EAGAN — The official training camp portion of the Vikings preseason comes to a close Friday after over three weeks of practices. It’s been a relatively quiet camp — for the Vikings at least. No severe injuries, no training camp fights, no major off-field news, save for Holton Hill’s second suspension three weeks ago.
The special teams carousel added some intrigue last weekend, however, as the acquisition of Ravens kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik added another chapter to the Vikings’ litany of special teams experiments.
As the Vikings enter preseason game no. 2 and phase out of training camp, here’s what we’ve learned about the team so far, in superlative form.
Deepest Position Group…
Even though head coach Mike Zimmer said this week that the Vikings might have the deepest linebacker group of any season he’s been here, we’re going with tight ends because there literally haven’t been any disappointments out of the five active pass catchers.
Coaches say that Kyle Rudolph is moving better this year, which passes the eye test based on what reporters have seen in practice. Irv Smith Jr., the second-round pick, was quickly integrated into the offense and made three catches in his preseason debut. Though Gary Kubiak said last week that Smith is still “swimming” as he learns the new offense, it’s clear he’ll be a tool for Cousins in the passing game, and Zimmer said he was pleasantly surprised with Smith’s blocking in the preseason opener.
Further down the depth chart, Tyler Conklin has made the injury to David Morgan sting less with a strong camp. He also caught two balls for 56 yards against the Saints last Friday. Fourth and fifth tight ends Cole Hikutini and Brandon Dillon have stood out, as well, opening the door for four tight ends to make the roster and the fifth to land on the practice squad.
The only knock: Minnesota will still miss Morgan as a run-blocker if he can’t start the season healthy.
Weakest Position Group…
The Vikings have had no trouble sustaining depth at the cornerback position during the Zimmer Era, but for the first time they could be in a serious pickle if one of their starters gets hurt.
Behind Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, the fourth cornerback is… who exactly? Mike Hughes remains on the PUP list, and while he’s rehabbing at full speed and appears close to a return, the Vikings may keep him on a pitch count upon his return. Hill has looked great since he escaped Zimmer’s doghouse and starting getting live reps following his suspension — but the Vikings won’t have him until Week 9 at the earliest.
Beyond Hughes and Hill, nobody has taken control of the depth spots at corner. Craig James and Duke Thomas struggled when lined up with the 2s, and Kris Boyd — an early camp darling — got hurt before the Saints game. Journeyman Bene Benwikere was brought in as somewhat of an insurance policy, but unless a young corner steps up, Benwikere could be CB4 by default, which is a concerning thought.
Honorable Mention: Wide receivers.
Best Camp Quote…
Kirk Cousins on Garrett Bradbury’s sweating.
Posted without further comment:
“I’m going to take it back to how much he sweats again. He promises that it’s not a problem in game, and it remains to be seen, because his shorts today were soaked. He says it’s not a problem on game day, so the moment of truth is Friday night. But apparently when they keep those domes air conditioned and you get a break on the bench and you sit with those cooling fans, I’m hoping that really helps. That’s a big thing I’m going to take away from Friday night, is how tough was it to grip the ball after he snaps it to me. If it is tough, we might be in pistol and shotgun all year, which Coach [Gary] Kubiak and Kevin [Stefanski] wouldn’t like very much.
“I mean, I look at his shins, and it’s just pouring. It’s like my window after a rain storm, and it’s just genetic I guess. I don’t know, but he claims it’s not a problem in games, and last time I checked, that’s all we get measured on. So we’ll go off that.”
Most Unfortunate Injury…
Zimmer says he’s knocking on wood that the Vikings haven’t suffered any long-term injuries yet in training camp. Offensive linemen Aviante Collins (knee) and Brian O’Neill (elbow) have both gone down but are expected to return. Certainly the Vikings would like to have O’Neill, their starting right tackle, in the mix, but his backup Rashod Hill has proven capable in the past.
Instead we’ll go with Joseph, the team’s starting nose tackle, who has yet to participate in team drills after an offseason of rehab following upper-body surgery. This is serious on a number of fronts. First, Joseph took a statistical step back in 2018, and a truncated offseason won’t help. Second, with his defensive tackle partner Shamar Stephen also hurt until this week, the Vikings have barely gotten a look at their starting defensive line. And third, the new interior of the Vikings offensive line — including the rookie Bradbury — has yet to be tested against Joseph and his uncanny strength.
On the bright side, Minnesota has gotten an extended look at Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts to see who they prefer in their rotation.
Mr. Mankato Favorite…
Coming off an underwhelming spring, Johnson’s extended reps in the preseason opener show how far he’s come. The Colorado State product got 33 snaps against the Saints, more than any other rookie receiver, while making an impressive grab for a touchdown on Sean Mannion’s fade to the end zone.
Johnson responded the best of any young receiver after Zimmer called out the rookies for their lack of attention to detail. As he has risen up the depth chart, Jordan Taylor has plummeted, while Brandon Zylstra seems to have plateaued. If he keeps up the splash plays in the next three preseason games he may take the trophy.
Honorable Mentions: Alexander Mattison, Kaare Vedvik, Hercules Mata’afa
Most Underwhelming Performance…
It’s not as if fourth-round guard Dru Samia has struggled noticeably during practice. But his relegation to third-team work for most of camp is a message that the Vikings still see him as a work in progress. Because of injuries at tackle, Dakota Dozier’s move to the outside opened the door for Samia to climb up a notch to the second team, where he should get a chance to prove himself against Seattle on Sunday. Those will be crucial snaps.
Fans were hopeful Samia could push for a starting job in 2019, but instead he seems more on the fringe of making the final roster. Second-team interior linemen like Brett Jones and Danny Isidora have held their own in camp, while Dozier’s flexibility makes him another appealing option to keep.
While Zimmer has voiced his optimism that Samia has a bright future, it’s not clear whose spot Samia will take when roster decisions need to be made, especially if Collins is expected to return.
Most Surprising Twist…
The Vikings again made special teams waves when they traded a fifth-round pick for Ravens kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik, a Norwegian-born athlete with a massive leg.
Minnesota hasn’t ruled out any possibility of what Vedvik might do on the team: kicking, punting, kickoffs or all of the above. His presence has created competition at virtually every specialist position besides long-snapper and led to myriad discussions about where he is best suited. For instance, Vedvik may have more value as a kicker, but existing placekicker Dan Bailey has a more proven track record whereas punter Matt Wile does not.
Every punt and placekick in preseason games going forward will carry some weight as the Vikings look to determine if Vedvik is the solution to years of kicking nightmares.