Vikings

Vikings Camp Notebook: Rookies Days One and Two

After the conclusion of the rookie portion of training camp, we’ve gotten our first look at how the next crop of players look in a Vikings uniform. While draftees have been an utmost priority, it’s been informative to look at the undrafted free agents, former practice squad invites and other reserve players hoping to make the team.

Here are the notes I’ve been able to glean from two days of practice. There wasn’t a day three practice; they did a short walk through instead.

Offensive Line

Danny Isidora has been up and down, but mostly up. He needed additional footwork coaching in one-on-one time with coach Tony Sparano and in elevens lost a tackle for loss to Ifeadi Odenigbo. But overall he’s been good, and did well at the second level, clearing a running lane against Eric Wilson. Seems to be playing with power and blocking in space pretty well. He had significant issues against Jaleel Johnson, and some issues against Dylan Bradley.

The highest pick of the bunch, Pat Elflein, is pretty easy to identify in drills. When blocking, his punches pop off the pads and he demonstrates consistent strength. The biggest issue for him has been high snaps and lots of misfires getting the ball to the quarterback — a frequent enough issue that it may keep him out of the race for the center spot. Other than that, though, he’s showcased great blocking, sealing off A-gap attacks against the nose tackles. Consistently created wins in the run game and didn’t seem to give up much pressure, but those awful snaps are significant.

Arturo Uzdavinis is predictably behind, having been signed on the first day of camp. He had a number of struggles in the individual drills and those translated into team play; he lost several snaps as a pass protector to Sam McCaskill and Tashawn Bower, and gave up tackles-for-loss in the run game to the two of them as well. It’s not surprising that he got cut.

The celebrated, athletic free-agent tackle Aviante Collins has struggled as well, but not nearly as much. Both tackles are at issue, but the guards seem pretty good. Collins lost snaps to Odenigbo pretty consistently.

Freddie Tagaloa looked great on the first day; he worked his way up to the second level easily and did a good job finding linebackers to seal off. He didn’t seem to give up much in pass protection and washed own defensive linemen in the run game, opening up some pretty big holes for Dalvin Cook and Terrell Newby. Unfortunately, on the second day, he was often losing snaps in pass protection and allowing himself to get walked into the pocket. While it’s a good thing he wasn’t letting defensive tackles slide in untouched, that still causes problems. On day two, when Johnson was on the field, Tagaloa looked overmatched.

The Vikings are hoping to replace a good chunk of the line that played last year. Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

Quarterbacks

Taylor Heinicke was easily the most impressive of the three quarterbacks, though he is responsible for the underthrown ball that led to Tre Roberson’s interception on a target to Isaac Fruechte. His passes generally had more zip than I was expecting and his movement in the pocket was natural. His ability to thread some difficult passes on the run stood out. While his second day wasn’t as strong as his first, it certainly seems like he’s the second quarterback — not Case Keenum.

Keenum was a little less impressive than I had hoped, and he floated a couple of passes to their targets, letting defensive backs close in on otherwise open receivers. His biggest mistake of the day was a deep overthrow to a wide open Cayleb Jones. Keenum has regularly overthrown otherwise open receivers deep, with Jones, R.J. Shelton and Rodney Adams all missing out on the chance to sell their deep threat chops because of an errant throw.

Even in rookie camp, where the reps are much easier to come by, Wes Lunt isn’t getting many. On occasion, he’ll throw a bullet pass right on target, but these are often few and far between. Lunt isn’t doing a very good job creating catchable balls for receivers and the adjustments they have to make are unfair to them.

Pass Catchers

Between the pass catchers, there seem to be some clear tiers forming. Players like Adams, Stacy Coley and Shelton are standing out as the most capable receivers in the group, and in individual drills the three of them isolated themselves as the most consistently fluid of the bunch. At tight end, Bucky Hodges is the lone standout.

In the other tier are players like Moritz Böhringer, Jones and Kyle Carter. Fruechte and Nick Truesdell are intriguing enough to separate themselves from the other competition at their position but don’t seem to be performing as well as the players who have seemingly put themselves in the top tier thus far.

Shelton has showcased good quickness and solid route running that puts him at the correct depth throughout the routes. He’s earned consistent praise from wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell and in team drills does a good job separating, regardless of which cornerback he’s up against. Shelton has been good enough of a receiver that it’s not inconceivable he could make the roster as a sixth receiver or even beat out the two drafted guys — though that’s still unlikely at this point, his play warrants bringing up the possibility.

Adams had a better day one than day two, but he still seems to more consistently break cleanly out of his route and generate space against coverage than most of the other receivers. Though he had a bad drop or two on day two, his first day showcased his ability to get open deep and find space in traffic to be a target in the tough intermediate range of throws.

Perhaps the best of the receivers has been Coley, who could make up for lost time after being injured in OTAs. He did a good job exploding out of the top of route stems and performed the best of all the receivers in individual drills in day two. Add the fact that he’s been the best player fielding punts in camp and Coley may be regaining the edge he lost in prior mini camps.

Hodges stands out for his receiving capability of course and has been able to get catches in over the safeties and linebackers in camp. Despite some worries from the draft about his hands, Hodges hasn’t dropped a pass as far as I can tell — though not many passes have gone to the tight ends. What really stands out, however, is that Hodges (thus far) has been a pretty good blocker. This is unexpected after all of his experience split wide in college.

In between the two tiers of pass catchers are Fruechte and Truesdell. Fruechte hasn’t been bad in camp and even shows up with some good speed on deeper routes, but hasn’t won consistently against coverage like the other receivers have. His hands have been solid and he may be establishing an all-around role, but his odds of making the roster are definitely pretty low at this point.

Truesdell stands out because of his size and his ability to use it. We haven’t seen many snaps from the tight ends not named Hodges but Truesdell clearly is comfortable catching the ball outside of his frame and boxing out smaller linebackers and safeties to get himself exclusive access to the ball.

We haven’t seen much from Josiah Price, except that he’s not a particularly talented long snapper. That’s OK as that’s not his role, but if the Vikings are ever concerned about a backup long snapper, they’d best look elsewhere.

Kyle Carter has caught a few passes, but also doesn’t stand out as remarkable.

Jones has been good at the catch point and has even found some targets deep but generally has been a one-note receiver whose trump card — contested catches — may not be good enough to overcome his other flaws. He’s been slow coming out of his breaks and evidently isn’t running routes where he needs to be.

Böhringer is running labored through his routes and though there was a clear difference between this year and last year for him, it’s not clear that Böhringer is doing enough to earn a practice squad invite at this point. He’s thinking so much during his route-running drills that he’s having a difficult time focusing on catching the ball at the end of drills.

Running backs

It’s always difficult to break down how a running back performs in camp, especially without tackling or pads, but to the extent that we can judge them, both Cook and Newby have looked good thus far.

Cook looks like he’s playing on another level over his competition, and there have been some pretty clear instances of him navigating muck without getting touched. He has demonstrated patience and vision, as well as a fair amount of agility.

Newby looks fine, mostly flashing as a pass catcher underneath and doing well enough as a runner that nothing stands out to me as a problem. It’s extremely unlikely that he makes the roster this year, but he could stick around on a practice squad for long-term hopes that he can fill a Matt Asiata-type role as a consistent (if a bit smaller) back.

I have no thoughts on C.J. Ham. Running backs are difficult to evaluate without pads but fullbacks are nearly impossible.

Defensive Line

By far the best defensive end has been Odenigbo, but evaluating the edge rushers has been difficult given how often both Uzdavinis and Collins have been losing ground in the run game and giving up pressure in pass protection. Still, it’s notable that the draftee has been outperforming his peers.

Other than him, there have been some pretty good snaps by Sam McCaskill and Bower, but between the two I saw more of Bower. Bower performed well enough and could close down in the run game. I didn’t like what I saw of him at LSU, so it will be interesting to see if that translates to the larger body of camp we’ll see in the coming few weeks.

As for the tackles, Johnson stands out as uniquely fun to watch and the most capable among his peers. The battles he’s had against Elflein have been violent, and they both provide good give-and-take to each other, without a clear winner. When Johnson has been lined up against Tagaloa and Isidora, he’s shown a consistent ability to win in the run game and put pressure on the passer.

Bradley, on the other hand, has been up-and-down. While he’s shown quickness off the snap, there’s been issues generating power and he can get bullied out of his lane. Generally speaking, I think he’s been unremarkable.

On the other hand, Chunky Clements has been fun to watch. He’s generated a pass breakup and a few pressures, but I haven’t been able to lock down on in him in the run game. So far, it’s been a pretty good showing, though not quite the level of Johnson. I doubt that Clements can challenge for a three-technique spot, but he put on a good show.

Linebackers

It hasn’t been easy nailing down the performances of the linebackers, but what we have seen has been pretty good. Elijah Lee has been more stalwart in the run game than I expected and has gotten through guard and tight end blocks to create tackles for loss in the run game. More impressive has been his ability to keep up in coverage and deter targets. While I think the three quarterbacks have been over targeting receivers at the expense of other options, I think Lee’s ability to carry running backs off the flat or tight ends up the seam has helped. He’s had a pass deflection or two as well, to help his case.

That said, I think Ben Gedeon is playing to his tape in good and bad ways. His coverage capability hasn’t been all that great and he seems to be losing players when asked to cover them one-on-one and floating around his landmarks in zone coverage. I don’t think he’s been able to prevent targets in his direction and has allowed a decent number of receptions over the middle.

That said, he’s been the best linebacker at getting off of blocks, finding run lanes and staying gap-sound. Closing off the back side is critical against zone running and Gedeon seems more than capable of that.

Eric Wilson has been in between the two in terms of performance. It seems as if his coverage capability is there, but he hasn’t had many highlight plays in coverage. At the same time, he’s perhaps the most likely to be locked up by blockers, but he’s been generally alright as a run defender. He doesn’t meet the standards of the other two linebackers in that department, but he hasn’t stood out as an egregious underperformer.

Secondary

With Antone Exum playing nickel corner, there’s only been one consistent safety throughout rookie camp. That’s Jack Tocho, who has been called out for his run support by the coaching staff, but has been largely fine as a coverage defender. The biggest issue is his overeager attempts to crash down to the line of scrimmage when the play hasn’t been declared. He had problems keeping up with tight ends and there was a coverage confusion problem on at least two plays that he may have contributed to, but when he’s been aware of his assignment, he’s certainly been good.

Speaking of Exum, the former Virginia Tech alum looked pretty good as a nickel corner and played naturally against the slot receivers, often taking them out of plays. Shelton was the only player who seemed to cause him trouble and even then he’s been a decent mover. If he moves to the nickel slot permanently, that could be a good home.

Terrell Sinkfield has been another surprise and the wooden movements that made me suspicious of his receiver play have not shown up here as a cornerback. He plays to his tested agility, which is a fantastic thing. While he’s still not always guessing the route correctly, his movement skills have allowed him to maintain excellent recovery. He won’t be able to live solely on recovery capability as camp goes on, but it’s a good start.

The other position convert to cornerback, Tre Roberson, has been a little disappointing. He’s consistently eaten dirt against comeback routes and though made up for some of the mistakes he made on the first day, had a poor enough showing on the second day that he’s overall been behind. His lone interception was a result of an underthrow where he was actually out of position. That said, a good set of pass deflections on the first day shouldn’t be lost in the mire of his second-day performance where he found himself losing out-breaking routes and deep posts.

Horace Richardson often played on the far side of the field, so it’s difficult to get a good understanding of his play. In the few snaps I saw of him, he played well in run support but has been a bit worrisome in coverage. Those conclusions aren’t solid enough to go off, though.

It should be noted that all of the cornerbacks were playing off coverage in the rookie portion, likely because of a lack of pads. Things will change once they can become more physical — although the lack of pads didn’t really stop the offensive and defensive linemen from going at it.

Good performances by the drafted players thus far is encouraging and could go a long way towards making up for the absence of the 2016 draft class on the field.


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