EAGAN — After two full-team practices in shells, the pads will go on Sunday afternoon at Vikings training camp, giving head coach Mike Zimmer a chance to better evaluate the offensive and defensive lines.
Minnesota has been using the opening days of training camp to further develop continuity on the first offensive line unit. With the exception of a minor injury in the spring to Brian O’Neill, hardly any reserves have gotten a whiff of the first team with Pat Elflein getting settled into his new left guard spot, Garrett Bradbury acclimating to center and Josh Kline playing right guard. Riley Reiff and O’Neill continue to hold down their tackle spots.
But Zimmer indicated they may start experimenting with the personnel soon.
“Obviously we’re trying to get them together as much as we can,” Zimmer said Saturday, “so we haven’t been moving guys around. Right now it’s really just learning the steps, learning the footwork, communication. We’ll start moving them around a little bit.”
The defensive line has been more in flux with Linval Joseph rehabbing, Shamar Stephen on the non-football injury list and Jalyn Holmes limping off Saturday with an apparent right leg injury. Hercules Mata’afa, Armon Watts and Curtis Cothran all stand to benefit from the extra first- and second-team reps. With the pads coming out, Zimmer and staff will get a better idea of players’ physicality.
“That part will start showing itself a little bit when we’re not just playing plays in shorts,” Zimmer said Sunday. “I’m interested to see what Hercules can do in this practice today. Watts, I’m curious to see what he can do. I have a pretty good idea on Jaleel Johnson. Cothran, I think I have a decent idea on him. I think he’s improved. So we’ll just see how it gets going.”
Non-padded practices give coaches a chance to watch players’ movement and knowledge of assignments, but carrying pads opens the door to new potential pitfalls for young players. Zimmer listed off what he’ll be watching for Sunday in the trenches.
“Not raising up on both sides of the ball, not raising up coming out of our stance, being able to accelerate into the block, being able to stay together on the double teams,” he rattled off. “Things like that you work on, but it’s a different deal when you get the pads on and you’re going against somebody else with pads on.”
Kline and Watts — the former a free agent acquisition; the latter a rookie sixth-round draft pick — will be two players to watch in the coming days. Kline, the right guard, is in the first year of a three-year, $15.5 million contract. He is historically better as a pass-blocker than run-blocker but could bring valuable experience to the zone running scheme on the right side of the line, where he has a rookie to his left and a second-year player to his right.
“He’s a battler,” Zimmer said. “He’s been in some of the system before, so I think he hasn’t had any mental errors to my knowledge.”
The newcomer Watts only got one full year of playing time at Arkansas but registered seven sacks at defensive tackle. Despite his limited experience, Zimmer likes where Watts is at technically.
“He’s done a pretty good job with his technique,” said Zimmer. “We play our 3-technique and nose tackle different techniques, so when they’re moving one spot to the other they have to be able to adjust to whatever position that they’re playing, but I like him.”
Sunday’s practice could be hampered, however, with rain in the forecast. The team’s morning walkthrough was already interrupted by rain and moved to the indoor facility.