Photo Credit: Thad Chessley

The first day of pads will be the fifth day of training camp, and in order to best preserve the true abilities of the offensive and defensive linemen (and save myself some writing room), we’ll hold off on evaluating them until we get to at least see some one-on-ones. Other than that, we’ve got a hefty notebook for most of the players we’ve seen in camp.

Quarterbacks

Sam Bradford has not been notable in camp, which I think is largely a good thing. He’s shown good movement in the pocket against the pressure that exists in camp and hasn’t made mistakes with the ball. He’s very rarely thrown it deep downfield despite the other two quarterbacks regularly getting deep shots and I want this to improve. His intermediate and short accuracy look pretty good and I don’t recall more than one interception, if that.

It’s good to see that Taylor Heinicke is getting run with the second team, because it seems clear that he’s been outperforming Case Keenum every single day. Though his deep ball isn’t spectacular, it’s a fair bit more accurate than Keenum’s and it arrives more cleanly in the receiver’s hands — in stride, on time and seemingly more catchable. It still requires an arc that becomes easy for defensive backs to anticipate, but at least it’s enough to more capably take advantage of blown coverages.

As one example, Jones’ deep catch in triple coverage needn’t have happened the way it did — Keenum underthrew it and made the throw more difficult. That’s not to say every throw deep or intermediate that Keenum throws is late or arcs too long, he had some pretty good passes on the first day of vet practice. Rather, he does it significantly more often and Heinicke does a better job getting the ball to the target on time.

Photo Credit: Thad Chessley

Wide Receivers

There’s a set of primary receivers to evaluate — Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen headline the group, but Vikings fans are more interested (understandably so) in the uncertainties surrounding Laquon Treadwell and Michael Floyd.

To get it out of the way, Diggs and Thielen look pretty good. Thielen is a fun route-runner to watch if only because he can find a variety of ways to get open. He can use physicality to separate on square-in routes or double-moves to get open deep. He’s excellent at using small head fakes to clear out a route — something he did to burn Terence Newman the other day — or pound the turf for a hard fake outside to get open inside — which is how he beat Harrison Smith on a slant.

I didn’t get much of a look at Diggs if only because he’s not fundamentally a unique question for the Vikings offense, except his usage. He hasn’t gone deep very much in camp despite promises that the offense would be more explosive from Pat Shurmur, though that may happen in the future.

Based off my overall impressions of Floyd and Treadwell, it’s a little difficult to figure out the clear better player between the two. One might read that as optimism for either or pessimism for either, but in this case might be good. Both looked solid over the last two days and have been involved in highlight plays. Treadwell has been able to beat Rhodes deep — though that really only happened once out of several attempts — and beat Newman a few times over the last two days, including an out route and a comeback route where Newman fell to the ground. He has had issues with drops the past few days but largely seems to be playing well.

My notes tell me to prefer Floyd, even though my general feelings of the two have given me more uncertainty. Floyd has done a better job getting open on a consistent basis than Treadwell, and has received more deep catches, too. He was able to get open deep on Tre Roberson and Trae Waynes and has dropped fewer passes that were more difficult to catch. I don’t think the difference should be enough to overcome a natural bias for the Vikings to play Treadwell, but it’s at least worth noting.

Every year it seems like I forget to watch Jarius Wright. He’s certainly not absent and he might be the quickest receiver I’ve seen in camp this year, but I haven’t had reason to write in many notes about him. Typically that’s good as it means he hasn’t dropped the ball or lost a contested catch, but it also means he hasn’t had a big highlight play. That’s fine, and I think it’s pretty clear he’s a tier above the receivers I haven’t mentioned thus far. He certainly hurt Mackensie Alexander’s standing at least once.

Cayleb Jones seems to be the best-performing receivers among the presumed longshots and has done an excellent job competing for the ball in the air against other defensive backs, including a highlight moment where he won in triple coverage. He’s consistently won contested catches and does a surprisingly good job finding ways to get open downfield; he’s pretty good evidence that deep threats can thrive without a fast 40 time. He’s, so far, the standout among the potential Mr. Mankato candidates.

I’ve seen Isaac Fruechte moved around the wide receiver depth chart so that he played regularly in both the second and the third group of receivers, but I’ve seen Stacy Coley play pretty consistently with the twos, implying that he has a better shot at the moment of being a fifth or sixth receiver ahead of the other candidates. Rodney Adams has been stuck with third team reps, while Moritz Böhringer and R.J. Shelton have been rotating late into drills and sometimes with the team in 11s

Of that group of five receivers, Fruechte likely had the best day, though I’m not sure that’s a compliment as he hasn’t been particularly impressive. Coley has had issues with his footing and has gone to the ground too easily while trying to catch the football or run back on comebacks and has been inconsistent about giving tells during his routes — rounding them or popping his pads up too soon. While Coley appeared to outshine Rodney Adams during rookie camp, these last two days of veteran work have given Adams the edge. Not because of anything that Adams has done that’s been spectacular, but because he’s been a little better in his work.

That said, Coley’s place on the depth chart consistently above Adams (thus far) is likely more telling than my glimpses of the two.

In all honesty, Böhringer hasn’t been all that bad, but it’s clear that the breaks in his routes still take too long, and he’s an easy receiver to read. I didn’t see much of Shelton these past two days, which is largely a product of his limited reps. I can say that it hasn’t been as easy for him to get open in some of these one-on-one drills. The most notable thing I can remember over the last two practices has been a drop. That’s not a full assessment and I still like him as a receiver; I wish I could have seen more of him.

Photo Credit: Thad Chessley

Tight Ends

It’s not been particularly easy to evaluate the performances of the tight ends. They generally are difficult to evaluate but in this year’s camp are also not receiving a lot of targets. Sure, Kyle Rudolph’s blocking seems suspect but without pads on, I can’t really make that determination by itself. Is he getting open a lot against the linebackers and safeties? Not much as far as I can tell, but he was never a tight end who made hay getting open up the seam, instead relying on his frame to win targets and receptions. He’s generated some targets underneath in no-cover zones, but that’s not very evaluable.

David Morgan II looks like who he was supposed to be and his hands are excellent. He’s also catching targets underneath and they don’t seem to be sending him downfield, which makes sense. His blocking seems fine.

I was mostly interested in looking at Bucky Hodges, who has been standing out to me. A player who in college had drop issues that were probably not all that bad because of the difficulty of his assignment is worth tracking, especially if he’s going to transition into blocking work. His initial showing in rookie camp demonstrated some pretty good blocking capability, but as the veterans showed up, his blocking became streaky. Still better than I expected. As a route-runner, he shows quick hip movement that translates to separation at the stem, and he’s strung together some impressive catches.

I think that Hodges may be ready to contribute right away, based on what I’ve seen so far.

As for Nick Truesdell, Kyle Carter and Josiah Price, I haven’t seen much. I will note that Carter looks better than I recall from last year, both as a receiver and blocker. Daniel House at Vikings Corner and my colleague Luke Inman both tell me that Price also looks pretty good, which is a solid indication that the Vikings have a good crop of tight ends to test out and may have to make some tough practice squad decisions.

Running Backs

I don’t have many notes on the running backs, but I want to add here that Dalvin Cook looks truly special. The pads aren’t on, running backs are difficult to evaluate in training camp and it’s been four days. So, take it with a grain of salt. But he really looks special so far.

Linebackers

is obviously a good sign. Eric Kendricks is all over the field and in particular, I’ve noted his ability to take on blocks seems better than I remember from the season. He’s still at his best meeting receivers at the catch point on screens, and his instincts for getting to the ballcarrier on screens from last season seems to have carried over.

Emmanuel Lamur hasn’t been as obvious negatively or positively as I’d expected, though it is worth noting a play where he sussed out an end-around and got to Stefon Diggs behind the line of scrimmage. His movement in coverage hasn’t been poor but it hasn’t been as spectacular as I’d hoped from a safety convert. There was one instance of a ball being dropped in right over his head for a completion, but I don’t think that’s on him, it was just a particularly good pass from Keenum.

Before he was injured, Kentrell Brothers was playing well. While he does a poor job recovering for misdirection (biting on play-action), he’s generally done a good job filling his lane and swallowing runners at the line of scrimmage. His defensive tackles — and Shamar Stephen in particular — have done a good job keeping him clean so we haven’t seen him take on too many blocks, but the experience we do have with that has been positive.

I want to echo all the recent praise we’ve seen for Elijah Lee over the past several days, but I do want to bring up the fact that while he seems to be doing a good job shedding blocks, he needs to do a better job avoiding getting blocked in the first place; not every guard he’ll get locked up with in the NFL will be a tryout camp body. That said, his work has been impressive. He’s done a good job multiple times shedding blocks to hit the running back at or behind the line of scrimmage on runs, and has done a good job seeking out screens. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to be the first linebacker in his position group to react to the snap without getting fooled (thus far) by misdirection plays.

I don’t have much on Edmond Robinson or Eric Wilson except to say that Robinson seems to be playing well when they position him at the line of scrimmage like an old-school sam linebacker. I haven’t seen him get bullied out of plays and I’ve noted at least one pretty good rip into the backfield. Without many running back targets outside of no-cover zones or tight end looks, it’s difficult to see how he holds up in coverage. His best play might have been a tackle-for-loss created by meeting Austin Shepherd at the point of attack and then shedding him.

Photo Credit: Thad Chessley

Cornerbacks

The overall feeling I get from the defensive backs isn’t generally positive. The starting corners have been largely unimpressive and though that will probably improve as time passes and the pads come on, it’s still something to track. Xavier Rhodes has been a little iffy keeping up with receivers and generally seems rusty dealing with more basic route-running concepts. It will probably come to him, but in the meantime, he’s been beaten deep by Treadwell, lost Thielen on more than one outside route and hasn’t made plays to make up for it.

Newman has been more troublesome, and has been too far away on several comeback routes, including a moment where he fell covering one of Treadwell’s routes. He’s been on very few snaps, so the fact that he hasn’t been a large positive on those snaps is likely not meaningful, but it’s part of the larger issues it seems with the cornerback group.

I think if one were to scale a percentage of negative plays, Waynes would fall somewhere between Rhodes and Newman, with bigger issues giving up yards than Rhodes but not so much that his negative plays are comparable to Newman’s. The difference is that it seems like Waynes is also making more positive plays than either of the two and has broken up otherwise accurate passes from Bradford. Take that for what you will.

Alexander has been up and down, and if one were to compare his performances so far in training camp to his in-season performance in 2016, it would generally be positive. That’s not a high bar and one would hope for more, and though Alexander hasn’t been outstanding I think he’s meeting baseline expectations for a nickel corner.  He’s had some issues — he jumped a few routes too early, which led to big plays — but he’s also created incompletions and can squeeze receivers to the sideline on routes breaking outside. He has generally demonstrated good recovery. He got beaten deep by Jones, which is disappointing and maybe the largest black mark I’ve seen on his play thus far.

After that, the most impressive of the cornerbacks has been wide receiver convert Terrell Sinkfield. He moves incredibly well and even when he misreads a player, he gets into position quickly in recovery. The fluidity he never displayed at receiver seems to be perfectly at home as a cornerback and though it’s clear that he has trouble reading receivers still, he’s become intriguing. He also seems to be the only cornerback regularly shutting down underneath routes.

Also notable is Marcus Sherels, who hasn’t taken a ton of reps but is presumed to be some kind of second or third-string corner in addition to his punt return duties. Surprisingly, he was perhaps the only player to successfully contest multiple targets in Jones’ direction. Generally, he looked fine against the crop of third- and fourth-string receivers.

I might as well include Antone Exum here as he looked quite good as a nickel corner. Exum has been pretty good in run support and has avoided blocks from tight ends and receivers to make plays, and looks like a fun blitzing option, too. He’s been pretty good about getting his hands up to prevent screens on those blitzes. He’s generated some good pass deflections, including on Wright and Fruechte. He lost a route or two to Floyd and hasn’t been tested deep yet but I like what I’ve seen.

Jabari Price hasn’t been poor either, though he hasn’t been quite the impressive cornerback Exum or Sinkfield have been. Naturally, the success of second-team receivers like Floyd and Wright doesn’t speak that well of the second unit and Price is part of that limited effort, but he hasn’t made egregious mistakes as far as I can tell.

Of the third-string unit, I think Horace Richardson has looked the most capable. He hasn’t seemingly allowed too many receptions in coverage and has, like Sherels, done a good job squeezing receivers to the sideline to force difficult throws. On the other hand, it’s easy to be disappointed by Roberson — especially if you’re like me and hyped him up a bit too much last year. He hasn’t been particularly great and though these last two practices have been better than the first two days, where he was falling down in coverage. Still, he’s been beaten deep and lost contested catches.

The limited looks I’ve seen of Sam Brown haven’t been good, and he’s seemingly given up a good number of receptions in coverage. That’s not a huge surprise as he’s a late signing into camp, but I don’t think he’ll be able to, at this moment, overcome the structural obstacles that exist to him making the roster.

Safeties

Safeties are always difficult to evaluate in camp, and it seems like the defense has been playing with both in the box on a number of occasions. There have been some interesting coverages where cornerbacks like Price roll up to the free safety spot while a strong safety like Andrew Sendejo buzzes the flats.

That said, I have liked what I have seen from the starting pair. Sendejo may not be a great fit in man coverage but he seems to be doing a better job disrupting passes from across the field, including a memorable pass deflection that started with him on the right hash chasing down a ball going to the left sideline to Wright and batting it out of the air. It’s early in camp and we have to have a good chunk of practices in the books before we can say anything definitive (particularly with more contact and pads) but I tentatively want to say that this might be his best camp yet. I did note one play on the first day of veteran’s practice where he seemed to be out of position and playing too shallow of a zone, but without the ability to review that footage, it’s not an easy determination to make.

Smith has been a harder player to keep track of, and I have no notes on him. I’m not too worried, though.

Of the backup safeties, the two biggest highlight plays came from Jayron Kearse, who did excellent work disrupting passing lanes and killing a pass intended for Rodney Adams, and Jack Tocho, who went up with Truesdell and came down with a pass deflection and nearly had the ball.

I haven’t gotten much of a read on Anthony Harris, unfortunately so I mostly have takes on Tocho. Tocho has been up and down in camp and it seems like he had an early problem peeking into the backfield in run support. Since then, it seems like he’s done a better job playing as a force player when covering the backside of runs and is kind of fun to watch in coverage.


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