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Vikings Training Camp Preview

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Things and players to look for once training camp begins

Minnesota Vikings rookies and quarterbacks report to training camp Photo by Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The NFL has announced the starting dates for training camp, which begins on Tuesday for rookies, Thursday for QBs and injured players, and a week from Monday for everyone else.

And while there still remains a fairly dark cloud over the prospect of the NFL playing a full season, or even beginning the season, the league is at least one step closer to starting training camp (the NFLPA hasn’t weighed in yet on the league’s training camp announcement), and so hoping/assuming training camp begins as scheduled, let’s break down what to look for in the Vikings training camp this year.

I’ll break it down by position group, but first some over-arching themes.

How will the Vikings Handle Rookies?

There was no real off-season, and the Vikings, like other teams, have had only virtual meetings and training with their new players. With basically only one month to get rookies up-to-speed, and potentially 2 or no pre-season games, will the Vikings basically write-off rookies as potential starters, and give those reps to veterans? Or will they proceed as normal and allow rookies to compete for starting jobs?

This first week of rookie-only training camp will be crucial for rookies to prove themselves. I suspect coaches will be evaluating rookies based on their readiness to contribute this season, and full training camp reps will be based on what the coaches see from rookies this first week. There also may be a couple rookies that the coaches may want to focus on more than others - rookies they want to contribute in some way this season. Justin Jefferson would likely be one of those, K.J. Osborne as a punt returner, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler in rotation at CB, and perhaps one or two others.

My guess is that most rookies will be written-off this year, and developed as backups or rotational players for now, from the stand-point of training camp reps and opportunities to run with the ones. This is the first time coaches will actually get to work with the rookies in person, and really get a look at what they can and can’t do on the field, learning their assignments, and taking coaching. I suspect rookies will have to show great command of the playbook and their assignments, impress with NFL-ready technique, and flash quite a bit on the field to even be considered for a starting job. I doubt we’ll see that much in the first week, as rookies are just getting used to an NFL practice, but I’ll be listening close to the coaches’ comments during the week.

But at the end of the day coaches are going to have to pack more into this training camp to get the team ready for the season, and that likely means some trade-offs in terms of rookie development. I suspect the Vikings will take the two-field approach as often as they can, which allows them to work ones and twos at the same time, but spreads the coaching staff thinner between them.

What About Scheme Changes?

I’ve written earlier in the off-season about potential defensive scheme changes, but having lost the off-season to work on installing them, will Mike Zimmer go ahead with them anyway? Or will they scrap them with only limited time to prepare for the season?

Secondly, while Gary Kubiak’s scheme will continue from last season, he had hinted at possibly adding some things, particularly some inside runs, and perhaps other things, to his existing scheme. Will he still move forward with those?

My guess is that they will move forward with scheme changes, because they’re better suited to their personnel and will involve veterans who don’t have to learn other things too and are used to working together. I’d imagine the coaching staff would have also begun the ‘virtual install’ of new scheme elements during the virtual off-season, giving players time to study new aspects of their position/role, and begin practicing any necessary technique work to help prepare them. Worst case, the Vikings are forced to roll out the scheme changes at a slower pace over the course of the season, rather than to begin the season.

Quarterbacks

Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Jake Browning, Nate Stanley.

All eyes will be on Kirk Cousins. Look to see if Gary Kubiak has Kirk out of the pocket more - rollouts and bootlegs - and if Cousins works on improving/utilizing his mobility more in training camp. Another focus is his rapport with new receivers. Which one(s) does he connect with the best?

I don’t expect any movement in the depth chart here, although Stanley could beat out Browning for a practice squad spot if he does well.

Wide Receivers

Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe, Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins, K.J. Osborne, Dillon Mitchell, Bralon Addison, Davion Davis, Quartney Davis, Dan Chisena.

The focus in this group should be on Jefferson, Sharpe and Johnson. How well are they developing? How is their rapport with Cousins? How is their command of the offense?

Another thing to look for, and hopefully not find, is if Adam Thielen looks to have lost a step. He turns 30 next month, so that’s gonna happen sooner rather than later. Bisi Johnson may become his eventual replacement if he continues to develop, but in any case it’s probably time to consider Thielen as no longer an ascending player, although he could maintain a high level for another couple seasons if he stays healthy, given his excellent route running.

Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf has said he’s looking at K.J. Osborne to be his punt returner, and I suspect he makes the roster on that basis, and also competes as a kick returner and special teamer.

I doubt any other wide receiver makes the 53-man roster, and at least a couple could be early casualties if teams are forced to go with a reduced roster.

Running Backs

Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Boone, Tony Brooks-James, FB C.J. Ham, FB Jake Bargas.

I suppose the first thing to look for in this group is whether Dalvin Cook is there. I expect he’ll have ended his hold-out prior to the start of training camp, as it makes no financial sense for him to continue beyond that date. Perhaps he will have agreed to an extension, or simply decide to play out the season and see what the market for running backs is like next year. We’ll see.

Beyond that, look for development from young backs Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone. I suspect how much the Vikings see from these two backs impacts how willing they are to pay Dalvin Cook if an extension is not agreed upon prior to training camp.

Tony Brooks-James is a small scat-back who went undrafted last year, bounced around a few teams, before signing a contract with the Vikings. He’s a younger, smaller version of Abdullah, and could be a consideration to replace the 31 year-old Abdullah at some point if he develops.

C.J. Ham is locked in at fullback, having signed a healthy extension last year.

Offensive Line

Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, Brian O’Neill, Brett Jones, Oli Udoh, Aviante Collins, Dru Samia, Rashod Hill, Ezra Cleveland, Dakota Dozier, Blake Brandel, Kyle Hinton, Tyler Higby, Brady Aiello, Jake Lacina.

Going into training camp, the only thing that you can bank on is that Garrett Bradbury will be the starting center, and Brian O’Neill will be a starting tackle. Beyond that, things get a little more murky.

There are three players to keep an eye on in training camp: Oli Udoh, Aviante Collins, and Dru Samia. Gary Kubiak said he wished Oli and Dru had about 15 practices under their belt already this off-season, but that’s not the case. I don’t think he’d care if he wasn’t considering them as starters. He said Oli, Dru and AC (Aviante Collins) are going to have to catch up. That also suggests he’s eyeing them as starters.

How fast those three are able to catch-up with last year’s starters will determine their fate as starters, but it seems these three may have the pole position for starting jobs as training camp begins - and their performance may also determine the fate of a few other players as well.

“I think we’ve created a very competitive and a very flexible group, so we’ve just got to get to work and see how this is going to pan out. “I say it all the time, we’re going to play our best five.” - Gary Kubiak

Rick Spielman has said that there will be an open competition for both guard spots this spring, and that remains the case. However, when it comes to allocating reps, particularly first team reps, to begin training camp, we will learn a lot about the coaches thinking and plans for the offensive line.

It would appear that Aviante Collins and Dru Samia may get the first looks at either guard spot once training camp opens, on the left and right respectively. This is where they played week 17 against the Bears last season. Where they may plug Oli Udoh in remains a bit more of a mystery. Could he play right tackle and Brian O’Neill move to left tackle? Could they start Udoh at left tackle? Or is he in the mix at one of the guard spots? It would seem, with Collins and Samia getting mentioned a few times this off-season, that Udoh is slated for a tackle spot. Maybe even left tackle. We’ll see.

He hasn’t mentioned any rookies much since his post-draft comments, and has said Ezra Cleveland will be considered at both guard and tackle, presumably on the left side. With Oli Udoh getting mentioned ahead of Cleveland, I suspect Cleveland will be competition at left guard to begin with.

But with Aviante Collins, Cleveland, Pat Elflein, and possibly Reiff all possible contenders at left guard, it wouldn’t be surprising if at least one of them was considered at right guard instead, to compete with Dru Samia and possibly Dakota Dozier. It’s hard to believe Dakota Dozier is among the best five on the Vikings OL roster, however.

My sense right now is that Riley Reiff is being kept as insurance for the time being. From a salary cap standpoint, trading or releasing Reiff is very compelling. He’s a $13.2 million salary cap hit, with $4.4 million in dead cap if he was released or traded - $2.2 million this year and next.

The Vikings have 87 players currently under contract for 2020, totaling $178 million, not including the money for the rookies. They also have roughly $20 million in dead cap. Spotrac estimates the Vikings top 51 contracts plus their rookie pool (none of which they’ve signed yet), at nearly $15 million over this year’s salary cap. That’s a problem requiring a short-term solution.

I would imagine Pat Elflein would need to earn a starting position to remain on the roster as well. The Vikings have Bradbury, Brett Jones and now Kyle Hinton on their center depth chart, so there’s no need for Elflein in that regard. And between Samia, Collins, Cleveland, and the other rookies, they have the depth they need at the guard positions. Elflein is a $2.4 million cap hit, and I don’t see them keeping him as a backup at that price when all the other interior line backups are making between half and a quarter of that amount.

And so, if the Vikings can’t afford to keep Reiff, and Elflein doesn’t earn a starting job, the offensive line may be, from left to right: Oli Udoh, Aviante Collins, Garrett Bradbury, Dru Samia, and Brian O’Neill. Alternatively, Udoh and O’Neill could switch sides.

My sense is that this may be the first team offensive line to begin training camp, or shortly thereafter, with coaches making it known that they’re interested in seeing what the younger players can do.

Tight Ends

Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon, Nakia Griffin-Stewart.

Irv Smith Jr. is the guy to keep an eye on in this group. Gary Kubiak had him learn both the TE and FB roles last year, and so he could feature as more of a movable chess piece, going from TE to slot to FB positions - similar to how he was used at Alabama. He seems to be inline for more playing time this season if he’s able to develop, and there has been some buzz that he’s ready for a breakout year.

Other than that, my hope is that the TEs are able to improve their blocking skills - both run and pass - as that has been lacking for a couple years now. Each can make a block on occasion, but not nearly as consistently as you’d hope - especially Rudolph given his tenure.

Defensive Line

Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen, Ifeadi Odenigbo, D.J. Wonnum, James Lynch, Stacy Keely, Kenny Willekes, Eddie Yarborough, Anthony Zettel, Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa, David Moa, Armon Watts.

The first thing to look for this year in training camp is any indication of a new alignment. Do they show a 4-3 Under alignment?

Beyond that, there are several guys to keep an eye on in training camp: Michael Pierce, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, and James Lynch.

New veteran acquisition Michael Pierce will replace Linval Joseph as starting nose tackle. How is he handling the transition? Is he a renewed force inside for the Vikings DL?

Odenigbo and Watts showed good development last season. Do they continue to stand out? Both could see a lot more reps this season if they continue their development.

Hercules Mata’afa had a lot of off-season buzz last year, started by Mike Zimmer, as he’d added weight to 275 pounds and looked good in OTAs. But that didn’t carry over to the regular season, and his reps declined to near zero after the first part of the season. Mata’afa had impressive college tape at Washington, but was undersized for a defensive 3-tech, and missed his rookie season with a torn ACL before bulking up to play 3-tech last year.

This April, he tweeted he’s been bulking up more, and is now tipping the scales around 290 - no longer undersized for a 3-technique. But can he produce like he did in college? He’s the only 3-techinque on the roster with the desired quickness for the position, and he has a relentless motor reminiscent of John Randle, but his size has been an issue as he can get washed out against bigger linemen and especially double-teams. His added size and a shift to a 4-3 under front could set him up for more production, if it works out that way.

Lastly, is James Lynch able to put himself in the conversation for rotational reps? He’s not the best athlete, but he was productive in college, has a good motor, and is developing his moves. Does that translate into NFL production? We’ll see.

Linebackers

Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Ben Gedeon, Eric Wilson, Troy Dye, Cameron Smith, Blake Lynch, Demarquis Gates, Jordan Fehr.

A move to a 4-3 under front could put Anthony Barr in a better position to increase his production, which hasn’t been commensurate with his salary cap. Using him more like an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front could lead to more production both as a pass rusher and run defender.

The key competition in this group may be between Eric Wilson and Troy Dye. Both are smaller, more athletic linebackers at 230 pounds, but Dye has better length, and could add a little more bulk. Dye has the skillset to be a 3-down linebacker and had an impressive career at Oregon. Wilson has been fine as a backup LB, and also a good core special teamer. He’s also on the books for $3.259 million this year on an RFA extension. Dye looks to be an upgrade here, but the question is how soon?

I suspect it will be tough for the last three guys on the list to make the roster, although they all have the ability with a strong camp to at least make the practice squad. All of them are of the smaller, more athletic, hybrid LB/SS type.

Cornerbacks

Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand, Marcus Sayles, Mark Fields, Nevelle Clark, Nate Meadors, Kemon Hall.

I expect Hughes, Hill and Boyd to run with the first team to begin training camp. That may be a bit of a surprise, but the coaches have been high on Boyd’s development, and will prefer the experience of Hill and Hughes over the rookies. Not sure if Hughes will be exclusively a slot CB, or if he’ll play outside and inside in nickel situations.

Jeff Gladney can play both outside and in the slot, just like Mike Hughes, but I suspect he may get more work inside, as the Vikings will need two guys that can play slot if need be. He may get reps outside as well at some point, but Zimmer seemed to question having him learn two spots initially, as he did with Hughes, in order to make things simpler for him as he learns the system and the NFL.

An alternative for a slot CB is Marcus Sayles, who’s bounced around a couple teams since entering the league a couple years ago. He’s small - 5’10”, 175 lbs., ran a 4.5” 40 and has a 40” vertical. He had nice stats at West Georgia, but so far hasn’t been able to stick with a team in the NFL. Perhaps with Zimmer and company’s coaching he can find a place with the Vikings, particularly if they decide to focus Gladney or Hughes on an outside role.

Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand have starting potential, Dantzler being the more complete CB, and while it may not happen initially, I would not be surprised to see Dantzler compete and eventually win a starting outside cornerback job. It’s not out of the question for that to happen this year either, depending on his development. How he looks in camp and any potential pre-season game(s) will suggest a timeframe.

Harrison Hand is more of a scheme specific Cover-3 corner, but has a history in college of performing that assignment well. Not likely to be a starter, but he could earn some rotational reps and become a decent backup that can step up if an outside corner goes down.

The last four guys on the list are long-shots to make the roster, but have some practice squad potential.

Safeties

Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Josh Metellus, Brian Cole II and Myles Dorn.

The focus here will be on the battle for the two backup jobs, as Smith and Harris are locked into the starting jobs.

The backup battle appears to be among more strong safety types, and I would be surprised if Josh Metellus didn’t win one of the backup jobs, leaving Cole II and Dorn to battle for the other spot. However, despite Kris Boyd being considered for a starting outside corner job, I wouldn’t be surprised, if the rookie corners work out and surpass him on the depth chart, if he is transitioned to a backup safety spot as more of a free safety type.

And while Smith and Harris make up the best safety duo in the league, the backup competition is important as having both Smith and Harris on the field together may not last a long time. Harrison Smith turned 31 in February, and while he continues to play at the highest level, it’s a question how many good years he has left - hopefully a few more. Anthony Harris is playing under the franchise tag, as a long-term extension has yet to be agreed. The Vikings aren’t exactly in the best salary cap position, so it’s possible Harris could ultimately get a better offer elsewhere if no long-term extension can be agreed with the Vikings.

Special Teams

K Dan Bailey, P/H Britton Colquitt, LS Austin Cutting

Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf solved the mystery of the Vikings inconsistent kicking game last year, after the Vikings spent years experimenting with kickers, and getting a new long snapper. Apparently it was the holder that was causing the problem. Britton Colquitt, whom the Vikings acquired after training camp last year, advertised himself not as the best punter, but the best holder in the league after he arrived with the Vikings. Well, he did a pretty good job as a punter too, along with getting Dan Bailey back to his former self - a very consistent, highly accurate kicker.

Bailey made 93% of his field goal attempts last season, including 3-for-3 from 50+ yards, while missing only 2 all season. He made 91% of his extra point attempts too, and 76% of his kickoffs went for touchbacks.

Colquitt also punted for a very respectable 45 yard average, and had the highest PFF punting grade of his career last season.

Given all that, and the Vikings previous problems, they didn’t mess around this off-season and signed Bailey and Colquitt to fairly lucrative 3-year deals. Cutting is also signed for the next three years. There won’t be any kicking, punting, or long-snapping competitions in training camp this year.

However, the Vikings never got much in terms of punt returns last season, and so they drafted K.J. Osborne in part because of his return ability. Maalouf has said he’s looking to Osborne to return punts this year. I suspect there will be competition, but Osborne appears to have the inside track at this point.

Kick returner is also up for competition, and I imagine Osborne will compete here too. Ameer Abdullah performed kick return duties last season, and did okay, but he’s not Cordarrelle Patterson either. So, perhaps Osborne or another guy could prove to be an upgrade.

Beyond that, there is also the core special teamers, those that play on just about every special teams unit. The Vikings lost Kentrell Brothers, who’d been a top performing core special teamer for the past several years. They also lost Jayron Kearse, who’d also been a top core special teamer, although he didn’t do as well last season. Additionally, if Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd take on starting roles at CB, I suspect they’ll need to be replaced on special teams - presumably by guys like Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, and Harrison Hand.

There is a handful of other players that had significant snaps on special teams last season that will need to be replaced too, so there could be quite a bit of turnover on the special teams units this year. The last spots in position groups like linebacker, defensive back, wide receiver, tight end, and running back can often come down to which player is the better special teamer.

Bottom Line

Training camp this year for the Vikings, assuming it goes ahead as scheduled, will need to pack in a lot - not to mention all the additional Covid-19 protocols and precautions that will need to be observed.

The difficulty of the situation will put a lot of strain on coaches and players alike, and test the Vikings’ organizational ability, and coaching acumen. I would be surprised to any rookie beyond Justin Jefferson in a starting role, as the development of rookies takes a back seat generally to getting veteran starters ready to play.

Poll

Which rookie draft pick will be the biggest positive surprise in training camp this year?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Justin Jefferson
    (129 votes)
  • 11%
    Jeff Gladney
    (106 votes)
  • 13%
    Ezra Cleveland
    (123 votes)
  • 21%
    Cameron Dantzler
    (204 votes)
  • 5%
    D.J. Wonnum
    (47 votes)
  • 12%
    James Lynch
    (121 votes)
  • 7%
    Troy Dye
    (67 votes)
  • 0%
    Harrison Hand
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    K.J. Osborne
    (30 votes)
  • 0%
    Blake Brandel
    (9 votes)
  • 0%
    Josh Metellus
    (4 votes)
  • 3%
    Kenny Willekes
    (30 votes)
  • 1%
    Nathan Stanley
    (15 votes)
  • 0%
    Brian Cole II
    (5 votes)
  • 3%
    Kyle Hinton
    (37 votes)
935 votes total Vote Now