The Vikings have made a lot of moves since the NFC Championship game last season, which we’ve talked about here at the DN throughout the spring and summer, and now with training camp and pre-season getting underway and some excitement building, we’ll have a chance to get a little more of a preview on how those changes may pan out in the upcoming season.
There are a lot of areas to keep an eye on over the course of the next month or so, from position battles among younger guys, to how newly acquired and returning vets are doing, to scheme changes in all three phases.
Looking at all this from the perspective of how they will impact the season, here are some specific things to look for throughout training camp and pre-season games, along with some insights.
I’ll start with the offense first, and follow-up later with the defense.
How Does Kirk Cousins and the Vikings Offense Do Under Pressure and in Key Situations
If the Vikings are to return to the NFC Championship and beyond this year, Kirk Cousins will need to deliver under pressure and in key situations - red zone and third down - as well as Case Keenum did last year. How well he does in the situational drills and under pressure against the Vikings and Jaguars defense, and in pre-season games will be instructive, if not conclusive, to how he may do in the season ahead.
New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (‘Flip’) talked about moving the athletic Kirk Cousins around in the pocket, creating different launch-points for his passes, and making him harder to defend than a traditional pocket passer. Expect to see some of that over the course of the next month as a way to help elevate Cousins’ performance under pressure. That approach seemed to help Carson Wentz last season, although he also had the best offensive line in the league in front of him too.
Flip also mentioned creating some confusion for the defense in terms of pre-snap movement and different formations. While Pat Shurmur did a certain amount of that last year, I expect more of it from Flip, who likes to use an F-back who can line up anywhere and shift in the backfield, to help identify coverages and create mismatches, which can be helpful especially in key situations like third down and in the red zone.
Cousins tended to spread the ball around a lot in his days with the Redskins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues in Minnesota. Case Keenum was more focused on his top three receivers- Thielen, Diggs and Rudolph - last year, particularly as the season progressed, but I expect Cousins may target guys like Laquon Treadwell, RBs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, and maybe even backup TEs Tyler Conklin and David Morgan more often in an effort to spread the ball around - and keep defenses off-balance too.
Will Dalvin Cook Come Back Where He Left Off?
Dalvin Cook is full-go for training camp, and all signs point to a full recovery after his ACL injury. But will he have any set-backs in his development and transition into the NFL? He had only four games last year before going down to injury, and looked to have a break-out out rookie season after being labeled the best offensive player in the 2017 draft by PFF. Coming back this year, will he have lost anything?
Dalvin Cook’s game comes naturally to him, and if he’s fully recovered physically from his knee injury, I expect his game to come back fast. Early video clips points to that as well. I suspect Cook will have more limited duty for a while, but I also expect him to improve in other areas over last season like pass protection and receiving.
Latavius Murray may also show some improvement, being fully healthy for training camp and pre-season, and may get more touches early in the season when Cook may be more limited.
Will the Offensive Line Show Improvement? Who Wins the Position Battles?
The death of Offensive Line coach Tony Sparano creates more uncertainty over a position group that has been the weakest on the team for a few years now. Assistant Offensive Line coach Andrew Janocko and TE coach Clancy Barone, who has also coached offensive line in his NFL coaching tenure, have both been elevated to co-Offensive Line coaches by Mike Zimmer, which probably makes the most sense in terms of making the transition as seamless as possible, but how well they will do in their new positions remains to be seen.
Apart from the coaching issue, will anyone on the offensive line roster step up? The Vikings best offensive lineman the past few years - Joe Berger - retired, LT Riley Reiff had his worst year as a pro last season, Pat Elflein continues to have injury issues, and it appears that Mike Remmers will be moved inside to (most likely) right guard. The Vikings continue to add bodies to the mix - drafting T Brian O’Neill and G/T Colby Gossett, and veterans Tom Compton and Josh Andrews among others - in addition to second year guys like Aviante Collins and Danny Isidora. Nick Easton and Rashod Hill, both starters last season, are also in the mix.
But the question of who goes where and who wins the position battles is still up in the air. Can any of these guys up their game? The starting door is wide open for anyone who can.
Riley Reiff starting at left tackle seems the surest bet, and increasingly Mike Remmers to start at right guard - at least before he was injured yesterday in practice. Beyond that, the starters are a little more up-in-the-air.
At left guard, Tom Compton and Danny Isidora are alternating first-team reps at the moment while last year’s starter- Nick Easton - starts at center for the injured Pat Elflein. Aviante Collins also filled in late last season at left guard. He performed well - albeit on only 39 snaps - against Chicago and New Orleans in the playoff game. That may not seem like much, but a good game against the Bears week 17 two years ago certainly lifted Rashod Hill’s stock coming into last year’s training camp. It’s also noteworthy as Collins graded out much higher than Danny Isidora last year in limited action.
At center, it would seem that Pat Elflein will return as starter once he is off the PUP list. But it’s also noteworthy that the Vikings visited with several guys that played center during the pre-draft process, and I have not doubt that if Frank Ragnow had been there for the Vikings in the first round, he would’ve been the new center for the Vikings. Elflein didn’t grade well during his rookie campaign, and missing the off-season and pre-season so far rehabbing from his ankle injury isn’t a positive either. Nevertheless, it would seem Elflein will take over at center when he’s healthy, although Nick Easton is not out of the question as a starting center either.
At right guard, Mike Remmers looked to be the starter, but his injury (still unknown severity) casts some doubt there. If he’s not able to go, I would think all the contenders at left guard would be in the mix to start at right guard, along with rookie Colby Gossett, whose size, strength and familiarity with zone blocking should help his chances.
Last, at right tackle, Rashod Hill looks like the starter at the moment. He came into the off-season having lost about 10 pounds, which hopefully will improve his agility/quickness some, along with his stamina. Fatigue played a role in his declining grades over the course of a game and season last year. Rookie 2nd round pick Brian O’Neill seems to be making a case for himself to start at right tackle as well, making the most of his first team reps while Hill has been ill, but I think the plan for O’Neill is for spot duty this year, and perhaps take over at left tackle next year - allowing the Vikings to get out of Riley Reiff’s contract. Plans change though, and if O’Neill shows he’s got enough lead in his pencil, he could overtake Hill for the starting job.
How Will the WR Depth Chart Shake Out?
The Vikings typically keep six WRs on the 53-man roster, and I don’t see that changing this year. Four of the six spots are pretty well set: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Laquon Treadwell, and Stacy Coley. Yes, Stacy Coley too has a spot pretty well in hand, particularly after OC DeFilippo’s comments at his press conference earlier this week and his special teams play. That leaves two spots among eight contenders. Of those, Brandon Zylstra has the most buzz, Jeff Badet is the fastest, Kendall Wright the most experienced, Jake Weinike is the biggest, and Korey Robertson may be the most developed of the rookies.
My guess is that Jake Weinike is more a candidate for the practice squad, rather than a roster spot. Badet has been injured during the off-season, so hasn’t shown much, but as the only one of the remaining guys that is a legitimate deep threat based on his 4.3 speed, along with his experience, I like his chances to land one of the remaining spots. I suspect Kendall Wright’s experience gives him the advantage over the others, but I don’t see him getting above fourth on the depth chart.
Treadwell getting more targets from Kirk Cousins, along with his general improvement and experience in the offense should secure him as the #3 receiver, and could result in more production for him this season. Stacy Coley had also shown improvement before getting injured, so it may be a battle between him and Kendall Wright for the 4th spot on the depth chart once Coley is healthy again. Beyond that, the last two spots are not often on the active roster on game day, so you’re really looking to develop potential rather than getting immediate contributors. With that in mind, Badet seems a more likely candidate for one of those spots, and if he develops well could be activated on occasion as a deep threat.
Depth at RB and TE Interesting Too
I suspect Flip will try to groom rookie Tyler Conklin to be an F-back that is a more legitimate receiving threat than David Morgan. It will be interesting to see how much he is involved in the offense as a rookie. Morgan is the better blocker and more traditional backup TE for double-TE sets, but I suspect Conklin will get opportunities to show what he can do as an F-back.
At RB, depth looks good despite the loss of Jerick McKinnon. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray are a solid 1-2 punch, and it will be interesting to see how the battle for the third spot between Mack Brown, Roc Thomas and Mike Boone plays out. I suspect CJ Ham will secure the FB spot, in part due to his special teams ability. That quality may influence who wins the #3 RB spot as well.
Excitement is building at all the offensive skill positions. Top level talent and depth abounds from WR to RB to QB to TE. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has been impressive so far as well, and it will be interesting to see how he chooses to utilize the talent he has on offense.
The perennial question mark remains the offensive line, and the death of Tony Sparano and injury concerns only increase the concerns there. That being the case, despite the wealth of talent the Vikings have at the skill positions, having a couple guys step up along the offensive line may be the most welcome news that could come out of training camp this year.
We’ll see how it unfolds.
What do you think of John DeFilippo as the new offensive coordinator so far?
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Hard to say