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Preseason Game 1: Goals, Aspirations, and Things to Look For

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What do the Vikings need to do to come out of this preseason, and this game in particular, to feel as though they are prepared for the season?

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings
Nothing like the preseason to get you thirsting for the regular season, right?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Well ladies and gents, we are approaching the return of Vikings football. As exciting as that is, the interest level of most fans will and does wane when watching most of preseason football. I’m here to give you some reasons to not only watch, but remain interested in all four preseason games.

Yes, even Game #4, as hard as that might be to believe. So here are my keys to the preseason for the Minnesota Vikings.

Things to Watch Across the Preseason in General

No. 1: No injuries

I always see this particular goal at the bottom of lists such as these.

I’m here to tell you that’s dumb.

I can almost guarantee you that no matter what team you’re referring to, their biggest hope is to escape training camp and the preseason without sustaining any major injuries. Of course, there’s rarely a team that doesn’t sustain at least one season-ending injury to one of their players, no matter how important that player is, so a team simply has to, as the meme says, “Keep Calm and Carry on.”

No. 2: Depth Chart Battles, Part 1

Here’s one of the biggest reasons to remain interested in training camps and preseason games from the beginning to the end (and not just because we’ve been deprived of football over the last few months).

No, I personally find nothing more interesting, especially on a team this talented, than the battles that the players go through to find their way either onto our 53-man roster or practice squad, or some other team’s 53-man roster or practice squad.

This year, especially when some of our offensive linemen get more healthy, should have plenty of position battles to watch. Even more enjoyable, they are at all levels of competition up and down the depth chart. So here’s a look at the preseason battles that will go down on offense.

QB: Depending on which Vikings writer you talk to, Kyle Sloter is either having an okay camp or a bad one. His play in the preseason could very well determine whether the Vikings roster three quarterbacks the entire season or if they feel comfortable in either trying to sneak him through to the practice squad or if they’re okay in just giving him up on waivers to whatever team claims him.

RB: The battle for the third running back slot. Last year’s three running backs were pretty easy to determine, with Cook, Murray and McKinnon on the roster, so last year’s competition was more about whether CJ Ham would play well enough for the team to keep him around. He did, and they did. This year, however, there’s a wide-open spot for the third running back on this year’s roster, fought between Mack Brown, Roc Thomas, and Michael Boone. The fourth game in particular will be huge, as these three running backs will likely be taking every last snap in that particular game.

WR: Depth battles galore! Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are locked in at the top of the depth chart, which leaves anywhere from three to four spots behind them (depending on how many wide receivers the Vikings keep) for the rest to fight over. Laquon Treadwell has been having the best camp of his career, so this preseason will be big for him in forming chemistry with new QB Kirk Cousins and really cementing his hold on the WR3 spot.

After Treadwell, the rest of the depth chart is basically up for grabs between Kendall Wright, Stacy Coley, Brandon Zylstra, Tavarres King, Cayleb Jones, Korey Robertson, Jake Wieneke, Jeff Badet and Chad Beebe. Now, the fourth-sixth slots on last year’s depth chart were filled by Jarius Wright, Rodney Smith, and Stacey Coley (with Michael Floyd taking Smith’s spot on the roster when he returned from his suspension). Coley, Wright, and King are the players with NFL experience under their belts (though far less for Coley than the other two) and they’ll be the probative favorites to take the open spots on this year’s roster unless one of the others, like Brandon Zylstra, impresses the coaches enough to keep them around.

TE: Now, Vikings fans have had a few fun tight ends to watch in the preseason the last few seasons (haha make your jokes now and then get your heads out of the gutter). But seriously, Rudy and David Morgan have their spots about as locked in as possible. Blake Bell, Tyler Conklin, Tyler Hoppes and Josiah Price are the other tight ends on this year’s preseason roster, and Conklin in particular will have a lot to prove to show that he’s different than the last few mid-to-late-round tight ends the Vikings have taken in the last few seasons.

OL: Possibly the biggest thing to watch before this season, especially after the injury to Nick Easton. With Pat Elflein still sidelined after offseason surgery and Mike Remmers watching from the sidelines, the depth players will be on the field early and often during this year’s preseason. Just keep an eye on how much pressure each MN quarterback is dealing with throughout the preseason and how they adjust to that.

No. 3: Depth Chart Battles, pt. 2

The defense has plenty of depth battles of its own to look through, so here’s the list of those battles to keep your eye on.

DE: Much like the wide receiver position, the top two spots at defensive end are locked down by Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. It’s the depth positions that are important to watch. Brian Robison is the veteran presence, and with his dead cap number actually being larger than his cap hit, his position on this year’s team is probably safe. That likely means four players, Stephen Weatherly, Tashawn Bower, Ade Aruna, and Jonathan Wynn, are fighting for, at most, two roster spots. Bower, who won the final true Mr. Mankato award in last year’s training camp, will be at the forefront of this year’s struggle.

DT: Last year’s training camp and preseason was all about figuring out if there was a player on the roster to fully assume the role of three technique next to Fightin’ Linval Joseph. Nobody really stepped up to dominate the spot, so Tom Johnson was slotted in there. Now the Vikings have newly-signed Sheldon Richardson to take over that spot, so the depth and development spots are more important now. Jaleel Johnson is, for the moment, slotted to take over Johnson’s old “backup both tackle spots” job, while Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jalyn Holmes, David Parry, and Curtis Cothran fight it out for either one or two roster spots at most. Again, this should be a fun battle!

LB: Much hay has been made in the Vikings beat writer circles about the Vikings possible depth issues at linebacker. I don’t 100% share those concerns (for the moment), but the preseason will be a good time to nail down and, hopefully, erase any concerns about the depth behind the top guys. EK, AB55, and Ben ‘Glorious Facial Hair’ Gedeon are your starters heading into the season, with Eric Wilson and Kentrell Brothers seemingly being entrenched on the team as two of the backups/special teams aces. The Vikings had just six linebackers on the roster as of November 1 of last season, so there’s a good chance that’s how many they’ll be carrying for this season, meaning Antwione Williams, Garret Dooley, Devante Downs, Reshard Cliett, Brett Taylor, and Mike Needham are probably fighting for one roster spot (maybe two if the Vikings carry an extra linebacker while Brothers is suspended).

CB: Possibly the second-most interesting depth battle on the roster (after OL, of course). Like DE and WR, the top two guys are locked in. It’s where everybody else fits in that’s the question. The Vikings carried six cornerbacks last season, so after Waynes and Xavier, there are probably four spots open. Terence Newman is the veteran that has no guaranteed money who could be cut if he doesn’t play up to snuff. Mack Alexander was the rebel who didn’t listen to his coaches but is playing better now that he is. Hughes is the promising (and possibly even DROY-worthy if he had landed on a team that would/could start him) first-year corner that could be a defensive mainstay for years. Sherels is the unkillable, punt-returning, special-teams-coverage, deep-on-your-depth-chart SOB cornerback that he always is. Holton Hill is the rookie who could be very good if he stays on the straight and narrow. Horace Richardson is the still-young-but-might-be-in-a-numbers-game-crunch player that has apparently been playing fairly well in camp. And that’s before you get to Trevon Mathis and Craig James, the only two real probable “camp bodies” of the bunch. Like, Jesus Almighty, this is gonna be FUN TO WATCH.

S: Possibly the position with the least competition on the entire roster, other than punter and long snapper. Smith is a lock, and Sendejo, Kearse and Harris are almost certain to make the roster as well. About the only question is whether Harris pulls the upset and steals the starting job away from Sendejo.

K: I’ll put kicker here because making a different category for one position battle is dumb in my book. This is another good battle to watch, if only because Carlson hasn’t exactly been pulling away from Forbath in camp, so there does appear to be an actual camp battle in the making. Keep a definite eye on this one to see whether Forbath manages to pull the upset on the rookie.

Game-specific Things to Look For

No. 1: Vikings OL vs. Broncos DL/Defense

In this particular regard, I’m not sure there could have been a better choice for Minnesota’s first opponent of the season (unless the Broncos were shifted to the third preseason game, which would have also been a fun watch).

Much like the Vikings, the Broncos are well-known for their defensive line depth and talent, especially after their recent drafting of potential superstar Bradley Chubb in the first round of this year’s draft. The Vikings tackles will have their hands full with Chubb and Miller rushing their way during the first series or two of the game, and the task doesn’t get easier from there.

The Broncos will show off Shane Ray, their first-round pick in 2015, Shaquil Barrett, and a number of other rushers throughout the night. The Vikings will have their work cut out for them against the Broncos.

No. 2: Vikings corners vs. Broncos WR’s

This particular battle, in my opinion, will lean the way of the Vikings, at least early on. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas remain at the top of Denver’s depth chart, but they are no longer the reliable duo of death they were when the Broncos first brought the two of them together.

That being said, the Broncos sunk two draft picks in this year’s draft into wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Courtland Sutton, both of whom should be good challenges for Minnesota’s second and third-string corners throughout the majority of the second, third and possibly even fourth quarters.

No. 3: Vikings defensive line vs. Broncos OL

Feels like this at least deserves a mention, considering my top point. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos had the fourth-worst offensive line last season when it came to adjusted sack rate, so if there is a team to get our pass-rushers hungry for the season on, it should be this one. The depth battles should be particularly interesting.

No. 4: Vikings WR’s vs. Broncos corners

This isn’t quite the same cornerback group that sent the Broncos to a Super Bowl win just a few years ago, but they still have some talent at the top of their depth chart. Bradley Roby is a homegrown talent the Broncos are particularly high on, and Chris Harris has been one of the top corners in the game over the last few seasons.

After Harris and Roby, though, there isn’t nearly as much depth for the Broncos as there is for the Vikings. To put it this way, on ourlads.com’s depth chart for the Broncos, former Vikings fifth- (and sixth-) string corner Tramaine Brock is currently listed directly behind Bradley Roby. Yeah. So even if Vikings wide receivers haven’t been having much luck against their fellow corners in practice, a game situation where Tramaine Brock is among the first substitutions onto the Broncos defense can only benefit the Vikings and their offense.

No. 5: Don’t take results too seriously

Well, maybe not ALL results. Individual play by certain players is certainly important, and will definitely factor into which players are kept around for the regular season. But overall score? Not particularly important. Not sure whether to trust me on that? Here’s the stat line from last year’s supposed No. 1 offense through the first three preseason games:

66 plays, 286 yards, 3 points

You read that right. The Sam Bradford-led Vikings first-team offense had less than 300 yards of offense on nearly 70 plays from scrimmage (4.33 yards per play) and scored exactly three points. So......yeah.

So while I will not be around to provide play by play for anyone interested for probably most if not all of the first half, I will be paying close attention to how the team does, and I hope you are too!

SKOL