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Position-by-position: How minicamp will set the stage for Vikings training camp

This week’s mandatory minicamp gives the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff  its final opportunity to see the squad on the practice field at TCO Performance Center before training camp begins. The three days of workouts provide a starting point for camp battles as coaches evaluate how far along players are learning systems and how certain roles might be crafted going forward. Let’s have a look at how minicamp will set the stage for each position:

Quarterback

Clearly the No. 1 job is uncontested but minicamp will give us a glimpse of how far Kirk Cousins has come along in the Kubiak/Stefanski system. Last year during minicamp there were some issues offensively that cropped up that ultimately reared their head during the regular season — red zone struggles, in particular.

Aside from getting a peek at how things are progressing with the first-team offense, we’ll be closely watching the battle for QB2. Sean Mannion was lauded by Kevin Stefanski for his knowledge of the system and he has more experience as a backup than Kyle Sloter but the Vikings have kept Sloter around for a reason. His performances in preseason last season were enough to warrant another look. We should have some sense of which player has the edge heading into camp.

Jake Browning will also get his shot to prove that he’s more than a camp body. The Vikings won’t keep four quarterbacks but he could perform well enough to edge the loser of the Mannion-Sloter contest or earn a spot on the practice squad. He doesn’t have a chance to move up on the depth chart in minicamp, he does have a chance to show he belongs in the fight.

Running back

Dalvin Cook isn’t just the starter, he’s the centerpiece of the Vikings offense heading into 2019. Head coach Mike Zimmer made it very clear that he had a fever in 2018 and the only remedy is more Dalvin Cook. But the roles behind Cook are up in the air. General manager Rick Spielman alluded to drafting Alexander Mattison as a replacement for Latavius Murray but taking over the job of a Pro Bowl running back is no easy task. Mike Boone’s skillset might be closer to Cook’s or even Jerick McKinnon from two years ago but if he wants to be the primary replacement for Cook or a situational role player, he’ll have to out-perform Roc Thomas and Ameer Abdullah. It would appear Abdullah is set for more of a special teams role but he has more experience than the rest of the crew. We should get a feel during minicamp for what Abdullah’s role is expected to be when camp begins.

Tight end

We already saw Irv Smith take over as TE1 when Kyle Rudolph missed one day of OTAs to attend an event and it’s been clear that the Vikings plan to line him up all over the field but would they feel confident in Smith as the starting tight end if the issues with Rudolph’s contract are not resolved? This week will be the coaching staff’s last opportunity to find out. Assuming Rudolph isn’t moved, decisions on the remaining two players will be interesting. David Morgan’s blocking ability gives him a leg up on Tyler Conklin but the Vikings just selected Conklin last year and might want to see more. It wouldn’t be crazy for the Vikings to keep four tight ends if Conklin proves his worth. We might get a sense for his starting line at camp over the week’s three minicamp practices.

Wide receiver 

Without question the receiving battle is the most intriguing spot to watch at minicamp. It’s difficult to say right now how the depth chart is set up past Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Is Laquon Treadwell still in the mix? Has Jordan Taylor already done enough to have a leg up on the young receivers? Did Chad Beebe make a strong enough impression in 2018 to put him in line for a roster spot and role within the offense? How do the two rookies Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson compare? Is Brandon Zylstra still an option?

Last year it was clear there was an issue with Kendall Wright when he didn’t get any first-team reps during minicamp. By the end of the week, we could have some type of conclusion on which receivers made the best impression in OTAs and minicamp.

Offensive line

It appears the starting offensive line is already set. From left to right: Riley Reiff – Pat Elflein – Garrett Bradbury – Josh Kline – Brian O’Neill. Behind the starters, there’s plenty of things to figure out. Have the Vikings seen enough with Danny Isidora? Could rookie Dru Samia surprise us and give Kline a run for his money at right guard? What can we make of Aviante Collins, who showed plenty of promise before getting hurt last year? Is Dakota Dozier a factor?

Last year an injury early in camp to Nick Easton and Elflein’s slow return threw the Vikings into disarray on the O-line. We should see what the in-case-of-emergency options are this week.

Defensive line

Zimmer said last week he expects a bigger role for Stephen Weatherly. What exactly will that role be? We won’t know for sure until the regular season but he has an intriguing skill set with the athleticism to play linebacker. Last year he dropped back in coverage a handful of times. Weatherly could be part of a plan in passing situations to move Everson Griffen inside or he could play the B-Rob role over the guard. He’s one to watch. Also: Is the Hercules Mata’afa hype for real? Will he be challenging for the pass-rushing three-technique spot with Jalyn Holmes and Jaleel Johnson? And where do project players like Armon Watts and Ade Aruna fit into the mix? We should see things take shape in 11-on-11s this week.

Linebacker

The Vikings have been stacking up young linebackers behind Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr and they don’t have spots for all of them. Last year they picked Devante Downs and this year they drafted Cameron Smith. They join Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon as players on their rookie deal looking to carve out some space on a team that generally uses only two linebackers. Wilson made a strong impression filling in for Kendricks and Barr last year so he’s clearly the next man up but could he be used in different ways? Could Gedeon’s spot as a run stuffer be challenged?

Cornerback

With Mike Hughes still working his way back from an ACL tear, there will be a battle for depth spots behind Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Plus with Holton Hill’s suspension for the first four games, there will be opportunities for players like seventh-round pick Kris Boyd and Craig James, who was mostly on the practice squad last season. Another player who might get a chance to play corner is Marcus Epps, who was drafted as a safety but saw some time in OTAs at nickel. The other question is whether we will see Jayron Kearse at “big nickel” or if he’s going to spend more time at linebacker. Of course, these things don’t exactly point to their implementation in camp or the regular season but they are worth watching for.

Safety

There isn’t much for competition at the safety position with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris set as starters but Epps and Derron Smith, signed out of the AAF, are intriguing. With Kearse appearing to take on another role, there will be competition for the No. 3 spot if either Smith or Harris got hurt.

Special teams 

Dan Bailey and Matt Wile are all by their lonesome heading into minicamp. The Vikings appear to be trying a new we-believe-in-you route. They brought in a kicking coach in former Charger Nate Kaeding. We might get a sense for which players are in the battle for kick and punt returner during minicamp.





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