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Zulgad: Call for backup! Vikings need to address No. 2 quarterback spot before regular season

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Jake Browning (3) runs from Denver Broncos defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (99) in the end zone during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Vikings’ decision to sit 31 regulars in their preseason opener on Saturday against Denver at U.S. Bank Stadium presented the opportunity to get an extensive look at several backups. The verdict? General manager Rick Spielman might want to spend his Sunday working the phones and the coming weeks scanning the waiver wire.

The Vikings trailed by 20 points at halftime in what became a 33-6 loss and, if they didn’t know it already, Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer learned just how overmatched many of their backups are with less than a month to go until the regular-season opener on Sept. 12 in Cincinnati.

This includes at the backup quarterback position, where Jake Browning and Kellen Mond showed they are nowhere near being ready to serve as the No. 2 quarterback behind Kirk Cousins. Browning has been one of the feel-good stories of training camp, and he did an admirable job during the five days that Cousins had to miss because he was in quarantine, but there’s a big difference between a training camp practice and a preseason game. There’s an even bigger difference between a meaningless exhibition and a regular-season game.

Cousins has been extremely durable throughout his career — he has not missed a game because of injury since taking over as a starter in 2015 — but it’s a big gamble to think he won’t get hurt and the fact he remains unvaccinated, and could be sent into quarantine again because of close contact with a COVID-19 positive person, makes it even more important to have a competent backup.

Browning spent his first two NFL seasons on the Vikings’ practice squad and, because COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 preseason, he hadn’t played in an exhibition game since 2019. With Cousins among the Vikings players held out Saturday, Browning got the start and completed 5-of-10 passes for 31 yards with an interception and a 17.1 passer rating. He guided an 11-play, 61-yard drive in the first quarter that ended with Greg Joseph’s 34-yard field goal.

Browning was picked off by Broncos first-round cornerback Patrick Surtain II on a weak pass intended for rookie wide receiver Ihir Smith-Marsette in the second quarter. The rookie returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

“It wasn’t as good as it has been,” Zimmer said of Browning’s play. ” … The interception for the touchdown was thrown behind the guy. I just didn’t feel like he was as sharp as he’s been maybe the last week.”

Zimmer also expressed frustration that Browning didn’t have a better idea of how Surtain plays after going against him in joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. “You’d think that Jake would have a pretty good idea on Surtain on how he plays from going against him for a couple of days,” Zimmer said. “You can’t leave the ball hanging back behind a guy. You should understand the coverages that you’re going to get because you just saw him for two days. So that part is disappointing.”

Browning, not surprisingly, didn’t get much help from his offensive line and starting right guard Dakota Dozier in particular.

Dozier was one of the worst starting guards in the NFL last season, when he started all 16 games on the left side, but for some reason the Vikings think things will be different with Dozier on the right side. Dozier made key mistakes on the Vikings’ first three series Saturday. He was beaten on a play that forced Browning to make a hurried throw that fell incomplete, he held in the end zone on a 3-and-6 play that resulted in a safety for the Broncos and he was called for a false start to put the Vikings in a second-and-13 at their own 45.

While the Vikings’ continued patience with Dozier is odd, so was Zimmer’s decision to sit Oli Udoh with the starters. Udoh and Dozier have been getting first-team reps at right guard, and while Udoh clearly has won the job, electing not to play him along with several legit regulars seemed like a questionable move. Udoh was shifted from tackle to guard before training camp and could definitely use as much work as he can get at his new spot.

Whatever issues the line had in front of Browning, he still needs to prove in the three preseason games that he can manage the basics of the offense if he is forced to start or play in a game. The Vikings aren’t going to find a starting caliber backup right now, but what they can do is pursue a veteran who has regular-season experience and is prepared to take his baseball cap off, put the clipboard down and enter the game.

Sean Mannion held that role behind Cousins the past two seasons and is now in Seattle. But the 29-year-old knows the offense and, if he is cut by the Seahawks, could make a return to Minnesota.

I know what you’re saying. What about Kellen Mond? The Vikings’ third-round pick saw extensive action on Saturday after recovering from COVID-19 and returning earlier in the week. Mond scrambled for 25 yards on four carries in three series, but he only completed 5-of-15 passes for 50 yards and had a 43.8 passer rating in six series. Mond led one scoring drive, a 12-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal by Joseph just before halftime.

Mond did throw a third-quarter strike to wide receiver Whop Philyor in the end zone, but Philyor was unable to hold on as safety P.J. Locke broke up the pass. Mond also had a few other passes that looked like they were made by a guy who is playing a game that’s moving too fast for him right now.

“He just has to get moving a little bit quicker,” Zimmer said of Mond. “Everything is like in slow motion with him and he’s going to have to improve that.”

Zimmer did have a curious comment when asked about Mond’s limited passing attempts, saying there was no effort to not throw as much as expected and added, “no, no, I won’t get into that.”

Mond could be the Vikings’ starting quarterback one day, but he doesn’t belong anywhere near a regular-season game in 2021. This season is all about development for the rookie from Texas A&M and playing him almost certainly would do more harm than good.

To be clear: All hope is not lost. Far from it. Spielman and Zimmer did the wise thing by playing their backups and, thus, confirming that counting on many of them would be a massive mistake.

With that lesson learned, the question now is how Spielman and Zimmer plan to address the situation? If they are wise, the depth chart will have a significantly different look by the time the Vikings play the Bengals.