Throughout training camp, Mike Zimmer voiced his concern about the Vikings’ depth at certain positions, particularly wide receiver and corner.
Those anxieties have yet to be alleviated as the team moves into the back half of its preseason schedule.
“Kind of like the young receivers, [the young corners are] kind of up and down,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “They have a good play or a bad play. … They need to be more consistent.”
But it’s not all bleak at the bottom of Minnesota’s roster. A number of key reserves have stepped up in the first two preseason games and made a strong case to not only make the roster but contribute consistently. Let’s take a look at three of them.
RB MIKE BOONE
It might have been jarring for Mike Boone to see the Vikings draft a running back in the third round of April’s draft. With Latavius Murray gone in free agency and Roc Thomas facing legal issues (he’s since been released), the path for Boone to be the backup running back was clear.
Then came along Alexander Mattison, the Boise State running back with the intelligence and versatile skillset to make him a popular weapon in the Vikings’ offense. The Vikings also retained Ameer Abdullah in free agency as another ball-carrying option, and Boone was relegated to the fourth-string back on Minnesota’s first unofficial depth chart.
But two noteworthy preseason performances have Boone back on the grid, aided by injuries to Abdullah and De’Angelo Henderson that allowed the second-year back to touch the ball 22 times against the Seahawks last Sunday. In two preseason games he has 25 carries for 136 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and a touchdown, as well as one catch for 45 yards.
Boone was already a talented runner in last year’s camp, which earned him a place on Minnesota’s 53-man roster in 2018, but he made a commitment to the smaller nuances this offseason to make himself more valuable.
“Just show some versatility,” Boone said, “show you can line up wide and catch the ball, or even block for the receivers out wide, and adding another dynamic to what I try to do.”
Boone got just 11 carries for 47 yards in his rookie season, limited in game action because of his struggles in pass protection. Kennedy Polamalu has helped Boone clean up that part of his game — a differentiating factor come roster-cut day — while Boone has also taken a greater interest on special teams to catch the eye of his head coach.
“I was impressed by what he did in special teams probably more so than running back,” Zimmer said Tuesday.
In six career preseason games, Boone has converted three plays over 40 or more yards, and he’s made a play of 10-plus yards in five out of the six. Zimmer sees Boone as a potential change-of-pace back in the new one-cut-and-go running scheme. The former UDFA may have retaken the lead in the RB3 race.
DL IFEADI ODENIGBO
Ifeadi Odenigbo didn’t necessarily love playing inside when he first joined the Vikings. But just as Minnesota attempted to do with fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes a year ago, they looked to experiment with Odenigbo at the 3-technique spot in hopes of unlocking an athletic, strong interior pass rusher.
Odenigbo, however, thrived on the edge when asked to play there in Week 2 of the 2018 preseason, setting the tone for his next year of development. While the Vikings are still curious of his potential on the inside — maybe in situational roles — his more permanent home as it defensive end where his agility can overwhelm bigger tackles. He was extremely disruptive against Seattle, credited with one sack, two run stops and three pressures in Sunday’s game, per Pro Football Focus.
“I think he’s really improved a lot as far as understanding the concepts that he has to do it at defensive end,” Zimmer said. “He’s a power player, really good physicality. He’s a guy that worked really, really hard last year when he was on the practice squad, and this spring and I think it’s starting to show.”
Because of Tashawn Bower’s Achilles tendon injury, Odenigbo spot on the roster has rarely been in question. Now he’s pushing to get more gameday reps.
Odenigbo could take a bite out of Stephen Weatherly’s snaps as the third defensive end, a role that typically got between 15-25 snaps a season ago. He has the seventh-highest Vikings defensive grade through a pair of preseason games, per PFF, while playing the third-most snaps on that side of the ball.
DB JAYRON KEARSE
Many analysts were dubious about Jayron Kearse’s future heading into the 2018 season. The former seventh-round pick had struggled in his limited action in Years 1 and 2 of his career, but Year 3 acted as a turning point as it has for so many other defensive backs under Zimmer.
The 6-foot-4 Kearse found a new identity as the Vikings’ “big nickel” in their defensive-back-heavy sub-package. Kearse played 10 or more snaps in nine games a season ago, earning him a more defined role entering the final year of his rookie deal.
In two preseason games Kearse has three run stops while allowing just one reception for minus-four yards. He made three tackles for loss in just 16 total defensive snaps against the Seahawks — on two of them he quickly diagnosed the run play, shot through a gap and recorded solo tackles.
“I think everything about my game is improving,” Kearse said. “I’m working on it. When I’m in the box you have to read things quicker because things happen faster with the lines and the tight ends, so I’ve got to see everything with a clear view and attack it, not be second guessing myself.”
Kearse has been the constant in Minnesota’s second-team safety pairing, most often partnering with Derron Smith. While the Vikings don’t typically rotate in a third safety during games, but Kearse’s newfound work in the slot gives him value at the line of scrimmage where he can use his length to snuff out run plays or interfere with passing lanes.
He’s also a likely gunner with the first team on punt coverage.
“I started finding my identity within myself,” Kearse said, “gained some confidence through the season last year. Just trying to carry it over now into this season.”