The Vikings are set to begin their inaugural training camp in Eagan, MN, home to the brand spanking new team headquarters, the TCO Performance Center. Although the facility is new, many of the faces from last year’s team that reached the NFC Championship remain the same. Well, mostly anyway. There’s always new faces, and this year it’s no exception. Let’s go down the list of the top 26 storylines as the Vikings look to build on last year.
A: Adam Thielen. The Vikings leading receiver emerged as one of the NFL’s top targets last season, catching 91 passes for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns. He’s going to be an important cog in this offense, and it’s critical that he gets on the same page with Kirk Cousins early. Hey, did you guys know Adam Thielen is from Minnesota? Did you also know he went to Minnesota State? I BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS UNDRAFTED. Oh, you did?
B: Back to Back. The Vikings are looking to win the division for the second straight time, and have been picked by a lot of folks to do just that. The last time they went back to back was in 2008-09, and then missed the playoffs for three years. A third playoff appearance in 2018 would tie Mike Zimmer with Jerry Burns for more third playoff appearances as a coach in team history.
C: Kirk Cousins. The shiny new toy the Vikings went out and paid a lot of money for (3 years, $84 million fully guaranteed) in free agency has a lot of expectations now. He’s put up some big statistics as the Redskins quarterback, but never got them a playoff win. In Minnesota, he’ll be expected to do both.
D: Dalvin Cook. The second year running back is coming off a torn ACL suffered in week four last season, but early reports from off-season mini-camps and OTA’s are all positive. A healthy Cook will be a tremendous boost to an already potent offense, and Cook could be in for a really big season.
E: Elflein and Easton. Both of these offensive line starters broke an ankle late in the season last year, but both are also expected back at full strength when camp rolls around. Easton participated in off-season activities, but Elflein was held back. Keep an eye on how they look and their status. A loss of either would be a big blow to the o-line.
F: Flip. John DeFilippo is the new offensive coordinator, after a stint in Philadelphia as the QB coach. It’s kind of odd for a team that went to the NFC Championship last year to have both a new QB and a new offensive coordinator, so it’s important that the offense hits the ground running in Eagan.
G: Everson Griffen. One of the NFL’s premier pass rushers looks to pick up where he left off last year. His sack totals dropped off in the second half of the season while he was hampered by a foot injury. Expected to be healthy when camp starts, Griff will lead what is one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the NFL.
H: Hitman. On the back end of the Vikings defense is arguably the heart and soul of it, Harrison Smith. I don’t care what the NFL Top 100 says, Harry the Hitman is the best safety in the game today. If there’s an indispensable player on that side of the ball, he gets my vote.
I: Is this the year Marcus Sherels gets cut? Every year we ask this question, and every year the answer is no. Every year the roster looks stacked against him—’oh they drafted a CB, oh they drafted a guy that can return punts and kicks, oh it’s the end of the road for Sherels’—and still, like cockroaches and Twinkies in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, Sherels survives. I’m not betting against him, is all I’m sayin’.
J: Jalyn Holmes. I could have used a different topic for J here, like Jaleel Johnson, Jayron Kearse, Jazz Hands, or even jellybeans. But I picked Holmes. Do you know why? Because he went to Ohio State, and I wanted to remind everyone of that fact. Also, he’s moving inside after playing DE in college, and I want to see his progress as he makes the move. A successful transition makes the defensive line depth fierce, but if he can’t pick it up, it could be a problem.
K: Kickers. It looks like the Vikings are poised to go with a rookie kicker in Daniel Carlson. Incumbent Kai Forbath has been frustrating at times, missing more extra points in his time here than actual field goals, and the team drafted Carlson in the fifth round to compete against the veteran. Carlson has out-kicked him this off season during mini-camps and such, and it would be odd for the Vikes to draft a kicker and not keep him, barring something unforeseen. Like missing a 27 yard field goal wide left in a playoff game with less than a minute remaining, or something.
I’m sorry, I’ll show myself out.
L: Losses. Gone to other teams are the starting quarterback, the old temporary starting quarterback, the once and future starting quarterback, a decent running back, the third wide receiver, a starting defensive tackle, and the starting RG retired. Other than the turmoil at QB, the Vikings didn’t suffer a whole lot of attrition, and have mostly done a good job replacing guys they lost. When you look at the yearly turnover of rosters that everyone goes through in today’s NFL, the losses the Vikes suffered were less than I expected, to be honest.
M: Meet the new guys. The main reason the losses weren’t that bad is because of the guys the Vikings were able to bring in to replace those that departed. Cousins replaced the bevy of QB’s, and Trevor Siemian was also brought in to be his backup. Siemian has 24 starts in three years with Denver, posted a winning record as a starter (13-11), and can play the position at a respectable level if Cousins gets hurt. Sheldon Richardson slides in to Tom Johnson’s old spot on the defensive line, and will pair up with Linval Joseph like a good red wine pairs with a perfectly prepared steak. OL Tom Compton, Rosemount’s hometown hero, was signed as a free agent and will be in the mix on the offensive line. I don’t know that he’ll start, but he’s a versatile guy that can play multiple positions. Finally, WR Kendall Wright was signed and will compete for the third WR spot.
N: New headquarters in Eagan. Training camp moves to the new team headquarters in the Twin Cities suburbs, the TCO Performance Center. It’s drawn rave reviews by both current and new players, and by many accounts it is the best facility in the NFL. It’ll be an easier commute for fans to watch training camp, and there will no longer be the disruption for the team of moving everything lock, stock, and barrel an hour and a half south for two weeks (38 minutes if you’re Koren Robinson). All that said...I’m really gonna miss Mankato. It was a very intimate setting, where fans got to really interact with the players like they could nowhere else, and it was a place the Vikings had held training camp at for over 50 years. Time marches on, and the Vikings have much better facilities now, I get it, but a big piece of team history is gone forever, it appears, and that’s a little sad. Farewell, Mankato, you’ll be missed.
O: Offensive Line. This is the position group that’s probably the most unsettled as training camp opens. Just a couple days ago Mike Zimmer told Paul Allen on a KFAN radio interview that last year’s RT Mike Remmers would probably play RG, and if that’s true we’ve got some clarity. Still, if Rashod Hill can’t make it work at RT, Remmers could slide back down and either Compton or Danny Isidora could play RG. But if Brian O’Neill, a rookie T drafted in the second round, can step up and compete with Hill, Remmers could still slide inside. And that’s all assuming Elflein and Easton are really 100% and ready to go. There are still a lot of moving parts here, and I don’t think anything is 100% settled yet.
P: Pay Diggs and Barr? The Vikings still have two players they’re trying to get deals done with, Stefon Diggs and Anthony Barr. The recent contract extension the Rams gave Brandin Cooks may have thrown a monkey wrench into the Diggs contract talks, though. Or not, no one really knows. Hopefully, the Vikings can keep both players and get their extensions done either right before or during camp. That’s been a trend for the Vikes in recent years, as Kyle Rudolph, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and others have gotten new deals right in this timeframe. I still am hopeful they can get deals done for both players.
Q: Ryan Quigley. Last year’s punter has no competition this year, so he’s won the job before camp even begins. But is that a good thing? He was dead last in the NFL in yards per punt last year, at 42.2, and left a bit to be desired in flipping field position. I’m not saying Quigley can’t turn it around, but it just seems odd they’re bringing in a kicker to compete against Forbath, but Quigley gets a free pass.
R: Brian Robison. The elder statesman of the defensive line took a pay cut to be able to make one more playoff run with this team. Robison is still a big component of the defensive line rotation, but when Danielle Hunter won the starting DE job last year, he handled it with a dignity and class that are hard to find in some professional athletes today. I would love to see BRob go out a winner, and represent all the guys that went before him that weren’t able to.
S: Super Bowl, Homeboy? I’ve been writing about this team here at DN since the very end of 2009, and I’ve been a fan my whole life, going back to the 1970’s. I can honestly say that on paper, this team looks as good as any of the Purple People Eaters-era Super Bowl teams. They have 10 of 11 starters from the number one defense coming back, they have a dynamic running back, arguably the best WR combo in the NFL, and a really good quarterback. They’ve got a really good coaching staff, and I am a firm believer that the Vikings are good enough to make it to and win the Super Bowl.
T: Third Wide Receiver. I liked to call Jarius Wright the ‘in case of emergency break glass’ WR, but he’s now in Carolina. We’ve talked about how much Cousins targeted WR3 in Washington, and we don’t know who will take that spot for the Vikes in 2018. The top candidates are Kendall Wright and former first round pick Laquon Treadwell. It might be the last real opportunity for Treadwell, who’s failed to live up to the expectations of a first round pick up to this point. Other than the offensive line, this is the camp battle I’ll be watching the most.
U: Under pressure. This applies for both the offensive and defensive lines. On defense, with the addition of Richardson, the Vikings front seven should be able to put an enormous amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and generally make their lives miserable. Add that to a talented secondary, and there’s no reason to believe the defense will fall off from last year’s standout season. On the other side of the ball, keeping Cousins upright and giving him time to throw will determine how the season goes. We saw what happens with bad o-line play in 2016, and last year we saw what a competent o-line can mean as well. Even with the final starting five yet to be determined, I’m not seeing the doom and gloom drop off in play that some folks think is coming for this group.
V: The Virtually Ageless Terence Newman. Like Robison, this will probably be Newman’s final season, and it’s remarkable how well he’s played the CB position well into his late 30’s, which will become 40 come September. Newman might float between CB and safety this year, and he’s like having a coach on the field, as he’s as familiar with the Mike Zimmer defense as Zimmer himself. There are younger guys pushing him for playing time, but Newman keeps defying the odds and playing at a high level.
W: Win. This team is built to compete with anyone in the NFL, and they’re going to win a lot of games. Can they match last season’s 13-3? Right now the schedule looks pretty daunting, so I’m going to be a coward and say they’ll fall just short and get 12 wins. But when Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook went down last season, no one saw them winning eight in a row and 11 of their last 12 with Case Keenum, either. And look, this team has upgraded at QB (or at a minimum it’s a push), Cook is coming back, and the defense has actually improved on paper with the Richardson signing. Barring injuries, this team is poised to make another deep playoff run.
X: Xavier Rhodes. He’s the best CB in the NFL, and he takes the best receiving weapon out of the game for an opposing offense. He signed a nice extension a couple seasons ago, and is a big reason why the Vikings defense is so good. Along with Newman, the Hitman, Trae Waynes and company, the Vikings secondary is going to give opposing offensive coordinators a lot of sleepless nights.
Y: Your Moment Of Zen. Just one more look back. Then we’re on to 2018 for good.
Z: Mike Zimmer. In his fifth year as head coach, this team has been created in his image. It’s the strongest roster he’s fielded, and he’s worked hand in hand with GM Rick Spielman and the rest of the front office to get the players he wants to mold the team he feels he can take all the way. Zimmer’s had to deal with more adversity in his four previous seasons than any head coach in recent memory to get to this point, though.
From the Adrian Peterson suspension one whole game into his head coaching career, to his sixth different starting quarterback (Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater, Shaun Hill, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, Cousins), an offensive coordinator resigning in the middle of the season, losing your franchise QB, running back, and most of your starting o-line less than a month into 2016. a blockbuster trade for another QB, a detached retina that almost cost him his vision in one eye, two home stadiums, and a move to a new corporate headquarters...Zimmer has still managed to put together a coaching record of 39-25 with two division titles and one NFC Championship Game appearance. All while rebuilding a roster that was in need of a serious infusion of talent when he took the job.
He has gotten the upper hand in Minnesota’s bitter rivalry with Green Bay, winning four of the last five, including two of the last three at Lambeau Field, and with two division titles in the last three years it feels like the road to the NFC North will go through Minnesota while Zim Tzu is at the helm.