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5 questions for the Vikings preseason opener against the Broncos

After a wild training camp, what could we see on Saturday?
K.J. Osborn

If you were hoping for a business-like training camp, the Minnesota Vikings would probably like to apologize. After a two-week stretch that included an indictment, low vaccination rates, and injuries to star players, the Vikings will open their preseason schedule on Saturday against the Denver Broncos.

Casual fans will tune in for the first couple of series before the starters call it an afternoon but there will be plenty to keep an eye on as the Vikings take the field for the first (unofficial) time.

How much will the starters play?

Long-time football fans can recite the preseason schedule by heart but that could change this season. With the reduction from four games to three, Zimmer told reporters on Thursday he wasn't sure how much his starters would play in the preseason opener.

It's likely that the first unit will play a couple of series and come out of the game but there's also a case to get both sides extra work.

The offense has been uneven during training camp after Kirk Cousins missed five days of practice as a high-risk, close contact of Kellen Mond, who tested positive for COVID-19. In order to make up for lost reps, the Vikings could give Cousins some extra work but may not be willing to risk injury.

The defense could also see extended time as they'll have five new starters from last season. But the defense remains a veteran group, meaning this game will likely belong to the backups.

Can Jake Browning secure the backup quarterback job?

While Cousins, Mond and Nate Stanley have been missing from practice, Jake Browning has taken the opportunity to seize the backup quarterback job. Browning spent the past two years on the practice squad but has performed well in camp and has drawn praise from Zimmer.

It's one thing to dominate during camp but it's another to perform well in games. Browning is already one step ahead of preseason legend Kyle Sloter in that regard but will see plenty of work against Denver on Saturday. A good showing could help him continue to trend upward and help him make the active roster.

What's going on at wide receiver?

Justin Jefferson is unlikely to play due to a shoulder injury and with Adam Thielen also banged up, it will be a big opportunity for the Vikings' young receivers to shine through.

One name to watch is K.J. Osborn, who has shined throughout the offseason. After struggling as a punt returner last season, Osborn has seen more opportunities at receiver during camp and is the favorite for the prestigious Mr. Mankato award.

If he plays well against the Broncos, Osborn could create separation from the rest of the field. Dede Westbrook is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season while Chad Beebe and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are probably suited for the back end of the roster.

Is the offensive line in trouble?

There's a long way to go before the regular season starts but things aren't looking good for the offensive line.

First-round pick Christian Darrisaw underwent surgery on Thursday for a groin injury that has lingered since last season and Rashod Hill figures to get the start against the Broncos.

Hill has been a swing tackle for the Vikings since 2016 and even started eight games for between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. But Hill has struggled when placed into a starting role and has struggled during training camp.

While Hill has struggled on the outside, the Vikings continue to play musical chairs at guard. Ezra Cleveland has moved from the right to the left side while Oli Udoh began the offseason program at tackle but has transitioned to left guard.

This puts pressure on veterans Brian O'Neill and Garrett Bradbury. If they struggle, the Vikings could have issues against a gauntlet of elite pass rushers that includes Trey Hendrickson, J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett in the first month. It may not be Denver's first team but even a modest performance would breed confidence.

Have the Vikings fixed their special teams?

Special teams were one of the Vikings' biggest weaknesses last season and so far in camp, there hasn't been much of an improvement.

The Vikings botched several punts during Wednesday's practice with the Broncos and while Westbrook's return should help, they'll need to find someone that can help turn the field in their favor.

Rookies Smith-Marsette and Kene Nwangwu could help in this regard but Zimmer has lamented the former's struggles on special teams, leaving punt returner as a giant question mark.

The Vikings also have issues at kicker with Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson battling for the starting job. Joseph has been the steadier of the two during practice but Patterson has the bigger leg.

Whatever the outcome, Zimmer didn't revamp his roster to have it screwed up by a kicker. Having called out his kicker's preseason performance before, Saturday could be a big game for the Vikings' special teams.

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