This is the last week of 2021 without a regular-season football game. Training camp is over, and roster cuts are underway. The next order of business? Naming someone Mr. Mankato.
Every year the Minnesota Vikings crown an under-the-radar player who showed out in training camp. Even though the training camp isn’t located in Mankato, Minn. anymore, the tradition continues. This year’s nominees included second-year wide receiver K.J. Osborn, third-year tackle turned guard Oli Udoh, and primed-for-a-breakout tight end Irv Smith Jr.
Even though Smith Jr. needs surgery on a meniscus injury he suffered against the Kansas City Chiefs, it cannot be ignored how stellar he was throughout camp and even in the preseason. Versus the Chiefs, he caught all three targets for 39 yards. Smith made up around half of Kirk Cousins’ total passing yards in the first-team offense’s three drives.
He was the Vikings’ highest-graded player in Friday’s game, putting up a 91.2 grade, per PFF.
Further, Smith seemed primed to break out. From screens to being the first read on rollouts, the offense seemed to run through him at times. With Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen commanding a lot of attention, Smith was the perfect third option in the passing game that could take advantage of those easier matchups.
Another Mr. Mankato candidate is Osborn, a second-year wide receiver. Before training camp and even this spring, the word on Osborn was not very good. His rough rookie season was made up of fumbles and muffs in the return game, and the Vikings did not give him a single offensive snap.
This spring and through training camp was the first time the Vikings and the media got to see Osborn with the offense. Due to COVID protocols last year, Osborn had no in-person spring activities, a shorter training camp, and no preseason. When he finally got the chance to display his abilities, it showed.
He was praised by both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, and got snaps with the first-team offense throughout training camp. He was given ample opportunity because Dede Westbrook started camp not participating in any team drills as he rehabbed from the ACL, but Osborn showed that he belonged.
Not only did he display his abilities down the field, connecting on multiple deep throws from Cousins, but he was also productive on intermediate routes.
The third candidate is Oli Udoh, a huge surprise going into training camp. The Vikings had the league’s worst guard play last year and didn’t do much to upgrade it via free agency. Their only addition along the offensive line was a trade for a backup center/guard in Mason Cole.
Further, when they drafted OSU’s highly acclaimed Wyatt Davis, it was fair to assume that he would easily steal the starting job from incumbent Dakota Dozier. However, this proved to be incorrect. Instead, it was Udoh, the former sixth-rounder from Elon, who was the star of the show.
It always felt like something was brewing with Udoh. When the team rested its starters in a Week 17 matchup before the playoffs, Udoh started his first game at right tackle and held his own against Khalil Mack. However, the Vikings transitioned Udoh to guard when Zimmer mentioned that it was his intention to “get bigger” along the offensive line. Udoh’s wingspan and weight were both in the top quarter percentile among guards.
Udoh initially rotated with Dozier for the guard spot. But after the second preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, when Udoh and the rest of the interior offensive line held their own against DeForest Buckner and the stout Colts interior, the job was his.
Irv Smith Jr. has been progressing since the end of last season, so to some degree, this was expected out of him. While Osborn perhaps improved the most from last year, Udoh is probably the player who will help the Vikings the most next year. He’s a much-improved starter in a position that has been the team’s worst for years now. He’s this year’s Mr. Mankato.