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 daily writing at Purple Insider.
Once upon a time, the Minnesota Vikings’ starting quarterback suffered a catastrophic knee injury only days before the opening of the season. The team traded for another starting QB, who threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The moral of the Teddy Bridgewater/Sam Bradford story of 2016 is that the preseason isn’t all that important. If Bradford can be dropped out of the sky onto a new team and win his first four starts, then established NFL players probably won’t be affected much if the league cancels two preseason games, as was reported on Wednesday.
Players who spent last season in Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak’s systems will have a very good handle on their assignments and won’t have much trouble adding new wrinkles throughout training camp, which is expected to start across the league on July 28.
And as far as position battles go, well, put it this way: If you and your friends filled out a 53-man roster today, odds are that all of you would nail 95% of the final squad.
But that doesn’t mean that nobody will be impacted. Those who are in position to steal starting jobs or make the final one or two spots could be shortchanged.
Let’s have a look at the players/positions who would be most impacted by the preseason slate being cut in half...
The Mississippi State shutdown corner drew the toughest assignments in college and had great success when he was targeted, allowing a 41% completion percentage on throws his way, per Pro Football Focus. He has the length and skill to quickly emerge in the wide open cornerback competition.
But the third-rounder, whose draft stock sunk after a slow 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine, won’t come out of the gate as a projected starter with first-round pick Jeff Gladney and former first-rounder Mike Hughes beginning ahead of him. Last year’s breakout special teamer Kris Boyd and third-year corner Holton Hill have a serious leg up with previous experience under Zimmer.
While jobs will be won or lost on the practice field at TCO Performance Center, ties can be broken during preseason games. As a gamer type, Dantzler’s skill might shine most under the brightest lights. If opportunities are limited in preseason games, he might not be able to build up a big enough sample size to compete for a starting position or rotational role right away.
All the guards
Back in 2017, the Vikings used different offensive line combinations during every preseason game and it wasn’t until after the third exhibition contest that they decided Nick Easton would start at left guard. This year the guard positions are completely up for grabs with veterans Pat Elflein and Dakota Dozier as the early favorites and 2019 fourth-rounder Dru Samia to be given every shot to earn a starting gig.
Behind them are all sorts of wild cards. Would the Vikings try any of their young tackles like second-round pick Ezra Cleveland, 2019 rookie Oli Udoh or Aviante Collins on the inside? Could there be an unexpected player who emerges like seventh-round pick Kyle Hinton or UDFA Jake Lacina?
Even if the first group that the Vikings try ends up being the one that starts against the Packers on opening day, there’s still the issue of chemistry if a non-2019 starter wins a spot.
Behind Pro Bowler Adam Thielen, the only Viking with more than 50 NFL receptions is former Titan Tajae Sharpe, who isn’t a 100% lock to make the team. Last year’s surprise seventh-rounder Bisi Johnson is the only non-Thielen receiver set in his spot.
Rookie Justin Jefferson is almost certain to be slotted into a significant role right away but he may have to adapt on the fly to playing more as an outside receiver than he did in college.
At least the Vikings know that Jefferson will be on the team. The bottom of the depth chart is rampant with potential but has no production.
-- Injuries kept Chad Beebe from emerging after he earned a spot on the active roster each of the last two seasons.
-- UDFA Alexander Hollins cracked the lineup toward the end of 2019. Dillion Mitchell has loads of talent but spent last season on the practice squad.
-- The Vikings are intrigued by the playmaking of rookie KJ Osborn.
-- Quartney Davis is an intriguing UDFA who caught 99 passes over the last two years at Texas A&M
Will any of these players have a chance to stand out in the two preseason games the way Johnson did last year?
Heading into training camp, the Vikings have several set starters on the defensive line in Ifeadi Odenigbo, Michael Pierce and Danielle Hunter. Beyond that is up for grabs, especially the opening left by Stephen Weatherly as a third-down pass rusher.
The Vikings drafted three D-linemen who will have a crack at Weatherly’s gig in defensive tackle James Lynch and defensive ends DJ Wonnum and Kenny Willekes. Lynch and Willekes were both productive college players while Wonnum was picked for his ceiling rather than his college sack totals. They will be up against 2018 fourth-rounder Jalyn Holmes, 2018 UDFA Hercules Mata’afa, emerging DT Armon Watts and veterans Eddie Yarbrough and Anthony Zettel.
Whether the Vikings give the rookies more opportunity in the preseason games to prove themselves or less because the older players need to be ready to play Week 1 is hard to say.
Jake Browning and Nate Stanley
Whether the No. 3 and No. 4 quarterbacks end up with a roster (or practice squad) spot isn’t particularly consequential to the 2020 season -- or at least the Vikings hope not -- but Browning and Stanley’s futures depend on how they perform in preseason.
There are many stories throughout the league’s history of undrafted or late-round QBs emerging as starters or quality backups after they have developed for a few years. With a rush to get the offense in place and very few camp and preseason snaps to go around, they won’t get many chances to show that they have potential to be backups or starters down the road. It could give them less opportunity for other teams with QB injuries to scoop them up as backups, as was the case with Taylor Heinicke in 2017.