Vikings

An Update on the Offense -- How Did Vikings Players Do in their Preseason Opener and in Camp?

Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

How the Minnesota Vikings do overall in the preseason is not a useful indicator for how they’ll do in the season. While it’s fun that Mike Zimmer is 15-3 in the preseason, it’s fairly evident that the record didn’t give us ultimate insight into the season on a team level.

That said, how individual players play can give us insight into how the regular season will turn out – and how they play, combined with how well they’ve performed in training camp – may give us an even clearer picture.

After reviewing a week’s worth of training camp notes, video from practices and actual play in their preseason game against the Denver Broncos, we can judge how the players are performing thus far in the offseason.

Quarterbacks

Kirk Cousins has threaded some pretty throws, including a throw through triple coverage into Stefon Diggs’ waiting hands (dropped) and this excellent throw to Adam Thielen for a touchdown.

Early on in camp, we were missing consistent highlights that led to significant gains, but as camp progressed, those became a bit more common. I still think there’s a huge element of learning the offense for both receivers and the quarterbacks that are showing up; some throws are hitting the ground – or the hands of defenders – without offensive players nearby. That miscommunication will need to be resolved sooner rather than later as everyone learns John DeFilippo’s offense and Cousins’ tendencies against certain looks.

That said, I do think it’s concerning that Cousins will be aggressive about checkdowns and miss open receivers downfield. While those can also be products of having much of the offense yet to learn, it’s also something that has shown up on his film. His two-minute drills in camp have fizzled out as a result of this tendency and in situations where we have defined third-down markers, he hasn’t been good about converting third downs in camp. That lines up with his last three years, where he ranked 24th of 34 QBs in third-and-long conversion rate.

Under simulated camp pressure, his accuracy and decisionmaking have dropped off more than what’s comfortable. He also loses a significant amount of zip on the ball, which makes for a lot of problems. There are times when he’s invited “pressure” by holding on to the ball too long, though those instances have decreased over time. It’s still a concern, and one to watch for during the game.

With all that said, it’s clear that Cousins has talent and can drop the ball with accuracy at every level of the field. The question is whether or not he can do that consistently. Early on in camp, he was overthrowing receivers and making their catches difficult. As we approached the Denver Broncos game, he’s gotten much better at consistently throwing those intermediate and deep passes to where his receivers can catch it.

In the game itself, Cousins looked great.

Even though it was only four throws, his performance included smart reads and an excellent pass to Diggs that might be the highlight of the night. The ball placement, route awareness, poise under pressure and performance in the red zone all point in positive directions and speak to his overall improvement over the offseason.

Trevor Siemian and Kyle Sloter haven’t been very good in camp. Siemian has been inaccurate, has made poor decisions and has helped defensive backs look good with interceptions. Siemian has a quick trigger, which can be good, but in this case, can mean he’ll miss out on how the play develops and what the best pass should have been.

Siemian’s performance in camp carried over into the preseason. Though his statistics were pretty good – a 111.2 passer rating and 7.8 adjusted net yards per attempt – but a lot of it is built off a 78-yard screen (81 yards after the catch) to Roc Thomas.

Without it, his passer rating drops to 71.6 and adjusted net yards per attempt drops to 3.9. Overall, he showed spotty accuracy and was late to get the ball out under pressure. His ball placement created issues for receivers and his decision-making worked well in-rhythm, but hectic outside of the immediate structure of the play.

Sloter has looked marginally better in camp scrimmages, but he certainly hadn’t looked like the preseason phenom we saw last year. In camp, he showed an inability to nail down nuances; for instance, a ball that might look like it’s solid ball placement because of how it leads a receiver might actually be a poor pass.

In this case, it means Sloter has been leading receivers directly into linebackers in the middle of the field and would get them killed on gameday.

That said, his performance against Denver was pretty extraordinary. He looked cool under pressure, adjusted his game to the circumstances around him, made the right reads and threw with accuracy.

Peter Pujals hasn’t been getting a lot of reps, so it has been difficult to judge his play over the past week. He didn’t play in the game.

Receivers

It should come as no surprise that Thielen and Diggs are having excellent training camps, though it should be noted that both have demonstrated much higher drop rates than one would expect of them.

Some of the drops are forgivable, like on leaping catches on overthrown balls, but others should have clearly been caught. They’ve both done a good job generating separation even against this high-performance defensive back group; they have done it by winning at the release on the line of scrimmage, hand usage at the stem and quickness throughout the route tree. We didn’t see any of Thielen as a target in the game against the Broncos, but we saw three targets to Diggs, and they all could exist as their own highlight.

Everyone in camp is excited for Laquon Treadwell, too.

Treadwell has done a better job of winning separation than before, though has been struggling to maintain separation that he earns. He needs to more consistently stack defensive backs and play physical throughout the route to keep that separation – otherwise defensive backs typically recover and he loses his openness.

Most of his highlights are a combination of excellent ball placement — usually from Cousins — and his ability to shield the ball throughout the catch process, though some do come from his separation or contested catch ability.

This improvement from Treadwell seems genuine, but I also don’t want to oversell it, and it’s clear that he’s still limited in his total route tree and overall use.

Treadwell still wins a lot on comebacks because his suddenness and stopping ability still surprises experience defensive backs who know who he is as a receiver, like Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. While I wouldn’t expect Treadwell to produce major yardage this year because of his role – nor expect significant injury replacement – I do think he’ll be an asset in the red zone and third down like he hasn’t been in the past, at least based on his performance in camp thus far.

It’s too bad we didn’t see too much of Treadwell as a target – one reception on one target for three yards. He was more open than Diggs was on the red-zone snap that resulted in a touchdown, mostly because of a pick by Thielen. There are other moments he cracked open, but wasn’t targeted and they weren’t so noteworthy as to say he was criminally underused. Treadwell played 41 snaps and only earned one target, which seems familiar for him.

As for the rest of the receivers in camp, Brandon Zylstra may be the most exciting.

He’s had a few great highlights of course – including two during the night scrimmage – but he’s also been good about getting open somewhat consistently even against the first team cornerbacks. He’s done a good job of generating leverage advantages against the cornerbacks he’s been up against, and importantly, keeps those advantages throughout the play.

None of this is to say he’s a lock to be the fourth receiver or even the sixth receiver, but his camp performance alone is noteworthy. If he wasn’t injured shortly before the leadup to the game, he would have been fun to watch.

As for Kendall Wright – who many expected to be the actual fourth receiver – we haven’t seen many positives.

There have been a lot of dropped passes and issues getting open. He hasn’t really gotten in sync with any of the quarterbacks and though he’ll occasionally showcase some inspired route-running to find a way open, he’ll undercut it with shockingly poor receiving technique – including jumping for balls that don’t need to be jumped for and letting passes get inside his frame before catching.

Wright might not make the roster.

The return of Stacy Coley has been good and gives the Vikings more depth than one might have anticipated entering the season. Thus far, he hasn’t had a ton of targets in camp but has made the most of them. He’s been able to get open against a good chunk of the secondary and does very well in one-on-one drills. His play in the preseason game made good on that promise with two catches for 23 yards and a few other routes where he broke open.

Even better than Coley, though inconsistent so far, is Cayleb Jones.

After a rough start to camp, he’s been pretty available to quarterbacks through a combination of good sideline awareness, good contested-catch capability and solid separation throughout. He does have his good days and bad days, however – though the Vikings might take his highlights and upside and hope he can work on the downsides.

We’ve had to miss out on some Tavarres King because of a hamstring injury, but what we’ve seen is better than advertised. I don’t know if it’s enough to earn him a roster spot because he’s likely playing at a ceiling while his competition might be playing at their floors, but he certainly strikes me as better depth than the Vikings expected to have that far down the depth chart.

That said, he could lose out a roster spot to a player not performing as well if only because they have more potential and he remains injured.

Chad Beebe has done a lot better since his initial showing in camp, but he’s still not getting many looks and has remained mired in the third-team rotation. While that still means being rotated in occasionally with other units, it still doesn’t lead to a lot of opportunities. It helps that he’s coming off a good preseason game where he earned a touchdown and 22 yards on three receptions and four targets. He can string together a few plays with good route-running, but there are still concerns about his catch radius and long speed.

Jake Wieneke, like Beebe, has also done a little better as of late but not much.

Wieneke has done a better job since the first few days of camp using his size as an advantage, though it remains an issue. He doesn’t play as if he’s 6-foot-4 and still doesn’t muscle out shorter defensive backs when possible. There are occasions when he can win in the red zone, but for the most part he’s been playing as a smaller receiver when he shouldn’t be – especially when he’s been signaling his routes to defensive backs as much as he is. With one target, he generated about 16 yards on a short post.

Jeff Badet hasn’t been targeted very much and red zone drills don’t really show off what he can do, though he’s done alright in one-on-one and two-on-two drills. While he initially profiles as a pure straight-line runner, he’s actually done a decent job using his quickness to break open on in- and out-breaking routes.

That said, he’s not a sophisticated enough route-runner to consistently trick defensive backs. He made a few plays in the preseason, including a conversion on a slant of a two-point attempt and drew a pass interference flag deep down the sideline. On that route, he showed excellent skills at the release but he also had difficulties adjusting to the ball.

Running Backs

Out of players not expected to start or even make the team, the best performer during camp might actually be quarterback-turned-fullback Johnny Stanton.

It’s probably not exciting to start with a player converted to a “dying” position in the NFL, but it’s worth noting that Stanton has held up extremely well as a lead blocker in a way that other fullbacks the Vikings have liked in the past have not – players like Zach Line, Blake Renaud and Ryan D’Imperio have attempted to make that switch and have not produced for the Vikings.

But Stanton is in a good spot, and he’s taking on blockers really well, often pushing the pile to prep for the running back.

It’s hard to predict any roster spot will be available to Stanton, but he’s more of a dark horse than he’s getting credit for.

That said, people probably care more about the halfbacks than the fullbacks, and the ballcarriers themselves are an exciting story. Dalvin Cook looks like he’s back. There’s nothing else to really parse about his game thus far in training camp – he looks like he’s playing at a high level of speed, balance and agility. He’s had some exciting and fun plays in training camp, though those plays are always secondary to what the wide receivers do in 11s.

Latavius Murray took a lot of snaps as a running back, especially in the night practice that Cook was held out of. Murray looks like he might be a little lighter this year. If so, it would explain why he seems to move with the agility he does. He doesn’t have the stop-start movement capability that Cook does, but he can switch directions easily when moving downhill while maintaining balance, something that makes him hard to tackle at times.

The third running back position is one that is worth more scrutiny – and could end up providing a dynamic element to the offense in the long run. In camp, Mack Brown took a good chunk of the third running back snaps but that may not mean he ends up being the third back — after all, he didn’t end up with those snaps in the preseason. For a straight-ahead runner reliant on his power and build-up speed, he shows a surprising lack of vision. His patience issues seem to exacerbate that.

The star of the game was Roc Thomas, who didn’t do much to shine in camp but clearly showed up on gameday.

His college film showed good balance and an ability to break tackles, but neither of those things is easy to test in a camp environment. In camp, he showed adequate vision and burst, but nothing that looked particularly special. In the game, he benefited from good blocking on his biggest play, but showed second-gear acceleration that makes big plays possible and deserves credit for his tackle-breaking that saved the Vikings from negative plays.

Mike Boone has been capturing a lot of attention from fans, and there’s a lot to be excited about – he’s an explosive outside runner with a lot of pass-catching upside, especially as a route-runner. He’s been doing a lot in passing drills to get open – both as a result of his quickness and his route-running capability, which is more advanced than you typically get out of running backs, especially rookies.

Unfortunately, outside of a “big” run here or there, Boone didn’t get much going. He averaged 1.8 yards a carry and though he had abysmal run-blocking in front of him, had similar yards-after-contact to Brown while only breaking one more tackle through contact.

Tight Ends

Tight ends are always difficult to evaluate in camp, but what we’ve seen hasn’t been phenomenal.

That’s not to say that the tight ends will end up playing poorly once the regular season happens – Kyle Rudolph is coming off his second consecutive 500-yard season – but that there still needs to be work done to get everything in sync. Until Cousins’ touchdown in the red zone to Rudolph late in training camp, the connection between the two seemed spotty, with unusual ball placement and difficulty understanding what Rudolph’s catch radius would be.

Rudolph also has had difficulty getting open against a lot of the linebackers in camp and had even more difficulty winning his blocks – and sustaining them once he lands them. He’s been unusually bad at attacking the ball and has let catches come into his body, but I expect that won’t be an issue during the season. He’s not just coming off a year where he tied for second among tight ends in receiving touchdowns, but also one where he led tight ends in drop rate, per Pro Football Focus.

But for now, it’s a concern.

In the game itself, he saw eight snaps. On only two of those snaps did he get to run routes. On two others, he protected the passer — surprisingly well — and in the other four engaged in some run blocking, not all of which was successful.

On the other hand, David Morgan has done an excellent job doing what has been asked of him, especially as a blocker – something that fans probably could have guessed. He’s won a lot of down blocks in the running game and even has been tasked with some pass protection work on play-action passes, while being successful.

That even includes against Danielle Hunter in camp and Shane Ray in the game.

The nominal third-string tight end, Blake Bell, hasn’t been all that great but at times will show off his strength in the run game. That said, he’s missed a lot as a blocker and hasn’t done a lot to get open as a passer. When he does get open, he can be liable to drop the ball, as he did twice in the game and throughout camp.

Tyler Conklin isn’t much different right now, unfortunately. After flashing a lot early on in camp as a pass-catcher, his difficulties blocking have caught up to him and he’s looked iffy when attempting to create lanes or sustain blocks. He also hasn’t been consistent about attacking the ball all that much and lets defenders get inside and create pass deflections.

There hasn’t been a lot of Josiah Price or Tyler Hoppes to see; they tend to show up for a limited number of reps and late in rotations. Hoppes seems to have a drop problem and Price flashed briefly in a red zone drill with good body control. Price was fine enough in his nine snaps in the game as a run blocker and Hoppes didn’t see the field.

Offensive Line

The offensive line has captured everyone’s attention for all the wrong reasons. With three injuries along the interior, the Vikings are seemingly limping along with backups to protect the interior in Tom Compton, Danny Isidora and Cornelius Edison. The good news is that two of the starters – Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein – are expected to be back by the time the season starts.

For the Vikings, the current question is really just about how to fill the left guard position.

The two clearest options are Compton and Isidora, who both took reps there when Easton was manning the center position, and it’s likely that they’re the frontrunners at the moment. The other options include Aviante Collins, who was recently moved to guard, and players like Cedrick Lang, Colby Gossett and Josh Andrews.

Whichever lineman proves to be the best of that bunch will likely be a downgrade — but not necessarily a significant one — from Nick Easton.

The bigger concern might actually be at left tackle.

Riley Reiff is set to improve; he played through an injury last year and played his best on the left side, in 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, he’s had a lot of trouble in camp. He’s lost more one-on-one drills than just about every other offensive lineman in camp, and though it’s important that he’s lost them against Everson Griffen and not a backup end, it’s certainly concerning.

In 11-on-11 drills, he’s looked about as bad. He certainly intersperses his play with good second-level movement and can push Griffen into the ground on occasion, but most of it seems to be characterized by big mistakes on his part.

The preseason showing we saw from Reiff wasn’t all that substantive – he left early in the game, alongside Cousins. What little we saw was pretty positive, though, so that might be a way for him to build back against his camp performance – especially because it might just be a product of Everson Griffen being unblockable. One rep where he got bull-rushed by Shane Ray was concerning, but it didn’t materialize into significant pressure.

On the right side of the line, Rashod Hill has been having a better time of it in camp than Reiff but is still struggling, primarily against Danielle Hunter. He actually has a worse one-on-one record than Reiff but has at least looked better in 11-on-11 drills. He’s never shut down Hunter in 11s, but he’s held his own and created space for running backs and quarterbacks. He still has problems figuring out the spacing of his sets, and that can lead to a good chunk of problems.

In the preseason game against Denver, Hill had his share of problems against Ray, but more importantly struggled against Shaquil Barrett, the Broncos’ talented depth rusher. While two of the Vikings’ interior three will be ready to start the season, the healthy starting right tackle might be the biggest liability.

Both the starting tackles, as slated right now, are a concern.

The players currently at the head of the guard competition – Compton and Isidora – have improved substantially over the last week. Isidora could only play left guard for a short period of time before being forced into the right guard, but he at least showed skill at the left guard spot.

Between the two, I think Isidora has been playing better in camp. Neither has been winning the majority of their one-on-ones, but Isidora has won more of them, with better recovery and solid overall movement. In 11s, he’s done a slightly better job of maintaining a clean pocket.

Their performances throughout camp have been genuinely very close, which is one reason to prefer the younger player with more upside. It should be said, however, that Compton has demonstrated better awareness – something Isidora had in college but can miss with a little bit in the NFL.

In their preseason showings for Denver, Isidora looked significantly better.

He showcased more awareness against stunts and blitzes, while also demonstrating better protection in the passing game – Compton gave up pressure quickly and could have been partially at fault for a sack on an exotic look, while Isidora remained assignment-sound with a good pressure rate for a guard. Isidora also looked to be more capable in the run game, moving into the second level with more accuracy and driving through base blocks to create larger running lanes.

For those concerned about Rashod Hill, relief may come sooner than expected in the form of second-round pick Brian O’Neill.

He and Collins have the best one-on-one record on the first or second team offensive lines. O’Neill has shown some balance issues but otherwise has looked comfortable figuring out his kick step depths and establishing a solid base. He anchored well against bull-rushes in camp and produced in the run game. He continued that success into the preseason and looked like the better tackle between him and Hill. Pro Football Focus didn’t log any pressures given up by O’Neill.

At center, Cornelius Edison is playing better than one would expect and has improved pretty substantially throughout the camp, showing off some good play in the preseason.

He’s still demonstrated issues reading blitzes – pretty crucial for a center – and doesn’t have the movement skills the Vikings are used to at the position, but as a functional stopgap, seemed to do his job well enough. Despite the fact that in camp, he’d been lined up against nose tackles in one-on-ones, he’s been adequate and in 11s, he rarely seems to make a mistake. A holding call in the game might dampen one’s spirits about his play, but overall he was an asset – not a liability.

The second-team left tackle, Collins, has now been asked to play as a guard — still on the second team — in response to the injuries.

He’s looked good at both positions, and is one of the top-performing offensive linemen in one-on-one scenarios. In 11s, he’s demonstrated growth in the areas that were his biggest weaknesses entering his rookie year: anchor, strength and the ability to finish. With that, he’s still shown excellent movement and second-level play, but needs to sustain those blocks more often.

In the game itself, Collins acquitted himself well, but not as well as Isidora did, with some failures in the running game and at least one pass protection failure. That said, he had a good set of plays with solid run-blocking, second-level movement and pass protection success, and largely looked better than Compton.

Without Gossett in the game, all we have to evaluate him on are his training camp reps. His one-on-ones were poor and he struggled in scrimmage drills. He still didn’t struggle as often as a good chunk of the third-team offensive line in 11s – and he had his moments as a strong run-blocker – but he generally had his problems against the third-team defensive line.

Of the players who played in the game, Storm Norton may have had it the worst.

He has a massive frame and a lot of potential, but he hasn’t actualized it into good play. He struggled more than anyone else on the offensive line in camp, even with undersized or slower defensive ends. He’s been driven back on bull-rushes by Jonathan Wynn, who exited his pro day at 256 pounds, and beaten on speed rushes by Ade Aruna, who has had significant problems getting off the ball. He also has had issues aiming at the second level.

This all showed up in the game, where he seemed happy to give up pressure to Denver’s third-string group.

While Norton has been the worst offensive lineman throughout camp, Cedrick Lang might have been the worst offensive lineman in the game itself. Lang played all of his snaps at right guard and had problems in every phase of the game. He allowed pressure up the middle on vanilla pass-rushes, and also missed stunt/twist assignments. In the running game, he had difficulty creating space on base blocks, missing on reach blocks and couldn’t get to the second level.

Lang might have a stronger camp performance to rely on, however, and demonstrated good fundamentals in 11-on-11 drills. If he can bounce back in the next preseason game, this game could wash out and his overall practice performance – along with his potential – could give him a chance to earn a practice squad spot.

At center on the second line – and originally on the third line – was Josh Andrews, who had one notably good rep as a screen blocker downfield with good movement and a number of iffy blocks in the run game. His pass protection created pocket problems, though Pro Football Focus didn’t log any pressures given up by him, he created liabilities in the pocket.

On the other hand, he had the single-best one-on-one record of any offensive lineman, with 73 percent of his reps coming out as wins for the offense. He’s one of the few linemen that could handle both Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo regularly and he shut down third-string linemen like Jalyn Holmes and David Parry.

J.P. Quinn, the backup to the backup’s center’s backup, only played six snaps in the Denver game, just like left tackle Dieugot Joseph. Neither of them did well in those final six snaps, but they, more importantly, have a resume built off their camps that tell us about their potential. Quinn has unsurprisingly struggled throughout camp in both 11s and one-on-ones. He seems not to have the quickness to deal with faster rushers or the strength to deal with powerful rushers. That makes threats who have even a little bit of both – like Jalyn Holmes – a big problem for him.

As for Joseph, he’s been surprisingly alright for a third-string tackle in camp and may deserve to see second-team reps over Norton while the guard problem continues to create openings.

He has a better one-on-one record than any first- or second-team offensive lineman, though he’s only had those reps against third-team defenders. That said, that kind of performance alone is much better than the other tackles in camp. He will have some issues with quickness from a player like Jonathan Wynn but for the most part can apply his strength to win most reps.

Soon, we’ll look at the defensive side of the ball to see how they did in their preseason debut and put that into the context of their training camp showings thus far.


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