Coller: Analyzing the Vikings' most difficult cutdown decisions

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Hercules Mata'afa

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.

The lack of preseason games in the NFL this year has certainly given Minnesota Vikings training camp a different feel from seasons past but over the last few weeks we have seen a number of interesting developments, including a major trade and emergence of several intriguing depth players who have a chance to make the roster.

The Vikings only have Friday’s practice before they have to cut the roster down to 53 and even with an expanded practice squad, there are many questions still to be answered.

Let’s have a look at the toughest decisions they will face when chopping the roster down...

With Ngakoue in, who is out on the D-line?

The Vikings have never been a team that shies away from a big splash move so it shouldn’t have been a shock to see them send a second-round draft pick to Jacksonville for star pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. It was already a crowded room before Ngakoue arrived, now there is even more competition for spots (though the team placing seventh-round pick Kenny Willekes on injured reserve Wednesday may have helped them to some extent because he was making a case for a place on the 53).

With Danielle Hunter missing most of camp with a “tweak” of some sort, Jalyn Holmes has filled in with the first team. But the Vikings may still have a tough decision on whether to keep him. Earlier this offseason head coach Mike Zimmer said they might end up keeping players with more potential over those who had been around longer. Holmes is entering his third season and has already switched positions and rarely seen the field. Coming out of college he was thought to be a project so the decision may come down to whether they see him growing.

Holmes’s size gives him a case to remain on the squad because Ngakoue isn’t best fit for run-stuffing situations. Having an extra D-end who weighs in the 275-pound range could come in handy on the goal line or on third-and-short.

Journeyman Eddie Yarbrough has made a case for a situational pass-rush role with a strong camp but if the Vikings feel less compelled to keep a part-time rusher with Ngakoue in place, they could move on and hope to sneak him onto the practice squad. Whether Hunter can play in Week 1 could also play into the decision.

It’s likely they will keep lanky fourth-round rookie DJ Wonnum and hope he’s taking notes from Hunter and Ngakoue.

Another player who is changing positions, defensive tackle James Lynch, spent the entire camp playing with the third team. While he was a fourth-round pick and we rarely see players in the middle rounds get the axe, the Vikings could choose to keep Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts and Hercules Mata’afa as their true defensive tackles and plan to move Ifeadi Odenigbo inside. Of course, there is also a case for keeping the 21-year-old Lynch rather than Mata’afa.

The Vikings generally draft and sign UDFAs for their upside. When there’s a crop of players who haven’t yet reached their peak but have potential, the decisions get pretty tough.

Most likely scenario: Danielle Hunter, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Yannick Ngakoue, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Eddie Yarbrough, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, James Lynch

The depth receivers

Few players made more standout plays in camp practices than Alexander Hollins, who rose up the depth chart last year from the very bottom to the active roster in the playoffs. He flashed some deep-threat ability in Week 17 against Chicago and has carried that over to Eagan in the past few weeks, which opens the door for a potential role that the Vikings do not currently have filled.

But the competition for the final spots in the receiving room is stiff. Splash plays were fewer in number for veteran Tajae Sharpe than they were for Hollins but the former Titan has a track record of contributing in an offense that closely reflects Gary Kubiak’s scheme. Last year in Tennessee he caught 25 passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns. Having a known commodity in Sharpe may be more attractive than the younger Hollins.

Of course, they could keep both and cut Chad Beebe. The quick slot receiver has impressed in three straight training camps but struggled to stay healthy in 2018 and 2019. With first-round pick Justin Jefferson set to play in the slot, there might not be room for someone else who is limited to that role.

It appears rookie KJ Osborn will take on the Marcus Sherels role of being only a specialist as a kick and punt returner but if the Vikings see potential as a receiver, they might not be compelled to keep six receivers.

Most likely scenario: Adam Thielen, Bisi Johnson, Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe, Alexander Hollins, KJ Osborn

The late-round picks

The Vikings drafted 15 players, which means that there will be picks that end up getting cut. In fact, they already parted ways with safety Brian Cole, who was a seventh-round pick. Cornerback Harrison Hand, a fifth-rounder, has an outside chance at landing a special teams role but could be on the chopping block with rookies Cam Dantzler and Jeff Gladney along with Holton Hill, Mike Hughes and special teams ace Kris Boyd being locks to make it.

Riley Reiff reworking his contract may have eliminated sixth-round pick tackle Blake Brandel’s chances of earning a place on the team, though the Vikings could choose him over Aviante Collins, who lost the guard competition to Dakota Dozier.

Josh Metellus, a sixth-round safety, spent a good deal of practice time with the second team, which likely means he’ll make the team out of camp. It’s unlikely seventh-rounder Kyle Hinton sticks as a backup guard.

Most likely scenario: Out of the eight draft picks past the fourth round, KJ Osborn and Josh Metellus could be the only ones who end up on the 53-man roster.

UDFAs, backup quarterbacks and veteran surprises

The most interesting undrafted free agents have been safety Myles Dorn and linebacker Blake Lynch. Each worked in second-team roles late into camp. Both backup quarterbacks Jake Browning and Nate Stanley are likely to get cut. One or both will end up on the practice squad.

There doesn’t appear to be a surprise veteran cut as we’ve seen in past years with players like Brian Robison or Alex Boone. Running back Ameer Abdullah might end up without a job because Osborn has taken over returning duties. He would be the oldest player to get let go in that case.

Bottom line

The bones of the Vikings’ roster have been set for months with few surprises coming in this truncated training camp. But the depth of the roster will be fascinating to study and could make a difference down the stretch of the season, whether it comes to injuries or COVID. 

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