Vikings

Day 4 and 5 Notebook: Trench Warfare Producing a Clear Winner

With four days of padded practices done, we now have a much clearer look at some of the most critical positions on the roster. And nowhere will the differences between unpadded and padded practices become clearer than along the trenches.

While it was difficult to get an understanding  of the offensive line play, there was a reason to be optimistic: a new offensive line coach and some new offensive linemen meant that the 2016 shouldn’t look like the 2015 line.

But the early returns aren’t great, and that could have a ripple effect throughout the offense, and therefore the defense’s field position.


Offensive Line

If you’re worried about Matt Kalil, let me reassure you that you should remain worried.

It’s true that Kalil probably had his best day in pads on Day Five of camp, which is a good sign, but the balance of his performance hasn’t been great. Up until yesterday, he was perhaps the worst performing offensive linemen, consistently losing one-on-one drills against Everson Griffen and on occasion others.

This most recent day of padded practices was definitively more positive, however, and he generated some movement in the run game. While he took a lot of heat from Griffen in one-on-ones, he at least looked better in elevens, where he kept the pocket clean more often than not and reacted to his assignments well.

Hopefully that improvement continues, though one-on-one performance for OL and DL has been surprisingly predictive. Linval Joseph won the most one-on-ones last year after adjusting for who he was playing against, and Clemmings was the second-worst offensive lineman, just ahead of Bykowski. Matt Kalil checked in at 24th of the 30 linemen, while Berger ranked fifth.

Next to him, Alex Boone has looked phenomenal, though it needs to be said that in eleven-on-eleven drills yesterday, he wasn’t really performing up to his level. While some of this can be chalked up to Linval Joseph’s absolute dominance—more on that in a bit—Boone also struggled against Tom Johnson at times.

That’s not a big problem and he did well in half-line and one-on-one drills. I think people will be very happy with his performance in the regular season if these early returns mean anything.

The battle between John Sullivan and Joe Berger was characterized by Zimmer as one that may be resolved through different styles of play. A few days ago, he said “It’s a good battle. Both of them (John Sullivan and Joe Berger) have different strengths, and we’re just trying to figure out what’s the best combination for the other four guys in there. Whether it’s the physicality or the intelligence or how we can work that out. We’re going to keep rotating them this week, and I’ll try to figure it out after the next break we have.”

While Sullivan would be the “intelligent” one and Berger
the one who plays with “physicality,” none of this is to say that Sullivan isn’t physical or Berger unintelligent. A lot of this battle will be resolved off the field; if Berger provides too much interesting depth along the interior line, better play may not mean he starts. If Bridgewater can handle all the protection calls well on his own, like he was forced to last year without Sullivan, then some of the advantage Sullivan provides may be moot.

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On the field, I’d say Sullivan has outperformed Berger over the past two days, but the margin isn’t enormous. While Sullivan is performing at a lower level of play in one-on-ones, his ability to peel and win double-teams in elevens seems more obvious and useful.

This all could change however, in part because having a center who can win one-on-one battles against defensive tackles more often than Sullivan can is a compelling reality, especially if Bridgewater can handle the protection calls.

As for Brandon Fusco, he’s been a pleasant surprise. There haven’t been many tweets about him as the other five lineman at the other four spots have consumed a lot of attention, but that might be a good thing for a guard who looked so bad last year that it was impossible to ignore him. Fusco has had his struggles, especially on twists,  but he’s been winning a good number of his matchups.

There have been some confusing moments in elevens where it seems like he doesn’t hit his assignment—linebackers untouched in the assigned run lane is never a good thing—but from a physical and technical standpoint, we may be closer to 2013 Fusco than  2015. While I wouldn’t expect him to hit those heights, we may be a good deal closer to average than we were.

Andre Smith, on the other hand, has been difficult to gauge. He has dominant stretches of play against Robison and Hunter that look really positive and then he has long stretches of play where it seems like he can never get set right. It was difficult to get a read on him until I pored through the notes and the general consensus seems to be pretty negative. While he’s been performing better than T.J. Clemmings and seems to have the starting right tackle job sewn up, the highlight periods of good play don’t make up for the long runs of poor play.

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The offensive line should be better overall. The right tackle and left tackle positions will have at least marginal upgrades, while the left guard position will be a huge upgrade over last year. We should expect the level of center play to remain consistent, but possibly expect a downgrade (but maybe not as much as we thought) at right guard.

Outside of those six players, I should note that Willie Beavers’ play seems to have dropped off dramatically since I last talked about him, and Zac Kerin’s play has dropped off a little as well—though by not nearly as much.

Once again, the worst-performing offensive lineman on the roster is probably Carter Bykowski and he hasn’t really improved much over last season to me. Jeremiah Sirles has also performed poorly thus far, which is a sad surprise because of how well received he was by San Diego fans. Maybe his performance in the preseason will make up for it. He seems to be losing to a whole host of defensive linemen, including Scott Crichton, Zach Moore and Danielle Hunter.

Nick Easton has been performing well, even though he did get some audible flack that was pretty well-reported.

Easton has done well against the assortment of defensive tackles he’s been up against, which include Toby Johnson, Travis Raciti, Scott Crichton, Claudell Lewis and Kenrick Ellis.


Defensive Line

This defensive line is good. It is very good. And it feels like it could be better than last year’s. Griffen seems unstoppable, even when twisting inside against Alex Boone or John Sullivan, and Linval Joseph seems to be playing at another level. There have been so many times I’ve seen free linebackers because Joseph won’t let the OL move to the second level.

Sharrif Floyd has found himself into the backfield often, and he continues to provide both a pressure and run-stopping element while also taking on an unusual number of double-teams in camp so far.

Switching off between Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter should also produce some excellent results as Hunter seems to have made measurable gains over his ability last year, while Robison is performing at a high level despite not getting press from us here in camp. He seems to be doing a good job getting pressure, though perhaps that has more to do with Andre Smith than anything else.

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Aside from those five, Tom Johnson continues to make waves and has been able to slip past or power through all of the interior starters. He plays with the first team nickel a lot and seems to be performing at the level he was the last two years.

With those six players, the defensive line rotation may be stronger than it has in a long, long time.

At the backup nose tackle spot, Shamar Stephen seems to be competing with Kenrick Ellis, and has the upper hand. Not only is Stephen regularly rotating with the twos while Ellis is with the threes, Ellis’ missed time has given Stephen an enormous edge.

Beyond that, it seems like Stephen is outperforming Ellis. He’s doing a better job penetrating the offensive line and seems to hold the run about as well. Stephen also provides a little more versatility, given that he can play some three-technique—though maybe that doesn’t mean as much given that the Vikings were evidently comfortable giving Ellis three-technique snaps last year.

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If any backup is having a hell of a camp, it’s Justin Trattou. It’s not difficult to see why Scott Crichton has been relegated to third team end/tackle with the way that Trattou has been playing. Not only is he performing well against Matt Kalil and Jeremiah Sirles, he’s been able to play against Andre Smith and interior linemen as well. In all of those circumstances, he’s been outperforming the other backup defensive ends and seems to be a consistent rotational guy.

Zach Moore is not far behind him, however, and continues to find ways to influence the play. He’s played more inside than Trattou has, while still playing quite a few snaps on the second team while Hunter rests. I didn’t expect Moore to play this well, but he’s been able to stand stout against the run while still providing a pass-rush threat.

I don’t have many notes on the other defensive linemen, except to say that Claudell Lewis looks much better than I expected and that both Toby Johnson and Travis Raciti are not threats to move up the depth chart. Theiren Cockran has certainly been disappointing.


Other Observations

Quarterback

Teddy plays as well as ever. Despite two interceptions yesterday—neither of which I would characterize as quarterback error—he’s done a good job placing passes for contested catches, finding efficiencies in the red zone and generally moving the ball. The deep ball, which had disappeared for a few days as Bridgewater looked to play underneath in situational drills, came back and he hit a few receivers deep—like Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen, Charles Johnson and Stefon Diggs.

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Teddy on Day 5 was much better than Teddy on Day 4, as he underthrew receivers too often and couldn’t place the ball in optimal spots, even as he was beating coverage. For those concerned about his mechanics; a longer look at more recent practice video than what I looked at on Day 3 shows no difference—he drops his elbow still, especially on deeper throws, but his mechanics are clean short and underneath. The elbow drop is not nearly as severe as in previous seasons and his release remains quick.

Were I to gauge the ball’s velocity, it seems to be faster. More importantly, his deep accuracy still seems to have improved.

Both Shaun Hill and Joel Stave looked better than they have in the past several days, and this picks up on the theme of improvement that was noted on Day 3. I still don’t think this means they’ve been performing well, but Stave did throw the prettiest pass of the day to Adam Thielen on a deep crosser.

If this is the level of performance one expects from the Vikings backup quarterback situation, I still think there’s significant reason for worry—though with Hill (who has thrown, of course, more interceptions) and Stave (whose passes remain wild), the situation doesn’t seem as bad to me as it did several days ago.

“Skill Players”

Trae Waynes looks better and in position, Treadwell certainly needs more work (more drops in camp, again), Stefon Diggs is getting open against everybody, Xavier Rhodes is looking sharp—in contrast to early in camp—and Mackensie Alexander looked a lot better on Day 5 than he did in the previous four days.

Treadwell seems to have a lot of attributes that will make him very good, but has not put them together on a consistent basis. In one-on-one drills, he did a phenomenal job on Day 5, getting open and catching the ball in a variety of ways from a bevy of platforms. In elevens, he wasn’t as consistent. In prior days, it was the opposite, where his one-on-one drills looked poor, but his elevens looked better.

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Adam Thielen is doing well, and certainly better than he did early on, but nothing is eye-popping. Again, this seems fine given that he’s often playing with the ones. Charles Johnson is doing very well, but continues to have contested catch issues.

Moritz Böhringer continues to look like he belongs in a way that Babatunde Aiyegbusi never did, but he still doesn’t look like someone who will make the roster and has debatable practice squad prospects. He had two highlight plays in the last two days, but also some pretty severe missteps.

Tre Roberson has been performing poorly ever since I wrote an article on him. Melvin White hasn’t been great.

Blake Renaud does not look like a rosterable fullback at the moment and continues to lose collisions with linebackers like Audie Cole and Eric Kendricks. Chad Greenway is doing well thus far in camp, while Anthony Barr is playing like a star. Kyle Rudolph is playing much better than I expected him to, and so is David Morgan, who interestingly didn’t seem as sound as a blocker as he had as a catcher over the past two days.

I don’t see Kyle Carter making the practice squad and I thought he and Leonhardt were far and away less talented than Morgan, Rudolph and Pruitt—who seems to be improving as a blocker.

Generally speaking, I think camp has positive returns for the Vikings, but we’ll have to wait and see.

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