For at least half of the guys arriving in Mankato today, the next month will be a make-or-break opportunity to gain a coveted roster spot in the NFL. Competition will be intense among those with the most to prove.
For established vets who have established themselves on the field and/or by contract, it’s not about winning a job, it’s a chance to hone their skills, build team chemistry and “get better every day” as so many like to say. But for the majority of the players reporting to camp, this is an all-too-limited opportunity to show what they can do to earn a place on the final 53-man roster. Those with the heaviest odds are those drafted in the late rounds, or who went undrafted. Among these guys, impressing the coaching staff sufficiently and consistently enough to earn more reps is all-important- and then using the added opportunities to prove that they belong. It’s a tough road. But each year there is at least one guy that battles the odds and becomes a “Mr. Mankato” - an unheralded nobody that makes a name for himself in training camp and earns a roster spot.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some leading contenders for Mr. Mankato this year. Keep in mind that to qualify for the unofficial Mr. Mankato contest, you have to be both a rookie and at best a day 3 draft pick (5-6-7 round) or an undrafted free agent.
Let me also say from the outset that in the past, it was a lot more difficult for a linemen to earn the distinction, simply because they don’t make the flashy plays that frequently garner more attention. But this year could be different- we’ll see. In the past, guys like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Jayron Kearse, and Marcus Sherels have laid claim to being “Mr. Mankato” - but this year perhaps a linemen will make the strongest claim. Let’s start the list of top contenders with a few of them:
Isidora was a 5th round pick who has already generated a little buzz from his performance so far since being drafted. At this point, he is one of the more prominently mentioned backup interior offensive linemen among the long list currently on the roster. Here is the profile I did on him earlier this year after he was drafted.
One common, and often overlooked, trait among all the linemen included here as Mr. Mankato contenders is strength. It’s an obvious enough attribute for a linemen, but sometimes that important trait gets lost in the discussion of agility, quickness, technique, and so on. The reason strength can be an important advantage for a rookie linemen (offensive and defensive) in camp is because whatever your technique level coming into camp, it’s probably not sufficient to beat NFL vets on its own. You need technique and the strength (and often length) to win more consistently. Strength can also help a linemen win with less-than-perfect technique as well. It’s true that a lineman can also win with quickness and agility, but seldom with consistency.
At the end of the day, a good linemen is going to need all of the above to be at least above average in the NFL, but initially, in the extended tryout that is training camp, strength can be an important advantage for linemen in making the roster, other factors being roughly similar. It’s also true some players make the roster as developmental projects (TJ Clemmings, for example) based on overall athleticism and traits, with the thought that strength can be improved over time, but nevertheless strength has value as a predictor of at least initial success.
Isidora had 26 benchpress reps, which was just above-average among guards in the draft. In the past, offensive linemen that disappointed in training camp as later round picks included David Yankey, Willie Beavers, TJ Clemmings, Travis Bond and Austin Shepherd. Those guys had 22, 20, 22, 22, and 17 benchpress reps respectively pre-draft - all below the 25 rep average. Jeremiah Sirles had 21. Obviously this is a crude measure, and there is more that goes into evaluating a lineman, including other strength measures like core strength, but as one of the most readily available strength measures, it can be instructive in possibly predicting initial success for a lineman. Incidentally, Pat Elflein had 22 benchpress reps. Nick Easton 29.
Again, a simple, crude and narrow measure, but not without value.
Collins is another lineman (an undrafted free agent) that once the pads come on, may distinguish himself among the many contenders for a backup spot along the offensive line, most likely at right-tackle, where he played most in college, but possibly the backup swing tackle. Collins benched 34 reps, and from both his tape and draft profiles looks like an underrated tackle prospect coming out of TCU. I did a piece on the right-tackle position battle a while back, that has more detail on Collins, and overall he looks a very strong contender to unseat a more veteran player or two currently on the OL roster and land a spot on the 53-man roster.
I haven’t heard any buzz about Collins, but like most linemen it’s hard to say too much about their performance before they’re able to compete in full pads.
An undrafted free agent defensive tackle, Bradley has a tough road to hoe against numerous contenders- most likely at 3-technique. Datone Jones, Will Sutton, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen, and Jaleel Johnson among them. The chief criticism of Bradley was that at 265 lbs, he is too small to be a defensive tackle, which is his best position (he played all along the line at Southern Miss). But at his pro-day, Bradley was 286 lbs, which is not too small to play 3-technique. The rumor is that Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson really wanted Bradley, whose list of traits is similar to HoF players at the position past and present- Aaron Donald, Geno Aitkins and John Randle among them. He’s strong (28 benchpress reps), quick, uses good leverage, gets underneath blockers, and has a strong motor that is always going. Here is his PFF scouting report. and his NFL draft profile. The struggle for Bradley will be to get reps, with so many in competition. But he certainly has the traits, if he can put it all together, to move up the depth chart pretty fast. Consider the following:
- Sharrif Floyd is not likely to play this year, possible ever, given his nerve damage.
- Datone Jones is re-learning the 3-tech position
- Shamar Stephen has earned 3-straight ‘poor’ rankings from PFF since he was drafted
- Will Sutton earned 2 straight ‘poor’ rankings from PFF before improving to average last year, but on only 174 snaps before being injured and placed on IR.
- Tom Johnson (who turns 33 next month) has been inconsistent as a pass rusher and below average or worse against the run
- Jaleel Johnson had worse measureables than Bradley in most of the combine/pro day tests, particularly in benchpress reps, where Johnson had only 19 to Bradley’s 28.
- Newly acquired Chunky Clements also had few benchpress reps (23), but did not do most events due to an injury.
Bottomline, while I’d expect an established vet to win the starting job (most likely Datone Jones), the rest of the competition at 3-tech represents more quantity than quality at this point, leaving the backup job more up-for-grabs than it may seem. The more recent acquisitions of Sutton and Clements may also suggest the Vikings aren’t entirely happy with what they see so far, leaving the door open for a camp standout to move up the depth chart.
Beyond these three linemen, there has been some positive buzz about Tashawn Bower in OTAs, and Ifeadi Odenigbo is also an intriguing development prospect, but not sure either will be able to show and improve enough over the next month to be in the conversation for Mr. Mankato.
Hodges, a 6th round pick, certainly has the advantage of his position and big-play potential to emerge as Mr. Mankato. I suspect he’ll get enough reps to show what he can do, but he also has a lot on his plate to choke down over the next month. In addition to learning all the usual things for a rookie- new system, speed/complexity/competition playing in the NFL - Hodges also needs to learn the more basic functions of a tight-end, namely blocking. Hodges was really more of a wide receiver in college, and playing in-line was not something he did as much, nor was he asked to block much either. I did a profile on Hodges after he was drafted, and the over-simplified, optimistic short-take on him is that he’s the Randy Moss of tight-ends. Tall, fast, can jump and make big plays.
The early read on Hodges is that he may be used as something of a TE/WR H-back, essentially lining up as a slot receiver, possibly going in motion. He may also line-up initially in the backfield, then move out wide. I suspect he’ll also get his chances to produce in the red-zone, as his height and jumping ability are difficult for any DB or LB to match in coverage.
The main question for Hodges is will he prove a quick study and be able to take his game to the next level. I suspect he’ll get the opportunities to show what he can do in some pre-season games, as well as practices.
It may not be enough to earn the Mr. Mankato award, but I could see Tocho, drafted in the 7th round, displacing Anthony Harris in the safety depth chart and emerge as one of four safeties to make the roster, along with Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, and Jayron Kearse. Tocho is 20 pounds bigger than Harris for one thing, and may have better coverage skills having played CB in college. Being able to produce on special teams may also be a factor- which certainly helped 7th round pick Jayron Kearse make the team last year, and contend for the Mr. Mankato award.
Other Guys I’m Leaving Out
I could go on with other contenders, and over at espn1500 they produced a list and odds for who wins Mr. Mankato this year, although with different criteria as they include non-rookies as well, and 3rd and 4th round draft picks.
Tops on their list is Rodney Adams, the 5th round pick at WR, with 2-1 odds. Stacy Coley is also up there at #3, with 3-1 odds, along with Bucky Hodges. The reason I’m not as high on Adams is because he is small, weak and has issues with drops and fumbles. It doesn’t take many drops or fumbles to blow your chances, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has one or two. Coley is a guy whose character and effort were questioned, so it’s hard to see a guy like that make it. Having said that, Kearse was tagged with that issue to some degree too, and he still did well. But both WRs are likely to get limited reps and though Adams is a contender as a punt/kick returner, if ball security is an issue, forget about it.
Elijah Lee was also high on the list, but I’m just not hearing much on him and he seems a lot like LB/S hybrids in the past like Edmond Robinson that while they made the team, did not garner much attention or make many plays in their first training camp.
Using my criteria for Mr. Mankato of a) being a rookie; and b) being a 5th round pick or later or undrafted, I’d put the odds of winning Mr. Mankato as:
Bucky Hodges: 2-1
Dylan Bradley: 5-1
Aviante Collins: 6-1
Danny Isidora: 7-1
Jack Tocho: 8-1
Rodney Adams: 10-1
Stacy Coley: 11-1
Elijah Lee: 12-1
Who do you think wins Mr. Mankato this year?
This poll is closed