I made it out to TCO Performance Center today to take in the Vikings practice. It was my first time out there, and agree with the pretty much unanimous view that it a top-notch facility, and one of the best, if not the best training facility in the NFL.
It was a different atmosphere from Mankato too. For those that feared it would have more of a corporate feel to it, well it does. Not overwhelmingly so, but running the labyrinth through the media ‘route’ to the practice field I was aware of the abundance of security personnel along the way, and also what a brand new, really nice facility it is.
But ok, enough about that.
Today was focused more on special teams kickoff returns during team drills than normally would be the case, as the Vikings prepare more for Saturday’s game at Denver.
- Linval Joseph did not practice or have pads on, although he was out on the practice field. Not sure why he was held out, but probably nothing serious. Undoubtedly a relief for Cornelius Edison and JP Quinn at center.
- Nick Easton was not at practice that I noticed, nor was Roc Thomas.
- I saw Pat Elflein working on the sideline in shorts and t-shirt. He seemed fine, but hard to tell how long it will be before he’s able to participate.
- Mike Zimmer seemed to be in a good mood throughout practice, joking early on with Xavier Rhodes, spending time chatting with a young boy on the sideline, etc.
- New OL coaches Andrew Janoko and Clancy Barone are both very vocal coaches - outside of perhaps Mike Priefer the most vocal on the Vikings staff.
One of the things that makes watching training camp in person worthwhile is that you get a better sense of which players stand out in ways that it can be difficult to describe, and yet make a clear impression.
For example, last year what stood out the most to me was the play of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Both were known talents at that point, but to watch them in their routes and catching ability compared to other receivers, they really stood out as elite- at least compared to the rest of training camp. Both were a pleasure to watch with their crisp routes, soft hands, perfectly timed leaping ability.... none of what followed last season for those two was a surprise after watching them in camp. The year before watching Adrian Peterson he stood out for his explosiveness. I remember watching Cordarrelle Patterson line-up that year as well. He looked like such an explosive player compared to other WRs (and he was as a KR), but then he’d run his routes and just seemed a little confused....
Anyway, coming to training camp for the first time this year, I was anxious to see who would stand out. So far, I can’t say there are any new ‘elite’ players that have stood out to me yet, but some very positive impressions from a few players:
- Laquon Treadwell. He looks noticeably better than he did last season. He has a different, more physical style than Diggs and to a lesser extent Thielen, but just a lot more confidence on the field where he looked as good as Thielen. There was a time during the earlier team drills today where Treadwell was getting just about every target from Cousins, and never dropped a ball. Most were intermediate routes that don’t make the highlight reel, but he was finding ways to gain separation at the right time and it’s apparent he’s developed some timing and confidence with Cousins as well. He’s learning to use his bigger body more to his advantage, while running crisper routes and catching everything thrown at him.
- Dalvin Cook. Perhaps not much of a surprise, but Dalvin looks as good or better than last year. Honestly he stood out to me a little more today than he did last year. No sign of any injury whatsoever. What stands out about Cook is his quickness, agility, then sudden acceleration through the hole or around the end. He isn’t new, but those qualities stand out as elite in a running back. Not the power of Adrian Peterson, but a quickness, elusiveness and burst of acceleration as he makes his cut that really stands out compared to other backs.
- Mike Hughes. My impression here is as a kick returner. He’s got a burst of acceleration and speed. Much more than Marcus Sherels. He may not have the vision yet of Cordarrelle Patterson, but we’ll see. He seems very north-south, speed, quick cut and go type of a kick returner, which is what you want. I haven’t seen enough of him at cornerback to comment yet, but definitely has speed and a quick burst that stands out.
Beyond these three, some more mildly positive impressions of a few other players:
- Rashod Hill. He looked better since losing the weight. He seemed to move a little better and had a little more confident demeanor than last season. Not an elite feel by any means, just a noticeably better impression compared to last season. He did give up a pressure to Brian Robison that I noticed, but held his own otherwise for the most part against Danielle Hunter - which is saying something - but it was a struggle.
- MacKensie Alexander. He was playing with more confidence and not allowing as much separation than I remember last year. He still seems to have some way to go in terms of mastering the scheme and where he should be, but he’s improved in his coverage. That said, I believe it was he who gave up a long TD covering Jeff Badet in 1-on-1 drills. He gave Badet an outside release and he just out ran him for the reception in the end zone.
- Jeff Badet. His speed stands out, and he looks a competent receiver, if not as polished as Diggs. His speed showed up as a kick returner as well. He looked to be the fourth kick returner behind Hughes, Sherels and Coley.
- Holton Hill. He had a nice pass break-up today, and generally didn’t give a lot of separation when I was watching him. He’s got plenty to work on in terms of better technique and understanding the system, but he’s got the skill set to get there it seems.
- Antwione Williams. He made a couple nice plays today and his size and speed stood out. More than once I took notice and had to consult my roster to remember who 56 was again.
- Tom Compton. He looks like he could be a decent guard. That may sound more like damning with faint praise than a mild complement, but compared to most of the other offensive linemen outside of Rashod Hill today, that stood out as a positive.
- Tyler Conklin. I was pleased to see him getting integrated into the offense - looking like the F-back that Flip likes to use - and he had a few reps with the first team as well. The main thing is that he seemed to know the plays and scheme well and did a good job being in position. Didn’t get much for targets, but it was a positive that he was being used as much as he was and seemed to handle it well.
- Kyle Sloter. He throws a nice ball. I’ve heard a lot of praise for Trevor Siemian, and that may be well deserved, but Sloter was more impressive to watch throw. I’m curious to see him in pre-season action. He looks like he has a high ceiling.
On the flip side, there were also some players that came in under expectations- at least when I was watching today. Here are a few:
- 3rd/4th string offensive linemen. Certainly not high expectations to begin with, but center JP Quinn, and tackles Storm Norton and Dieugot Joseph struggled mightily against even 3rd string defensive linemen.
- Kendall Wright. As a seasoned veteran, Wright did not impress. He had trouble gaining separation from even backup corners, and seemed to lack effort. He didn’t have a ton of reps, and I don’t think he was targeted once.
- Brandon Zylstra. I had higher expectations for Zylstra coming into training camp for the first time based on the buzz around him the past couple months. He got some first team reps today, and looked competent and knew what he was doing. But he’s not gonna get separation from NFL cornerbacks. I guess that was the disappointment more than anything. He may make the roster and deserve to - but more based on his special teams ability. He can do alright against backups, but against starters it’s a different story.
I suspect a lot of observers at training camp may have a similar view to mine regarding Cousins. He does a lot of things well. He was more accurate on deep balls than Sam Bradford was last year - at least in this small sample size - and had a nice throw to an open Stefon Diggs (covered by Rhodes) for the highlight deep touchdown pass of the day. He also threw a couple of interceptions today - both by Xavier Rhodes in good coverage. He had a wobbly throw to Kyle Rudolph who made a nice grab in tight coverage for a bit of a wow play. But if you were looking for signs of an $84 million elite quarterback, there wasn’t much there today.
I suspect most observers are reserving judgement as Cousins learns the system, etc., etc., etc. After all Bradford, while throwing a great ball, didn’t necessarily set the world on fire in training camp before going out and basically doing just that against New Orleans week one. So we’ll see. But that may account for the news stories being more about Cousins learning the system, becoming a leader, etc., than how impressive he’s been on the field.
Nevertheless, I suspect people hope to see more ‘wow’ from Cousins in camp than has been the case so far, simply because he was the big kahuna in free agency this year and $84 million guaranteed implies certain performance expectations. That may not happen, and that may be fine too as Cousins likely has a different set of goals for training camp than wowing the crowd at every opportunity - and don’t forget he’s playing against the best defense in the NFL with a considerable advantage in continuity.
So, again, we’ll see. Everybody is watching Cousins, but so far there hasn’t been that much to say one way or another. And that may be just fine at this point. Stay tuned.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES
Since today they practiced more on kickoffs and returns, a couple notes about that:
- Mike Hughes is the first-team kick returner. Marcus Sherels, Stacy Coley, Jeff Badet, and Craig James also fielded returns. Hughes looked the best, but it was 3 quarter speed, so not the real thing by any means.
- It didn’t seem terribly different from last year, despite the new rules. That may change in pre-season action. Blockers seemed to run back and gather around the 25 - 30 yard line, which implies returns should be that far - making kicking it out of the end zone more attractive. Advantage Daniel Carlson, who kicks it deeper than Forbath. Carlson also made a 39-yard field goal in team drills. I believe that was the only FG attempt today.
- Mike Boone was one of the two other deep guys on kickoff return today, I believe mostly with the 2nd team. I mention it because he had it kicked to him 3 times - and he did a good job handling the shorter kicks that bounced in front of him. Mike Priefer was working with him on that technique as well.
- In team drills, Boone looked better to me than Mack in the competition for the 3rd RB spot. Boone seems both a more powerful runner than Mack, and also a little more decisive in his cuts. With Roc Thomas out, Boone seems to have the inside track on the 3rd RB spot, and perhaps working with him on special teams duties reflects his standing a bit.
FIRST UNOFFICIAL DEPTH CHART WAS RELEASED AFTER PRACTICE TODAY
Looking at the initial depth chart, it appears it was as of before training camp started- which has been the case in previous years as well. Marcus Sherels was listed as #1 kick returner, for example, and Mike Priefer has already given that job to Mike Hughes. In general this depth chart is based on some combination of veteran experience, previous depth chart last season, and draft pick order. Seeing Kendall Wright listed 2nd after Stefon Diggs is another example. Wright did not get anything like those reps today- Zylstra and Jones both had more I believe- nor has he shown anything on merit to be that high on the depth chart except based on veteran experience.
POSITION BATTLES MAY BE DECIDED EARLY
Looking across position groups, most seem pretty well set. I did a 53-man roster forecast just after the draft, which I will update shortly, but not much change. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kicker competition goes to the final pre-season game, but I wouldn’t be surprised either if there were several cuts before the deadline. In part to focus coaching on players that will make the team, and allow those cut more time to find another landing spot.