It’s that time of year again: Position battles, pads popping, players in the best shape of their lives, defenses ahead of offenses. Yes there are many training camp cliches but in Minnesota there are also a number of fascinating storylines and players jockeying for position. Let’s have a look at which positions are the most interesting heading into camp…
The runaway No. 1 choice here. Between the two undrafted free agents who ended up playing for the Vikings last year in Chad Beebe and Brandon Zylstra, the last shot for Laquon Treadwell, the two seventh-round rookies, at least one interesting 2019 UDFA in Davion Davis and the lone free agent signee Jordan Taylor, the receiver spot will have the most hotly contested battle in camp. We will spend weeks looking for hints based on preseason playing time and practice reps while studying the development of the younger players. It’s a group that has the potential to emerge as being quite strong or could be very similar to last year where Kirk Cousins’ options were limited beyond Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
The front four is set with Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Shamar Stephen and Linval Joseph but beyond the starters there are all sorts of questions. Mike Zimmer said he plays to expand the role of Stephen Weatherly. Could we see him play in similar spots as Brian Robison did in 2017? Or will he be giving Everson Griffen more series’ off than he’s had in the past? Also with the Vikings losing Sheldon Richardson to free agency, the Vikings will have to use a rotation at the three-technique position. Whether the players mixing in will be those with limited experience like Jaleel Johnson or Jalyn Holmes or 2018 UDFA Hercules Mata’afa or 2019 sixth-round pick Armon Watts isn’t easy to figure.
And where does Ifeadi Odenigbo fit in? He was cut after a strong camp last year but the Vikings brought him back. Does 2018 draft pick Ade Aruna, who was injured last year, have a shot? Is this Tashawn Bower’s last chance?
Until this year the Vikings have always had a backup plan for Dalvin Cook. In 2017 both Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray led the team to the seventh most rushing yards in the NFL. Last season Murray filled in admirably while Cook battled a nagging hamstring injury, rushing for 578 yards and six touchdowns. This time around the Vikings do not have a bevy of experience behind Cook. They selected Alexander Mattison as a replacement for Murray and re-signed Ameer Abdullah, who will likely play a role on special teams. There will be a battle between Roc Thomas and Mike Boone for a backup role. When everyone is healthy there isn’t much that is compelling about the running back competition but considering the potential impact of another Cook injury, we will be watching the backups closely.
Are you looking forward to daily updates on Mike Hughes’ health? Well get ready. The 2018 first-round pick will be returning from an ACL tear. After rehabbing on the side during OTAs and minicamp, it’s hard to say when we could see him. Hughes’ recovery combined with Holton Hill’s four-game suspension leaves the door open for players like seventh-round pick Kris Boyd and 2018 UDFA signing Craig James to win a spot out of camp. The starters are not without interest either. Will Mackensie Alexander carry over a strong second half of 2018? Will Xavier Rhodes stay healthy?
The O-line is virtually set but how the new interior of the line gels together will play a role in determining how much the Vikings offense improves. Pat Elflein is moving from center to left guard, rookie Garrett Bradbury is making a big jump from NC State to the NFC North and Josh Kline is coming off a season in Tennessee in which is Pro Football Focus grade was lower than that of Mike Remmers. If anyone should get dinged up, then the focus on the O-line will ramp up 10 fold. Will Dru Samia be ready to step in if needed? Will Danny Isidora still have a job? Could Aviante Collins take the swing tackle job from Rashod Hill?
The interesting meter went down when Kyle Rudolph signed a long-term contract extension. Had Rudolph been traded to create cap space, tight end would have been at the top of the list with rookie Irv Smith being thrust into a starting role. But all intrigue is not lost. Smith now has the potential to become the versatile weapon for that the Vikings offense was missing in 2018. In college he lined up all over the field, including outside receiver and fullback. The expectation is that the Vikings will use him for mismatches — that’s if he can pick things up quickly. If not we may see more of Tyler Conklin than expected. David Morgan appears to be a lock as a blocking tight end.
Kirk Cousins’ practice performance on a day-to-day basis will be worth watching only because we will be looking for improvements under Gary Kubiak. The true entertainment of the QB position will come during the preseason games when we evaluate the backup quarterback situation. Sean Mannion has been around longer but hasn’t gotten many opportunities in the NFL while Kyle Sloter has become a preseason folk hero with his strong late-game performances. The Vikings also paid out a big chunk of cash for Jake Browning to sign as an undrafted free agent. For most teams you would say the backup QB doesn’t really matter. For this franchise, you never know when that backup is going to come in handy.
Everyone in the organization will be holding their breath every time Dan Bailey lines up to kick a field goal. There is nothing more this franchise wants than to move past its kicking woes. Last year the Vikings were last in field goal kicking and no matter the improvements on offense they will struggle without a much better performance from Bailey this year. Oh — there’s also a battle for long snapper.
Had Anthony Barr hit the free agent market, the linebacker position would have been fascinating with Eric Wilson likely taking over the starting job. Since Barr elected to stay, the Vikings will run out the same linebacking corps they have had for the past two years with Ben Gedeon playing the role of run stuffer and Wilson likely to mix in occasionally or in case of injury. Rookie Cameron Smith, Kentrell Brothers and Devante Downs will fight for special teams jobs
Anthony Harris returns to the starting role he took on midway through last season when Andrew Sendejo suffered a season-ending injury. Harris was terrific playing alongside Harrison Smith. The most noteworthy part of the safety position is Jayron Kearse’s role. Will he be a “big nickel” or is there a bigger role in store?