The Vikings OTAs are in the books and mandatory minicamp kicks off this week. After that, we will have about a month of free time before training camp starts in earnest.
Spring practice typically does not provide much insight as far as player performance or coaches’ thoughts. But the Vikings did in fact shed some light on their roster plans moving forward, most notably in the secondary. As such, here is an update for the Vikings’ 53-man roster projections.
Prediction: DE1: Hunter DE2: Griffen DE3: Weatherly
Prediction: NT: Joseph 3T: Stephen DT3: Johnson DT4: Mata’afa DT5: Holmes DT6: Watts
The issue with the Vikings’ defensive line is they have a myriad of defensive tackle prospects who have already made splashes pre-camp. As such, there are a half dozen tackles who have cases to fill in depth behind Joseph and Stephen, while defensive end is more on the thin side. Beyond Weatherly, Minnesota has a bunch of young ends with the physical tools to play, but none of the experience and few of those inspiring flashes. Bower and Odenigbo have been camp mainstays for two years. Bower has even made the team in those seasons. Yet, it has never translated to game day success. Then there is Aruna, a 2018 sixth-round pick with exciting traits, but he is also coming off a torn-ACL and did not show a ton in camp as a rookie.
Tackle, on the other hand, is loaded with intrigue, and none more so than Mata’afa. The college standout has packed on weight from his former 250-pound frame, has bumped back inside to his natural defensive tackle and has impressed coaches thus far. He and Watts have gotten run as the second tackle pairing, ahead of Holmes and Cothran. Granted, minicamp is all about exploring rotations, but those two have brought a level of mystery to the 53-man roster.
What helps Watt and Mata’afa, as well as Holmes in his second season, is that they have a bit of movability. Watt and Holmes are massive but also long and fairly athletic for the interior, so they could bump outside for run downs. And Mata’afa still has more of an end build, despite the added weight. As such, if the Vikings see so much in those guys that they want to go tackle-heavy and leave end a bit shallow, they could possibly do it. The Vikings’ end rotation will probably only go three-deep anyway. That said, they better hope that Griffen, Hunter and Weatherly hold up this year, or they may be in for some major pass rush issues. Of course, there is always the potential for Anthony Barr to put his hand in the ground…
Prediction: MLB: Kendricks SLB: Barr WLB: Gedeon LB4: Wilson LB5: Smith LB6: Downs
…which is why I am going a bit heavier on linebacker here, as well. Minnesota relies a bit on linebacker and safety blitzes to generate a consistent rush, so loading up on athletic, versatile linebackers is a must. That becomes even more necessary with the relatively thin secondary, which I will address later. Minnesota has its two chess pieces that they use in every conceivable fashion with Barr and Kendricks, and those two presumably will continue as such.
After them, there is a bit more flexibility and a lot of potential combinations. Gedeon and Wilson have legs up as special teams aces who also have a number of defensive snaps under their belts. Presumably, their roles are fairly safe. But Downs and Smith, 2018 and 2019 draft picks, respectively, have strong cases as well. Downs made the roster out of camp last season and played in 11 games on special teams. The rookie Smith was a fifth-round pick this year, and Mike Zimmer has never hesitated to give rookie linebackers ample opportunity right out of the gate. Kendricks, Barr and Gedeon all started in their first seasons, after all.
But two veterans, Reshard Cliett and Kentrell Brothers, will have a lot to say about the young guys filling up the linebacker depth. Brothers especially will play heavily into this decision, given that he has played in every game the past two seasons for Minnesota, minus the four he missed from suspension last year. My instincts are that Zimmer loads up this unit with youth and athleticism to fill kick coverage roles. But look for Brothers to push for a rotation spot.
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Prediction: CB1: Rhodes CB2: Waynes CB3: M. Alexander CB4: Hughes CB5: Boyd
Prediction: SS: Harris FS: H. Smith S3: Kearse S4: Epps
Just as last time, I am going a little light on the secondary to open up spots at linebacker and offensive line. However, Minnesota will eventually have 10 defensive backs regardless once Holton Hill returns from suspension. Out of camp, however, there does not seem to be a lot of secondary options like in past seasons. Unless Abernathy, Terrence Alexander, Meadors and/or Wharton really show out in camp, this group seems fairly predictable on paper.
The main six are locked in, barring trades or injuries: Harris, Smith, Rhodes, Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Hughes. Then there is Kearse, who should be a lock as a combination special teamer and hybrid-safety-nickel-linebacker type. Beyond those regular rotation guys, the two drafted rookies, Boyd and Epps, seem to have the clearest paths to roster spots. Epps in particular has been a focus for the Vikings in minicamp, as he has moved all over the field much like Jayron Kearse. As for Boyd, he has made a number of plays in team drills.
Obviously, those last two spots will be up in the air come training camp. The undrafted rookies, as well as potential free agent signings, will all have consideration for back end spots. But at the moment, going with Epps and Boyd is the safe bet.
On Roster: Austin Cutting, Kevin McDermott
On Roster: Matt Wile
On Roster: Dan Bailey
Kicker and punter are set in stone for now, since there is no competition on roster. Long snapper, however, is a little different. We are still waiting on word for Cutting’s service commitment as an Air Force grad. If he is allowed to play in the NFL this year, the prevailing assumption is that he will have a leg up in the competition with McDermott, since he was a seventh-round pick this year. However, McDermott continues to hang around while we await the final decision on the matter. Or perhaps McDermott simply wins the long snapper battle. Given all the circumstances, I am leaning McDermott earning the spot this year, but it should go to Cutting before too long.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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