Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Finally training camp is here.
After cancellations of offseason activities and delays to get camp started, the Minnesota Vikings are working out at TCO Performance Center and Friday marks the first time reporters will be allowed to view practice. With camp kicking off, here’s the top storylines we will be watching the closest…
As much as we are all worn down by it, the No. 1 storyline in every camp around the NFL is COVID-19. The league faces the monumental task of keeping the virus out without a bubble but the phonebook of protocols has players being tested daily, socially distancing around the facility and holding lots of virtual meetings in attempts to stave off the pandemic shutting things down.
“Everybody from the staff from the players when you go home you have to have just as much responsibility outside the building as you do inside the building so I think the NFL and the NFLPA have done a great job trying to put this protocol in place and we have to be disciplined enough to follow all of this protocol,” general manager Rick Spielman said this week.
Beyond the challenges of maintaining the health and safety of an 80-man roster and dozens of coaches and team employees, the Vikings’ staff will be forced to evaluate players in a very tiny window of time before making final cuts. While veterans have said that their bodies did not miss being subjected to offseason workouts, OTAs and minicamp, young players on the bubble did not have a chance to make early impressions and won’t have preseason games to shine when the lights are bright.
“The most difficult thing is we can go out there and practice guys see the same plays all the time but then they go out there in a preseason game and see plays they haven’t seen before and you have to see how they react and how they move and how they think on the field without a coach telling them,” head coach Mike Zimmer said.
Even in a normal year evaluations are challenging. Zimmer used the example of the Vikings cutting projected starting defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo in 2017 and 2018 as proof that teams can miss on a quality player. This year’s camp will give the coaching staff the smallest sample size they have ever worked with. One bonus, however, is that they can have 16 players instead of 10 on the practice squad. The battles for those extra spots will be heated.
Dalvin Cook’s contract
In June ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Dalvin Cook would hold out if he and the Vikings didn’t work out a new long-term contract. Through the first few days of walk-through and workouts Cook has been in attendance at TCO Performance Center. The question is whether he will participate in padded practices without a new deal.
“ I know how important Dalvin Cook is and I know we’ve been working closely with his agent, and we’ll continue to work to try to see if there’s a deal that we feel is not only fair to Dalvin but fair to us as well,” Spielman said.
What’s fair appears to be debatable between the two sides. The value of running back contracts has not risen at the same rate as other positions in recent years and this summer’s $16 million per year deal for Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey may have put a cap on Cook’s earning potential. There is also the element of the salary cap going down next year due to ticket revenue losses that may have the Vikings thinking closely about how high they’re willing to go for the Pro Bowl running back.
In the past, the Vikings have aimed to open camp with a contract announcement (or three, in 2017). How long negotiations go into August will be something to keep an eye on.
Adapting to the NFL is hard enough as a rookie receiver but first-round pick Justin Jefferson will likely be asked to overcome the truncated offseason to solidify a Vikings receiving corps that is minus its 2019 leading receiver (by far) in Stefon Diggs.
“It’s been interesting to see his body control, the way he’s able to go down and get a ball, go up and get a ball, a ball’s behind him and he’s going and adjusting to that,” receiver Adam Thielen said about the rookie. “It’s pretty impressive, honestly. Excited to see him in person and to be around him more these next couple days just because, like I said, I’ve seen a lot from afar. It’ll be interesting, it’ll be good to be around him more.”
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said that he’s working to catch Jefferson up to speed after he missed several days on the COVID/reserve list. Kubiak also noted that he’s aware Jefferson’s strength as a college receiver was playing out of the slot, which could end up being his role early on until he can master the entire offense. Whether he’s running with the first team or not in camp will give us an indication of the former LSU star’s starting point for his rookie year.
Who’s playing guard?
The Vikings surprised everyone earlier this offseason by releasing veteran Josh Kline, who started 13 games last season at right guard. Now at least one guard position is a wide open competition, according to Kubiak.
“We have four of those guys back so we go right back with them and Dakota [Dozier] and [Aviante Collins] and Ezra [Cleveland] are working at the other spot,” Kubiak said. “As we line up today, we have four of our five back and somebody will end up playing the other guard position. We'll see what happens but it's going to be a very competitive nature through the course of camp. We have six weeks until we play a game and a lot to get done.”
The other guard spot could be up for grabs as well. Last season Pat Elflein was 87th of 87 interior offensive linemen in pass blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus.
While we don’t know who the starting five will be yet, one thing is clear: The Vikings did not go to the free agent market to replace Kline -- a decision that will be questioned if the interior of the line does not appear to be improved by the end of camp.
The cornerback carousel
This offseason saw all three of the Vikings’ starting cornerbacks leave. Xavier Rhodes was released and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander both opted to sign as free agents in Cincinnati.
That leaves three inexperienced corners in 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes, 2018 undrafted free agent Holton Hill and first-round pick Jeff Gladney as the favorites to take over their spots with 2019 seventh-rounder Kris Boyd and third-round pick Cam Dantzler with a chance to force their way into the competition.
The fact that only Hughes has played in the NFL at nickel corner before makes the decision on starters even more difficult.
“We’re going to still figure that out,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “It’s still early. I think Mike [Hughes] has done a good job in the past for us, and he’s really good at [nickel corner]. He also plays well outside.... We’ll give a few guys an opportunity to see what they can do and, again, find the best combination and get the best players on the field.”
The Vikings will have to make an educated guess on which players are most ready since they will not have a chance to see them in preseason action.
Replacing Michael Pierce
The Vikings’ biggest offseason acquisition Michael Pierce elected to opt out of the 2020 season due to health concerns, which leaves a huge hole (literally) along the defensive line. Pierce has been a dominant run stuffer with the capability of rushing the passer.
It may take multiple players to fill his role. Which players will be in that mix is yet to be determined.
"Shamar Stephen's done it before, and he's as good a nose as there is,” Adam Zimmer said. “He's really good in the run game. He's an extremely smart player... Armon Watts played it a lot for us last year, and he played well. I think he's got the ability to play a couple positions inside for us. That's all going to shake out. Jaleel Johnson maybe can do it. We're going to rotate those guys around and see what's the best combination.”
Last week the Vikings attempted to trade for PJ Hall from the Raiders but he failed his physical and was sent back to Las Vegas. Will they add someone else off the free agent market if the coaches don’t like what they see in early practices? Can Watts step up and go from playing 123 snaps last season to starting? Will someone else like Hercules Mata’afa or fourth-round pick James Lynch emerge as a pass rushing option?
Kubiak’s offense returns
While the Vikings are changing offensive coordinators, they will be running the same offense under Kubiak. Will that help the offense gel together in short order?
“It certainly helps, because we’re not starting from ground zero,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Anytime you enter a training camp, we always go back and start with install one, even though we may have gone through it all in OTAs and minicamp. So from that standpoint, as we go through meetings here in training camp, that doesn’t feel any different. But it’s important for us as an offense. Now we’re able to kind of hone in on details of Gary’s scheme and things that we can build on from last year.”
Whether that actually plays out throughout camp will be among the things to study in the coming weeks. The system may be the same and the teacher may be long proven but there are plenty of players who are either rookies or have expanded roles like Irv Smith Jr. and possibly Bisi Johnson or who didn’t see much of the field last year like starting guard hopeful Dakota Dozier.
The pass rush
Losing Everson Griffen in free agency to Dallas is significant. Now first-year starter Ifeadi Odenigbo will be asked to handle a heavy workload at right defensive end.
“What he cannot do is put pressure on himself that, ‘OK, I’ve got a chance to be a starting player, so now I’m going to change my routine and change everything,’” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said of Odenigbo. “That’s the worst thing that he can do. All he’s got to do is keep his focus on what he’s done to get himself to this level that he’s at right now and just keep improving and getting better and he’ll be just fine.”
The Vikings will look to either two veterans in Anthony Zettel and Eddie Yarbrough and/or rookie fourth-rounder DJ Wonnum and seventh-round pick Kenny Willekes to emerge as potential rotational players. Last year Stephen Weatherly and Odenigbo were strong in rotational roles but they each took several seasons before they were ready for those jobs. Will we be surprised by someone stepping up right out of the gate or will the Vikings need to sign someone off the free agent market?
One of the underrated hurdles that every team will face is preparing for every situation. Teams spend weeks and weeks of practice time working on goal line situations and two-minute drills etc. in camp. This year that will all have to be crammed into a couple weeks leading up to the opener at US Bank Stadium against the Green Bay Packers.
“We’re going to try to put them in as many game-like situations as we possibly can,” Zimmer said.
What will that look like exactly? How much time can they dedicate to those situations when time is limited?
Who are the depth receivers?
We know Adam Thielen is the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver and that Bisi Johnson and Justin Jefferson will be seeing significant playing time. After that, it’s up in the air. Last year Alexander Hollins went from the last guy on the depth chart to the active roster and made several plays in the Week 17 game against the Bears.
Behind him are plenty of contender for roles, including likely punt returner KJ Osborn, last year’s seventh-round pick and potential deep threat Dillon Mitchell and Chad Beebe, who had a strong camp last season but got hurt in Week 2. Where free agent signee Tajae Sharpe fits in is unknown along with whether a long shot like UDFA Quartney Davis can make an impact.
Jake Browning vs. Nate Stanley
This one might not seem like a big deal -- and in past years the No. 3 vs. No. 4 quarterback battle hasn’t meant much -- but teams will want to be secure in their quarterback depth chart in the case that COVID strikes.
Browning made a strong impression in camp last year and spent the entire season on the practice squad but the Vikings spent a seventh-round pick to grab Iowa’s starting QB. They both could end up on the practice squad in 2020 but which player is more ready in the case of extreme emergency will be intriguing. How much practice time either player actually gets will also be notable.