Remarkably, it’s already September, and training camp has come to an unofficial end. Practices are now closed to the media except for individual drills, and there are no games where players can make a final roster push in the public eye. We’ve seen all we’re going to see before roster cuts, which occur on Saturday. That means it’s time to make our closing arguments for Mr. Mankato (Eagan).
The year’s winner should be second-year receiver Alexander Hollins.
For transparency’s sake, my pre-camp selection was rookie receiver K.J. Osborn, who is shaping up to make the team as a returner and special teams ace. But Osborn’s case is weakened by his lack of playmaking as a receiver. It’s nearly impossible to win this award — as an offensive player — without splashing on offense.
So we pivot to another receiver who is incredibly deserving. Hollins exemplifies what a Mr. Mankato candidate is all about: a small-school, little-thought-of UDFA that didn’t appear to have any future through his first training camp. Hollins is an underdog, listed at just 166 pounds on the team’s official roster, though Mike Zimmer indicates he’s gained six pounds this year. His slight frame is jarring when seen next to his bigger teammates. It was a big reason why he played for Eastern Illinois and not a bigger college.
Yet no offensive player has come as far as Hollins in one offseason, and that’s why he should win Mr. Mankato.
There may be questions about his eligibility, but those should be easily dismissed. A Mr. Mankato candidate is not supposed to be an established player, and Hollins was, in fact, targeted in a Vikings playoff game last year… but it was his only snap of the game. Hollins made two receptions last regular season and received 71 total snaps, but 48 of those were in a meaningless Week 17 game versus Chicago. In essence, Hollins had 24 meaningful snaps a year ago, including the playoffs. He was cut before the season, stayed on with the practice squad, battled his way to the top of a receiving trio on the scout team and overtook Davion Davis and Dillon Mitchell to earn the late-season call-up, but he was in no way established. Ask yourself this: Would Hollins have been included in any logical 53-man roster projection before training camp? The answer would be no across the board. He was an afterthought. That’s what makes his progression so impressive.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see him develop,” said receivers coach Andrew Janocko. “The mental steps that he took in the offseason were huge. He committed himself to learning the playbook and being open to play X and play Z and learn the concepts as a whole, not just one position, and I think that’s really helped him. And then he’s working physically. He’s working hard in the weight room. We challenge him to take another step physically, and I think he’s really been working hard at that, so it’s been fun seeing some of that stuff pay off for him so far in this camp.”
Hollins has evolved tremendously to the naked eye. As a receiver with a disadvantage size-wise, he’s started winning with quickness and route-running. Throughout camp he’s shown the ability to shake cornerbacks down the field and demonstrated better deep speed than other diminutive receivers on the roster like Chad Beebe and even Bisi Johnson.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) August 20, 2020
In fairness to the evaluation, physicality may always be an issue for Hollins. Remember that lone target he received in the Saints playoff game? It was a downfield shot by Cousins that hit Hollins’ hands and bounced off when he contacted the defensive back. Making contested grabs will have to be his next area of development.
“I think he keeps improving,” Zimmer said. “He’s got good speed. He’s learning the position a lot more now. His issue’s always been making contested catches, because he’s kind of slight-framed, so he’s going to have to continue to do that. But I think he’s been doing well.”
But what of the other Mr. Mankato candidates? Cameron Dantzler was the favorite entering camp, and early indications were that Dantzler had the momentum to secure a Week 1 starting job, but the third-round pick has cooled off in recent practices — at one time burned by Hollins on a deep pass downfield. Dantzler looks to be in position to contribute right away, but likely in a rotation with Holton Hill, Mike Hughes and first-round pick Jeff Gladney, right where you’d expect a third-round pick to be. Dantzler has not exceeded expectations the way Hollins has; he has merely met them.
Looking at the rest of the Vikings’ eligible rookies (third round and later), none stand out. Fourth-round picks Troy Dye, D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch will not start, and it’s debatable whether the latter two will make the roster. Same for fifth-round pick Harrison Hand, and I explained earlier the reason Osborn can’t win. The rest of the sixth- and seventh-round picks are either likely cuts (Nate Stanley, Kyle Hinton, Blake Brandel), on the bubble (Josh Metellus), injured (Kenny Willekes) or already released (Brian Cole II).
There have been some nice-looking UDFAs, but at best those that make the final roster will be toward the bottom of their position group: Nevelle Clarke, Jordan Fehr, Blake Lynch and Myles Dorn.
There were other second-year candidates that could’ve risen to the top, but none took advantage. Had Dru Samia or Oli Udoh won starting jobs on the offensive line, they could’ve claimed the title, but Dakota Dozier and Pat Elflein won the guard jobs. Jake Browning could have been a competitor if he’d threatened Sean Mannion for the backup quarterback job, but he’s been firmly entrenched with the 3s. Kris Boyd, Nate Meadors and Mark Fields all had a wide open cornerback competition in front of them, but none have gotten work above the second team despite their year of experience.
While some young players will get roster spots by default, Hollins may have forced his way into an opening where there wasn’t one. Now Chad Beebe, Tajae Sharpe and to a lesser extent Osborn could be sweating.
“The first week that we were playing against the defense, those guys were just absolutely lighting it up,” Adam Thielen said when asked about second-year pass catchers Hollins and Johnson. “It was so fun to watch those guys, the strides they made from the previous year. The things that maybe last training camp they weren’t doing, now they’re flourishing in them, and they’re almost mastering them and creating teach tape.”
The final hurdle is for Hollins to make the 53-man roster. Last year’s winner Brandon Dillon needed that validation to get across the finish line. Same goes for Hollins. His camp has been good enough, and if the team recognizes that, he’s the clear-cut choice.