NFL roster cut day isn’t for four months, and with the uncertainty of the global pandemic, the football calendar could be pushed back an indefinite amount of time.
But now is as good a time as any to set a baseline for who shapes up to make the Minnesota Vikings roster, which will look a little different this year, per the new collective bargaining agreement (though not as different as some are assuming).
There is a perception that roster sizes are increasing to 55 players this year, up from the usual 53. This is only partially correct.
When teams create their final rosters the week before the season, there will still be 53 names submitted. The teams do, however, get more flexibility with their gameday roster and practice squad. The standard gameday roster is increasing from 46 to 48, and those two flex spots can be given to players from the practice squad, which is also growing in size from 10 to 12. It’s stipulated, though, that one of the callups must be an offensive lineman.
Practice squad callups are often waived following game appearances to make room for players that might’ve been injured, thereby subjecting them to waivers. The new rules allow for teams to return players from the active roster to the practice squad twice without putting them through waivers — similar to baseball’s option system with minor league callups.
To sum it up: Teams will employ 53 active rosterees — 46 of whom will dress on game day — and 12 practice squad players — with up to two of them dressing on gameday. It’s not exactly a 55-man roster, but there are more players to choose from when constructing the dress list.
With this in mind, I’ll take a stab at not only the 53-man roster but the 12-man practice squad in today’s projection with fellow Vikings contributor Nick Olson weighing in with his own opinion. The obvious qualifier: Teams don’t have control over which of their desired practice squad players get claimed after being released. Also bear in mind that, as of May 5, the Vikings have three open roster spots remaining.
No shockers here. The Vikings usually keep just two quarterbacks with one developmental option on the practice squad. We’ll give that developmental spot to Jake Browning over the seventh-round rookie Nate Stanley.
Sean Mannion’s limited preseason snaps may be underwhelming, but he’s a smart, strong-armed quarterback who knows Kubiak’s system and won’t lose the Vikings games if Kirk Cousins’ iron man streak should come to an end. He’s also on a cheap veteran minimum deal and has a reputation as being great on the whiteboard.
The Vikings certainly like Jake Browning as evidenced by the $15K signing bonus and $140K guaranteed contract they offered him last year (huge sums for an undrafted free agent), but I think they might like Nate Stanley even more – the Vikings haven’t drafted a non-first-round quarterback since John David Booty in 2008.
The Vikings interestingly kept five running backs last year, including fullback C.J. Ham. But with other positions requiring more support than previous seasons, running back is a sensible place to trim a spot. We’ll give Mike Boone the nod over Ameer Abdullah after seeing the Vikings turn to him late in the 2019 season when Cook and Mattison were injured. It’s possible rookie K.J. Osborn could fill Abdullah’s role in the return game.
The Vikings seem pretty happy with their running back room after extending Ham, re-signing Abdullah and not drafting any new blood, so I would bet they keep it the same as last year. The kick returner role is likely Abdullah’s to lose and both he and Boone provide some athleticism for special teams and rotational snaps in the backfield. Bargas was a tight end at UNC last year but is converting to fullback and will likely earn a shot on the practice squad as injury insurance to C.J. Ham.
Active (5): Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Bisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe, K.J. Osborn
Practice squad (1): Quartney Davis
Off roster: Dan Chisena, Bralon Addison, Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis, Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins
The Vikings have a big crop of 12 receivers on the current roster, but it’s unclear who — beyond Adam Thielen and first-round pick Justin Jefferson — they prefer to round out the depth spots. Bisi Johnson was a breakthrough find in his rookie season and seems like a good bet. Tajae Sharpe was their one free agency pickup and may possess some upside after his Tennessee career fizzled. Osborn, the fifth-round pick, seems to be ordained as Marcus Sherels‘ replacement at punt returner.
In an offense that rarely utilizes three-receiver sets, do the Vikings need a sixth receiver? Probably not. That may not bode well for Chad Beebe, who the team has expressed its fondness for, but Beebe has been unable to stay healthy in the two seasons where he’s gotten opportunities.
Active (5): Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe, Bisi Johnson, K.J. Osborn
Practice squad (2): Quartney Davis, Dan Chisena
Off roster: Bralon Addison, Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis, Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins
It will be interesting to see how Kubiak shapes the receiver room. He recently mentioned on the Minnesota Vikings Podcast that while they intend to move Jefferson around to learn the offense, they will play him where he is at his best and most comfortable — which would suggest he takes the lion’s share of snaps from the slot given his usage at LSU last year. That would leave Thielen as the split end in Diggs’ role last year, where Thielen’s elite release and good deep ball skills (speed, play strength and ball tracking) will come in handy. Sharpe is a good route runner with very reliable hands and should see plenty of usage on third-and-long and should rotate in along with Bisi Johnson, who has the potential to make the leap into his second year.
The punt returner job is likely Osborn’s to lose. Last year the Vikings recorded the most muffed punts in the NFL while also recording their lowest yards per punt return since 1994. Kubiak has also mentioned they see some upside to Osborn’s athleticism, so he may rotate in at receiver and could win the kick returner job as well. Quartney Davis could also sneak onto the roster after the Vikings shelled out $100K guaranteed to win a bidding war for the highly-coveted UDFA, with his twitch and straight line-speed. And speaking of straight-line speed, Dan Chisena reportedly clocked a 4.32 40-yard dash at Penn State. He’s more track star than football player now, but at 6’3” with his speed he’s an intriguing practice squad candidate.
The top two here are locked in, barring injury, leaving room for one or two more. This competition may come down to Tyler Conklin and Brandon Dillon. Conklin is entering his third season with 13 receptions in 420 career snaps. Dillon was a surprising UDFA find out of NAIA Marian. He may offer more upside than Conklin as a pass catcher, assuming he can fulfilling his blocking duties.
Like the running back room, the Vikings seem pretty pleased with their tight ends, so I don’t project much change from last year. Conklin has continued to progress as a run blocker and offers something in the receiving game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brandon Dillon finds his way onto the roster either.
If the Vikings go heavy on any offensive position, it might be offensive line. They have five very worthy tackles, including rookie Ezra Cleveland and last year’s rookie Oli Udoh, who the team liked enough to give a roster spot despite being a healthy scratch the majority of his rookie campaign. Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill are your starters, and Rashod Hill is one of the most valuable backup tackles in the league. Aviante Collins may be the odd man out.
The big question with the tackles is when will Ezra Cleveland be ready to start. My guess is sooner rather than later, but it all depends on when he will be able to anchor against NFL bull rushers. When he does, Reiff may kick inside to left guard. Hill is a very capable backup swing tackle, and Rick Spielman was quick to praise Oli Udoh’s performance against Khalil Mack in Week 17 of 2019 during his post-draft press conference, making for a very deep tackle group.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
There’s ample room for player movement at guard, where the Vikings have open competitions at both spots. Even though Pat Elflein struggled in 2019, he’s still the incumbent starter without a clear challenger. With right guard Josh Kline released, Dru Samia may be the new favorite to start on the right side. Dakota Dozier was a trusty swing guard a year ago, and UDFA Tyler Higby has some upside. Don’t forget about veteran Brett Jones, who should vie for a spot as well thanks to his ability at center.
Bradbury is the only guaranteed starter here, and there’s reason to think he could make a big leap next year. After that, the two players singled out by both Spielman and Kubiak for the competition at guard are Dru Samia and Aviante Collins, who will compete with Pat Elflein for a job. Josh Kline remains a free agent and a reunion could still be possible if no one steps up. Brett Jones has played at a starting-caliber level before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kyle Hinton beat him out for the job with his athleticism and youth.
SAM’s TOTAL OFFENSE: 24
NICK’S TOTAL OFFENSE: 25
The Vikings have three likely locks at defensive end with Danielle Hunter, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Andre Patterson’s “pet cat” D.J. Wonnum, so it feels like this position comes down to the rookie Kenny Willekes or the veteran Anthony Zettel. In a group that’s already so young, a five-year veteran like Zettel might make the most sense.
While I wouldn’t completely rule out an Everson Griffen reunion (especially now that the Vikings are no longer saving money for Trent Williams), Mike Zimmer said at the combine that Odenigbo was ready for a full-time role. Wonnum is more of a developmental player but with his length and burst and a little coaching from Andre Patterson could make an impact as a rotational end. Kenny Willekes may never be a full-time starter but he is a day-one rotational player — someone The Athletic’s Dane Brugler mocked in the first round to the Patriots one year ago.
For a second straight year this might be the toughest position to peg. The Vikings have depth but little hierarchy. Beyond high-priced free agent acquisition Michael Pierce, nobody is a lock. The next closest is probably fourth-round pick James Lynch. The Vikings would be on the hook for around $3.76 million of Shamar Stephen‘s salary if he was released, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to replace his two-down run-stopping role with minimal pass rush. Jalyn Holmes may also be a casualty if Hercules Mata’afa shows any improvement off his 2019 season, two years removed from a serious knee injury.
It’s wild to think the Vikings replaced Linval Joseph with someone even stronger, but beyond Pierce, there are no guarantees along the interior defensive line. Among starting defensive tackles last year, Shamar Stephen recorded the fewest pressures and second-fewest run stops, and with his contract and age, he may wind up as the surprise camp cut this year. James Lynch has the leverage, power and motor to start at defensive tackle given the tepid competition. Watts is coming off a strong rookie year with great pass rush skills for a nose guard. I have Holmes beating out Johnson based largely on his youth and the fact that he’s more of a pure 3-technique than Johnson. Mata’afa is the wild card; he was ridiculously productive in college at 250 pounds, but after a couple years to bulk up and get healthy is now at 289 pounds. If his get-off and quickness are still there, he could even win the starting job.
The Vikings will be leaning heavily on special teams prowess when they look to fill in their depth linebacker spots this year. That could mean the end of Ben Gedeon, who enters a contract year. As solid as Gedeon has been as a base linebacker for three seasons, Eric Wilson can fill his role adequately and offer more in coverage. Both fourth-round pick Troy Dye and UDFA Jordan Fehr offer similar athleticism which should translate to special teams, while Cameron Smith will likely get a second year to develop after being last year’s fifth-round pick.
The Vikings seem very happy with their linebacker group, but Rick Spielman still couldn’t keep himself from selecting a day-three linebacker in the draft. If Troy Dye can add a little bulk this offseason I think he has a good shot to win the starting third linebacker job in base defense with his coverage talent, range, length and fluid movement skills. If not, Wilson remains a great coverage linebacker and Gedeon (if he’s healthy) is a great thumper. Cameron Smith could rotate in as well and contribute on special teams. And don’t overlook Jordan Fehr, who as Sam mentioned in his breakdown of the UDFAs, has some intriguing athletic testing, posting a 4.45 40-yard dash and a 40.5” vertical at Appalachian State.
Minnesota brings 11 cornerbacks to camp this year, likely with an eye toward keeping about six. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill are the most experienced … with only two years each. Kris Boyd was a special teams standout as a rookie and should play a part. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler are the future at the position, and odds are one of them will have to start right away. That leaves one spot open for the rest. While Harrison Hand has the benefit of being a draft pick, UDFA Nevelle Clarke — Mike Hughes’ former college teammate — could also make a bid thanks to his good size and athleticism.
What a difference a year makes! Mike Hughes is now the veteran of the group, and I think he will kick inside for most of his snaps given his familiarity with the defense. After over 1,200 coverage snaps at TCU shadowing opposing team’s No. 1 receivers, Gladney is ready to start from day one as well. Hill provides some size on the opposite end, but Dantzler could easily win the job if he manages to add some play strength this offseason. Boyd looked pretty raw last year as a rookie but with more training should also be in the mix. Clarke could also sneak onto the roster after the Vikings shelled out a $15K bonus with $115K guaranteed to win the bid for the long-framed press-man corner.
Assuming Anthony Harris plays out the season under the franchise tag or gets extended, he and Harrison Smith will regroup for another year as the starting safety tandem. Sixth-round pick Josh Metellus shapes up to be a special teams impact player, leaving seventh-rounder Brian Cole II and UDFA Myles Dorn to vie for a fourth spot. Dorn has more seasoning after a full UNC career, while Cole is rawer after a position switch and a rollercoaster college journey from Michigan to JUCO to Mississippi State. Dorn might be the safer bet in a shortened offseason.
The Vikings added a few rookies to develop behind arguably the NFL’s best safety tandem. Harrison Hand played cornerback in the NFL but with his vision and athleticism (but lack of man coverage capabilities) might project best as a safety (and Vikings’ Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson confirmed he could make that transition). Metellus has some ranginess and versatility and projects well as a backup. Cole has the traits and athleticism to develop into a starter down the road as well.
SAM’S TOTAL DEFENSE: 26
NICK’s TOTAL DEFENSE: 25
A year without special teams drama? We’ll see.
Give Marwan Maalouf credit — in just one year as special teams coach he seemingly solved all the Vikings’ problems with their specialists.