We are now a full week into Minnesota Vikings Training Camp. We have only just begun, but suddenly only ten practices remain before the team breaks camp. It’s still incredibly early in the season—we’re still a week away from the first preseason game and there will be plenty of shuffling throughout the roster before we arrive at the final 53. That said, tendencies and patterns are starting to take shape through six afternoons in Eagan. Thursday’s practice wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but there was certainly some reinforcement of what we have already seen in previous days.
Before we get started, there was a neat moment before practice started as several people officially enlisted in the Air National Guard in a ceremony on the practice field. All the new enlistees got photo ops with several players and watched practice from the sidelines. Looks like the recruiting of Austin Cutting with his new position in the Air Force is already paying dividends! (Note: Yes, I’m joking here. I realize you don’t just show up and enlist.)
Who’s in, who’s out
Stephen Weatherly was a new addition to the list of non-participants on Thursday after leaving Wednesday’s practice early. Curtis Cothran was out as well. They joined the four injured list players while everyone suited up. Linval Joseph was held from nearly all of practice, so once again the team had 83 of 90 players participating. Mike Hughes was spotted on the practice field without his usual bulky knee brace. However, he didn’t do any work with the trainers on the far field as he had in previous days. It appears that Aviante Collins could join the inactives on Friday after getting carted off following a red zone play.
There will presumably be one new face along the offensive line at camp on Friday. The Vikings added Tyler Catalina, who was recently released from the Washington Redskins, and released Tiano Pupungatoa. At the very least, I welcome any and all Catalina Wine Mixer jokes for the foreseeable future.
Formations and depth charts
The three teams on offense and defense remained largely the same on Thursday aside from the requisite rotations here and there. All three offensive line units remained unchanged (sorry, Dru Samia stans). Hercules Mata’afa got his turn with the first team at 3 technique, although Jalyn Holmes got most of the reps there toward the last half of the day. Holton Hill had another great performance, but it was still only beating up on the third team receivers. Duke Thomas saw a bunch of work in the slot with the second team since the offense ran a lot of three receiver sets.
Speaking of those sets, the offense ran a pretty wide variety of formations in full team sessions with even more 11 personnel and shotgun than the previous day. We did get a personnel package that we hadn’t seen yet: 20 with C.J. Ham and Dalvin Cook in an offset I formation, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen split out wide, and Chad Beebe in the slot.
There were only a couple reps out of the formation, but the last one featured a nice gain to Beebe on an out route. The Vikings also threw in a few end around carries to wide receivers. Diggs, Dillon Mitchell, and Olabisi Johnson all got carries. It looks like the “Stefubiak” offense is adding new pieces every day.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about the Special Teams portion of practice. Thielen and Beebe took a few reps holding kicks after practice, so it appears that the experiment is still ongoing there. Dan Bailey didn’t take any live kicks during practice. There are still hordes of punt returners and kick returners, but it appears that a few players are starting to get more reps than the others. Ameer Abdullah, Alexander Mattison, and Mike Boone were the only kick returners for one portion of special teams work. It appears that Beebe might be the favorite for the punt returner gig, but there are still way too many bodies in the mix there to know for certain.
Cousins on point
For the second straight day, Kirk Cousins was absolutely dealing in 11-on-11. His comments on Wednesday about trusting Kyle Rudolph more don’t seem to be lip service—#8 to #82 has been the best connection in camp over the past few days. Cousins found Rudy several times on Thursday with some beautiful passes over coverage. The $84 million man has been placing the ball wherever he wants over the past two practices.
This toss down the left sideline that hit Diggs in stride past a helpless Xavier Rhodes was borderline NSFW:
Of course, Cousins detractors will point out that he has always been capable of beautiful passes when everything goes according to plan and he has a clean pocket. But what happens when things break down? Cousins’ pocket presence definitely left a lot to be desired last season, which resulted in some crucial sacks and fumbles that probably should have been avoided.
This is where I think Stefanski comes in. The Vikings offense seems to be intentionally moving the pocket much more often with designed play action and roll outs rather than depending on Cousins to do it himself when he’s under duress. That strategy seems to be paying off through the first week of Training Camp. If pocket presence is one of Kirk’s bigger weaknesses, why not create built-in movement to minimize it?
Surges and slumps
As I stated in the introduction, Thursday was less about revelatory performances and more about reinforcing what we had already seen in the first five days.
For example, Dillon Mitchell’s hands are officially a concern. He had a couple more drops and has yet to register a “clean” practice. Kyle Sloter continued his alarmingly uneven camp with a few nice passes and a couple absolute head scratchers. One throw was particularly egregious: Sloter floated a pass into double coverage that sailed over his intended receiver and should have been picked off by Isaiah Wharton. It’s a bit of a shock, but right now I think Sloter might be fourth on the quarterback depth chart. And it isn’t because Sean Mannion and Jake Browning have been lighting it up either. (Although I will say Browning has been a pleasant surprise for the most part. His deep ball needs a little work but otherwise he has been pretty accurate.)
I already praised Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse in my Day 5 recap, but I feel compelled to do so again. Mack has been the only defender that consistently stay in front of Beebe out of the slot and he broke up a few more passes today against a variety of receivers. Kearse nearly had an interception on a goal line fade from Mannion to Tyler Conklin, which he claims he’ll pull off next time:
A few more quick-hit reports:
- Laquon Treadwell has been abusing Terrence Alexander throughout camp, including a nifty move that left him wide open for a deep reception from Sloter down the sideline. (Yes, Sloter has had some really nice passes mixed in with the bad ones.) Unfortunately for Treadwell, most NFL secondaries aren’t made up of four Terrence Alexanders.
- Brandon Zylstra didn’t do himself any favors to move up the wide receiver ranks on Thursday. He had a couple really bad drops. Hopefully he can rebound and make an impact in a position group that sorely needs it through the first week of camp.
- After Thursday morning’s walkthrough, Mike Zimmer had some choice words for his defensive charges:
We’ve got to play better on defense than what we are playing right now. We need to play a lot better. Offense has got a lot of grit and fight and I haven’t seen that much out of the defense yet, so that’s where my major concern is at this point.
It appears that Cameron Smith took the challenge from his Head Coach to heart. The rookie linebacker gave his fellow rookie, Mattison, a pretty significant pop on a running play. Rashod Hill took offense and gave Smith a stiff shove in the back. Nothing came of it though as cooler heads prevailed. And that’s the closest we have come to anything even remotely resembling a scuffle in camp.
- Smith wasn’t the only defender that seemed to have a bit more pep in his step after Zimmer’s public challenge. The defensive line units created a lot more pressure than they did on Friday. Holmes and Jaleel Johnson got through the middle a couple times. Ade Aruna and Ifeadi Odgenigbo got home around the edge. Some of the secondary even got involved in the pressure during the hurry-up offense for would-be sacks. It was a much more balanced session after the offense ruled the day on Wednesday.
- Brian O’Neill has generally done a pretty good job of staying in front of Danielle Hunter in practice, but Hunter is still making his presence known. The second year tackle has been getting shoved back by the all-world defensive end pretty often. One resulted in a “sack” after Hunter bulldozed O’Neill all the way into Cousins.
- Khari Blasingame had a few excellent lead blocks in the run game, an area he has excelled in thus far. Personally I don’t think it’s enough to overtake Ham at fullback, but I can certainly understand why the Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent.
And that’s it for Day 6. One more practice on Friday afternoon before the big night practice at TCO Stadium on Saturday. 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: