The practice of predicting the Minnesota Vikings’ 53-man roster is a comfortable fallback for preseason content, and those that take part in this exercise each year can begin to spot tendencies that allow the prognosticator to close in on the team’s roster-building plan.
But in times of COVID-19, it’s time to throw any perceived trends out the window.
The Vikings still have just over a month before the scheduled cut-down day. In that timeframe they’ll need to monitor the seven players who are presently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, evaluate a plethora of young prospects in roughly three weeks of practices and figure out how to construct a roster in a year when starters could be ruled out with one positive test.
The crux of the issue is whether the Vikings will continue their trend of making their roster younger through veteran camp cuts. Minnesota has never been afraid to part with seasoned players in exchange for high-upside prospects. But with so little time to prepare, and a greater need for reliable depth than ever before, is it wise to bank on youth in 2020? Head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t rule it out.
“We may have a second-year guy here who knows the system, and he’s been through it, and we’ve got a rookie in here who’s not been doing as well, but you see the upside in him,” Zimmer said on a recent Zoom call. “I know Danielle Hunter is a different guy, but we saw something special in him and me, Rick, Andre, everybody was able to say that’s the guy we want to take if he’s around in the third round. We might have to do that with some of the players here, we might have to let a second-year guy go because [while] this guy might not be great in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, maybe Week 7, he’s really going to come up. We’re going to have to look at the long-term picture of all these things.”
So in today’s 53-man projection, let’s try to strike a balance. How can the Vikings construct their roster in a way that doesn’t exclude rookies but still maintains an acceptable level of experience should players miss games early in the season?
The Vikings will be counting on Kirk Cousins‘ durability tremendously in 2020. The ability to save a roster spot and simply roll with two quarterbacks would give Minnesota flexibility elsewhere. Should Cousins get hurt, even for one game, the new practice squad rules would allow the Vikings to activate Jake Browning and return him to the practice squad twice without subjecting the quarterback to waivers. As for Nate Stanley, this isn’t a great year to be a fourth-string quarterback.
Our previous version of the 53-man projection had Tony Brooks-James headed to the practice squad, but those slots should instead be reserved for higher-value positions. Running backs are easier to plug-and-play off the street, so we’ll cut Brooks-James, along with veteran Ameer Abdullah. It felt excessive when the Vikings kept five running backs in previous years and would feel especially excessive this season.
Active (6): Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Bisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe, Chad Beebe, K.J. Osborn
Practice squad (1): Quartney Davis
Off roster: Dan Chisena, Bralon Addison, Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis, Alexander Hollins
With only one truly proven NFL receiver in the group (Adam Thielen), the Vikings may want to cast a wide net and go with a group of six here. Justin Jefferson was recently placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and will miss a chunk of training camp, but he’ll be on the roster barring health complications. Tajae Sharpe seems likelier to make the team based on the circumstances, but I’d still put him on the fringe.
If preferred UDFA Quartney Davis shows the team anything at all, he could get the nod in front of Sharpe, but it’ll be hard without preseason games, plus he’s currently on the non-football injury list. No preseason games also means it will be more unlikely for rookies to get poached off waivers on cut day, so Davis should make the practice squad.
As ridiculous as it sounds, having Chad Beebe — he of six career catches — on the roster feels like a comforting veteran presence.
While the Vikings have kept four tight ends before, that route makes less sense if you’re keeping six receivers. Brandon Dillon has more upside than Tyler Conklin as a pass-catching threat, and the Vikings should keep him around. But Minnesota has always preferred a sturdy blocking type as their third tight end, and Conklin fits that bill. UDFA Nakia Griffin-Stewart will have a hard time making an impact.
It seems like there are rumors about a majority of the Vikings tackles transitioning inside for the sake of creating more competition at guard: Riley Reiff, Ezra Cleveland and Udoh among them. While it’s unlikely that all of those candidates make the switch, it’s not a bad thing for the team to have a couple of tackles that can swing inside. Udoh was supposedly in that mix, but he’ll first have to overcome the COVID-19 list. With Riley Reiff’s days likely numbered, and Rashod Hill being essentially year-to-year with his contract, they’ll want to keep Udoh around for the future, even if he doesn’t make an impact in 2020.
Thanks to loosened practice squad eligibility, the Vikings can retain the trusty Aviante Collins on the scout team, even though he’s a ripe 27 years old.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
Because the Vikings didn’t do much to address the guards spot in the offseason, they’re in a tough spot. Would you rather have Dakota Dozier or seventh-round Division-II prospect Kyle Hinton filling in for a starter? Would you rather have Brett Jones or Division-II center Jake Lacina filling in for Garrett Bradbury? This position probably contains the starkest difference between the team’s youth and veteran presence. While the Vikings can likely slide a pair of young guards onto the practice squad, a veteran-laden group on the 53-man roster makes more sense.
TOTAL OFFENSE: 25
PRACTICE SQUAD OFFENSE: 6
Based on Zimmer’s quote at the top of the story where he described the team’s fondness for Danielle Hunter as a rookie, it wouldn’t be shocking if they felt the same way about D.J. Wonnum. The fourth-round pick is ostensibly the apple of Andre Patterson’s eye, which makes him a likely lock on the roster. The fourth defensive end spot should go to a veteran then. We’ll take a stab at Eddie Yarbrough over Anthony Zettel on nothing more than a gut feeling. Kenny Willekes has promise for the future and should certainly eat up a practice squad spot.
Defensive tackle becomes the most intriguing and unpredictable position group with the decision by Michael Pierce to opt-out of the season. Why not keep most of them and see how it works out? Shamar Stephen‘s spot seems safer by the way after many projected him to be a veteran cut. Jaleel Johnson stands to gain from Pierce’s absence as well, which might ensure his inclusion in a contract year. Third-year players Hercules Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes are also on the bubble. While I have Holmes getting cut, I wouldn’t rule out the Vikings just hanging onto to both of them and trimming a player elsewhere.
With an incredibly deep group of linebackers, the Vikings can have faith that five will get the job done instead of the traditional six. Athletic UDFA Jordan Fehr can sneak through to the practice squad.
I wouldn’t change a thing from my previous edition, where I projected the rather unorthodox seven cornerbacks. The Vikings desperately need depth here, and if a starter has to miss a game for COVID-19 reasons, the team will want all hands on deck. Harrison Hand may still have an uphill battle being a fifth-round pick, and pricey UDFA Nevelle Clarke is currently on the non-football injury list, but if the Vikings were willing to “redshirt” linemen like Dru Samia and Oli Udoh the year before, shouldn’t they be willing to do the same at corner?
Take your pick of who you’d like on the practice squad, but it feels like they’ll want two bodies.
With Brian Cole II on the COVID-19 list, we’ll give UDFA Myles Dorn the edge to claim the final safety spot. But it truly is a crapshoot between the three reserves.
TOTAL DEFENSE: 25
PRACTICE SQUAD DEFENSE: 6
Nothing to see here.