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Vikings Camp Battles & Roster Projection Part I: Offensive Skill Positions

A look into the competition for the Vikings’ 53 roster spots

The Vikings’ OTAs are under-way- the beginning of the competition for 53 roster spots, which will be more interesting this year with a whole slate of new coaches and new schemes on both sides of the ball. These factors, along with less lenient practice squad rules, will impact roster decisions at every position group, and could lead to some surprising decisions at the end of training camp.

Some players may benefit from the changes, while others may be disadvantaged. The new coach and GM are not vested in picks made by the previous regime, and new coaches may have different perspectives on veterans. Additionally, scheme changes may call for players with a different skill set in some position groups, which could also lead to some surprising outcomes.

Vikings’ head coach Kevin O’Connell said that while player evaluations are underway now with how well they’re able to transfer what was taught in the classroom to the field, the real competition won’t start until training camp.

In the first OTA with media access on Tuesday, last season’s starters were back on the offensive line, the exception being Jesse Davis and Chris Reed taking turns at right guard. But as is customary protocol, no rookies were handed starting reps, from Lewis Cine on down. Even with Harrison Smith out due to the birth of his child, it was Cam Bynum and Josh Mettellus taking first-team reps at safety, with Cine playing 2nd string. That is largely due to familiarity with operating in an NFL practice, and seniority, and having things go smoothly for all involved. But that will change as rookies learn the ropes and players begin to show more of what they can do.

Additionally, the final roster is a product of many evaluations and decisions. Proven on-field performance, contract status, draft round status, salary cap management, performance in practice/training camp, future performance trajectory, practice squad likelihood, and role versatility are all important considerations in making the final roster decisions prior to the regular season.

So, with all that in mind, let’s look at each position group and where the key battles may lie, along with an entirely premature roster projection. We don’t know which players will surprise on the upside, and which may disappoint based on performance in practice, but we can make some educated guesses, nevertheless. Contractual locks and early draft pick status effectively lock in many players, but there could be some interesting camp battles in several position groups that could impact the final roster heading into the regular season.

We’ll start with skill positions on offense, then move to offensive line in part II, then defensive front in part III, and finally defensive secondary and special teams in part IV.


Quarterback

The new regime has been supportive of Kirk Cousins, appreciative of Sean Mannion, and curious about Kellen Mond. Cousins is the Vikings’ franchise quarterback, and as long as he continues to play at least the level he’s played the last couple seasons, it’s likely the new regime will continue to extend him. It’s not readily acknowledged, but Cousins took a discount on his latest extension of at least $5 million/year to his market value. Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, and Derek Carr all inked new deals at $40 million AAV (average annual value), while Aaron Rodgers’ new deal is just over $50 million AAV. And so Cousins’ extension at $35 million represents a significant discount. Spotrac estimates his current market value at $44.4 million AAV. The overall team salary cap limits are expected to rise significantly in the coming years, as the new TV revenue deals kick in.

Contract Situation

Note: numbers in red represent void years

Spotrac

The Vikings kept three quarterbacks on the roster last season, at least in part due to Covid, but now that Covid rules have been rescinded, there is less of a need for three quarterbacks on the active roster. Prior to Covid, it was more common for teams to keep only two quarterbacks on the active roster, and the new regime may adopt that practice. The Rams had only two quarterbacks on the roster last season with Kevin O’Connell as OC.

Camp Battle: Mond vs. Mannion

The new or reverted practice squad rules make the decision to go with only two quarterbacks more difficult, as teams can no longer protect any players on the practice squad from getting poached. Sean Mannion is a welcome presence in the QB room for Kirk Cousins, but with a head coach that is a former NFL backup QB, in addition to a QB coach, passing game coordinator, pass game specialist, an assistant QB coach that was also a former NFL backup QB, and the offensive coordinator, who also played QB in college and is a former QB coach, how many voices do you need in the QB room?

And while the new regime isn’t tied to Kellen Mond as a 3rd round pick, I suspect they’d rather work on developing a young backup QB than having Mannion as another coach in the QB room. That’s what the Rams did last year under O’Connell as OC. But Mond will need to show that he’s capable of running the offense if Cousins goes down.

It’s less likely that Mannion would get claimed off waivers than Mond, and the Vikings could offer Mannion a practice squad spot if he cleared waivers. Alternatively, they could go with Nate Stanley on the practice squad, or potentially another QB who hits the waiver wire after the final roster cut.

Roster Projection

  • Kirk Cousins
  • Kellen Mond

Practice squad: Sean Mannion or Nate Stanley or other


Running Back (4)

The running back group is difficult to project because while I expect change is coming, the question is how soon that will happen. Dalvin Cook is a contractual lock this season, as his dead cap hit is higher than his salary cap hit of $11.9 million. That goes to $14.1 million next season, but his dead cap hit declines to $6.2 million, when he’ll be 28. It would not be surprising for the new regime to move on from Cook after this season, particularly if Cook does not improve from last season, which was the worst of his NFL career in PFF grade and other metrics.

Contract Situation

Spotrac

In selecting both Ty Chandler and Bryant Koback, Kevin O’Connell revealed that he wants multi-faceted backs with speed for his offense. Three-down backs who can run, catch, and block. It was reported that Wes Phillips had Dalvin Cook lining up in bunch WR sets in OTAs, which is an example of the versatility they’re looking for in running backs in their offense.

Alexander Mattison is a free agent at the end of the season, and it doesn’t appear that the Vikings are looking to extend him at this point. Mattison may not fit the mold the new regime is looking for in terms of speed, but he does in terms of versatility as a runner, receiver, and blocker. The running backs the Vikings selected this year in the draft (Chandler) and UDFA (Koback) are skilled in all three phases and have speed as well. Nwangwu has the speed and athletic profile but isn’t as proven in the three phases. AJ Rose fits too, but also is more unproven.

The difficulty this year for the coaching staff is that if the new and younger guys perform well in practice and pre-season, they may want to see more of them during the regular season than is possible as 3rd string or lower, if they’re planning to promote them next year.

For now I have them keeping Cook, Mattison, Chandler, and Nwangwu, the latter two as likely returners, but there is a chance they could look to deal Mattison if they like what they see in the others, particularly Chandler. In that case Kobeck or Rose could make the roster.

Roster Projection

  • Dalvin Cook
  • Alexander Mattison
  • Ty Chandler
  • Kene Nwangwu

Practice squad: Bryant Koback, AJ Rose


Fullback (0)

CJ Ham is a $3.45 million salary cap hit for the Vikings this year, with a $1.5 million dead cap hit, and the new regime will have to weigh that versus how much they plan to use him this year. The Rams under O’Connell as OC did not have a fullback on the roster. O’Connell has said he plans to adapt his scheme to the Vikings’ personnel, and had good things to say about Ham, but O’Connell also employed 11 personnel (3WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) on 86% of their plays last season. 12% were 12 personnel (2WR, 1 RB, 2 TE), and the remaining 2% were 4WR sets. How much will O’Connell deviate from that to accommodate Ham at fullback? Assuming he uses a fullback instead of a second TE on the 12 personnel sets he used last year, that would give Ham about 150 snaps for the season.

Contract Situation

Spotrac

Kevin Siefert, who’s now the local Vikings beat reporter for ESPN, reports that may be the case. He posits (behind the ESPN paywall) that the reason the Vikings didn’t draft a tight-end before Nick Muse with their last pick, despite having Irv Smith Jr. coming off an ACL and more of a move TE, and replacing Tyler Conklin with Johnny Mundt, is that Ham may see more of a role as sort of an F-back that can lineup where a tight-end would. Maybe.

But if we’re talking about 150 snaps, that’s not worth $3.45 million, even with Ham being a core special teamer. The other issue is that Johnny Mundt is a better blocker than Ham, according to PFF grading last season. O’Connell recruited Mundt to move with him to the Vikings for a reason. Ham splitting snaps with Mundt would give Ham less than 100 offensive snaps this season.

And so keeping Ham or not becomes as much a scheme question as anything. How often is O’Connell and Wes Phillips planning on using Ham as a lead blocker? Does having Ham on the field compromise their scheme in terms of tipping their hand on what the play may be? A key aspect of the Rams offense under O’Connell is running different plays with the same look, so employing a fullback may compromise that. The Rams running play percentage was about the same as the Vikings last season (40.69% vs. 41.46%). The Vikings run play success rate was slightly lower in 21 personnel (2RBs, 1 TE, 2WRs) than in 11 personnel sets. The other thing is that the running backs can pass block and be more of a threat as receivers than Ham.

All that doesn’t make a compelling case for keeping Ham, and so they don’t. I have Jake Bargas going to the practice squad as more of a TE/special teamer. CJ Ham is a possibility too if he clears waivers.

Roster Projection

Cut: CJ Ham

Practice squad: Jake Bargas (possibly CJ Ham)


Wide Receivers (7)

With O’Connell likely to use predominately three wide receiver sets, it makes sense for him to keep six (or six plus) wide receivers on the active roster. Wide receiver coach Keenan McCardell was largely happy with his wide receiver group heading into the draft, but pounded the table for Jalen Nailor on Day Three, which would seem to give Nailor a good shot at making the final roster.

Justin Jefferson had nearly 50% of the wide receiver targets last season, in part because Adam Thielen missed four games. O’Connell may scheme to get JJ open like he did so last year with Cooper Kupp. But it would be nice to see another receiver step up beyond JJ and Thielen, particularly with Thielen turning 32 this year and being a $20+ million salary cap hit the next two seasons.

Contract Situation

Spotrac

It wouldn’t be surprising if the plan was to keep Thielen through the 2023 season, and take a $7 million dead cap hit in 2024, while extending Jefferson with his 5th year option and a mega-deal on top of that. This is also a contract year for Bisi Johnson, coming off an ACL injury, so performing well this off-season and training camp will be absolutely critical for him if he’s to see much playing time on offense this season and prove himself. Dan Chisena has made the roster the past two seasons as a core special teamer. Special teams ability is often the key to the last roster spot in this group.

And while Jefferson and Thielen are the definite WR1 & WR2, I wouldn’t be surprised, absent a clear front-runner, if the WR3 spot was more by committee this season. O’Connell values speed and acceleration, and I suspect that he’s looking for a deep threat that, if nothing else, can draw safeties away from Justin Jefferson.

Beyond JJ and Thielen, KJ Osborn seems very likely to maintain a roster spot and potentially hold down at least part of a WR3 spot. Beyond that, Nailor and Smith-Marsette have the most upside. Bisi Johnson showed some ability to find the open spot in zone coverage but didn’t produce much YAC. He has some special teams ability too. Chisena is a core special teamer more than a viable wide receiver at this point, although he has the traits to develop. If they decide to go with six here, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Johnson that gets cut.

Roster Projection

  • Justin Jefferson
  • Adam Thielen
  • KJ Osborn
  • Jalen Nailor
  • Ihmir Smith-Marsette
  • Bisi Johnson
  • Dan Chisena

Practice squad: Blake Proehl

Cut: Trishton Jackson, Myron Mitchell, Thomas Hennigan


Tight Ends (3)

Kevin O’Connell has said that while the trend is for more athletic, receiving tight ends, he wants versatile tight ends just like he wants versatile running backs. Guys who can catch, run, and block. The tight end group is still a work in progress in that regard, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if they acquired a tight end yet in free agency, depending on how the group looks in practice. Tight ends often have a frustratingly long development time, however. Kyle Rudolph is a free agent and might make sense if he came cheap enough.

Irv Smith Jr. looked ready to breakout as a receiver last pre-season before he tore his meniscus, but his pass blocking was terrible in 2020 (29 PFF grade), something he’ll hopefully improve upon this season. His run blocking was mediocre (57 PFF grade).

By contrast, Johnny Mundt is a good blocker (75 pass, 71 run PFF grades), but offers little as a receiver (52 PFF grade). He’s not going to improve much as a receiver- he was brought in as a good blocking tight-end and special teamer.

Both Davidson and Muse are more receiving tight ends that need to work on improving their blocking skills, just like Smith Jr.. It remains to be seen how much Davidson has developed, and how well Muse adjusts to the NFL.

Contract Situation

Spotrac

I suspect O’Connell would rather develop more versatile tight ends than keep a roster spot for another blocking-only tight end in Ben Ellefson, so I have him keeping Davidson over Ellefson, particularly if no acquisition is made. I have Davidson over Muse based on having a year to develop with the team. Davidson will have to prove himself on special teams, however, beyond being a potential backup punter. His 6’7” frame and 37.5” vertical have some appeal in the red zone too.

Roster Projection

  • Irv Smith Jr.
  • Johnny Mundt
  • Zach Davidson

Practice squad: Nick Muse, Ben Ellefson


Next up in part II: offensive line.

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