The Vikings Are Prioritizing Intensity Over the Grind

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings failed to close the loop with the San Francisco 49ers after losing to the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs last year. They had hosted the Niners for joint practices in mid-August and saw the potential in Kyle Shanahan’s squad. San Francisco won their first-round matchup against the Seattle Seahawks and would have hosted Minnesota had they beaten the Giants. Instead, the Niners beat the Dallas Cowboys before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game.

“I can go back to when this Vikings team first started practicing during training camp,” Za’Darius Smith said last year. “I really didn’t know the team then. But I had a sense of what we could be when the 49ers came in here for those two days of joint practices.”

The joint practices are more useful for veteran players who have solidified their spot on the roster. The Vikings don’t want Justin Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, or Kirk Cousins to get hurt in a meaningless game. But they also want to test their first-team offense and defense against bona fide competition. Their solution is to bring other teams to camp and have them square off in a low-contact environment. The veterans get to shake the dust off, the fringe players get to prove themselves against their peers on other teams, and everyone gets to see a different look.

“The joint practices are better than what the preseason games have become,” Adam Thielen said in November. “But, honestly, you never really, truly know what you have from year to year until the real games start.”

The Vikings cut Thielen and traded Smith as part of their competitive rebuild. They also let Eric Kendricks go. After shedding core veterans and coming off a season where they won 11 one-score games, Minnesota needs to know what they have before they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. Therefore, they are bringing in their two home preseason opponents, the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals, for joint practices.

“We learned a lot about our football team that week. Everybody knew what kind of team would be coming in from a competition standpoint,” Kevin O’Connell said, recalling San Francisco’s visit last year. “I knew what we were getting from that organization coming in here, and it was very competitive. That should push that line sometimes. The guys are truly preparing for Week 1 of the regular season.”

Minnesota will probably be facing lesser competition this year. The Niners finished 13-4 last season. Tennessee was 7-10 in a weak division; the Cardinals finished 4-13. But Mike Vrabel’s talented, physical defense will test the Vikings. Arizona fired head coach Kliff Kingsbury in the offseason, and Kyler Murray is injured. In that case, it’s more about bringing in outside competition to push the veterans and test the players fighting for a roster spot. It also allows O’Connell and his staff to structure his practice schedule, ensuring everything each player is doing has a purpose.

Two different looks. So now, essentially, you get the early part of training camp versus our own defense — we’ll be competing like crazy. But then you get two different structures of offense and defense and special teams that guys can truly test where they’re at in preparation to not only make our team but to see where they’re at in regards to that opener. Maybe where they need to study a little bit more. Hey, the looks are changing. Things are happening differently than what we’re used to from the spring and early parts of training camp.

Minnesota didn’t use all of the days the collective bargaining agreement allowed last year. That may change this year, given that new defensive coordinator Brian Flores is installing an aggressive, physical defensive scheme. The Vikings have a player performance staff that instructs them on how to get the most out of their players. There are days when they want players to rest and go through walkthroughs, and there are times when they want them to go full bore. Many of Minnesota’s practices will be about learning the Xs and Os rather than physicality. But the joint practices will get intense.

Ultimately, the Vikings want to ensure their players get through a 17-game season as healthy as possible. O’Connell brought Tyler Williams over from the Los Angeles Rams. He and his staff monitor the health and well-being of the players, putting them on an optimal path to perform at their peak all season. Therefore, they shouldn’t overwork them in the summer. Joint practices seem to be a good compromise. They get to practice against other teams instead of their defense. They also create a low-stakes preseason game for their veterans before the fringe players battle it out for roster spots in the exhibition games. By hosting joint practices, they’re taking advantage of their new facility, which comfortably hosts opposing teams.

The Vikings are finding creative new ways to prepare for a season where they have much to prove. They went 11-0 in one-score games last year but then lost to the underdog by a touchdown in the playoffs. They’ve cut core veterans and traded productive players to be cap-compliant and open opportunities for their best young players. Minnesota feels it is on the vanguard of player health and performance. But they’re still figuring out who they are. Joint practices are a step they’re taking in August to have more success than in January last year.

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