The Vikings just concluded their 9th practice of training camp, which is about the half-way point with this week and next before the Vikings have to get down to a 53-man roster and begin game week preparation for the Green Bay Packers week one.
Gary Kubiak made a comment based on all of his years of coaching in the NFL that the first few days of training camp can be interesting, but it’s after those first few days that players begin to separate themselves in position battles and just showing what they can do. We’re starting to get hints of that from the limited coverage available, and here are some reports on players that are standing out, and a few others that may not be as much.
One good source for on-site Vikings training camp news I’ve found this year is Will Ragatz at SI. Twitter @WillRagatz.
Arrow Pointing Up
Dantzler is behind Mike Hughes on the outside cornerback depth chart, but has taken reps with the 1s since the start of training camp. He’s made several flash plays - PBUs and INTs - and has been getting high praise from players like Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith, and from Mike Zimmer and both Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson. He’s probably been the star of training camp so far among rookies, although Justin Jefferson has had his moments too.
Dantzler is at a disadvantage in learning the system compared to Mike Hughes, and he still needs to prove his tackling ability according to Mike Zimmer, but it seems more a question of when, not whether, Dantzler will earn a starting outside cornerback job opposite Holton Hill. It may be week one, it may be by the bye week, or it may be next season. My guess is that Dantzler will play the outside cornerback spot in nickel situations to begin, with Hughes moving to slot corner. Depending on how that goes, Dantzler could become the permanent outside corner, and Hughes the slot corner competing with Jeff Gladney.
Bisi Johnson is WR2, and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Bisi seems to be following in Adam Thielen’s development path, and I wouldn’t be surprised to seem him have a bit of a breakout season. He does a lot of things well, including having the best run blocking grade on the team last season, according to PFF, which will keep him on the field.
In training camp he hasn’t received the notoriety of Justin Jefferson, but he’s quietly progressing in the Adam Thielen school of route running, and appears to have more command of the scheme, which isn’t surprising compared to his rookie year. QB Kirk Cousins said Bisi’s had the best camp of anyone so far, which is important praise and encouraging for their rapport going forward.
Will Ragatz covering the Vikings for SI had this to say about Johnson:
Throughout the last week-plus of camp, Johnson has looked like a starting-caliber NFL receiver. His route-running, which he calls “the best part of my game,” has been consistently crisp and impressive. He knows Gary Kubiak’s offense, has a rapport with Kirk Cousins, and never appears to make any mental errors. Johnson also puts his incredibly large hands to good use by rarely ever dropping passes and making the occasional eye-popping catch, like this one-handed grab on Sunday.
Jefferson wowed training camp on a few occasions early on, demonstrating his enormous catch radius. Shoe-string, over-the-head, behind him - he caught ‘em all. He’s done well with contested catches as well, which was his strong suit in college - along with his catch radius. Jefferson will probably be limited only in how quick he can pick up all the nuances of the scheme and being a receiver in the NFL. He appears to be doing well on both scores, which is very promising. The other thing is just how often he’ll see the field. The Vikings don’t run a lot of 3WR sets, so that is a limiting factor, although Jefferson will likely see some action in 2WR sets as well, in rotation. Overall, he seems on-track for a solid rookie year. The dean of the local Vikings sportswriters, Mark Craig, who’s also one of the Hall of Fame voters, said Jefferson passes his eye-test:
We'll see how it goes with Justin Jefferson when the games start. But I will say from my 200 years of watching training camps, the kid definitely passes the training camp eye test. He has an impressive glide to him. And not all the big names pass the early eye test (Treadwell).— Mark Craig (@markcraignfl) August 19, 2020
Kirk Cousins ➡️ Justin Jeffersonpic.twitter.com/EcNQL8iTu6— Sean Borman (@SeanBormanNFL) August 20, 2020
Hill comes into training camp the presumptive #1 corner for the Vikings, and so far he’s lived up to it. Mike Zimmer has said he’s been more mature and professional this year, and it appears he’s ready to seize the opportunity, rather than let it go up in smoke as he’s done in the past. Pretty much all the reports out of training camp have been positive about Hill’s performance, as has the comments from coaches like Mike Zimmer.
It seems what they’re looking for from Hill now is to maintain that level of play throughout training camp, and be able to grind it out and persevere over the long haul, as a test to his discipline and professionalism. He seems to have turned a corner in his approach to the game, and has always had the talent to be a top cornerback, so let’s see if he can hold true.
Hollins has been a positive surprise in camp and appears to be stacking good day after good day. Last year he was just another of those late-round/UDFA WR picks they hope figure things out. He made some progress on that score during the course of the year and got some game reps for his effort. Now it appears he’s continuing to make progress, and coaches are praising him. Moreover, he reportedly is making some plays on special teams, which is the primary role for WRs on the back end of the depth chart.
All that figures well for Hollins, but is it enough to get a roster spot in this competitive group?
Alexander Hollins continues to make big plays. Crowded WR room but it's becoming tougher and tougher to see him not making the roster. https://t.co/FQeaQG4ARN— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) August 20, 2020
Alexander Hollins beating Kris Boyd deep: pic.twitter.com/FNfZunim6K— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) August 24, 2020
Boone would be a 2nd team back on a lot of teams, but with Cook and Mattison in the group, he remains further back on the Vikings RB depth chart. He didn’t have many reps last season, but showed he’s a good pass blocker in addition to runner and receiver, according to his PFF stats.
He’s getting positive comments in training camp, and also appears to have adopted Danielle Hunter’s workout regime over the off-season, as seen below:
Osborn seems to have been drafted as much for his return ability as anything else, but has made the highlight reel a couple times for his route running and catches during training camp.
That’s all positive for Osborn, whose measurables are very similar to Bisi Johnson (6’, 200lbs, 4.5” 40). The Vikings were looking for a better returner this season, particularly punt returner, and Osborn may be on-track to get that job, and the roster spot that goes with it. He continues to get first-team reps as punt returner.
Great route and even better catch by K.J. Osborn here against Mike Hughes: pic.twitter.com/n2hfrjVoHQ— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) August 21, 2020
K.J. Osborn's route running getting Anthony Harris all turned around pic.twitter.com/ilUF5VcPZm— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) August 24, 2020
I really haven’t heard much about Udoh’s performance in training camp this year until yesterday, when Will Ragatz wrote this:
During Monday’s 1-on-1 sessions, the lineman who stood out the most was second-year right tackle Oli Udoh. Working against players like Eddie Yarbrough, Kenny Willekes, and Stacy Keely, Udoh arguably won every single one of his reps. He demonstrated great footwork, hand placement, and strength in keeping his opponent from getting to the little orange cone that represents the quarterback.
It’s been a strong camp for Udoh overall, and this was one of his best days. He’s firmly entrenched as the backup right tackle behind Brian O’Neill at the moment, but if Udoh continues to play at such a high level, the Vikings may want to figure out a way to get him onto the field going forward.
Not much of a surprise that Udoh can handle the likes of Yarbrough, Willekes and Keely without problem when he handled Khalil Mack without much problem week 17 last season. What is surprising is that the Vikings haven’t found a way to place him among their top five starters.
Arrow Pointing Down
Holmes was moved to defensive end, after spending last year at defensive tackle, but recently guys like Eddie Yarbrough have been getting reps with the 1s at defensive end. Holmes has taken snaps again at defensive tackle.
All that suggests Holmes still isn’t finding a role. The ding on him coming out of Ohio State was that he was something of a tweener, and may not be ideal in either role. So far that seems to be the case as Holmes hasn’t had much of an impact at either position.
Sharpe hasn’t necessarily had a bad camp, it’s just that his competition is having a better camp. He’s probably no higher than 4th on the WR depth chart, and may be lower than that. I’m not sure how he’s done on special teams, but at this point he needs to step up his game if he’s to secure a roster spot.
Between Brian Cole II, Josh Metellus, and Myles Dorn, none of them have stood out much in a good way so far during camp. More ominous for them, the Vikings acquired Stephen Parker from Miami, and he seems to have leap-frogged them on the depth chart. They’ve also moved Nate Meadors to safety, and he too seems ahead of them now on the depth chart.
Earlier this off-season, Samia was getting some buzz as the potential starting right guard after the Vikings released Josh Kline. But since the start of training camp, Samia has been a non-factor. He missed some time early due to a minor injury, and really hasn’t contended. The Vikings inserted Pat Elflein at right guard ahead of Samia, and never really seemed to consider Samia as a potential starter. I’m not sure his performance in training camp has changed their minds either.
Irv Smith Jr.
Many were predicting Smith to have a breakouts season this year, and that could still be the case, but so far in camp he hasn’t had the number of standout plays commensurate with those expectations.
Not necessarily a bad camp so far, but perhaps somewhat short of higher expectations to this point.
Gladney missed the early days of practice with a ‘flare-up’ in his repaired meniscus. He’s since come back and appears to be competing primarily as a slot corner, but may be a little behind the others so far.
Gladney hasn’t had many flash plays, although since he started participating in practice he’s generated some positive comments. Overall, however, he’s probably a bit behind Dantzler in his development, and will likely compete with Hughes at some point as a slot corner. Gladney brings a bit more toughness and physicality to the slot corner spot, and I suspect if/when he gets up to speed in his technique and learning the system, he’ll eventually replace Hughes as a starter. That may not be until next year, however.
Hughes has had a good camp, but perhaps his is a little overshadowed by his outside competitors, Holton Hill and Cam Dantzler. Mike Zimmer was asked about him last week, and said he needs to play with more confidence. Hughes has made some nice plays in training camp so far, but also gotten beat on at least as many, despite having good coverage in some cases.
I suspect Hughes will be the starting slot corner, and perhaps outside as well, although I Dantzler may become the starter opposite Hughes in the not too distant future.
Give me Mike Hughes and Cam Dantzler on the outside all day long.— tanishka mascara (@tanishkamascara) August 17, 2020
Holton Hill can rotate in, and Jeff Gladney in the slot. pic.twitter.com/EHVCSOI1pz
Beebe has had good and bad days in training camp so far, but continues to draw praise from coaches, particularly Gary Kubiak. He continues to get some reps with the 1s in the slot, which figures well for his chances at a roster spot.
What doesn’t figure as well is the rise of Alexander Hollins and the performance of K.J. Osborn, both as receivers and more importantly special teams. If Osborn lands the returner job(s) as expected, that will leave most likely Beebe and Hollins competing for the last WR roster spot - and Sharpe too. I’m not sure Beebe would bring enough on special teams to oust Hollins, but we’ll see.
The Vikings will need to be careful in who they release at WR, as the 49ers need help there due to injuries and run largely the same scheme as the Vikings. That increases the chance that whomever they release, hoping to clear waivers to the practice squad, may get poached instead.
At this point the only starting job in question is left guard, which at this point is a competition between Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins.
Dozier appeared to be the early favorite, as he seemed to be getting a few more reps with the 1s than Collins, and coaches have been talking him up more than Collins too. But, Gary Kubiak and Mike Zimmer both said they intended to make a relatively quick decision on the starting five offensive linemen after only a few padded practices. That appears to be the case at every position but left guard, which Mike Zimmer on Friday said was still a work in progress. So, the fact that Dozier hasn’t been able to secure that spot, and now Collins appears to be getting equal reps with Dozier, suggests there is a possibility that Collins wins the race for starting left guard, although Dozier may still be the favorite.
Word is that neither have been all that impressive so far, but Dozier has had the least number of bad reps between them.
Ezra Cleveland as of yesterday has been demoted to 3rd team, with Dozier and Collins alternating between the 1s and 2s. He was seen on the side with assistant OL coach Phil Rauscher working on technique, suggesting he may be having some trouble with some aspects of what he’s being asked to do at left guard. Mike Zimmer has mentioned he needs to work on his technique as well.
There has been some reports that Garrett Bradbury looks somewhat improved and/or is having a decent camp, but for the most part praise has been relatively mild.
There has been some positive buzz about Jaleel Johnson, in the fact that he’s done well against Aviante Collins and Dakota Dozier, but then again this may be more of a commentary on the left guard competition rather than Johnson.
At defensive end, it appears Eddie Yarbrough is working his way up the depth chart, getting some reps with the 1s recently in Danielle Hunter’s absence.
Speaking of Hunter, his extended absence due to a “tweak” according to Mike Zimmer, is starting to draw concern. Initially it seemed more like giving the star defensive end light-duty in training camp because he doesn’t need it so much and to avoid injury. But after nine practices without a snap, just what kind of ‘tweak’ is keeping from even limited snaps seems a bit more concerning. Needless to say with the losses to the defensive line, Hunter’s health and performance is even more critical for the success of the unit overall this year.
Despite the loss of all three starting cornerbacks and Stefon Diggs this off-season, the wide-receiver and cornerback groups look among the most promising in training camp so far. Running back, safety and linebacker continue to strong, although depth in the latter two groups a bit of a question mark.
On the other hand, the offensive and defensive lines are both concerning. The opt-out of Michael Pierce really weakens the interior defensive line, and the failure of anyone to step-up at either guard spot is a concern for the interior offensive line.
I suspect guys like Dru Samia, Aviante Collins, Dakota Dozier, and Ezra Cleveland have all come a bit short of expectations in the battle for starting guard spots. Some speculate that while Dozier may start at left guard, Ezra Cleveland may eventually replace him. We’ll see. Cleveland appears to be going through a bit of a setback in developing his technique, but hopefully he’ll overcome that and provide more competition. The one standout on the offensive line so far has been Oli Udoh, but there doesn’t appear to be any plan to harness his development in any meaningful way this year. We’ll see if that changes.
On the defensive line, guys like Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson could help improve the interior if they’re able to step up their game. Same for Hercules Mata’afa, but so far there hasn’t been much sign of that for him in camp.
The next ten days will be key in differentiating the good from the not-so-good, and also determining if additional help is needed at any position group- like in the trenches.
Which of these Vikings do you think will have the best season?
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Irv Smith Jr.