The Minnesota Vikings have officially kicked off Training Camp 2020 with the rookies reporting on July 23 and the full roster reporting on the 28th. This is exciting news in uncertain times, and fans are hoping things go smoothly so we get to see football this season.
While the Vikings are surely chomping at the bit to get things started, they will need to see certain things early in camp to feel good about their chances of competing for the playoffs and beyond this season.
Guards Stepping Up
The Vikings have handled their starting guard positions in a most peculiar way this offseason. They cut their one solid player at this position and then failed to upgrade it through the draft or free agency. The team seems hellbent on putting Pat Elflein back out on the field and then letting players like Dru Samia and Dakota Dozier battle for the right guard job.
If Minnesota is going to feel good about the interior of their offensive line this upcoming season, they need players to step up and claim these two spots. There has been talk that Ezra Cleveland could get moved inside, and if that is true, he should push Elflein for his job and be that guy.
Perhaps the reason the Vikings didn’t draft a guard high was that they figured they had Samia waiting in the wings and expect him to not just be the right guard in 2020, but to play well. If that’s the case, the Vikings need to see Samia play well right out of the gate. He needs to be dominant in every rep he gets, prove he was worth a fourth-round choice and is ready to take over a starting job.
The guard positions should truly be an open competition, and perhaps the battle for these positions will motivate all players to do their best. Elflein is looking for a new contract and could find extra motivation to play the way he did as a rookie. Whoever it ends up being, the Vikings will want to see some guards step up early in camp, so they can feel good about the weakest position on the entire roster.
Dalvin Cook Showing Up
This one is easy, but the Vikings will want to see Cook show up on the 28th and report to camp. They do not need or want to deal with a holdout during this camp, which will already be an awkward one with all the COVID-19 precautions and changes. If Cook doesn’t show, it’ll create a stir in the media, while the coaching staff and players will be hounded every single day with questions about Cook, his whereabouts and when he may return to the team.
It would also create a problem because Minnesota will want to get its full offense on the field getting as many reps as possible. The Vikings will want their linemen to get a feel for blocking with Cook behind them and create as much cohesion on this unit as possible. With Cook out, it would push Alexander Mattison to the forefront, and the Vikings real offense wouldn’t get to put any work in until the disgruntled back shows up to practice.
There’s been a weird will-he-or-won’t-he going on lately between Cook’s agent and Minnesota’s coaching staff about whether or not he’ll report on Tuesday. The team will be very relieved to see his face on the 28th if he pulls up to TCO Performance Center in Eagan. But if he doesn’t, it’ll be the start of a headache the team doesn’t need right now.
young cornerbacks picking up The defense
Aside from the guard position, the Vikings have to be concerned about their group of cornerbacks. This is a unit that lacks experience and leadership, and while it has plenty of athletic ability, it could definitely go through many growing pains before it comes into its own.
Minnesota will want to see this group make plays in camp. It will be reassuring if they are getting lined up right and reading the offense the way they should be. If Hughes can look like the No. 1 corner and stick stride for stride with Thielen in practice, and Hill can hold his own against Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe or whoever is on the other side, that will give Zimmer some reassurance that this youth movement at a very important position will actually work.
Not only will the Vikings want to see the starters look good, but they will want to see the guys lower on the depth chart look like they are catching on. Players like Kris Boyd and Cameron Dantzler will be counted on often this season, and if they can make some plays early in camp, it will stop the team from going out and spending money on a veteran corner.
Justin Jefferson Making Plays
With Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, the Vikings will be relying heavily on Jefferson to provide big plays in the passing game. The young pass-catcher has done everything right so far and appears to have a strong work ethic — many videos of him running routes and catching passes have surfaced on Twitter. He also seems to be very motivated and more than willing to put in all the work needed to have a successful and productive rookie season.
Minnesota is hoping Jefferson can come in and be its No. 2 receiver. If he can quickly pick up the offense and make plays in practice, the Vikings will know they made the right choice and will feel much better about letting Diggs go. They’ll also want to see if Jefferson is willing to put in the extra time after practice catching balls and working on his route tree. If he can do all this and form a nice rapport with Kirk Cousins, the Vikings won’t have to rely on Sharpe to be the No. 2 guy and could even let him go at the end of the preseason.
A Three-Technique Emerging
Aside from guard, the only other position that is completely up for grabs this season is the three-technique defensive tackle spot. This is the defensive tackle whose primary job is to get after the quarterback and create interior pressure. It’s not just the pass rush, though, it is also important for that player to just create havoc on the inside, throwing off the timing of the offense. The Vikings used Shamar Stephen in this role a season ago and he struggled mightily with only six pressures recorded, per Pro Football Focus.
Minnesota will want to see someone step up and claim this job from the start. Candidates include Armon Watts, Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson and Hercules Mata’afa. Zimmer loves to create pressure up front, and his whole defense is predicated around it. Many of the players mentioned above will be battling for their jobs this season and will have extra motivation. Holmes and Mata’afa especially need to look good, as they are prime cut candidates if they play the way they have in recent memory.
Watts did show the ability to create interior pressure in the spot time he was on the field in 2020, and Johnson finished with 3.5 sacks. If either of these guys can pick up where they left off in 2019 and show in practice that last year wasn’t a fluke, they could secure this position and make the Vikings feel much better about the overall strength of their defensive line.