One week removed from their first full team practice — and one week away from their first preseason game — the Minnesota Vikings have entered the dog days of camp where the urge to compete against opponents besides those in purple helmets is growing.
The opening week began with mourning over Tony Sparano’s sudden passing but quickly pivoted back to football. The week featured some shifting in the assistant coaching staff, a training camp scuffle, an extension to a key player and plenty of fan adoration for new quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Here’s a look further in depth at five key storylines from the first week in Eagan.
1. The offensive line’s depth is going to be tested.
The Vikings have had two injury-prone groups thus far in training camp: backup receivers and starting linemen. The former can be dealt with. The latter? Uh-oh.
Rashod Hill missed time with an illness and has since returned, but Pat Elflein remains out while rehabbing from ankle and shoulder surgeries, Mike Remmers left practice on Tuesday with an ankle injury, and Nick Easton missed Saturday’s walkthrough for an undisclosed reason.
Backups Brian O’Neill, Tom Compton, Danny Isidora and Cornelius Edison have all been thrust into action with the first team at various points throughout camp. On one hand, the Vikings are getting a better look at their second-stringers against a top-tier defensive line. On the other hand, they’ve yet to build continuity between their new quarterback and their preferred five linemen.
“When you’re only dressing seven on game day, you have to be prepared for anything,” said head coach Mike Zimmer.
2. Laquon Treadwell is starting to show signs of life.
It hasn’t all been perfect for the former first-round pick. His first couple days of camp were non-descript, and on Friday he failed to reel in several passes that hit his hands. But he’s made some dazzling touchdown catches during red zone drills and has begun to generate more targets from Cousins, which may indicate better separation.
Treadwell has benefited from having next to no established receivers behind him on the depth chart, especially since Kendall Wright resides in the slot. After struggling in his rookie-year training camp and getting hurt in the first week of camp last year, Treadwell may be turning a corner.
Cousins gets Griffen to jump for free play and Treadwell hauls in deep pass with Waynes in coverage pic.twitter.com/nu0Ctf8S01
— Josh Mensch (@JoshMenschNFL) August 3, 2018
“I’m really proud of that guy,” said offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. “He has worked his butt off to really improve. I think from what I’ve heard he has matured. You see a young man having some success and not letting that success go to his head.”
3. Both young nickel corners have been solid.
Having cautioned earlier in the week that it can be dangerous to get too caught up in training camp compliments for young cornerbacks, it’s worth noting that Mike Hughes has performed well (albeit against second and third teamers). Meanwhile, Mackensie Alexander has largely held his own in first-team reps.
The Vikings like to rotate their corners as it is, having given both Alexander and Newman over 300 snaps each last year, but a big preseason from Hughes could earn him a share of those nickel reps. “There’s not a lot of separation when you’re going against him,” said receiver Adam Thielen, “which is really impressive when you’re a guy that has just entered the league and has no experience in the NFL.”
While he still has a lot to prove in game action, Alexander has looked better in camp and is on record as saying he’s embraced his role of an inside corner. “Immensely [improved],” said Zimmer. “He’s really taken a lot of nice steps. He was a little bit of a bite-back early in his career here. He wanted to do things his way, and he’s lucky he’s got an even more hard-headed coach than he is.”
4. Things seem unsettled with Anthony Barr.
According to Zimmer, the Vikings would like to get Barr signed to a contract extension. If it happens, the Vikings will have checked all the boxes on a wildly successful offseason where they retained four cornerstone players.
The buildup, however, to this potential deal has been strange.
First there was Barr’s one-day absence from OTAs to secure an injury insurance policy. Then Barr was held out of practice Thursday and deferred comments to “the head man.” The following day, Zimmer rescheduled a press conference to adamantly declare that Barr was not going to be traded, though no such report could be discovered. He also added that Barr was dealing with a “tweak.”
It’s fair to raise an eyebrow at some of these behaviors, but if Barr signs an extension none of it will matter. “Anthony is a guy that has a unique skill set,” said Zimmer, “and the fact that he’s excellent in coverage, he’s an excellent rusher, he’s excellent against the run. He’s a guy that other teams account for all the time.”
5. Mike Boone has the lead for the third running back job.
There was a great deal of anticipation for the Vikings third running back competition, but early indications are that Cincinnati product Mike Boone is the leader.
Boone has gotten second-team reps without much of a rotation. It probably helps he was one of the few backs to remain healthy throughout the spring while Dalvin Cook, Roc Thomas and Mack Brown nursed injuries.
Whoever the Vikings choose to be their RB3 may be in line for a promotion up the depth chart next year once Latavius Murray’s contract expires. “For a young guy, he runs really, really good routes out of the back field,” said DeFilippo of Boone. “He’s a mature guy. He takes pride in his job. He’s very mature for a rookie.”