Justin Jefferson Has Been Virtually Unguardable In Camp

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

Amidst the chaos of vaccination rates and Jeff Gladney’s release, the Minnesota Vikings have actually been playing some football. The pads came on on Tuesday, which means we can start solving the various position battles on the roster. Training camp is underway in earnest, and some things have stood out over the last two days.

Justin Jefferson

It’s hard to watch anything in camp without Justin Jefferson exploding into your vision. Jefferson has been virtually unguardable in training camp so far. Be it Patrick Peterson, Cameron Dantzler, or Bashaud Breeland, Jefferson has had a trick up his sleeve to find a way to the ball.

My favorite came against Breeland in Monday’s practice. Breeland did as good a job as one can ask, but Jefferson adjusted to the underthrown ball at the last minute. Truly, there are no safe moments.

In addition to unreal routes and deceptive tactics, Jefferson has excelled in the other areas. He’s tracking the ball naturally, he’s catching everything comfortably and hitting all of his depths. Plays like the ones above make it difficult to evaluate Dantzler and Breeland. How much leeway do we give to the victims of Jefferson’s mastery?

Jefferson’s infectious personality is easy to spot. While it would be perfectly understandable for a somber mood to hang over the players, given that they are the most divided team in the league on COVID-19 vaccinations, that does not permeate the vibe on the field.

It’s difficult to avoid comparing Jefferson to Stefon Diggs, the latter of whom always dominated in Vikings camp. Diggs had an intensity that spread to the player across from him, leading to all-out marathons of iron sharpening iron. Jefferson’s attitude is looser, more relaxed, and effortless. Similarly, it spreads.

Glance at the wide receivers during stretches or individual drills, and you’ll almost always find someone dancing, joking, laughing, or just generally having a good time. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Whop Philyor, and Adam Thielen are all starting to take on a Jefferson-like silliness. It shows up in their play, too, hitting their marks with a relaxed ease. The Vikings seemed to be enjoying the work rather than enduring it.

Irv Smith Jr.

Various pass catchers have excelled over camp, but Smith has looked entirely out of place among the rest of the tight ends. Tyler Conklin has been absent over the last two days, leaving a big gulf between Smith and the players next to him. I’d be curious to see how Smith held up if he took some 1-on-1 reps with the wide receivers instead of dunking on linebackers over and over.

Smith looks a bit bigger and bulkier but also hasn’t lost his athleticism. He has had no trouble getting separation against the likes of Nick Vigil or Blake Lynch. Most impressively, though, Jake Browning has tested his catch radius with spotty accuracy.

Smith has looked good as a blocker for what it’s worth, though most of that comes from before the Vikings held any padded practices (Tuesday was the first).

Jake Browning

While the COVID vaccination drama rages on, Browning stands atop it. He has the best opportunity a young hopeful can imagine: every ounce of competition you have is held out for several days, and the spotlight is on you. With that opportunity, Browning has shown us what he’s capable of.

The Vikings did bring in some help in Danny Etling and Case Cookus, though neither of them has participated in any live team reps. You can’t really evaluate a quarterback on standstill wide receiver drills, so it’s probably safe to bet that Etling and Cookus aren’t getting a true shot to take anyone’s job.

Browning is taking every rep possible to prove he can be Kirk Cousins’ primary backup, and he has been inconsistent. His accuracy has been up and down, and he has played very safe in situational drills, favoring check-downs and throwaways during pressured snaps. The latter isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for a backup. But there isn’t exactly explosiveness to get excited about.

However, he looks comfortable with the offense and has earned praise from Garrett Bradbury for stepping up during this trying time. A command of the offense and safe tendencies might be enough on their own to earn a backup job. They’ll have to be if Browning is to solidify his spot on the team, as his deep accuracy is uninspiring. Further, there’s a lack of anything explosive about Browning’s game. Poor arm strength, only adequate mobility, and many misses keep Browning from being all that exciting.

Oli Udoh

The offensive line has struggled but has also been banged up. Christian Darrisaw and Cohl Cabral have missed extended time, and now Wyatt Davis is missing a few days. Zimmer expects both back sooner than later, but it has given way to a unique opportunity for Oli Udoh.

Udoh has rotated with Dakota Dozier at first-team right guard, and to my eye, outplayed him. There hasn’t been any adjustment in reps, so the official word is that the battle rages on. But in terms of performance in 1-on-1s, stunt drills, and 11-on-11, Dozier seems to be making more mistakes. Further, when they’re with the 2s, Dozier has looked more like he belonged than Udoh, who seemed to romp on the lower level of competition.

More notes:

Some other unorganized odds and ends from the first few practices in camp.

  • K.J. Osborn has stood out and is beginning to run away with the thirrd wide receiver job. His routes and ball tracking have improved tremendously.
  • Dede Westbrook has only done punt return work as the Vikings ease him back.
  • Vigil and Cam Smith are splitting reps as the first team LB3. To my eye, Smith has defended the run better, and Vigil has covered better. To the base package linebacker, rushing may factor in more.
  • Camryn Bynum doesn’t look like he’s new to the safety position. There have been a few rookie mistakes and one busted coverage for a long Smith-Marsette touchdown, but he’s picking it up fast.
  • Armon Watts has taken a lot of first-team reps with Michael Pierce nursing a calf injury. His play has been up-and-down. Notably, Ezra Cleveland has given him the most trouble.
  • Brian O’Neill pops off the tape when asked to kick outside.
  • It is difficult to see a path for Dan Chisena to make the roster this year. The young rookie class is chock full of punt gunners, all playing just as well as Chisena. At wide receiver, Chisena is the easiest one for everyone to cover.
  • The second easiest receiver to cover, to my eye, has been Chad Beebe. Even struggling corners like Tye Smith and Amari Henderson have been able to keep up.
  • Danielle Hunter has made Rashod Hill’s life a living nightmare. Hill’s footwork seems to have regressed to old habits, though I haven’t seen a very large sample.
  • Phil Rauscher is a yeller. His voice echoes over the bleachers, for both good and bad reasons.
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