A week ago we examined the potential ripple effects of a shortened preseason following the leak of the league’s reported plan to trim the preseason from four games to two. In the days that followed, there was pushback from the NFLPA, which is requesting the preseason be eliminated entirely.
Safety from COVID-19 is at the center of the NFLPA’s concerns. In addition to a lengthy list of recommendations instructing teams on how to operate safely at their facilities, the NFL has released strict guidelines around media access and postgame fraternization. It has the players’ association asking if meaningless games should even be considered when players are being discouraged from exchanging jerseys after games.
An eliminated preseason could mitigate some health concerns, considering it cuts 20% of total games (excluding playoffs) and lessens potential exposure to the virus. As several states around the country experience an uptick in positive tests, momentum is likely headed in the direction of caution. In a scenario without preseason football, teams would have a six-to-seven-week training camp without any interruption for games, which could theoretically make up for the lost practices over the summer.
It would, however, affect coaching staffs’ ability to evaluate talent, and it may impact players on the fringe of the roster looking to make a name for themselves.
While most can agree the top priority is slowing the spread of COVID-19, there will be professional ramifications for several Vikings if there are no preseason games. Below we’ll look at four that could be greatly affected.
CB JEFF GLADNEY
Minnesota may head into Week 1 of the regular season needing contributions from rookie first-round pick Jeff Gladney. But head coach Mike Zimmer usually needs a lengthy ramp to get his new cornerbacks prepared to play.
Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander both struggled in their initial preseasons in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Flagged frequently because of their overactive hands, Waynes graded 189th amongst corners, per Pro Football Focus, in his rookie preseason. Alexander ranked 95th a season later. Both ended up taking the majority of two full seasons to hit their stride.
Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, appeared to be a quicker study. Circumstance forced him into action immediately, and he went right to work in Week 1 with a Pick 6 of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but a torn ACL early in his rookie season stunted his progress.
The Vikings may need Gladney to play right away like Hughes, and his 23-year-old physical maturity may help with that. Given a normal offseason, Gladney may have been prepared to embrace the opportunity, but in a COVID-19 reality, Gladney will have to prove a lot in training camp to earn a starting role. Gladney will likely be cross-trained as a nickel and outside corner, but learning two different positions in an abbreviated training camp may prove too daunting, limiting Gladney’s versatility.
Zimmer has described Gladney as an aggressive competitor who may have to be reeled in at times. While that’s the type of mentality Zimmer likes in his cornerbacks, it may lend itself to improper technique and a higher penalty rate early in Gladney’s career. Without preseason games to work out those issues, Gladney may be a gamble out of the gate.
OL EZRA CLEVELAND
It’s very possible the Vikings envisioned a grand plan where Ezra Cleveland would step in and be a Week 1 starter, perhaps at left guard where the front office has declared an open competition. But introducing Cleveland to a new position could be overwhelming for the rookie without more preparation.
Riley Reiff has far more seasoning at left tackle, is coming off a strong season and received affirmation from general manager Rick Spielman after the draft that he’d be given the first crack at keeping his old job. The guard spot is more wide open, essentially inviting a player like Cleveland to slide over and steal it, but there are also more mouths for the Vikings to feed at guard. Pat Elflein is a three-year starter, and Dru Samia is a former fourth-round pick that was seemingly a starter-in-waiting last year. Oli Udoh and Aviante Collins may have the capability to play inside, while Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier have the most experience. Rookies Kyle Hinton and Tyler Higby hope to make a splash as well.
It may be harder for Cleveland to get the reps necessary to separate himself at a new position when the Vikings are also seeking information about roughly half a dozen others.
All indications point to Cleveland needing to build more strength, much like Brian O’Neill when he was a rookie. O’Neill rode the bench until an injury to Rashod Hill forced him into action, and O’Neill looked pro ready upon his debut. If the Vikings were willing to play it slowly with O’Neill while he got his body right, they’re likely to take a similar approach with Cleveland, who had a truncated offseason of development.
DE D.J. WONNUM
Rookies obviously have varying levels of readiness. Fourth-round pick James Lynch may be prepared to make an instant impact at defensive tackle, for instance, while fellow fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum appears to be a project.
Deemed a “pet cat” of co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, Wonnum has drawn physical and statistical comparisons to Danielle Hunter — a lofty bar considering Hunter’s Hall of Fame trajectory. But rookie Wonnum and rookie Hunter had similar narratives: Both had done little on the stat sheet in college but had the measureables to be a quality NFL pass rusher with some work.
Hunter started blooming the second half of his rookie season as part of a defensive end rotation. That may be the best Wonnum can hope for without the chance to hone his craft in preseason games.
Make no mistake, getting Wonnum under the watchful eye of Patterson will help his progress, but consider, too, that Hunter received 200 preseason snaps his rookie year — third most of any edge rusher — and tied for the sixth-most pressures in that preseason with 12. Wonnum won’t get a chance to show as much of his raw talent without a preseason, which may inhibit how quickly he can impact regular season games. It’s harder for an edge rusher to show his stuff in practice where he’s not allowed to touch the quarterback.
WR QUARTNEY DAVIS
Not just Quartney Davis, but lump in all the UDFAs who were hoping to make a name for themselves in training camp this year. The Vikings have always been receptive to giving undrafted rookies a shot — think C.J. Ham, Marcus Sherels, Eric Wilson, Adam Thielen, etc. — but it will be harder for UDFAs like Davis to make this year’s roster without an ounce of NFL game tape.
Davis received a reported $100K guaranteed from the Vikings and may have been a sleeper to pass the likes of Chad Beebe, Tajae Sharpe or K.J. Osborn for the final receiver spot. Keep in mind, many UDFAs get opportunities because of injuries above them on the depth chart, and while nobody is rooting for injuries, there will inevitably be fewer of those chances if low-contact practices are the only preseason activity.
Thielen and Justin Jefferson are locks. Bisi Johnson is unlikely to go from from WR3 to missing the roster. And Beebe and Sharpe have at least some NFL games under their belt. Experience may win out over potential in the unorthodox preseason, leaving Davis and other players like him destined for the practice squad.