Happy Training Camp Month! We’re less than three weeks away from rookies reporting to the first Minnesota Vikings Training Camp held at the new Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan. Although there are still two months before football that actually counts, the buzz surrounding the Vikings is already palpable.
And why wouldn’t it be? The team is coming off their second best regular season in franchise history and infused even more big-name talent into an already loaded roster. The Vikings defense that was arguably the best the NFL last year (NFC Championship Game notwithstanding) probably got better. Sheldon Richardson was added to anchor the middle of the defensive line with Linval Joseph. Mike Hughes was drafted in the first round to bolster the talented secondary. Two defensive stalwarts, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter, were locked down with new long-term deals before their prices escalated in free agency. Most Vikings fans are now in “two down, two to go” mode in hopes of re-signing the other two stars, Anthony Barr and Stefon Diggs. (The #PayDiggs movement has been particularly vocal in recent days.)
On offense, the familiar weapons at the skill positions will be back. Diggs and Adam Thielen will bring back one of the most potent 1-2 wide receiver punches in the league. Kyle Rudolph is still a reliable target in the passing game, especially in the red zone. All signs are pointing to Dalvin Cook returning to form after his electric rookie campaign was cut tragically short by an ACL tear.
Of course, there will also be a lot of exciting new faces on offense this year. Kyle Sloter is the only holdover from the 2017 quarterback room; the most debated triumvirate in Vikings history is long gone. Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater are now scattered across the NFL landscape. In their place are Trevor Siemian and the $84 million man himself, Kirk Cousins. John DeFilippo will be calling the plays after Pat Shurmur left to be the Head Coach in New York. There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered on that side of the ball, but there is undoubtedly lots of potential.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a Vikings fan thanks to all of these luminaries leading the way. But we’re not going to focus on most of those big names today. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some other players that will need to prove their worth in order to remain a part of the team going forward.
While one could definitely argue that Cousins has the most to prove this season, he’s going to be the starter in Minnesota for the foreseeable future unless something goes completely sideways. This will be a discussion of which players need to step up if they hope to don the purple and gold down the road.
Could we start anywhere else with this list? After two largely disappointing seasons featuring a grand total of 21 receptions and 215 yards, the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 draft simply must be more productive in 2018 if he wants to stick around. Of course, that’s easier said than done with the unexpected explosion of Diggs and Thielen over the past couple of seasons combined with Keenum’s seeming unwillingness to look his way much last season. But Cousins comes with a reputation of spreading the ball around a bit more and Treadwell seems to realize this could be his last chance before being considered a bust with the Vikings.
I am definitely not here to make excuses for Treadwell. (Especially when you realize Michael Thomas has had literally ten times the production over their first two seasons.) There have been rumblings about his attitude almost since he arrived in Minnesota, which obviously isn’t doing him any favors with a results-driven leader like Mike Zimmer. But I do empathize with his plight a little.
Since Treadwell was a teenager, he was one of the best players on the field every time he put on cleats. He was one of the most coveted recruits in the nation coming out of high school. He was a standout talent in the best conference in college football. He was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. For scores of former opponents, Treadwell is literally the best player they ever played against.
And then he caught exactly one pass his rookie season.
Could you imagine something that jarring in your line of work? For years you’re considered one of the best in your field, moving your way up the ranks as the envy of all your peers. Then after finally getting the big promotion you’ve been working so hard for, you suddenly no longer stand out from the crowd. The same people that used to laud your work now criticize it at very juncture. That cannot be an easy transition.
While it may be difficult to conjure a real-world equivalent to an elite athlete suddenly finding himself among the mediocre, Treadwell’s situation is certainly not uncommon in his profession. The bottom line is that he will need to earn his keep this season to avoid being mentioned in the same breath as Troy Williamson in the annals of Vikings history. Treadwell needs to earn his targets early and often, or else he could find himself buried in the depth chart yet again. Kendall Wright, Brandon Zylstra, Stacy Coley, and Tavarres King certainly don’t care when Treadwell was drafted—they simply want his job.
The Vikings’ second pick in the 2016 draft hasn’t endured the extremes of the expectations and disappointment heaped on Treadwell, but his future isn’t exactly secure either. Mike Hughes has been taking reps almost exclusively at slot corner since the Vikings took him in April. It’s the same position that Alexander has largely played through his first two seasons, with results that have been mixed at best. Mack has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years but still hasn’t shown the consistency to be a key cog in this extremely talented defense. With Hughes and everyone’s favorite septuagenarian Terence Newman vying for those nickel snaps, Alexander could have a tough time seeing the field if he struggles in camp.
In a way, it almost isn’t fair to include Waynes on this list. Much like fellow member of the secondary Andrew Sendejo, Waynes has shown improvement each year with the Vikings. In turn, fan opinion has slowly morphed from utter disdain to begrudging respect. But again, like Sendejo, there are those among us that aren’t completely sold on Waynes just yet.
For me, Waynes has done enough to prove he deserves to be a starter on this team. He has slowly developed from a liability to a strength. He’ll always be targeted a lot with Xavier Rhodes on the other side of the field, but I thought he acquitted himself very well in the 2017 season. If Waynes keeps progressing like he has since being drafted in 2015, he’ll earn his fifth year option that carries a $9 million cap hit.
But nine million dollars is still nine million dollars. Cap space is going to be pretty tight over the next couple of years, especially if Rick Spielman and Rob Brzezinski can finagle a way to retain both Barr and Diggs. I think Waynes will stand out above Hughes and Alexander this year and get the team option. But what if he doesn’t? Even if Waynes is the top choice, does the team turn to cheaper players if they feel their productivity is close enough to Waynes? With so much money invested elsewhere and some solid depth at corner, the Vikings moving on from Waynes isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
This one’s pretty straightforward: if you draft a kicker in the 5th round, he better make the team. Kai Forbath isn’t backing down from a camp competition. If this actually turns out to be a competition that Forbath wins, it’s a wasted pick. Carlson needs to win the job, plain and simple.
Nick Easton, Tom Compton, Danny Isidora, and Rashod Hill
You can probably pencil in three of the five starters on the Vikings offensive line heading into camp: Riley Reiff will be the left tackle, Pat Elflein will be the center, and Mike Remmers will be...somewhere on the right side. The rest will be decided by this group along with Brian O’Neill. (O’Neill could definitely be in the mix to start. But as a second round pick he isn’t fighting for his future like the rest of the group, so I left him off this list.) As of right now I’d give a slight edge to Easton and Compton winning the guard spots, but the Vikings really seem to like Remmers at right guard. Can Hill or O’Neill justify kicking Remmers inside? Can Compton prove to be a budget-savvy offseason acquisition? Can Isidora realize his potential? How the Vikings end up with the best five-man blocking brigade should be one of the more intriguing storylines of the preseason.
If there’s one area of the 2018 Vikings that concerns me the most, it’s the offensive line. We have seen in the recent past how a porous line can decimate an otherwise promising team. Cousins isn’t the escape artist that Keenum was last year; he’ll need consistent protection to thrive. Even with all the star power throughout the rest of the roster, how far this team can go could ultimately hinge on the performance and health of this group of offensive linemen.
There is little doubt that Richardson will be the other starting defensive tackle alongside Joseph. There is little doubt that Richardson is a very talented defensive tackle. But he signed a one-year deal to come to the Vikings, which is commonly called a “prove it” deal. So yeah, he should probably be on any list that involves proving your future worth.
Most Vikings fans expect Richardson to have an impactful 2018 season. But just how impactful it is will decide whether he’s on the Vikings roster in 2019. Again, there won’t be a ton of money to spread around. I don’t see a scenario where there will be enough to sign Barr, Waynes, and Richardson to new deals. If Barr’s new deal doesn’t get done before the season, he and Richardson could be competing for the same pool of money.
Jaleel Johnson, Stephen Weatherly, and Tashawn Bower
The starting front four is more or less set: Everson Griffen, Joseph, Richardson, and Hunter. (Side note: just looking at that list of names should make opposing quarterbacks pee a little.) The rotation behind the starters is still up for grabs though. Johnson was highly lauded coming out of Iowa while Bower blew up in the preseason to earn his spot, yet both players combined for only 51 defensive snaps in 2017. Weatherly might have a leg up on the other two coming in since he played more snaps and a lot of special teams last year. Brian Robison will still be in the mix, but he also realized taking a pay cut was likely necessary for him to remain on the roster. This younger bunch should have ample opportunity to see a big spike in snaps, especially when you factor in the departures of Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen to the Seahawks.
At least one or two of these players will need to step up in their expanded roles as well. The Vikings pass rush wilted down the stretch in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with the deepest defensive line in the league. Depth on both fronts is crucial in today’s game; these guys will need to provide it.
I know, I know. We do this every single preseason. Each year, everyone asks “Will Marcus Sherels make the roster?” Each year, Sherels proves the doubters wrong and makes the roster.
What if this is the year he actually doesn’t make it? Mike Hughes can return kicks, and it isn’t like Sherels was a huge impact member of the secondary to begin with. This is the last year of Sherels’ deal. Cutting him would mean only $500,000 of dead cap while providing $900,000 of savings according to Over The Cap. I mean, it has to end eventually, right? Sherels can’t just keep...
...OK who am I kidding? As I have said countless times, Sherels is as indestructible as cockroaches and Twinkies after a nuclear bomb. Marcus Sherels will be making the Vikings roster long after we’re all old and gray.
Now it’s your turn. Which players did I miss that should be included on this list? Again, we’re discussing players with the most to prove to remain on the team going forward. That means you can’t really argue Cousins right now, but you could probably make cases for Diggs and Barr until they get new deals. Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading—you’re now that much closer to Training Camp!