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The Final Mankato Mission: A Vikings Training Camp Primer

Before heading to Mankato for the next four days, Daily Norseman writer Eric Thompson shares what he is looking for at Vikings Training Camp.

Dalvin Cook has been turning heads in his first Training Camp.
Thad Chesley

One more time.
We’re gonna celebrate.
Oh yeah.
All right.
Don’t stop the football.

This paraphrasing of the famous French philosophers Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter—the dudes in Daft Punk—marks the final hurrah in Mankato. This week, for the last time in the foreseeable future, I will make the trek down Highway 169, past Minnesota’s largest candy store, past the numerous silos on local farms adorned with pro-purple propaganda, and park in the designated media lot on the campus of Minnesota State University-Mankato.

I’ll meet up with Thad Chesley in the afternoons, and he’ll capture amazing photos for the site, like these 200+ action shots from Sunday’s practice:

I’ll chat with bloggers and beat writers from the bleachers of Blakeslee Stadium during the walkthroughs. I’ll eat way too much junk food in the media room. I’ll walk across the little crosswalk on Stadium Road and feel overly important when team staff makes traffic yield for me as I head to the field. And for one final time, I’ll watch the team practice under the lights on Saturday night before a packed house and watch the players’ families flood the field after they’re done.

Man, I’m going to miss it.

For selfish reasons, I will welcome the Vikings’ new facilities in Eagan for Training Camp next year with open arms. It’s 15 minutes from my house instead of 90, which means I’ll be able to make it to more of camp. (While simultaneously being home more, which means less scorn from my wife. Win/win.) The amenities are going to be top notch. Having everything so modern and close to the Twin Cities will make everything so much easier for the Vikings. It will make my role as a (quasi-)journalist simpler as well.

For nostalgic reasons, I am going to absorb every bit of this year’s experience that I can. Because I know what a special place Mankato has been for the Vikings franchise over the past 52 years. The city, the local businesses, and the people all combine for a unique and unforgettable fortnight at the end of each July. As great as all the bells and whistles at the new digs will be, it’s going to be impossible to recapture the Summer Camp for Really, Really Big Kids vibe that Mankato provided so well over the years.

But we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on Mankato later. We’re working on a Daily Norseman group piece about what the Mankato experience has meant to each of us that have covered the Vikings there. For now, it’s time to look forward.

So as I head down to Mankato one last time—I’ll be covering camp from Wednesday through the final night practice on Saturday—here are some of the high-level things I’m looking for.

Where's the Reiff?

That was quite the “twinge,” wasn’t it? After a 2016 season where the Vikings offensive line saw more cast changes than Days Of Our Lives, it was understandable that we collectively gulped after Riley Reiff’s injury. Nobody seems to be too concerned about it yet. But if he still isn’t around for the remainder of the week, it might be time to bump the needle a bit on the Panic Meter.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t exactly sound like Mike Remmers is getting confused with Ron Yary at camp thus far. Early returns have been promising along the interior offensive line, but we can’t afford to have another pair of turnstiles at tackle.

For the entire offseason, I have insisted that improving the offensive line from “abject disaster” to “just OK” could make a world of difference for the Vikings offense. It sure would be nice to see both handsomely compensated new tackles on the field and performing well sooner rather than later.

(Or, we could just put all our hopes on Rashod Hill. Either way.)

Finding strength on the weak side

There aren’t a ton of camp battles where a starting position is truly up for grabs, but WLB certainly seems to be one of them. Emmanuel Lamur and Edmond Robinson seem to be rotating with the 1’s so far. I want to keep a close eye on the position while I’m in Mankato to see who might have the upper hand. Of course, linebacker is one of the tougher positions to evaluate at camp, but I’ll be sure to make the requisite overreactions based on only four days of live practice.

Logjammin’ (at wide receiver)

First: kudos to those of you that got the Bunny Lebowski reference in the heading. Second: um, wow, when did wide receiver become such a deep position for the Vikings? Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are the 1-2 punch until further notice, but the competition gets very interesting a little further down the depth chart. Michael Floyd has been the clear standout thus far. He’ll definitely be a part of the offense once his suspension is up. Laquon Treadwell is looking like he might actually contribute in his sophomore season. Draft picks Stacy Coley and Rodney Adams will be in the special teams mix at the very least. Cayleb Jones and R.J. Shelton were supposed to be just camp bodies, but they’re turning some heads. Do incumbent practice squad players Isaac Fruechte and Moritz Böhringer stand a chance at making the final 53? There will be some tough decisions for the Vikings to make at this position in a few weeks.

Cook a monster?

Dalvin Cook’s NFL career is just over a week old and I have already seen the words “Adrian Peterson’s replacement” written by several news outlets. Nobody’s expecting Cook to be an All-Pro out of the gate, but it’s hard not to get at least a little pumped about what we have seen so far. I’m incredibly excited to see how he moves in person. Is Cook the real deal? Or should some of this be attributed to the fact that he’s basically out there running unopposed with Latavius Murray out and Jerick McKinnon banged up?

My first Sam-mer camp

Even though it seems like Vikings fans have been debating his merits for the past decade, this is still Sam Bradford’s first camp with the Vikings. The early reviews seem to generally be that he looks solid, not great. We know the accuracy will be there. I’m more interested to see how Bradford operates with his decision making in the revamped offense. How comfortable does he look in the pocket? Is he willing to take a few more chances downfield? Is he establishing a rapport with certain receivers? If Teddy Bridgewater is doing 3/4-speed dropbacks by himself two fields down, will anyone notice what Bradford is doing? I hope to have better answers for all these questions and more by the end of the week.

The final Mr. Mankato

There’s a bumper crop of players that fans and writers alike are getting excited about this season. Arif has already weighed in on how the candidates have fared through the first week. Unsurprisingly, Bucky Hodges seems to be the leader. The smart money was on him before camp as well. But there’s still plenty of time left for that to change. Who will stand out this week before Mr. Mankato officially changes to Eagan’s Elite?

Raising the Barr

Nobody has a definitive answer for why the 2016 version of Anthony Barr was such a step down from the 2015 edition. All I know is that he needs to be better if the Vikings defense is going to be among the league’s best in 2017. Again, evaluating linebackers in camp is extremely difficult, especially for someone with Barr’s skill set. But I will still be looking closely at the little things with Barr this week. Does he look completely healthy? Is he showing the explosive movement that made him so dangerous two seasons ago? And if not, is there anyone on the roster that could possibly compete for some of his snaps?

Can I kick it? (Yes you can!)

Not to go all Anna from Frozen on you, but for the first time in forever, there are actually bona fide kicking competitions at Vikings Training Camp! Sure, the fight card of Kai Forbath vs. Marshall Koehn and Taylor Symmank vs. Ryan Quigley might not exactly break pay-per-view records. But this is Minnesota, a place that knows all too well how important the kicking game can be.

(My money is on Forbath and Symmank winning the jobs, but we’ll see how it unfolds.)

Could it be the man behind the man behind the man behind the throne?

First: if you got that Run the Jewels reference in the heading, we’re officially friends now. Second: regardless of how established the starter is, the battle for QB2 is always a fun one to follow at Training Camp. I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly thrilled about Taylor Heinicke vs. Case Keenum heading into camp. It seemed like Keenum was poised to be the anointed backup when the Vikings signed him in the offseason, but it sounds like Heinicke is kicking through that door so far in practice.

Hmm. Might have been a poor choice of words there. Either way, I’ll be keeping a close eye on who will earn the title of “The most popular non-PUP list player on the Vikings the instant Bradford has a below average quarter of football” when the season starts.

That’s enough talk for now; I hope you feel sufficiently primed. Time to see how everything unfolds from the sidelines. Stay tuned for much, much more throughout the rest of the week. I’ll be posting regular updates, notes, and quotes here at Daily Norseman while firing out all sorts of real-time goodness on Twitter. Come follow along!