EAGAN — There hasn’t been much tempo or intensity thus far at the rookie portion of Vikings training camp — that can wait until the veterans report and the pads come on.
Instead, the Vikings have taken an even more leisurely approach than you’d usually see at a July walkthrough or practice, turning it into an extended classroom session, more or less.
There are 37 players on the field for the first three days of camp, the eldest being Kirk Cousins, who is using this time to act as a sponge and learn as much as he can about his new offensive pieces, including center Garrett Bradbury, tight end Irv Smith Jr. and running back Alexander Mattison.
“We’ve got a lot of voices out there telling people what to do,” Cousins said Wednesday morning, “so if anything I just want to be an encourager and affirm them when they’re doing things the right way and ask questions, too. Lot of times I can learn from even these younger guys as to what they’re seeing or what their issue is. It’s good to get to know these guys.”
“Someone’s going to surprise us at this camp,” Stefanski said. “Someone is going to show up.”
Spring practices gave Cousins and the offensive staff a chance to evaluate players’ strengths and weaknesses, which they will continue to monitor throughout training camp. This is especially important for tight ends and receivers, whose ability to beat defensive backs and run certain routes can influence offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s plans.
“Someone’s going to surprise us at this camp,” Stefanski said. “Someone is going to show up, and I don’t know who that is. We have our ideas and we’ve seen it in the spring. We saw some guys flash. But we’re going to get a ton of reps and I think you’ll see somebody flash, and then it’s going to be our job to understand what that guy can do and how he can help us.”
Entering camp, there are built-in perceptions about what certain young players can and cannot do, which they hope to either affirm (in good cases) or shatter (in negative cases). Smith is thought to be a versatile, speedy tight end with some issues as a blocker. Mattison is considered a shifty workhorse with soft hands but not superb straightline speed.
And down the roster it goes. Jeff Badet: Fast but injury prone. Dillon Mitchell: Good at contested catches; too many drops. Alexander Hollins: Speedy but small.
Finding ways to emphasis the favorable traits becomes the goal.
“If a guy can roll, if he’s a 4.3 [speed] guy and maybe, yeah, there’s some limitations to other parts of playing the receiver position,” Cousins said. “But he’s a 4.3 guy, let’s get him in our deep routes and let’s give him a chance to get behind safeties and launch. … And also we’re saying this route isn’t his sweet spot, so let’s talk about working elsewhere. That’s why understanding personnel is really important and that’s certainly a point of emphasis.”
Smith, the Alabama tight end who the Vikings will pair with Kyle Rudolph, already sees an offense where players’ strengths are accounted for.
“Coach Stefanski, he does a great job of putting everybody in the right position, and he’s not going to do something that’s going to hurt the team or put somebody out of place,” Smith said, “so those are our strengths, and our weaknesses is something that we can improve. He definitely does a great job of implementing our strengths.”
We have a relationship and a dialogue every day. I’m so comfortable with the person he is.
There are 15 offensive players at rookie camp, eight of them running backs or pass catchers, that Cousins just met this year. But his closest on-field relationship may be with Bradbury, who took no time claiming the starting center spot in OTAs. While many of the personnel groupings will look different in less than a week when the veterans join the mix, Bradbury snapping the ball to Cousins will be a constant as he and his peers get more comfortable in the new scheme.
“It’s a new system for everybody, which is great because we can throw things off each other, learn together throughout this,” Bradbury said. “There’s a wealth of knowledge in the O-line room but it’s a new system for them at the same time. So we’re kind of learning together, which has been good as a rookie.”
Year 2 of Eagan training camp is also a learning ground for Stefanski, who gets to enjoy his first training camp as an offensive coordinator after having his interim label removed after the 2018 season.
The chemistry between quarterback and coordinator is a big talking point with the Vikings after there appeared to be fissures toward the end of John DeFilippo’s short tenure. But ironically, Stefanski probably spends less time with Cousins now than he did throughout most of the 2018 regular season as the quarterbacks coach. He says there’s no question the two are on the same page.
“We have spent enough time with each other,” Stefanski said. “We are probably sick of each other at this point. We have a relationship and a dialogue every day. I’m so comfortable with the person he is, and I’m really comfortable with the coaching that we have taking place in that meeting room and out here on the field.”