After the off-season, training camp, and two pre-season games, we’re getting some good looks at the Vikings roster, or at least as good as we’re gonna get before the final cut comes at the end of the month.
As always, most of the roster spots are locks, and for the last dozen or so that are more up for grabs, it’s important to remember the key considerations coaches and GM are considering, beyond practice and pre-season performance:
- Can he contribute on special teams?
- What’s his 2 month, and future development trajectory?
- Is he likely to clear waivers to the practice squad?
- What’s his salary cap / dead cap hit?
Draft pick status is also a factor, but partly that’s a reflection of a development potential assessment prior to the draft, with higher draft picks having a higher ceiling and/or more NFL ready.
With all that in mind, here is the 53-man roster projection.
Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond.
Practice Squad: Jake Browning
Cut: Nate Stanley, Danny Etling.
Jake Browning has not shown he can come in and play well enough for the Vikings to win in a pinch. In his 2nd season, l’m not convinced Browning’s practice squad spot is secure, but at least initially Browning gets the PS spot. Mond hasn’t been much better, but looks more capable with a decent supporting cast. Mond is likely to improve now that he’s practicing, and will likely continue to get a lot of reps in the last preseason game. And let’s not fool ourselves here - Mond was a roster lock from the moment he was drafted early in the 3rd round.
Running Back / Fullback (5)
Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Ameer Abdullah, Kene Nwangwu, C.J. Ham (FB).
Practice Squad: A.J. Rose
Abdullah makes the roster in part due to injury issues with Nwangwu and Westbrook, experience and special teams ability. He’s shown his value as a utility player, but he’s replaceable in that role too. An experienced WR3 is likely to be a bigger need than an experienced RB3, so when Westbrook is ready to go, it could be that Abdullah is sacrificed from the roster. It’s been disappointing that Nwangwu hasn’t been able to play in the preseason games so far- he likely would’ve gotten a lot of reps at RB and KR. I think the Vikings like what they see in Nwangwu, and he’ll have no trouble getting a roster spot.
Wide Receiver (5)
Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, K.J. Osborn, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Dan Chisena.
PUP: Dede Westbrook
Injured Reserve: Bisi Johnson
Practice Squad: Chad Beebe, Whop Philyor.
Cut: Myron Mitchell, Warren Jackson.
Thielen and JJ are the starters, Osborn and ISM the backups and special teams contributors, and Chisena a core special teamer. Westbrook hasn’t been able to do anything so far, and he may well begin on the PUP list. Westbrook will be added to the roster when he’s ready to go, and will likely emerge as the WR3 and punt returner.
Offensive Line (9)
Starters: Rashod Hill, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Oli Udoh, Brian O’Neill
Backups: Christian Darrisaw, Wyatt Davis, Mason Cole, Kyle Hinton.
Practice Squad: Blake Brandel, Dru Samia, Zach Bailey.
Cut: Dakota Dozier, Evin Ksiezarczyk, Cohl Cabral.
The first eight roster spots are pretty well decided, as Mason Cole has solidified his spot as backup center in preseason action. Kyle Hinton has done well, as has Blake Brandel for the most part (didn’t have a good game against the Colts), so it really comes down to these two. Dakota Dozier is a known quantity, and not a good one. I don’t see the Vikings letting Hinton test the waiver wire, as he has more of a future upside than Dozier. And with Wyatt Davis also progressing, Dozier is expendable. I have the Vikings keeping Hinton over Brandel largely because both Udoh and Cleveland can kick out to tackle if need be, and probably would in the event both Hill and Darrisaw were unavailable. Hinton has also done a bit better than Brandel in preseason, according to PFF. Udoh will likely be the swing tackle as long as Hill is starting at left tackle, with Davis replacing him at RG in that event. Brandel has played left tackle with the 2s, and once Darrisaw is ready, Brandel wouldn’t be higher than LT3. There is a chance Darrisaw starts on the PUP list, which would allow Brandel to gain a roster spot initially.
Tight End (4)
Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, Jake Bargas, Zach Davidson
Practice Squad: Brandon Dillon.
The two first spots were pretty well set going into training camp, and nothing has changed there, despite Tyler Conklin missing time. Zach Davidson needs to develop more as a blocker, and get over the dropsies, but he’s more likely, as an athletic TE, to get poached than Dillon as a blocking TE. Jake Bargas has done very well in preseason as the backup fullback, but he also plays TE and has done a good job on special teams. Dillon really hasn’t shown anything to earn a roster spot, so he doesn’t.
Defensive Line (9)
Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, D.J. Wonnum, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, Janarius Robinson, Patrick Jones.
Practice Squad: Kenny Willekes, Jalyn Holmes, James Lynch.
Injured Reserve: Jaylen Twyman.
Cut: Stephen Weatherly, Jordan Scott, Zeandae Johnson, Christian Elliss, Jordan Brailford.
The surprise here is Stephen Weatherly being cut. The simple truth is that he hasn’t been that good. The Vikings working out Everson Griffen is a sign of how they view Weatherly, who’s $2.5 million one-year deal is more than Richardson is making. The Vikings have too many promising DEs to keep Weatherly around at that price, given his performance. Weatherly was graded lower than Mata’afa last season according to PFF, and in preseason this year. Ultimately Wonnum, Jones and Robinson have the upside to win roster spots, with Mata’afa managing to snag the last roster spot for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Richardson got some snaps at DE either. There’s a chance the Vikings bring in Everson Griffin, which would come at the expense of Mata’afa in this scenario, but that remains to be seen. I don’t see the Vikings chancing either Robinson or Jones to the waiver wire.
Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Nick Vigil, Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt, Ryan Connelly.
Practice Squad: Blake Lynch, Tuf Borland.
Cam Smith retiring makes this an easier group to project, along with improving performance from Dye, Surratt, and Connelly. Vigil has cemented the LB3 spot. Connelly continues to do well as a core special teamer, and Dye and Surratt have improved there as well. The real question is with Barr missing time… what kind of a season will he have?
Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Kris Boyd, MacKensie Alexander, Harrison Hand, Cameron Dantzler.
Practice Squad: Tye Smith, Parry Nickerson
Cut: Dylan Mabin.
Really no surprises here, in terms of roster spots. I expect Peterson and Breeland to be the starters outside, while Alexander works the slot, with Hand behind him. What is surprising is how poor Dantzler has played, and how good Boyd has looked. The final depth chart here will be interesting. Will Boyd actually leapfrog Dantzler?
Harrison Smith, Xavier Woods, Josh Metellus, Camryn Bynum
Practice Squad: Myles Dorn
The first two spots have been pretty well set, and Metellus has shown more in preseason than the others, in addition to being a core special teamer. Bynum hasn’t shown much, but gets the last spot on upside potential and draft pick status over Dorn, who’s been the worst of the bunch according to PFF after two preseason games.
Special Teams (3)
K: Greg Joseph
P/H: Britton Colquitt
LS: Andrew DePaola
PR: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Ameer Abdullah
KR: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Kene Nwangwu.
Competition among the specialists is over, although I’m sure the Vikings will be keeping an eye on the waiver wire for a kicker, just in case Joseph disappoints.
With Kene Nwangwu and Dede Westbrook not able to compete, Ihmir Smith-Marsette is gaining ground as both punt and kick returner. I expect Westbrook will eventually emerge as the punt returner, but ISM could give him a run for his money. I expect Nwangwu will get reps again as kick returner once he’s healthy, but ISM has a decent chance to win that job too.
It’s been a very forgettable two preseason games for the Vikings, which as a team rank 29th in overall PFF grade, for what that’s worth. The defending champion Bucs rank 27th.
Offensively, one source for the meager production appears to be the fact that wide receivers aren’t getting much separation. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen basically haven’t played- Thielen only a few snaps before he got banged up- which leaves the backups on the field. Myron Mitchell, on the strength of one reception, is the only Vikings WR with a PFF grade above 60 after two preseason games. Irv Smith Jr. hasn’t done much either, nor has any TE.
As a refreshing change, the three highest graded Vikings on offense after two games are all interior offensive linemen- Oli Udoh, Mason Cole, and Wyatt Davis.
Defensively, it’s easy to see that the defensive line is going to be dominant, particularly the interior line. The combination of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson and Armon Watts may well prove to be the best top-to-bottom interior defensive line the Vikings have had in decades. Danielle Hunter looks as good as ever in the limited reps he’s had in practice, so the only question is right end. Stephen Weatherly doesn’t look like the answer, and I’m not sure Everson Griffin would be either at this point in his career. It may be that it’s right end by committee for the Vikings until one of the younger guys emerges to take the role full-time.
We haven’t seen enough of the starting LBs or secondary to get a feel for how they’re doing, but there is reason to be optimistic. Bashaud Breeland looked good in limited reps, and having a wealth of experience operating back there, and helped by a better pass rush this year, bodes well. CB depth looks good, with both Harrison Hand and Kris Boyd looking like they could do well if called upon. Cameron Dantzler has clearly been a disappointment so far, but hopefully he can put things back together and eventually get some quality reps in rotation on the outside.
Overall, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from preseason games, win or lose, good or bad. The best players on both teams aren’t playing, and that has a significant impact on results right there. Beyond that, gauging the level of competition can be difficult too. Most teams have a mix between 1s, 2s, and 3s playing at any given time, so that can skew results too. The big thing to look for is consistency over significant reps, with an eye on the competition level.
Mason Cole and Kyle Hinton, for example, have yet to give up a pressure in pass protection, operating against mainly 2s and 3s. Defensively, Harrison Hand has a 43.4 passer rating allowed, with a PBU and 33% completion rate, hasn’t missed a tackle, and has two stops. Kris Boyd has similar numbers.
On the other hand, a Vikings wide receiver has yet to catch a pass against man coverage after two games, with only 5 targets, and nobody eclipsing a 59 PFF grade. Overall, the Vikings have the worst receivers grade of any team in the league after 2 preseason games, at 48.1. Part of that is from going against a solid Broncos secondary, but still not much to write home about with the backup WR group.
In terms of offensive line performance, pass blocking efficiency as a group is tied for 10th best, at 90.6%, which is encouraging from a depth perspective.
Special teams performance is tied for 7th overall, which is also encouraging.
The other thing to keep in mind about preseason, and why it’s difficult to judge, is that on both offense and defense, schemes and play-calling tend to be pretty vanilla, with little or no game-planning for a given opponent. Starters play very little, which makes perfect sense- particularly given a longer, 17 game regular season. Every coach should operate on the presumption that over 17 games, his team is going to suffer some significant injuries at one point or another. No need to risk having starters injured in preseason. By the same token, given that injuries will happen, backups need to get reps the only time they’re available to them- in preseason.
And so the Vikings will head to Kansas City for their final preseason game, to take on the 25th ranked passing offense this preseason, based on PFF grade, armed with the 30th ranked pass offense themselves. Meanwhile the 2-0 Houston Texans, fresh off their victories against the Packers and Cowboys, will look to dominate the hapless 0-2 Buccaneers at home, looking to complete a perfect preseason.