There will be no fans at Minnesota Vikings training camp this year, but there is still plenty to discuss. Get familiar with the biggest training camp talkers as our Zone Coverage writing staff unpacks the tough subjects and offers fantasy football advice.
As history shows us, ascending from what Cousins did last year will be difficult to accomplish. In one sense, it would be tough to exceed the expectations placed on Cousins entering the 2018 season, when he was thought to be the missing piece separating the Vikings from a surefire Super Bowl. But now that the defense has arguably taken a step back with numerous key departures, a greater burden falls on Cousins’ shoulders: He’ll likely need to carry an offense that is no longer supplemented by one of the league’s stingiest defensive units.
As the Vikings’ offensive line has clawed its way to up mediocrity over the past three seasons, Elflein has fallen from third-round savior of a line ravaged by injury to the unfortunate target of most fingers pointed at the offensive line’s shortcomings. Heck, we’ve already made him the poster boy for disappointment in a season that hasn’t even started yet. Is it fair? The old adage about linemen going unnoticed unless they do something wrong is largely true, and perhaps the reason Elflein draws so much ire is that one of his greatest flaws is his struggle to anchor against larger defensive tackles — a flaw on stark display for even the most casual of fan as Elflein gets pushed back into Kirk Cousins’ lap.
There’s a lot to like about new Minnesota Vikings linebacker Troy Dye, who Rick Spielman drafted in the fourth round after leading the Oregon Ducks in tackles for four straight years. But the more and more I watched Dye, the more I’m convinced he will carve out a role on defense and special teams under both Mike and Adam Zimmer’s tutelage.
In the event that Cook’s holdout does indeed carry into the regular season, Mattison will be vaulted into the lead back role for Minnesota. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a history of utilizing his running backs heavily in his zone scheme, so Mattison could be in for a massive opportunity in 2020. The major question, of course, is how much of a decline the Vikings offense would see with Mattison receiving the majority of snaps at running back instead of Cook.
The Vikings selected Cleveland with the hopes that he could help turn that story around. As the most athletic tackle in the draft, combined with the off-the-charts athleticism of Garrett Bradbury and Brian O’Neill, the Vikings are building the most athletic offensive line in the NFL, hoping to translate that athletic upside into reality. But even with all that upside, Cleveland’s lack of strength and raw technique might leave him riding the bench his rookie year. How far away is Cleveland from becoming an NFL-caliber starter, and how far away is he from becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player?
As the Vikings roll into this year’s training camp, they come off the heels of trading another superstar receiver. Stefon Diggs not only is one of the best statistical Vikings of all-time, he has the same connection with the fans that Moss and Harvin had. After a slew of emojis that Zimmer may not have understood, Diggs was shipped out on a plane to Buffalo and it was a sense of deja vu for Vikings fans.
A little math tells us that Rudolph will be entering his 10th season in 2020 and a quick check of the Vikings’ current roster reveals he’s the longest-tenured member of the squad. The Vikings sure will miss him when he’s gone. One needn’t be a forensic cap-ologist to conclude that said departure might come after the 2020 season.
Great defensive line play has been the cornerstone of the Minnesota Vikings franchise since it was founded in 1961. The Purple People Eaters defensive line that included Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Alan Page and Gary Larsen spearheaded Minnesota’s elite defense in the late 1960s and 1970s that earned four Super Bowl berths. Perhaps Minnesota’s defensive line isn’t as important today as it was then, but the Vikings have consistently produced stars along the defensive line over the past several years, specifically at the defensive end position.
This unit is one of the more experienced and deepest on the entire team. Anthony Barr has been starting since his rookie season in 2014, and Eric Kendricks has been since his inaugural year as well. Those two have a combined 159 starts between them. Eric Wilson became a full-time starter last year but did start sparingly in 2018. He has 10 total starts in his Vikings’ tenure. That is 169 total starts between the starters, easily making it the most experienced starting group on the defense.
For a franchise that has enjoyed John Randle, the Williams Wall and Linval Joseph, Stephen has been in the middle of the Vikings defense for five of his six years in the NFL and doesn’t have much to show for it. As the defense’s version of Pat Elflein, many fans want to see Stephen replaced, but there are no signs that’s going to happen. But why?
Barring a late addition to the team’s roster — which is reportedly supposed to be trimmed to 80 players — the Vikings will enter the 2020 season without a corner with more than two years experience or 1,000 career snaps at the pro level. Mike Hughes leads the way with 742 snaps in 20 career games out of a possible 32. A 2018 ACL tear slowed him at the start of 2019, while a broken vertebra in Hughes’ neck ended his 2019 season prematurely, bookending his season with concerning injuries. While his former first-round status makes him the presumed No. 1 in the pecking order, Hughes is an unstable CB1 for a team that’s prided itself on its pass defense for years. As such, a door has been left wide open for third-year man Holton Hill to not only contribute on the 2020 Vikings, but star. Propose that scenario to a Vikings fan in 2018 and they might’ve scoffed, but it’s now a distinct possibility in what shapes up to be a challenging season for the Vikings’ secondary.
With Marcus Sherels Gone, Who Will the Minnesota Vikings Turn To as Their Punt Returner? (John Tuvey)
Replacing Sherels sits atop the Vikings’ special teams priority list heading into the 2020 season. Unfortunately fans won’t get to see any sort of training camp battle for punt return duties or weigh in on preseason punt return star turns and missteps. The competition to fill Sherels’ shoes will instead play out on the TCO practice field, with results to be unveiled when the Vikings open the regular season in September.
The bottom line is that the Vikings have the best safety duo in the NFL. We’ve said it repeatedly on this web site since the end of last season. PFF knows it. The folks at Madden NFL 21 most likely know it. Opponents know it. Most NFL observers know it. So how and why must they improve in 2020?