Now that the Vikings initial 53-man roster has been announced, along with the ten practice squad spots, let’s take a closer look at the results of the Vikings’ off-season, training camp, and pre-season work.
Very Little Change Among Starters
Clearly the most immediate observation of the Vikings roster from last year to this year is that among starters, there is very little change.
On defense, only defensive tackle Shamar Stephen will be a new starter this year, and on offense only Josh Kline and Garrett Bradbury will be new starters, along with RB2 or WR3.
Continuity By Design?
Judging by who got initial first team reps, going back to the beginning of OTAs, there seemed to be little doubt about the starting roster for the Vikings from day one.
The Vikings starting offensive line was set from the get-go: LT Riley Reiff, LG Pat Elflein, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Josh Kline, RT Brian O’Neill - and nobody else got first-team reps except due to injury.
The entire defense was also set from the beginning: Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Ben Gedeon, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, MacKensie Alexander, Harrison Smith, and Anthony Harris. Nobody else got first team reps except due to injury.
The only competition was for backup/rotational jobs like third wide receiver, backup running back, and second or third tight-end.
All that raises the question of whether handing out all the starting jobs at the beginning of the Vikings off-season program was by design.
Offensive line and Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison seemed focused on developing offensive line play as a unit, and perhaps for that reason did not alter his first string offensive line, and only his second, and third string offensive line units toward the end of training camp.
All that makes sense, except that performance hasn’t improved. Pat Elflein is looking like last year’s Pat Elflein, when he was the worst graded offensive lineman in the NFL, according to PFF. He was also the worst performer among all the Vikings offensive linemen in preseason this year.
In terms of PFF grading this preseason, the Vikings new interior offensive line graded worse at every position compared to the 2018 preseason lineup of Tom Compton, Brett Jones, and Mike Remmers (Elflein missed preseason last year).
While it’s only preseason, the fact that interior offensive line performance has not improved has to be concerning. This was easily the weakest part of the team last season, and in terms of NFC North competition, faces the toughest opponents: Damon Harrison, A-Shawn Robinson, Kenny Clark, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman were all ranked in the top 15 among defensive interior linemen last season, with Harrison and Hicks #3 and #4 respectively. Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett was #5, Denver’s Shelby Harris was #6, Seattle’s Poona Ford (who had his way with Elflein and Bradbury a couple weeks ago) was #10. KC’s Chris Jones was #8. And Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox was #2. That’s 11 games against at least one top 15 defensive tackle.
If you were the opposing team’s defensive coordinator, who would you line up your best defensive tackle against?
That’s right. Pat Elflein. Count on it. Why wouldn’t you?
The question then becomes what will the Vikings coaching staff do this year, if Pat Elflein continues to struggle?
Andre Patterson tapping Shamar Stephen, who’s played his whole career except last season for the Vikings, as starting 3-tech makes some sense with only unproven players on the roster. He only played 17 snaps in preseason, but looked good in that limited action.
It’s unclear at this point which receiver will get the most reps behind Thielen and Diggs, but it may likely be a tight-end - either Tyler Conklin or Irv Smith Jr.. Getting more production than what Laquon Treadwell provided last season would seem a low bar to exceed in any case, so chances are the Vikings will improve some here.
It’s also unclear who the backup running back will be. It would seem that Alexander Mattison would have that job wrapped up, but Mike Boone has been the better performer in pre-season, and seems to be getting more praise from the coaching staff as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boone at least split some of the backup RB reps with Mattison. Overall, while there is potential to exceed Latavius Murray’s production, I suspect similar stats overall to Murray’s 578 yards rushing and 4.1 yard average last year.
While it was all quiet on the specialist front most of the off-season - a 7th round pick on a new long-snapper notwithstanding - the Vikings coaching staff recently appears to be the proverbial ‘chicken with its head cutoff,’ running in all directions haphazardly trying to fix it’s kicking game. After bailing on Daniel Carlson after a 5th round pick and two games last season, the Vikings appeared to be bailing on Dan Bailey and/or Matt Wile by spending another 5th round pick on Kaare Vedvik - which proved an even bigger waste than the one spent on Carlson as the Vikings released Vedvik after two preseason games.
The latest news is that the Vikings have now released Matt Wile in favor of 34 year old Britton Colquitt, who statistically is not as good as Wile as a punter, but apparently is a better holder. At least that appears to be the main reason for acquiring him.
It would seem a little late, after letting two kickers with 5th round price tags go, to discover that the real problem is the holder - Matt Wile.
The Vikings also just signed rookie UDFA kicker Chase McLaughlin to the practice squad.
Of course all this undermines confidence in the coaching staff’s insight into the problem, and special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf, who’s coverage units have also been suspect in preseason - albeit manned mostly by players that have since been cut.
While not much appears to have changed among the starting roster for the Vikings, there are signs that depth in some areas is improving among some position groups, if not all.
Both offensive and defensive line depth appears to have improved to some degree, at least based on preseason performance.
Along the offensive line, new acquisitions Oli Udoh, Dru Samia and Dakota Dozier appear to be progressing to the point where they improve both guard and tackle depth over last season, and Udoh and Samia have the traits to become eventual starters if they continue to their progress. Dozier looks to be at least serviceable as well.
Along the defensive line, Ifeadi Odenigbo has taken a step forward similar to what Stephen Weatherly did last season, and looks to be Everson Griffen’s backup at LDE. On the interior line, guys like Armon Watts and Hercules Mata’afa provide greater athleticism and penetration ability, while Jalyn Holmes has shown some improvement as well.
Tight End also appears to be a group with improving depth. Between Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Conklin, Irv Smith Jr., and even Brandon Dillon, this appears to be perhaps the deepest TE group the Vikings have had in some time.
The running back / fullback group also appears to be fairly deep behind Dalvin Cook, with Mike Boone, Alexander Mattison, C.J. Ham, and even Khari Blasingame on the practice squad.
On the other hand, the wide receiver and cornerback groups are a little more suspect at this point. The Vikings have only 4 wide receivers on the roster at the moment, and Chad Beebe had a fairly poor pre-season. The one bright spot behind Thielen and Diggs is Olabisi Johnson, who looks like he could be a nice pickup based on his preseason performance. I suspect the Vikings will look to make a veteran acquisition at some point soon as well, which could help the depth in that group.
At cornerback, Holton Hill’s suspension, along with Mike Hughes’ lingering injury, has hurt the depth in this group. Hughes is still recovering, even though he’s off the PUP list, and Hill didn’t play all that well in preseason. Hill is suspended for the first half of the season as well, so it’s unclear where he’ll be on the depth chart when he returns. In the meantime, the Vikings felt a need to acquire rookie UDFA Mark Fields as a place holder, rather than go with Craig James.
The Vikings acquired Sean Mannion as the seemingly requisite veteran backup QB, replacing the departed Trevor Siemian, along with another UDFA QB in Jake Browning, while also keeping Kyle Sloter on the roster. Acquiring two backups to compete with Sloter was revealing about the coaching staff’s view of Sloter, and nothing he’s done before or after in preseason games seemed to alter that view.
Mike Zimmer said that, despite playing extremely well in preseason every year and outperforming his competition on the field, Sloter didn’t practice well and had difficulty making the right pre-snap calls.
And while that didn’t appear to be a problem in preseason games, apparently that was fatal for Sloter, as the Vikings released him in favor of Mannion and Browning on the practice squad.
Anyway, while I question the Vikings’ coaching staff development and decision-making when it comes to backup QBs, it was nice to see them go with only two QBs on the roster this year, rather than three, which seems like a waste of a roster spot. Mannion compares favorably with Siemian of a year ago as well, if nothing else.
Vikings Initial Depth Chart?
So, with all the cuts, trades, practice squad assignments, and new acquisitions, the Vikings depth chart may look something like this:
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Jake Browning (PS)
Running Back: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah
Fullback: C.J. Ham, Khari Blasingame (PS)
Wide Receiver: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Chad Beebe, Olabisi Johnson, Dillon Mitchell (PS), Davion Davis (PS)
Left Tackle: Riley Reiff, Rashod Hill, Aviante Collins (PS)
Left Guard: Pat Elflein, Dakota Dozier, Aviante Collins (PS)
Center: Garrett Bradbury, Brett Jones
Right Guard: Josh Kline, Dru Samia
Right Tackle: Brian O’Neill, Rashod Hill, Oli Udoh
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Conklin, Irv Smith Jr., Brandon Dillon
Left Defensive End: Everson Griffen, Ifeadi Odenigbo
Defensive Tackle: Shamar Stephen, Hercules Mata’afa, Jalyn Holmes
Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph, Armon Watts, Jaleel Johnson
Right Defensive End: Danielle Hunter, Stephen Weatherly
Weakside Linebacker: Ben Gedeon, Kentrell Brothers, Devante Downs (PS)
Middle Linebacker: Eric Kendricks, Kentrell Brothers, Cam Smith (PS)
Strongside Linebacker: Anthony Barr, Eric Wilson
Right Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Mark Fields
Slot Cornerback: MacKensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, Mike Hughes
Left Cornerback: Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Mark Fields
Safeties: Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, Marcus Epps
Kicker: Dan Bailey, Chase McLaughlin (PS)
Punter: Britton Colquitt
Holder: Britton Colquitt
Long-Snapper: Austin Cutting
Punt Returner: TBD
Kick Returner: TBD
I’m not sure at this point that if any of the players with an injury designation - Ade Aruna, David Morgan, Tashawn Bower, Isiah Wharton - will ultimately make the roster when they’re able to return. I suspect Mark Fields will be let go when Holton Hill returns from suspension.
Beyond that, the Vikings may be in the market for a wide receiver, and could cut Ameer Abdullah if they’re able to acquire one. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings add a linebacker at some point, and release Jaleel Johnson to make room on the roster.
Vikings Roster as Solid and Deep as Any in the NFL
Overall, while it’s taken a number of years, the Vikings starting roster and overall 53-man roster is as solid and deep as any team in the league. Offensive line continues to be a weak spot until proven otherwise, but that could be helped by Kubiak’s scheme this year compared to last season.
Continuity and tenure among defensive starters has to be second-to-none across the league. Every starter on defense has been in Zimmer’s scheme for four or five years now, with the exception of MacKensie Alexander (3 years) and Ben Gedeon (2 years).
Looking at this year’s overall preseason PFF grading, a somewhat flawed measure of roster depth (rather than starter) quality (but perhaps the best available), the Vikings were graded 4th best among the 32 NFL teams. The Giants, Steelers, Saints and Patriots were the other top 5 teams.
But the approach of the Vikings coaching staff, led by Mike Zimmer, seems more suspect this year in terms of off-season/training camp/pre-season player development and decision-making.
Clearly the approach to the kicking game and specialists reveals a haphazard approach at best, and short-tempered and impatient approach at worst, to improving that aspect of the team.
Meanwhile there seems to be a disconnect with players like Pat Elflein and Kyle Sloter.
Pat Elflein has played poorly both all of last season- the worst graded offensive lineman in the league according to PFF, and this pre-season has been the worst graded Vikings offensive lineman, and #151 of 182 guards across the league, but his starting status has never been in question - either at center last season or left guard this year. Brett Jones has way outperformed him, but to no avail.
On the other hand, Kyle Sloter has consistently outperformed the other backup quarterbacks on the Vikings roster, and had one of the best backup QB passer ratings again this preseason, but also to no avail. In Sloter’s case it’s not as big a deal from a upcoming season win-loss standpoint, as he’d be a backup at best, but the Elflein and Sloter examples present different standards for valuing on-field performance.
The chaos and very short leashes with kickers and punters also reveals a coaching staff led by Zimmer that seems to have different standards for evaluating players and decision-making.
The odd thing, however, seems to be that while there seems to be differing standards on offense and special teams when it comes to evaluating players and decision-making, that doesn’t appear to be the case on defense - which is where Mike Zimmer’s knowledge lies. I’m not aware of any glaring examples where a player’s status on defense didn’t reflect their on-field performance.
Similarly, the status of defensive players up the depth charts seems to be consistently merit-based, and development of those players more patient and consistent.
Perhaps the differences between defensive player evaluations and development, compared to those on the offensive line and special teams - the consistently weak spots for the Vikings the past few years - is the reason for the differing performance levels.
While the Vikings coaching staff seems to have their quirks in terms of player evaluations and development, they’ve also been one of the best teams in terms of drafting and developing talent over recent years. That’s reflected in roster quality, and the fact that the Vikings are one of the top teams in developing drafted and UDFA talent on their roster:
Teams with the most "homegrown" talent on the roster:— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) September 1, 2019
1. Bengals- 48
2. Ravens- 47
3. Vikings- 46
4. Patriots- Seahawks, Cowboys- 44
7. Packers- 43
8. Falcons, Rams, Chargers- 42
With the exception of the Bengals at the top of the list, all those teams look to be playoff contenders.
This season is pivotal for Mike Zimmer, and he seems to be aware of that. Zygi Wilf has made it clear he expects the Vikings to be a playoff team this year. Failing to make the playoffs, or perhaps even a deep playoff run, and it may the end of the line for Zimmer as head coach of the Vikings.
The Vikings begin the season with a roster worthy of a playoff team and Super Bowl contender. They’re healthy at all starting positions to begin the season. The Vikings ownership has been all-in in terms of building first-class facilities for the team, and maxing out the salary cap to bring player talent, and coaching talent, to Minnesota.
Now it’s time for that talent, and Mike Zimmer in particular, to deliver.