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Four takeaways from Vikings’ preseason opener, including who might be headed out the door

NFL: Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings
Aug 14, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Denver Broncos defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (99) is held as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Jake Browning (3) scrambles in the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As poorly as the Vikings’ played on Saturday in their 33-6 loss Denver in their preseason opener on Saturday, the reality is the team sat 31 of its top players in order to get a long look at backups and make sure no key contributors suffered a season-ending injury on Aug. 14.

A lot of what general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer learned can be used in the coming weeks as roster decisions are made. So what were some of the top takeaways? Here are four.

THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK SITUATION

This was the focus of my postgame column, but Spielman and Zimmer have to be concerned that the backup job is too much for Jake Browning. He might not have played with the first team, but Browning looked overmatched trying to run the game and that’s a concern. He completed 5-of-10 passes for 31 yards, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and had a 17.1 passer rating.

Counting on the fact that Kirk Cousins has been an ironman since he took over as a starter in Washington in 2015 seems like tempting fate. There also is the fact the unvaccinated Cousins could be shut down for five days at a time, if he’s exposed to COVID-19. That already happened once.

Kellen Mond, the Vikings’ third-round pick last April, played two-plus quarters Saturday, completing 6-of-16 passes for 53 yards and ran five times for 25 yards. Mond is nowhere near ready to play in a regular-season game at this point.

The list of available backup quarterbacks is small, but will grow as cuts begin. The Vikings would be wise to add some veteran insurance behind Cousins.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

I’m not sure what’s more surprising. That Jake Cave remains on the Twins roster or that the Vikings don’t seem to be able to part ways with Dakota Dozier. With Oli Udoh getting the day off, Dozier was given the start as he moves from left to right guard this season.

Dozier was one of the worst starting left guards in the NFL in 2020, and if the first impression we got of him at right guard is any indication, nothing will change in 2021. That is why one would think the Vikings should jettison Dozier during the first cuts on Tuesday and end this odd temptation to play him.

Dozier was terrible on Saturday as he was called for two penalties, including a hold on former Viking Shamar Stephen (photo above) in the end zone that resulted in a safety, and gave up a pressure on the third play of the game. Pro Football Focus’ grades from the game had Dozier with a brutal 20.9 overall grade on 17 snaps. His pass-blocking grade was 24.9 and his run-blocking grade was 46.3.

The fact Udoh did not play was a surprise, considering he’s making the move from tackle to guard and likely needs all the work he can get at his new position. Nonetheless, it’s clear the Vikings have decided Udoh has the job locked up.

But here’s where Dozier’s presence gets in the way. Third-round pick Wyatt Davis was the guy many of us expected to be plugged in at right guard, but the Vikings don’t feel he’s ready. Davis did get plenty of playing time behind Dozier on Saturday (49 snaps) and had an overall grade of 78.9. His pass-blocking grade was 59.7 and his run-blocking grade was 77.6.

Those are numbers Davis can definitely build on, and it was nice to see him rebound after being pushed around on his first snap on a play in which Browning sacked. Last season, the Vikings did not make second-round pick Ezra Cleveland their starting right guard until Week 6 after four weeks of watching Dru Samia struggle. (Cleveland is now at left guard.)

That mistake shouldn’t be made again. Udoh can start the season, but getting Davis up to speed with the second unit is the smart move. That can only happen if Dozier isn’t part of the equation.

GIVE HIM THE BOOT?

Zimmer came to his postgame press conference with a list of mistakes that angered him, but all of them were made by backups. Except for one. Zimmer pointed out that there had been “three very poor punts,” and when asked if it was just a bad day for Britton Colquitt, or this was cause for concern, he didn’t hesitate. “It’s cause for concern,” he said.

It also might be cause for the Vikings to begin looking for a new punter.

Colquitt is coming off a poor season in which he was the 32nd-graded punter out of 33 qualified punters, according to Pro Football Focus. The 36-year-old was second-to-last in net yards per punt at 36.7 and was one of only two punters to have more than one punt blocked.

That resulted in Colquitt agreeing to a $1.375 million pay cut last March that means his base salary for 2021 will be the veteran minimum of $1.075 million. But taking a pay cut won’t save Colquitt’s job, if he doesn’t look better than he did Saturday.

Colquitt averaged 40.5 yards both gross and net on four punts with a long of 48 and one landing inside the 20. The Vikings’ special teams were a mess last season and Zimmer wants to make sure that changes under new coordinator Ryan Ficken.

Here’s the only issue about cutting Colquitt. He also serves as the Vikings’ holder and has spent all of training camp working with new kicker Greg Joseph. Joseph made both of his field-goal attempts on Saturday (34 and 25 yards) and replacing Colquitt now would require Joseph to develop chemistry with a new holder.

While Spielman and Zimmer certainly will have this in mind before making a decision on Colquitt, if his punting doesn’t improve in the Vikings’ next preseason game, odds are good he will be looking for work.

ARE ANY STARTING JOBS NOT LOCKED UP?

On offense and defense, almost every competition appears to be over.

The opening day offensive line in front of Cousins almost certainly will be Rashod Hill at left tackle, Cleveland at left guard, Garrett Bradbury at center, Udoh at right guard and Brian O’Neill at right tackle. Irv Smith Jr., and Tyler Conklin will be the top tight ends and Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen long ago locked up the wide receiver spots.

K.J. Osborn has the inside track to be the third receiver with Dede Westbrook still recovering from an ACL injury suffered last season with Jacksonville.  Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison are the top two running backs and C.J. Ham is the fullback.

The defense also appears mostly set with Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson and Stephen Weatherly or D.J. Wonnum starting on the line. We’re guessing Weatherly will be the starter with Wonnum coming in as part of a rotation.

Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Nick Vigil are the linebackers — Saturday’s game showed the Vikings might need to add some quality depth behind those three — and Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods have the cornerback and safety spots secured. Mackensie Alexander will replace Vigil as serve as the slot corner in the nickel.

Cameron Dantzler, who was partially responsible for giving up an 80-yard touchdown pass from Drew Lock to KJ Hamler on Saturday, is clearly now a second-team corner after starting 10 of the 11 games in which he played last season.

Backup running back Ameer Abdullah is listed as the primary punt and kickoff return man, but Osborn and rookies Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kene Nwangwu returned kicks in the preseason opener. Abdullah returned the only punt, but behind him on the depth chart are Osborn and Chad Beebe, who was given Saturday off.

The Vikings continue to carry kicker Riley Patterson, an undrafted free agent out of Memphis, but he was injured to open camp and the focus appears to be on getting Joseph ready for the season.