It’s common for defenses to start Training Camp ahead of offenses, especially when said offense is installing a new system. That has especially been the case when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings. With Mike Zimmer’s stacked defense, the offense has historically had a tough time finding rhythm early on in camp.
That wasn’t the case for most of Wednesday afternoon. Much of the practice featured great execution by the offense, especially in red zone drills. Let’s get right to the news and notes.
Who’s in, who’s out
Jeff Badet made his Training Camp debut on Wednesday after sitting out the first four days. He was a full participant in drills and team sessions, mostly getting reps with the 2’s and 3’s along with a bunch of Special Teams duty. Curtis Cothran sat out along with the four players remaining on the injured lists: Mike Hughes, Shamar Stephen, David Morgan, and Tashawn Bower. Stephen Weatherly left practice early on, which gave Karter Schult lots of reps with the second team. (Schult acquitted himself pretty well with the upgraded role, creating a couple of pressures in 11-on-11.) As of this posting, it doesn’t appear that we know anything new about Weatherly’s status. Once again, Linval Joseph was in pads but sat out most of practice. He worked out with Hughes under the supervision of trainers on the far field for a bit today. So all told, 83 of the 90 players were full participants.
Calling shotgun, depth chart updates
For the first time in Training Camp, the Vikings quarterbacks took several reps in shotgun after exclusively being under center the first four days. There was much more 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) with each offensive unit, and I even noticed an empty set snap with a tight end and four wideouts. There was still a heavy dose of play action, roll outs, and screens.
There was much less shuffling of the depth chart on Wednesday, especially compared to the previous practice. There weren’t many notable changes to report outside of Jalyn Holmes getting most of the first team snaps at the 3 technique tackle. He and Hercules Mata’afa seem to be alternating days between teams. That reflects the rotation they had during spring practices, although in OTAs it was between the second and third team.
I have been getting several questions on Twitter about fourth round rookie Dru Samia, so I’ll address him here as well. Quite frankly, there isn’t much to report. He has been firmly entrenched with the third team at guard. Dakota Dozier and Danny Isidora have almost exclusively been the second team guards. Both have been solid, although Isidora didn’t have a great day on Wednesday. It isn’t that Samia is performing poorly, but he hasn’t stood out enough to garner a bump up through the first five days of practice. It looks like the Vikings are bringing him along slowly in camp.
Red hot in the red zone
The offense looked crisp on Wednesday, especially when it came to the extended red zone work they had. Kirk Cousins had an outstanding day with several pinpoint touch passes to every part of the end zone, giving his receivers opportunities to make several excellent catches. Stefon Diggs got things started with an amazing one-handed grab against Xavier Rhodes:
Diggs with an amazing one-handed catch on Rhodes. pic.twitter.com/73V3JQkkja— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) July 31, 2019
Tyler Conklin had what was easily his best day of camp, making a bunch of nice catches including this drop in the bucket from Cousins:
Perfect pass from Kirk to Conklin in the back corner pic.twitter.com/yVpiZB21pP— Josh Mensch (@JoshMenschNFL) July 31, 2019
Adam Thielen was up to his usual tricks, which meant more razor-sharp routes capped by easy scores. Rudolph had an excellent toe-tap catch at the back of the end zone over some pretty good coverage from Trae Waynes.
I especially enjoyed a two-play series where the Vikings started on the 35 with just over a minute put on the clock. The first was a designed roll out that gave time for Beebe to scoot past Eric Kendricks across the formation for a nice gain. The next play was a corner route from Kyle Rudolph that Cousins placed perfectly over Harrison Smith at the near right pylon. Cousins explained how his rapport with Rudy has improved in his press conference after practice. A lot of it comes from simply trusting his veteran tight end more:
He just continues to show that when you throw it to him in those moments, he makes you right. He catches it. The play he made in the back of the endzone today was just really impressive...He did a similar thing in a corner route in the front corner of the endzone at the end of practice and he had a couple others through 7-on-7’s and other periods in previous days, so the more you do it the more you see it, the more you realize that’s a strength of his. I guess look back and regret a little bit not doing that more with him last year and then look forward to this year and giving him more opportunities to make it right. When really everything in you is telling you, ‘Hey, he’s really not open, but let’s give him a shot.’
I’m all for anything that makes Cousins a bit less robotic and methodical when things don’t go exactly according to plan. If Monday was any indication, he seems to be heading in the right direction.
Surges and slumps (because Stock Market Report was already taken)
It’s amazing how far Mackensie Alexander has come since being drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Mack was all over the place on Wednesday, making play after play and generally occupying the hip pocket of the receiver he was covering. His Head Coach has noticed the change as well:
#Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on Mackensie Alexander. "He’s turned the corner... His rookie year, woo.'' Zimmer wouldn't offer specifics about how Alexander got the message after he was hard to coach in his early years.— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) July 31, 2019
Alexander’s Clemson teammate that was drafted five rounds later that year, Jayron Kearse, is also earning a spot on that “Most Improved” list. Kearse looks much more comfortable no matter where he lines up on the field. Everything looks more instinctual. While the offense ruled the day in the red zone, Kearse dominated his 1-on-1 drills with some well-timed pass breakups. It seems like he’s in line for an increased workload in 2019.
I’d say Mike Zimmer has definitely has earned his “DB Guru” title.
I know I have already addressed this in previous recaps, but Dalvin Cook is showing incredible burst through holes. He looks all the way back and then some. The zone blocking scheme seems to suit him nicely. One second he’s biding his time behind the line; the next he’s breaking down the sideline into the secondary. Say a prayer to the football gods for Cook’s health when you go to bed tonight—he is so much fun to watch when he’s on the field.
Cook has been able to find that burst thanks to one of the pleasant surprises of camp. Josh Kline is looking like a big upgrade at guard through the first five practices. He and Garrett Bradbury combined to open up running lanes and stymie the pass rush in the middle quite often on Wednesday. Kline has been much more consistent than Pat Elflein, who has been fairly up-and-down thus far.
On the other side of the run game, I keep noticing Reshard Cliett getting to the right spot on second and third team defense. Rookie Cameron Smith has been steadily making more plays each day as well. There are going to be some very difficult choices to make at the back end of the linebacker depth chart.
Armon Watts had a couple more splash plays on Wednesday. However, he disappeared for a couple stretches as well, getting pancaked on a couple occasions. If the sixth round pick can get a little more consistent, he could eventually be a dangerous part of the defensive line rotation.
Another mixed review is needed for the performance of Holton Hill. The upside: he was excellent in coverage on Wednesday and saw more reps. The downside: almost all of it was on the third team. Zimmer still refuses to talk much about Hill, so it doesn’t look like the suspended second year corner will escape the Zimmer Doghouse anytime soon.
Bisi Johnson struggled in individual sideline drills, but rebounded nicely with some nice grabs in the red zone work. It was the first notable performance by any of the receivers in the back half of the depth chart in camp. Davion Davis and Dillon Mitchell still look like unpolished rookies and Brandon Zylstra is still easing his way back into things. Chad Beebe still seems to be the favorite for the third wide receiver spot—he’s running sharp routes and creating space pretty often. However, he dropped another pass on a deep ball Wednesday. It would be nice to see him be more consistent and really take hold of his spot on the depth chart. So far, I have liked the tape of Jordan Taylor a lot more than what I have seen in person. His slender frame appears to be hindering him from creating separation at the top of a lot of his routes. I left practice still wanting more from the wide receiver group.
There are a handful of players that don’t appear to be long for this Vikings roster. Nate Meadors and Tito Odenigbo are constantly getting beat regardless of who they go up against. Terrence Alexander has been struggling mightily as well, highlighted by getting absolutely worked by Laquon Treadwell in 1-on-1’s. Alexander Hollins has too much wasted motion in his routes and can’t get open consistently, even against the third team. As it stands right now, all four seem to be some of the longest shots to make the roster. (I’m pretty sure we’ll still have at least one Odenigbo on the roster; Ifeadi has been creating a lot of pressure with a nice array of moves.)
Before camp, I thought Kyle Sloter was a shoe-in to make the roster and the likely QB2. That just isn’t the case so far. Sean Mannion hasn’t been great by any means, but he has shown good pocket presence and more accuracy. Jake Browning has started camp fairly well. Meanwhile, Sloter can’t seem to string together a series of good passes. Most of his accurate throws that show off his big arm have been immediately followed by an inexplicable duck. Of course, Sloter looked pretty bad for large portions of Training Camp last year only to have a couple great performances in the preseason games. This year, I’m not 100% certain he’s going to get the opportunity unless he cleans it up in practice.
Specialized special teams
New Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf continues to break down his portion of practice into specialized individual pieces. Wednesday started out with focusing on kickoff coverage and return lanes on one half of the field while punt gunners faced off against jammers on the other. There was more emphasis on punt blocks. I’m pretty sure they even had a situational rep where Matt Wile took the “strategic safety” going out of the back of the end zone that can come into play during very specific end-of-game situations. There is still a large mass of players rotating in at kick returner, punt returner, and gunner. (The only new name we haven’t seen yet: Craig James took a few punt returns.) It remains to be seen how much Maalouf will improve the Vikings’ below-average special teams, but one thing seems to be a certainty: he’s incredibly thorough.
Bailey better, but not perfect
Dan Bailey had seven more live kicks throughout the day and made six of them. The breakdown of each kick:
- 33 yards, middle: GOOD
- 39 yards, left: GOOD
- 44 yards, right: GOOD
- 48 yards, middle: GOOD
- 41 yards, right: NO GOOD (wide right)
- 52 yards, left: GOOD
- 33 yards, middle: GOOD
Wile was the holder for each kick. It looked like Kevin McDermott was the long snapper for the first three kicks and Austin Cutting took the last four. That brings Bailey’s cumulative tally to 15/20 in Training Camp. Four of the five kicks he has missed have been from the right hash mark; four of the five misses have been wide right. It seems like when Bailey does get the timing off from his rotating cast of snappers and holders, he tends to push his kicks a bit. It’s still nice to see him trending in the right direction, especially with nailing a couple longer kicks on Wednesday.
That’s a wrap for Wednesday’s updates. We’ll be back at it again on Thursday afternoon from Eagan. To follow along for live updates, you can find me on Twitter at @eric_j_thompson.
If you’d like to catch up on anything you might have missed, here are links to all my previous recaps: