute anywhere else.

Isaac Fruechte: The Golden Gopher alum had an up-and-down camp last week. He made some great plays, like an absolute de-cleating of Jabari Price in 11 on 11 and a nifty catch from Hill in traffic during the night practice. But he also had a couple bad drops and was shut down in some of the 1 on 1 drills. I think it’s practice squad or bust for Fruechte.

Moritz Böhringer: I wanted to buy into the hype. I really did. It’s a great story. But there are so many wide receivers in camp still ahead of MoBo that I think it will be hard for him to even make the practice squad. The athleticism is definitely there, as shown by his nice diving catch in Friday afternoon’s practice. But there is still a lot to be desired with his technique. His routes and cuts are noticeably less streamlined than the more experienced receivers in camp. There’s still a little time for Böhringer but I personally don’t see it happening.

Troy Stoudermire: Another former Golden Gopher (who’s last name is apparently pronounced STOO-durr-meyer) that has been getting all sorts of looks in the return game at camp. There appears to be some potential there; we’ll see if he gets a chance in any preseason action. With the glut of viable wide receivers in camp, the numbers game isn’t in his favor.

Terrell Sinkfield: He’s fast, but he certainly didn’t look 4.19 fast. Sinkfield had a play or two that showed off his wheels but overall I was unimpressed with him as a wide receiver. At least he has already proven that he has CFL speed. That might be his best option going forward.

Marken Michel: Another receiver that made a couple nice catches throughout the week but his chances of making the roster are basically nil.

Tight ends

Kyle Rudolph: Rudy has caught a lot of flak over the past few years for not putting up the numbers that most think he is capable of, and justifiably so. He has a lot to prove. Thankfully this is the best I have seen Rudolph in camp since he joined the team. He made some great contested catches up the seam and got open consistently on intermediate routes. His blocking looks a little better too. Bridgewater has stated that he really trusts Rudolph and it has showed in camp. Don’t put Rudy down for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns just yet but he looks poised to have the best season of his career.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

MyCole Pruitt: Anytime the Vikings roll out a package with more than one tight end this season, Pruitt will be in it. He appears to be the clear TE2, and with good reason. The coaching staff seems to be focusing heavily on his blocking in camp, which he has been excelling in. I would have liked to see him run a few more routes while I was there, but he already established himself in that respect last season.

David Morgan: The Vikings drafted Morgan because he was supposed to be the best blocking tight end in the draft. Morgan is living up to the billing there. But guess what? The rookie can catch too. He has filled the Rhett Ellison role to a T thus far. He’s definitely making the roster.

Rhett Ellison: On the PUP list, so he gets a grade of Incomplete. But the longer Morgan sticks around and does all the Rhett Ellison things well, the more Rhett should get nervous about his future with the team.

Brian Leonhardt: Yet another Minnesota kid that’s going to have a really tough time sticking around. He struggled at times, most notably with a case of alligator arms in 11 on 11 Thursday. Leonhardt has too many talented tight ends ahead of him on the depth chart to have much of a chance.

Kyle Carter: While Leonhardt struggled, Carter was basically invisible out there. I’m not sure which is worse. Either way, he isn’t making the team either.

Offensive line

Matt Kalil: The addition of Alex Boone seems to have helped Kalil shore up his interior blocking. I didn’t notice any instances of him allowing pressure in the B-gap. His run blocking has looked solid as well. But Everson Griffen is still getting around the edge on Kalil way too often. Is some of that due to Griff being one of the best as his craft? Of course. And to Kalil’s credit, he has recovered enough to shove Griffen past the quarterback on occasion after getting beat initially. But protecting the edge is still a glaring weakness in his game.

Zimmer explained that Kalil’s technique is great 75% of the time; they just need to work on cleaning up that other 25%. That 75/25 split needs to get a lot closer to 90/10 if Kalil is going to command a new contract even close to the $11 million he’s making this season.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

Alex Boone: As stated, lot of Kalil’s improved interior play should be credited to Boone, who has looked great so far in his debut season with the Vikings. He’s huge, he has great technique, and his leadership along the line is already evident. Boone should be a big upgrade at left guard.

John Sullivan: It’s fairly evident that we’re not going to see the dominating force that Sully used to be before the injuries that kept him out last year. There were times that Sullivan got shoved around in camp, especially by Linval Joseph. (To be fair, I think Joseph is going to do that to just about everyone he faces this season.) But his technique is still great and his ability to be the quarterback of the offensive line remains top-notch. Berger is definitely giving him a run for his money but I think Sully will still end up being the Week 1 starting center.

Brandon Fusco: Moving Fusco back to the right side has done wonders for his play. According to Fusco, it has done wonders for his confidence too. He picked up a minor injury late in the week but it doesn’t appear to be anything serious. As of right now it looks like he’ll be your Week 1 starter at right guard. This is decidedly better than being your Week 1 starter at left guard.

Andre Smith: His abilities are clearly evident. He’s strong, he has quick feet, and his technique is solid. His focus and consistency seem to be an issue from time to time though. Smith will definitely be an upgrade at right tackle but there will be some ups and downs as well.

Joe Berger: Going into camp, I thought Sullivan was the surefire starter at center as long as he was healthy. Berger’s performance has made that a lot less clear-cut than I anticipated. Last year’s starter has looked strong in camp. After talking to him last week, it’s clear that he really wants to retain the starting center gig as well. Of course with Mike Harris apparently not coming back anytime soon and Fusco dinged up, Berger might see himself at right guard by necessity.

Mike Harris: Another grade of Incomplete, which might carry over to the entire season. It’s unfortunate that Harris couldn’t compete for the starting gig he earned last year. Even if he ultimately didn’t win, Harris would have provided valuable depth. Maybe his ailment isn’t as bad as we’ve been hearing; I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Jeremiah Sirles: The backup tackle had a rough start to the week but I really like how he finished it. Sirles was keeping just about everyone in front of him on Friday and Saturday, giving me hope that he just might provide some much-needed depth along the offensive line.

Zac Kerin: I saw (and heard) Kerin getting “coached up” a lot by Offensive Line Coach Tony Sparano pretty often in drills. But in 11 on 11 he did pretty well outside of a few errors. It looked like he belonged on the second team offensive line. We’ll see if he’s part of the second team offensive line in a couple weeks.

Isame Faciane: I think the converted defensive tackle has taken another step forward in his development this season. His footwork looked a lot better and he had some decent moments at right guard with the backups. He also had a few times where the defensive line overwhelmed him. Faciane is definitely in the backup guard mix but he’s far from a lock to make the roster.

T.J. Clemmings: I guess Clemmings looks a little better than he did last season. It also looks like he could back up Kalil on the left side if needed. I’m just disappointed that he didn’t improve more after getting so much valuable experience thrown at him his rookie year. Clemmings and Willie Beavers certainly had some rough days on the right side against the second team defensive line. I don’t think he is in danger of being cut. I simply think the team is in danger if Clemmings has to play anywhere near as much as he did last year.

Willie Beavers: I wasn’t incredibly impressed with the selection of Beavers when it happened, and he didn’t do much in camp to sway my opinion. His pad levels were too high fairly often and he had a tough time keeping the defensive linemen he faced out of the backfield. Beavers is considered a project that’s still a bit raw. I didn’t think he was at much risk of being cut until I saw the first depth chart on Monday. He might need some good performances in the preseason to stick around.

Nick Easton: A lot of people I talked to in Mankato were fairly high on Easton and think he could be the center of the future. I personally don’t see it but I didn’t see anything egregiously wrong with his play either. Perhaps the practice squad would be the best fit for Easton. After all, the Vikings do like centers from Harvard.

Carter Bykowski: Last year I liked the potential I saw in Byskowski; this year I just wanted to see something from him. The Eden Prairie native was pretty limited on snaps while I was there, which usually isn’t a good sign for a player’s future.

Austin Shepherd: Like most of the backup offensive linemen I saw in camp, Shepherd’s performance wasn’t anything to write home about. I think it could be one-and-done for last year’s seventh round pick.

Sean Hickey: Hickey was kind enough to give his Training Camp uniform number of 71 to Andre Smith. And that’s probably the only notable thing Hickey will ever end up doing for the Minnesota Vikings.

Specialists

Blair Walsh: In every single interview Walsh did last week, he was inevitably asked about the kick in Seattle last year. And even though he’s answered the same question hundreds of times, he was always cordial and introspective. Walsh is still confident that he’s one of the best kickers in the league and he showed it in camp. He was nearly perfect from what I saw, only missing a 51 yarder in the night practice. (Wide left, naturally.) I think Walsh will be just fine this year.

Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Gallery: Night Practice Thad Chesley

Jeff Locke: After a rough first day of camp, Locke has been a pleasant surprise. He had a really nice session booting the ball in the night practice on Saturday. His directional kicks all had accuracy and really solid hang time. Of course making those same kicks in a game situation is a bit different, but the outrage over the lack of camp competition for Locke has subsided a bit.

Kevin McDermott: LONG SNAPPER JUST GOT PAID! Long snappers are the best when you don’t notice them. I didn’t notice McDermott at all outside of a few one-liners as he walked off the practice field. His snaps were always on point, making the Great Long Snapper Competition of 2015 a distant memory.