Vikings

Training Camp Rewind With Insight From Paul Allen

Photo Credit: Luke Inman

Short and sweet was the theme for players and coaches down in Mankato as the Vikings trimmed nearly a week off their typical trip to training camp thanks to a scrimmage with the Cincinnati Bengals.

My time spent down in Mankato was put to good use, from depth chart risers to splash plays there were plenty of pieces to put together to the proverbial 53-man puzzle. However, before I get lost into a redundant escapade of purple notes from training camp you’ve surely already heard on the #ALAFM Podcast let’s skip ahead to how the Vikings 2016 season forecast has changed.

With Rick Spielman and the front office doing their part building a young core and nucleus of talent over the past few years, it made constructing my 53-man projection much simpler than in years passed.

OL-DL Lineup Night Game (wide)
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

“There are not as many positional battles as we’ve seen in the past,” said voice of the Vikings Paul Allen in an interview with Cold Omaha. In fact, you could argue the top 40-45 players on the Vikings roster are already set in stone proving just how solidified and deep the roster has truly become.

The last handful of roster spots will be battled out between rookies and veterans with a few free-agent signings in the mix. Linebacker is just one of many examples of this as I have fifth-round pick Kentrell Brothers and his upside as the SEC’s top tackler (152 tackles) knocking out former Bengal Emmanuel Lamur.

When I sat down with P.A., he had loads of insider info from the team’s depth chart battles to breakout players. However, nothing intrigued Allen more than the offensive line. “If you do some research like you guys have done, the offensive line and the lack of protection really played into some facets of the passing game not getting it to where Norv wanted it to be.”

Like most of us, Allen put a lot of the offensive blame last season on the unit that struggled to give Bridgewater time in the pocket to find receivers deep downfield.

“There are not as many positional battles as we’ve seen in the past”

Allen was quite certain that if and when the Vikings can form a more consistent unit up front then Bridgewater will be able to make teams pay for their ultra-aggressive run-stopping schemes.

To do that, however, the passing game will need one of the numerous receiving options to develop into a legitimate threat on all three downs, giving the team something consistent they haven’t had since the days of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice.

Of the six receivers I have projected to make the final cut there is one obvious choice to step up into that role, and has been the en vogue pick to do so since training camp started. Can you “Digg” it? Stefon Diggs has looked every bit the part as a bona fide number one target down in Mankato and continued that trend into their scrimmages with Cincinnati.

Allen agreed with enthusiasm and confidence when Diggs’ name was mentioned, and had no problem taking things a step forward when projecting his 2016 numbers. “If Stefon Diggs doesn’t have 1,000 receiving yards this year I’m going to be surprised.”

Be sure to check out my entire interview with Allen who helped me break down each positional group, keys to the season and where the team ranks in relation to the rest of the NFC.

In the meantime, here’s a quick snapshot of each positional group following my time spent at training camp and into Cincinnati.

Quarterbacks

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Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Numero uno on the offseason checklist was honing Teddy’s craft of the deep ball, and so far he’s made big strides in that category. Sixty-yard home-run balls isn’t part of Norv Turner’s “Air Coryell” system, but you can expect plenty of 20-yard shots up the seam and in the middle of the field from Bridgewater.

Taking advantage of single high safety looks and one-on-one coverage will be a focus. However, I’m also looking for coaches to give their hopeful franchise signal caller full reins of the offense. That means calling more audibles at the line of scrimmage and checking into more opportunistic play calls given the specific defensive look.

Shaun Hill is the stereotypical veteran backup that adds valuable leadership and help for Teddy on the sidelines and in the meeting rooms. Taylor Heinicke was seen strolling around in his boot and will be out for another two months, which gives Joel Stave a serious chance at making the eventual practice squad.

Running Back

Jerick McKinnoon
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Call me nuts, but when asked on the #ALAFM podcast (see link above) about Adrian Peterson garnishing more or less than his 2015 total touches (357) I said yes. My gut is telling me Turner will be more than willing to run the future HOFer into the ground this year, having the offense run through Peterson. On top of that, this offense should be far more efficient in the passing game which will allow them to get more series, plays and opportunities for Peterson.

Relax. It’s still important to the coaches (and for me) to mix in Jerick McKinnon as much as possible, and get him into positions where they can get the ball in his hands. Turner spoke about having McKinnon lined up as a receiver in four and five wide sets, as well as having him and Peterson lined up in the backfield together.

Wide Receiver

Charles Johnson
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

For now I’ve got the obvious six making the roster with the German wiggling his way to the practice squad. What surprised me the most down in Mankato was the heavy dosage of Adam Thielen in two wideout sets, and the lack of go-to slot man Jarius Wright.

I tried talking myself into the fact the coaching staff already knows what Wright’s role in the passing game looks like, and decided that getting reps to Diggs in the slot was more valuable at the time. But, could there be more to it?

I believe the team is going to do everything they can to work Diggs inside this season in the slot. Coaches feel that’s where they can maximize Diggs’ strengths while creating the most mismatches with opposing defenses given so much space to work.

The likely domino effect here also means the often dependable veteran Wright could be shopped at this very moment behind closed doors. It’s merely a rumor with minor substance right now. Spielman, however, isn’t afraid to pull the trigger at a position full of bodies for the Wright price (see what I did there?).

Charles Johnson continues to develop and grow as a receiver as he looked polished on short and intermediate routes where he and Teddy had an obvious connection. Johnson’s deep ball game leaves me wanting more, though, with his lack of explosive leaping ability and jump ball prowess. Going up and attacking the ball or winning one-on-one battles with the NFL’s best cornerbacks will never be a strength for him.

Seriously, there is still hope for Patterson who has looked better than ever but still finds himself buried on the depth chart for now. It’s hard to imagine the team parting ways though with his second to none explosive kick return skillset, not to mention the valuable depth he provides (especially if they do trade Wright).

Tight Ends

Kyle Rudolph
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Valid points by Andy Carlson have been made as to why this is Kyle Rudolph’s true make it or break it season with his contract swelling up heading into 2017. If so, the front office has been subconsciously planning for it all along as they’ve built a solid group of talent behind him.

Spielman has added two Day 3 prospects at the position in back-to-back draft classes with two completely different strengths. While MyCole Pruitt looks incredibly smooth on drag routes and in the passing game with light feet, rookie David Morgan is out to hurt someone with his punishing blocking. I expect both players to be heavily in the game plan depending on the week-to-week opponent throughout 2016.

This allows the team to not feel so rushed when it comes to the return of Rhett Ellison, who played a major role in the run game last year, looking like a sixth offensive lineman at times.

Offensive Line

Offensive Line
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

The biggest wild card position of them all, and it’s really not even close. You can flip a coin when it comes to who will be starting at center and right guard with three different players getting serious reps. As far as the rest of the depth chart behind them, spin-a-wheel and throw a dart.

Past the obvious eight names of Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Brandon Fusco, Andre Smith, T.J. Clemmings, Willie Beavers and Mike Harris (could start season on PUP) there are at least six lineman vying for likely the last one (or two) spots.

If the team slides Austin Sheppard to the practice squad (which makes the most sense) then center Zac Kerin would be a strong candidate to be the last man standing for insurance to Sully. If they are confident at the center position and feel his health in not an issue then tackle Jeremiah Sirles would be the next guy up in my book.

Defensive End

Photo Credit: Luke Inman
Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

With the emergence of third-round pick Danielle Hunter and the reemergence of veteran Brian Robison, the group is not in need of five bodies like years passed. Justin Trattou is a story you have to like as a player that has truly earned his stripes, grinding his way through the depth chart over the past few seasons. Trattou was even released at the beginning of the 2015 year and then brought back after an injury, where he made his playing time count with some huge splash plays.

Oh yeah, and I’m predicting Everson Griffen to solidify himself as one of the top-three pure 4-3 defensive ends in the game by the time this season is all said and done. Yeah, he’s that good.

Defensive Tackle

Linval Joseph Tired
Photo Courtesy of Cumulus Media (Brian Curski)

My ears perked up when Allen said the team would keep five at the tackle position, from Linval Joseph all the way down to Kenrick Ellis. Given the team’s lack of run stopping abilities last year where they ranked worse than middle of the pack, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us. But, I’m sticking to my guns and my original projection of keeping four, especially after how well back-ups Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen looked during camp.

This defense is starting to seriously flirt with legitimacy with all the pieces in place. To end up as a top-five unit overall, nose tackle Joseph needs to be healthy for damn near all 16 games. When he’s healthy, much like Griffen, there are only a few players in the entire league better than him. Having Joseph play at the level he did last season allows Zimmer and the rest of the defense to do so many different things schematically and truly take advantage of the depth and talent at hand.

Linebacker

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Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

For me, outside the offensive line group this unit is where I have the most fun trying to hammer down. In actuality there are many different combinations the team could go with when trimming down to the final 53. The biggest question is: Will they keep six or seven here? With Chad Greenway soaking up a valuable roster spot it almost forces their hand to the latter.

Likely my biggest miss in my pre-camp projection will be Emmanuel Lamur, who I had being cut. While he didn’t actually splash during training camp, his size, familiarity with the system and two-year contract all make it seem likely he will have a home in purple.

Behind him are Audie Cole, Edmond Robinson and the rookie Brothers. Cole is limited athletically, but makes at least one play everyday in practice and is dependable when healthy. The coaches love Robinson and his progression from Year 1 to Year 2 and plan on using him in place of Greenway in 2017. Brothers will start out as a special teams ace and get a year under his belt the hard way as a backup before trying to earn the MIKE next season.

Barr and Kendricks form one of the youngest, rawest but most talented nickel linebacker duos in the league. I say raw because although he led the team in tackles, like most rookies, Kendricks played the 2015 year with his head spinning, while Barr is still nowhere near how good he could someday be.

The game will slow down for Kendricks mightily this season which will help him improve the small nuances of his game. As for Barr, if he stays healthy, great things will come as he continues to transform from an athletic ball of clay to a traditional 4-3 stand-up linebacker.

Cornerbacks

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Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Like the wideouts, I have them keeping six cornerbacks here with no surprise cuts along the way. This is the deepest position on the books with an outstanding mix of young and developing talent to the highly-touted veteran that’s seen it all (who apparently can still play his ass off for a 38 years young).

Don’t expect Newman to see nearly as much playing time this year, though, as the coaches plan on giving Trae Waynes every opportunity to win the starting job from him.

Even with a great season from Munnerlyn, it’s hard to see him returning as a free agent next year with rookie Mackensie Alexander in his rear view mirror. Alexander was one of the draft’s top cornerbacks by most regards and landed in Spielman’s lap in the second round. The team apparently is set in stone and being stubborn as far as where they want to play Alexander, which is inside at the nickel position.

Death, taxes and Marcus Sherels. You just can’t get rid of this guy, and to be honest, I don’t know why you’d ever want to. An outstanding punt returner and veteran who’s seen it all, Sherels provides great depth as a fifth cornerback in a pinch, too, when the defense goes to a quarter package. Bottom line, the guy is just one of those Zimmer “football players.”

In a league that has turned from ground and pound to pass happy, the cool thing to do is chuck the rock 60 times a game. Teams are spreading defenses out with four and five wide outs constantly, which demands that a defense have at least three legitimate cover corners and great depth at the position overall.

You can check off those boxes in regards to the Vikings cornerbacks, and feel comfortable and confident when teams start to spread their receivers out.

Safeties

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Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

Outside of Harrison Smith the team is still trying to draft and groom their hopeful long term starter to work opposite of him for years to come. For now, though, that will have to wait as the writing is once again on the wall for Andrew Sendejo to (at least for now) be your Week 1 starter (get over it!).

What puts Sendejo in the clear lead is the unwavering trust Zimmer has for him. Knowing the defense inside and out, understanding exactly where to be during every play and his apparent vocal football leadership to his teammates.

It pains me to say, but I don’t expect there to be another starter outside of Sendejo barring an injury. In that scenario Anthony Harris is my next man up showing loads of promise last year in his limited spot duty as a rookie.

It’s also hard to see Zimmer letting go of the raw potential that (the tallest safety I’ve ever witnessed with my own two eyes) Clemson rookie Jayron Kearse possesses. For a tall and lanky safety that slipped to the seventh round, Kearse looked surprisingly smooth and instinctual during drills.

At the end of the day, given his age, veteran Michael Griffin is highly unlikely to contribute on special teams. This gives him a slim chance of beating out the younger guys with more talent ahead of him.

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