Vikings

Training Camp Notebook: Days 1-4

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The first several days of training camp have given us some beginning insight in how the rookies have performed, though we don’t have much insight into the veterans given that we’ve only had two days of their play to work with, compared to four days of the rookies.

I’ve compiled my observations of the first three days of camp below.

It’s important to take every observation with a grain of salt, but also be ready to challenge one’s expectations. Matt Kalil struggled in the 2013 offseason after a Pro Bowl quality year as a rookie. Brandon Fusco did the same in 2014. Those camp struggles turned into preseason struggles, which emerged as season-long and career-altering struggles.

Players who we’ve established as good can have a difficult time early in an offseason and come out looking like concerns. On the flip side, we know that players with long odds who end up looking good in camp can turn out to be excellent finds.

Stefon Diggs never failed to impress in camp, even as a fifth-round rookie. Trae Waynes, after years of struggling in camp and during the regular season, began to look quite good last year in training camp. The Vikings were able to take advantage of that bump in play and ride his improvement into the postseason.

That doesn’t mean camp is a perfect predictor.

We’ve seen our fair share of standouts in camp fizzle as the season starts. Players like Michael Floyd, Stephen Burton, Derek Cox and Jayron Kearse all had pretty stellar camps but didn’t turn them into regular-season success.

But, for the most part, camp gives us a good insight into the players who will make an impact, even if those insights run counter to our intuition or expectation.

Quarterback

It has been easy to ignore the quarterbacks after watching skill players and offensive linemen for most of the practice, but that largely has been a good thing. Kirk Cousins looks sharp and hasn’t made very many missteps, though on the fourth day of practice had some ups and downs — an overthrow to Diggs, who broke open on a fantastic double-move may cause some concerns, but he followed that up with good play, including a tight-window throw to Diggs against Waynes on the other side of the field.

Cousins followed that up with a couple of touchdowns in red zone drills and no significant mistakes.

He’s throwing with good timing and accuracy, and has been able to change the throwing angles to best suit the needs of his receivers. There have been a couple of “wow” throws, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from most starting quarterbacks. The big difference here is really in the number of mistakes he’s not making.

There is an argument for attempting to make as many mistakes as possible in camp – Aaron Rodgers famously throws pick after pick in camp – but I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Cousins is playing well thus far.

On the fourth day, I was able to pay more attention to the backups and Kyle Sloter could have had some of the day back — a few bad throws that led to a dropped interception by Devante Downs in one instance and a caught interception by Marcus Sherels in the other instance. Those lowlighted his day, which was the worst of the four I’ve seen thus far.

Trevor Siemian has been having a fairly poor camp, but also had highlights on the fourth day to go with some questionable throws. His highlights included a tight window throw that showed a little more arm strength than we’re used to from him, and it was unfortunate that Cayleb Jones was a step behind on reeling it in.

Peter Pujals doesn’t look like he has the capability to make the roster at the moment. He’s not getting many reps, as you’d expect from a fourth quarterback, and he’s not making the most of them.

Wide Receiver

Diggs and Adam Thielen look as good as you’d expect, and they’ve even carried on their reputation for winning contested catches, with some highlights that should remind Vikings fans of the best parts of last season. They both look unnaturally quick and have done a great job making Cousins look good.

Laquon Treadwell is running with the ones, but we haven’t seen many targets to him yet. In time, we likely will see enough to get a good understanding of what he looks like.

Generally speaking, it seems like his speed issues will remain an issue, and there have been instances where he’s been able to beat a cornerback on an initial move only to allow them to catch up by the time it mattered.

I haven’t caught much of Kendall Wright or Tavarres King, unfortunately, and some of that has to do with how few reps players outside of the first team get reps. We’ll see more; for now, I’ve been a bit concerned about King’s lack of suddenness — in a lot of ways, he’s a reverse Treadwell. Aside from that stop-start stuff, which is pretty critical on comebacks and releasing off the line of scrimmage, his fluidity has been an asset.

It would be a bit more exciting to talk about Jones if he wasn’t suspended to start the season; unfortunately, his looming suspension casts a small cloud over his camp performance. He struggled on the first day but otherwise has looked natural as a pass-catcher. Stacy Coley is also worth keeping an eye on, but he’s only been a limited participant because of his injury.

I’ve been paying much more attention to the bottom-of-the-roster receivers like Brandon Zylstra, Jake Wieneke, Korey Robertson, Jeff Badet and Chad Beebe.

Zylstra has been the most impressive to me, demonstrating a large catch radius, an excellent sense for the ball and surprisingly sharp cuts in route. He seems to get open often and earn targets from the various quarterbacks he’s been catching passes from. For now, I’d call him the best-performing rookie receiver in camp – though of course, he’s a rookie with experience playing professional football.

The next-best performer might be Wieneke. Both Wieneke and Zylstra can feature as big-body receivers, though Wieneke has a larger frame to work with. Zylstra seems to play bigger, though also looks like a player with more quickness. Nevertheless, Wieneke has seen his fair share of targets and generally seems to be demonstrating good catch technique though he’s had his own share of drops. He also had an issue squaring up for the ball and allowed a pass deflection as a result.

It’s been an inconsistent camp for Beebe, who has had some difficult generating separation and has had a number of drops early in camp. Badet clearly needs more work as a route-runner and hasn’t been securing the ball all that well, but is doing better than Beebe while also showcasing his unreal speed at times. He had a good highlight saving a badly thrown pass on the fourth day

I have not seen much of Robertson, though what I’ve seen isn’t great. Like Beebe, he seems to have trouble creating space in routes and had a few drops

Running Back

There’s not much to dissect at the running back position throughout camp.

Generally speaking, there’s not much to say about a position that’s already difficult to evaluate where we don’t have the benefit of pads, contact or slow-motion to evaluate vision. With all that said, the two players that looked the most electric were Dalvin Cook – who looks as incredibly quick, fluid and explosive as before – and Michael Boone.

Boone looks like a good pass-catcher and has demonstrated good agility as a route-runner. What’s best about him in terms of his pass-catching ability is his talent for sinking his hips at the stem and exploding out of his route, leaving defenders behind and creating a gap of separation.

The fourth day saw a lot of reps for Latavius Murray, who looked more agile than I remember seeing earlier — something I confirmed with a few others in attendance. After last year, I should be used to the height, but I’m really not — he looks like a tight end, not a running back. That makes his jump cuts all the more surprising when they do occur.

Mack Brown has looked a step slow, but otherwise, there hasn’t been much to say about any of the other running backs on the roster, especially the fullbacks – who haven’t had much to do.

Roc Thomas does a pretty good job overall as well, though he doesn’t seem quite as exciting as Boone. His fluidity in cuts is notable and he’s been demonstrating the balance that made him such an exciting undrafted free agent in the first place.

Tight Ends

Again, without much to see from the veterans except two days of practice, it’s difficult to speak on how Kyle Rudolph or David Morgan looked, though it was easy to catch a glimpse of Morgan snatching a difficult pass in tight coverage, then following it up with some good blocking.

Similarly, I’ve seen very little from Blake Bell.

As for the rookies, Tyler Conklin stands out. We’ve seen a lot from late-round rookie tight ends in camp; MyCole Pruitt and Bucky Hodges both made highlight plays in camp, and like Conklin, had difficulty as blockers. With that context, it’s probably fair to say it may not mean much that Conklin looks like an excellent pass-catcher that’s done a good job finding ways to get open in both man and zone coverage, including one-on-one drills.

But the fact that it’s there is good by itself, even if we know now that it’s not enough.

Conklin struggled in the short intervals I’ve seen of him in blocking drills, so there’s definitely a lot to work on. But for now, Conklin has looked like a good receiving tight end. I would argue that there are some distinctions between him and Pruitt or Hodges in that there are fewer highlight plays but (seemingly) more consistent chunk plays over these three days.

Tyler Hoppes, on the other hand, has had some difficulty. There have been a lot of drops, and he’s let linebackers get into his real estate – which leads to very little separation and a lot of pass deflections.

Offensive Line

The offensive line will once again be the most scrutinized position group when the season starts, though this year it will be for a variety of reasons tragic and otherwise. With that in mind, it might be alright to take some of the early struggles with some caution.

Riley Reiff has looked largely good in practices and might be returning to his earlier form, like when he played left tackle with the Lions. From a technical perspective, he seems to be performing well in drills, keeping his back flat and hips low. During 11-on-11 drills, he did struggle against Everson Griffen, but otherwise has done well. Stephen Weatherly got the jump on him early in the fourth day of drills, but Reiff recovered to ride him out of the arc.

Next to him during the season will be Nick Easton, who struggled in the past couple of days. Every other drill looked quite good, but in between there were drills were he worked too quickly and let both feet get off the ground or had trouble staying low. He’s been hitting high during eleven-on-eleven drills, and gets pushed back quite a bit. Linval Joseph, Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo have all gotten the better of him, it seems. His base blocks don’t seem to be working, but his ability to get up to the second level seems excellent thus far.

Unfortunately, with Pat Elflein injured, Easton has to move to center, which may not be his best role.

Mike Remmers is seemingly cemented at right guard, and might be showing signs of improvement. He still jumps too high at the snap and takes a little bit too long to get his hands in position, but he shows fantastic recovery. In every instance, he seems to show excellent finish and knows what the rep should end like, even if it starts out a little iffy.

Next to him, Rashod Hill has struggled with an illness that might be affecting his play. He’s allowed players to disengage on running plays and get into the backfield, and consistently plays too high. A few players have been able to drive him back by getting underneath his pads and he can’t seem to anchor. He should play better once he’s over his illness; otherwise the Vikings might be better off playing Brian O’Neill immediately.

As for O’Neill, he’s been having a very good camp.

It’s not quite so good that I’d feel fully comfortable starting him at right tackle at the moment, but certainly ahead of where I expected. He’s been doing well in drills and has seemingly mastered the footwork required of him. He’s shown instances of strength where he can overpower strong ends like Tashawn Bower as well as the movement skills that got him drafted in the first place. That said, he had some very rough reps in elevens, lunging at speed rushers (in the most prominent case, to Bower again), and lost his mark at the second level.

The two guards that have been filling in as a result Elflein’s recovery schedule, Tom Compton and Danny Isidora, have predictably struggled. Compton worries me more; like Elflein, he’s prone to lifting both feet off the ground during the rep and losing any anchor he could have had. He pops his pads up early, and doesn’t seem to play with much power. He’s allowed Johnson to shine, and even got rocked by an excellent bull-jerk move that I didn’t know Anthony Harris had.

Isidora has played better, but not necessarily very well. He’s had difficulty staying low in drills and has been inconsistent as a mover. While he can show great agility and speed in screens and pulls, he also has a lot of trouble making contact at the second level, often relying on a last-second lunge that doesn’t accomplish much. That said, he shows better strength and anchor than Compton has.

I haven’t seen much of Aviante Collins other than a pressure he allowed to Stephen Weatherly, but he generally seems to be doing a good job of staying low and hasn’t been too egregious in his errors. Same with Colby Gossett, who I haven’t seen much of. He hasn’t been sinking quite as low as he should, but he nevertheless displays power and movement capability.

Josh Andrews has been all over the place. One of his snaps flew well over Trevor Siemian’s head and would have caused a safety or defensive touchdown. For the most part, his drills have been good in terms of pad level and movement, but he still has a lot of trouble with footwork and timing. He’s inconsistent, though, and can still pop up too high off the snap. One of other backup centers, Cornelius Edison, has looked better. He’s had difficulty getting to the second level off of double-teams but otherwise has kept his hips low and moves well. That said, backup nose tackle David Parry did get the better of him more than once.

I’m not sure there’s a lot of good performances from the other four offensive linemen. Dieugot Joseph, Cedrick Lang, J.P Quinn and Storm Norton all struggled, with Quinn showing a small amount of promise and Norton making defensive ends look good.

Defensive Line

The Vikings defensive line threatens to be the best in the NFL this year, though the concerns about depth are real. That said, the backup defensive linemen all seem to be doing well enough that the depth could be better than we imagined.

Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph thus far seem to be the most explosive linemen in camp thus far, though we should be able to see these things more clearly once pads go on. Both Griffen and Joseph have demonstrated great power for their position and have driven through offensive linemen, and Griffen has shown his trademark speed.

I haven’t seen much of Danielle Hunter, but what I have seen seems good — he had an excellent spin move that beat Reiff and would have gotten a sack or pass deflection even though the pass was a designed screen. He’s done well in elevens to get past Rashod Hill, though whether that’s meaningful remains to be seen given Hill’s illness. Sheldon Richardson looks explosive, though he hasn’t quite caught my attention yet. The one-on-ones in padded practice should give us a lot more insight.

The young rotational defensive ends have all looked brilliant. Stephen Weatherly looks to be having his best camp so far and Tashawn Bower is building off of the success of his previous camp. In eleven-on-eleven drills, they do a great job getting off the snap quickly and immediately causing problems for tackles. Ifeadi Odenigbo is playing all over the line, and has generated pressure at defensive tackle and defensive end. When they run at Odenigbo, he predictably struggles. Between the three of them, it looks like Bower has been the most consistent and he probably has a better shot at the fourth defensive end spot that’s occasionally active on gameday.

Brian Robison seems to be making the most of his reps and showed up with a good tackle-for-loss and some pressure, though he hasn’t earned a sack in elevens from what I’ve seen. That seems to mirror a lot of his career, so that’s not too surprising.

At defensive tackle, I’ve seen Johnson do a lot more this year, though it seems like they’re playing him at the nose position for now — expect that to change as camp evolves. In that role, he seems to be playing more consistently and has caused backfield problems for the offense. On the other hand, he’s been washed out in doubles a few times and that has created some excellent holes for the offense.

David Parry has done a little bit of work getting into the backfield, but his evaluable snap count remains small. Next to him, we’ve seen snaps from Jalyn Holmes. When Holmes rushes off the edge, he seems to do alright, but he’s struggled thus far as a defensive tackle. The offensive line has run through him in the same way they’ve run through Odenigbo.

I haven’t been able to seem much of Curtis Cothran. Ade Aruna hasn’t done much in his snaps, and Jonathan Wynn looks extremely undersized but quick. He’s listed at 256 pounds so it’s not surprising, but he’s been overmatched and lining him up against the largest tackle in camp, Storm Norton, has been weird. That said, if he can bulk up and retain his speed, he’ll be an interesting long-term prospect. As it stands, he doesn’t offer much.

Cornerbacks

The cornerbacks in camp have been getting a lot of coverage, especially two of the rookies. But it’s worth sharing initial impressions of the veterans just to get a sense of where they are and what to expect.

Unfortunately, it’s been easier to gloss over the cornerbacks when paying attention to the receivers. Rhodes looks like he’s having a good camp, though seemingly can’t get a hold of covering Stefon Diggs yet. He’s doing relatively well with Adam Thielen and other receivers, but has some issues with Diggs. Trae Waynes is having a pretty good camp thus far, but has made his share of early diagnosis mistakes. Unlike in other years, he’s been able to unlock his recovery speed to get back into position and so far that hasn’t been a huge issue in camp.

Terence Newman looked slower last year and that was a big problem, but he hasn’t seemingly showed much sign of it this year. Then again, he’s not taking very many reps this year, so he’s been able to reserve it for the few snaps he’s in on. Thus far, he’s done a very good job keeping up with receivers, but I haven’t seen him in downfield duty very much, largely covering them underneath.

The other veteran competitor for the nickel spot, Mackensie Alexander, hasn’t made many mistakes from what I’ve seen. That’s a good sign, and I think his recognition might have improved the most over the past year.

With all that in mind, I’ve paid much more attention to the second-team cornerbacks than I have the five veterans or any of the third-team squad — those observations are much more cursory. Holton Hill, Horace Richardson and Mike Hughes are much more interesting stories and each one has thus far brought a lot to the table.

Mike Hughes shows incredible fluidity and recognition ability, and Alexander might be right when he said “[Hughes is] where I wasn’t when I got here.” His click-and-close in zone coverage is phenomenal and I think he’d be ready to start for a lot of teams. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took the starting nickel job from Alexander even if Alexander has improved quite a bit. Hughes has been very impressive in camp.

Getting quite possibly even more hype is undrafted free agent Holton Hill, who I think has played well, though not nearly as well as Hughes. Hill got targeted a little more when both were on the field and gave up a few of those targets as completions. That said, he’s used his length well as a cornerback and gotten his hands into passing lanes, all while moving adroitly for someone of his size.

Horace Richardson might be on the outside looking in unless the Vikings feel really happy about someone else playing punt returner in Sherels’ stead or Newman does decide to retire. He’s been playing well when given second-team rotational duties, closing particularly well in transition in man coverage.

Marcus Sherels has been playing well as a cornerback for what it’s worth, with uncanny reaction and recognition that pairs well with his fluidity. His interception on the fourth day of practice caps what has overall been very good play from him.

I unfortunately have not been able to see much of Craig James or Trevon Mathis.

Linebackers

Overall, the linebackers have been impressing. This year, they’ve done a better job getting to their landmarks in the run game and running with tight ends and running backs in coverage, though I haven’t seen an extraordinary amount of them in one-on-ones in coverage.

In particular, Eric Kendricks has stood out as a player who has done a great job getting downhill quickly and shedding blocks. This will be much more meaningful when the pads come on and his strength is truly tested, but for now, he seems to be doing a great job recognizing his run keys and getting to the point of attack. I haven’t noticed much of him in coverage, and in drills, he’s been fluid and aggressive.

Anthony Barr has been moved around quite a bit and has had his hand on the dirt with four other defensive linemen all rushing the passer. From that perspective he seems to be doing well and has generated pressure, earning one touch sack in drills. In drills he’s been unnaturally agile, which is to be expected given his performance over the years. Off the ball in eleven-on-eleven drills, he hasn’t caught my eye yet, so that’s worth monitoring.

In drills and eleven-on-eleven play, Ben Gedeon has proven to be someone who does a very good job getting downhill and shedding blocks to create tackles, but he has a lot of issues moving side-to-side. His agility is hurt by the fact that he has to turn nearly his whole body when changing direction, slowing him down when he has to flip in transition. He did make a few plays in coverage though, so at least he can do well in short underneath assignments.

The most impressive backup linebacker has been Eric Wilson by a good margin. He’s potentially even more fluid a mover than Kendricks or Barr and has been the most agile of the backup linebackers. In eleven-on-eleven drills, he’s earned a few tackles and TFLs, doing a good job shedding fullbacks and offensive linemen. All that wouldn’t be worth much if he didn’t show excellent recognition ability and thus far, he has.

After that, I’d have to say Kentrell Brothers has looked pretty good. He’s moved better in drills than I expected and can transition between backwards and forwards movement pretty quickly. He’s rolled up to the line of scrimmage quickly and doesn’t seem to take many false steps in identifying the play.

Reshard Cliett has been up-and-down with some excellent plays and great agility followed by late reactions and some iffy coverage. He might have had the largest variance of play throughout the four days, with some great highlights and big concerns. Antwione Williams is a bit of the opposite, where he’s looked stiff and lumbers in drills, but in elevens has shown up with some impact plays and quick recognition. That said, he’s still had his share of mistakes and has been swallowed up by blocks despite his size.

Devante Downs, fight night moment aside, has looked pretty good and can move well. What seems to be holding him back in elevens and during drills is some minor hesitation that makes him a step late to his spot. He does well disengaging from blocks, but he needs to react faster.

I haven’t caught much of Garrett Dooley or Mike Needham, but I did see Brett Taylor, who didn’t move very well and was largely a liability.

Safeties

There’s never much to see of safeties in camp, and they’re the most difficult to evaluate. Tray Matthews probably had the best highlight pass deflection in camp thus far and it was built off of quick speed and quicker reaction to the developing play — a product, in part of Sloter’s slow release. Matthews is playing a bit better than I expected and might be able to threaten Jayron Kearse’ spot on the roster if he can prove that he’s valuable on special teams.

Harrison Smith has already created his share of impact plays as a box safety and hasn’t been targeted much in coverage. Andrew Sendejo hasn’t quite made the same impact but certainly wants to hit. He’s had to hold back without pads but he’s made his presence known.

Anthony Harris strikes me as the most interesting safety thus far and he’s performed very well in camp in the first two days that vets have appeared. Bulking up hasn’t seemed to rob him of too much speed and he’s been processing faster than before, without taking some of the false steps that hurt him in previous years. I haven’t seen much of Kearse, so I can’t make a complete judgment on the safeties in camp.

Jack Tocho, incidentally, has been playing safety even though there was a brief designation change in the offseason to make him a cornerback. On the rosters they’ve been handing out here and on the field, he’s only been playing safety. I haven’t seen many problems come of it.


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