Eagan, Minnesota will open its doors as host to Vikings training camp starting July 26, and with it come the revelations and fruits of a busy offseason. The Vikings boast a strong roster up front once again, but they also have plenty of questions surrounding their key pieces and depth at a myriad of positions. Camp battles-galore await Vikings fans who witness practice later this month. We have picked out just a few of the battles most on the forefront of fans’ minds.
So many options, so few spots. Based on what we have seen from camp, four guys have the inside track to make the 53-man roster: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, obviously, followed by Jordan Taylor and Chad Beebe. Laquon Treadwell may be a top contender simply by nature of the dead cap the Vikings would incur should they cut him, but going solely by on-field expectation, Treadwell is closer to a cut favorite than a roster favorite.
Truthfully speaking, only two spots are totally sewn up heading into camp. Even though Beebe and Taylor have earned praise for camp performance and their value as punt returners, there is plenty of room for other players to show up. Most notable are the two rookies, Olabisi Johnson and Dillon Mitchell and second-year undrafted players Brandon Zylstra and Jeff Badet. That is not to mention undrafted rookie Davion Davis, who took reps as a punt returner in minicamp. So in essence, nine players are in play for no more than four wide open spots.
Last year gave some insight into how the Vikings view the back end of the receiver group. Beebe was one of the most productive players in preseason games. But when push came to shove, Zylstra’s use as a gunner and size advantage earned him the spot over Beebe. Even though the Vikings do have a bit of a receiver depth issue, the pass-catching tight ends on roster indicate that special teams is going to matter at least as much in rounding out the group.
Kyle Rudolph is sticking around and Irv Smith will eventually figure in as a de facto third receiver. But behind them, there is competition to be had. David Morgan and Tyler Conklin both have their merits and their cases for sliding in as the third tight end. Morgan has been the primary blocking tight end the past two seasons, and has added some production on short area routes. Conklin, on the other hand, brings a bit more upside as a downfield threat and made strides as a blocker in his rookie season.
With Minnesota’s major question marks at receiver, Kevin Stefanski will likely be throwing a lot of two and three tight end sets this year. That means the depth is going to be significant to offensive success in 2019. If Conklin shows himself to be a reliable enough blocker, it may make Morgan more expendable. But the Vikings have had enough trouble creating running room as is. As such, Morgan may just be too important to cut.
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The starting two are solid up the middle. Linval Joseph is one of the premier run stoppers in the game, while Shamar Stephen is a plenty capable starter. Behind them, there is not much known about what the Vikings have at defensive tackle. Do not misunderstand; there is plenty of talent and young, malleable talent, at that. But as far as on-field production goes, there is not much to point to as of yet.
Presumably, Jaleel Johnson will be first up in the tackle rotation. He is entering year three and already served as the primary third tackle a season ago. That said, given Johnson’s reputation at Iowa as a pass rush specialist, his pressure numbers have been pedestrian in his limited time in the league. He has consistently looked great in preseason action. But in the regular season, he has just a half sack and two quarterback hits.
Adding to the mix is the myriad of first- and second-year players who have emerged in minicamps. Hercules Mata’afa in particular, a formerly undersized tackle who has bulked up to around 275, has drawn plenty of praise from coaches as the surprise of minicamp. He and fellow undrafted 2018 signing Curtis Cothran have both seen plenty of run already and could figure into the rotation unexpectedly. Plus, Jalyn Holmes and Armon Watts, 2018 and 2019 draft picks, respectively, are big, athletic, versatile pieces who have to be in consideration for roster spots simply by nature of their physical presence. All in all, there is absolutely nothing decided about this group, aside from the two starters.
Is there anything more scintillating in football than a good special teams battle? Most of the time we see it with kickers and punters. Long snapper battles are exceptionally rare, yet here we are. Rookie Austin Cutting, who played for Air Force, will officially be in play for the 2019 Vikings thanks to a new directive allowing Cutting to defer his service time. The Vikings took Cutting in the seventh round, again, an exceedingly rare happening for a long snapper. While one has been drafted in each of the last five drafts, only three went in any draft between 2001 and 2014.
But given Cutting’s high end long snapper status, he enters the competition as the clear favorite. Drafted specialists frequently make the roster out of camp (though their status long-term is much murkier, see Daniel Carlson). But his competition will not sit quietly. Kevin McDermott has played at least 15 games for the Vikings each of the last four seasons and has become a mainstay of the special teams unit. And since most Vikings fans probably do not know who he is, that means he has done his job consistently.
If you have never witnessed a long snapper competition, it is exactly as you would expect. The punter/holder provides input into who he prefers as a snapper, and his word has some major pull. But when it comes down to it, as long as Cutting can snap straight, this is probably his job all else being equal.
–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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