Without Their Veterans, the Vikings Are Establishing Much-Needed Depth At OTAs

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell addressed the media after Tuesday’s OTA session, and it went about how you would expect. He thanked everyone for coming out and said he hoped they had a happy Memorial Day weekend. He praised some of his young players and the work they were putting in toward the 2023 season.

Everything was status quo until a reporter asked O’Connell about his receivers’ progress without Justin Jefferson‘s presence. O’Connell first opted to talk about the players who were there. But then he started squirming like he was in a dentist’s chair when he was asked again about Jefferson’s absence.

“I hope to see him as soon as possible,” O’Connell said. “I think our participation amongst the whole team has been so good that we’re able to get great work, and we’d love to have him here obviously. But I think as we work towards minicamp, we’ll have a real clean-cut plan of what that looks like and hopefully get him some work, and I know a lot of the guys will be excited to see him.”

Those comments don’t have the same I’m coming to your house to drag you to minicamp energy that Mike Zimmer once displayed. But it’s clear that O’Connell would prefer to have everyone at TCO Performance Center in the same way that the Vikings spent last offseason, learning the playbook and having backyard BBQs in an effort to establish a culture that fueled a 13-win season.

But if Jefferson, Danielle Hunter, and others don’t show up to minicamp, it’s not a bad thing. Their absence has created opportunities for some of the younger players. During the first two weeks of OTAs, they’ve taken advantage to provide the type of depth the Vikings haven’t had in years.

Think back to the end of the Zimmer era. When the Vikings were healthy and happy, they were one of the best teams in the NFL. An uncanny amount of good fortune spurned their march to the NFC Championship Game. Then they relied on their core players to heavily this performance with the franchise hanging in the balance.

But the NFL isn’t like a game of Madden where you can turn down the injury sliders. Players get banged up. They get hurt. Some call it the next man up mentality, but it might be more accurate to call it last man standing. The teams with the most depth usually go the furthest in the playoffs. Over the last couple of years, the Vikings were a house of cards.

Think back to the 2020 season when Hunter’s “tweak” turned into a season-ending neck injury. While the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue to soften the blow (and traded him away after five games), Zimmer and his staff threw his hands up as the pass rush ranked 28th in the league in sacks.

The following season, Zimmer revealed that he only trusted half his roster in games. The Vikings spent the rest of the season as a high-wire act. Zimmer put the entire rookie class was put on the back burner as he spent the entire season trying to get every drop out of his aging veterans. Injuries popped up throughout the year, and the Vikings went 8-9, paving the way for O’Connell to take over.

O’Connell’s offseason programs aren’t as intense as the previous regime’s, but they also don’t rely on veterans as much. Where Zimmer strictly focused on the 22 starters, O’Connell and his staff have boasted of their ability to teach young players. While learning behind players like Jefferson and Hunter isn’t a bad thing, getting them on the field for extended reps can’t hurt.

That’s what has happened at wide receiver as Jefferson waits for a new contract and Jordan Addison has sat out with an undisclosed injury. With the presumptive top two receivers on the sideline, K.J. Osborn has been acting as the No. 1 receiver and making a positive impression on his head coach.

“K.J. has been a real standout all spring,” O’Connell said. “He’s moving around, he’s playing multiple spots [and] taking on a leadership role, which I expected him to do in that room. It’s just been a really cool process to see not only his ownership of what his role was previously, but you can see it when he breaks the huddle he knows what to do. He knows how to apply all the different techniques and fundamentals that [wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell] and [assistant receivers coach Tony Sorrentino] talk about and then his ability to be consistent no matter where we put him – run or pass – is huge.”

While many expect Osborn to have an increased role after the Vikings released Adam Thielen, the bigger impact could be felt on the back end of the depth chart. That’s where players like Jalen Nailor and Jalen Reagor have taken advantage of their opportunities, establishing themselves in what could be one of the most intriguing position battles during training camp.

“One of the things that’s been great about this spring is getting to see different combinations of guys in different spots,” O’Connell said. “Truly, in real time, seeing who is exactly where and in the lens of comfort in any position in our offense. We teach concepts, we teach roles and responsibilities that we can alter and change at any time based upon what we see fit when the season comes around.”

“Multiple roles” could have an entirely different, more literal meaning with Brian Flores taking over at defensive coordinator. After spending a season with Ed Donatell’s rigid scheme, Flores brings an approach more fitting of “The Illusion of Complexity” that O’Connell described at his opening press conference.

Already in OTAs, players have noted distinct changes in the defense, including multiple fronts featuring guys lining up at the line of scrimmage and playing different positions.

This is key when considering that Harrison Smith also missed the first week of OTAs. While the 34-year-old returned for this week’s sessions, his absence presented opportunity to younger players like Camryn Bynum, Lewis Cine, and Josh Metellus. All three seem to be poised to be used throughout Flores’ defense after the first couple weeks of OTAs.

“It’s really a matter of learning every position on the field,” Bynum told The Athletic’s Alec Lewis. “That’s where the learning [of this scheme] is different.”

Lewis also noted that Metellus has also been playing all over the field during OTAs, playing with the first-teamers and lining up as a safety, nickel corner, and even as a pass rusher. With Cine also getting acclimated after a broken leg ended his rookie season, there’s a lot of learning going on at TCO Performance Center, which is something O’Connell has stressed to his team.

“When we are in this learning and teaching phase, we are evaluating where these guys are at mentally because they’re all very talented,” O’Connell said. “But as I just told the team when we broke it down, it’s one thing when you break the huddle, you know exactly what to do, where to align, what exactly your job is. And you know how much better you do your job on that play than the two or three times a day when a guy may break the huddle with some indecision and not know what to do. It slows our whole operation down. … If there were five of those plays a week ago, we’re trying to see loss today and hopefully none by the end of minicamp.”

Eventually, Jefferson, Hunter and the rest of the veterans will return to camp and relegate some of the OTA stars to the sideline. But for now, those pieces are getting the most they can out of the situation. It could lead to a level of depth that will make O’Connell much more comfortable at the podium than when he was asked about the players who weren’t at OTAs.

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