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 preseason opener is one of the best dates on the NFL schedule. It’s still summer time, the sun stays out past eight o’clock and you can come in from an evening on the lake and get a glimpse of the Minnesota Vikings without much chance of them making you upset.
If we’re being honest, that is about all preseason games have been worth in recent years. So this year’s agreement between the players and the NFL to cancel preseason games due to COVID risks is very unlikely to change the course of any team’s 2020 season.
We might have whimsical notions of the 89th man on the roster making a key special teams tackle in a preseason game and suddenly rising up the depth chart to win a job but that’s much more Hollywood than reality.
There is no better proof than last year’s social media support for fourth-quarter preseason hero quarterback Kyle Sloter. He entertained fans who were dying for some fun football in August but the team had zero plans of making him their backup quarterback. In dozens of practices, veteran Sean Mannion showed a far better grasp of the Vikings’ actual offense -- not the phony scheme they were running in exhibition play. Mannion won the job early on, Sloter was released and spent time on two other teams last season. He currently doesn’t have an NFL gig.
Teams make these decisions over the hundreds of hours of practice and meetings they have with players, not in fake games.
Additionally with expanded practice squad rosters, if a player can’t crack the top 65 in practice, there’s nothing he was going to do in preseason games to convince the Vikings he’s the next Adam Thielen (who only had two catches in his first preseason, by the way).
Getting excited about players that won’t matter toward the following season is certainly part of the joy of preseason. Guys like Mcleod Bethel-Thompson, Audie Cole and Roc Thomas have flashed exhibition greatness and we can appreciate them for what they were while realizing that any player who’s going to make a difference in the near future isn’t getting much run in those games. The Los Angeles Rams have flat-out refused to play starters under head coach Sean McVay and many teams have severely cut down any work for important players.
Even commissioner Roger Goodell has been in favor of reducing the preseason.
“I’ve asked every football guy, ‘How many preseason games do we really need to prepare your team and develop players and evaluate players and get yourself ready for the season?” Goodell said in 2017. “And I think that has shifted dramatically in the last three years. I think that coaches and football people think that you could do this in three [games], and I actually think that’s better for the fans. I actually don’t think the preseason games are of the quality that I’m really proud of.”
Where the Vikings will be truly challenged is by the lack of padded practices. If the NFL agrees to the players’ proposal to alter the training camp schedule, it will chop the slate to only 14 real workouts.
“Imagine you’re on the cusp of making a team and you only have 14 days to do so, you’re not going to do it, they’re going to take all the veterans,” former Viking Geoff Schwartz said on his podcast. “Now the NFL is trying to cram all this ramp-up period into a short amount of time in training camp. Fourteen practices is not enough to get you ready to play.”
Roster bubble players everywhere will have a very tough time proving their worth since practices will be heavily focused on getting the starters prepared for action.
So rookies like fourth-round pick DJ Wonnum and seventh-round pick Kenny Willekes will have a serious uphill battle competing for rotational roles on the defensive line with veterans Anthony Zettel and Eddie Yarbrough. Defensive tackle James Lynch, who put together monster numbers at Baylor last year, similarly will have a long way to go in two weeks in order to work his way into the lineup over experienced players in front of him. And promising undrafted free agents Nevelle Clark and Quartney Davis may have to settle for practice squad gigs because they simply won’t get a legitimate shot to take anyone’s job.
“Without preseason games we're going to have to set up situations throughout practice where we're, number one, we're going to have live contact,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We're going to have to evaluate guys with some of our younger guys against our better guys and try to evaluate those players in those situations, so the evaluation part will probably be the biggest thing for a lot of these young guys. We haven't seen a lot of these guys in person since January 13 for the veterans and we haven't seen rookies in person at all, so we're going to have to start with the baby steps.”
Beyond those on the bubble for part-time gigs or roster spots, the Vikings would be specifically in tough with a shortage of practices because of the number of new/inexperienced players who are projected to take important positions.
The exits of Stefon Diggs, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander -- all of whom had been with the Vikings since at least 2016 -- have opened up gaping holes that need to be filled by either rookies or first-year starters.
Behind Thielen on the receiver depth chart is first-round pick Justin Jefferson, who will be expected to pick up a chunk of the production and playmaking lost in the Diggs trade. But expectations may have to be tempered. The jump from college to the NFL is already difficult enough at that position -- zero rookie receivers caught more than 60 passes last year.
If you think receiver is hard for young players, cornerback makes that look like a walk in the park. The Vikings’ projected three starters are Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and rookie Jeff Gladney. The first two have fewer than 1,000 NFL snaps and Gladney, while talented, has never seen a receiver like Davante Adams or Julio Jones and fourteen days of real practices won’t be enough for him to prepare for them.
Even in positions where players do have experience on the offensive line, things will be wonky. Will the Vikings use a different offensive line combination each practice? Heading into training camp the only positions that are set are Garrett Bradbury at guard and Brian O’Neill at tackle. Everything else is up in the air. Riley Reiff could move inside to guard or Dru Samia could get his first shot at regular playing time or second-round pick Ezra Cleveland might work his way into the mix. Will they have any chemistry by Week 1? Will the Vikings know they have the best five? Heck no.
Playing in the same offensive system helps. The most important players on the offense will not have to adjust on the fly so this isn’t to say that the season is doomed especially since every team will be facing the same challenges.
But the point is: Things that we usually attribute to preseason games like roster bubble battles, rookie adaptations and coaching experiments will be actually impacted by the lack of practices.
If the NFL reduces the preseason altogether in the future, it will be missed but only by fans who want their midsummer Vikings fix.