There are a number of ways to categorize a “Vikings breakout season.” It could be a talented guy once deemed a bust turning into a valuable piece. It could be like an Adam Thielen 2016 season, where a player jumps from being a nobody, mere roster filler up to productive contributor. Or it could be a Thielen 2017 season; a productive player who takes the last step to superstar.
The Vikings have candidates on both offense and defense for all of these types of breakouts. They boast a talented, versatile roster with potential up and down the depth chart. But they are also still waiting on some promising talents to become the players they need them to be. We narrowed down the list of 90-some players on the roster to three guys on each side of the ball who are poised to make the next step. First, the offense.
*We are not including rookies in this list.
Long labeled a project coming out of Pittsburgh, O’Neill defied expectations by inserting himself as the starting right tackle early in year one. And he did not only play; he largely played well. O’Neill struggled a bit as a run blocker, but his pass protecting was surprisingly sound, as he did not surrender a single sack all year. His elite combination of athleticism and length proved translatable, even as his power and feel for the game remained a work in progress.
So in a sense, O’Neill has taken a step already. He enters camp as a guaranteed starter, barring injury, and is a centerpiece of rare optimism for the Vikings’ line. That said, O’Neill still has room to grow. He is not much of a mover in the run game, possibly due to his still thin frame. By the same token, he was a bit susceptible to power rushes. But his work against speed rush and his surprising polished use of hands was a great sign for O’Neill moving forward. With some added mass and strength, O’Neill could be even more than just a reliable tackle. He could be a mainstay at the position for a team that has struggled to find long-term solutions along the line.
WR Chad Beebe
Being an undersized and athletically modest receiver is a surefire way to draw fan attention in the NFL. Beebe learned that a year ago when he proved himself a play-maker in preseason, despite his physical limitations. And though he did not make the 53-man roster out of camp in his rookie 2018 campaign, Beebe eventually worked his way up to Sunday action. He caught all four of his targets in limited time.
For all the positives Beebe showed in preseason last year–punt returns, quality route-running, good hands–there were too many players to jump. Laquon Treadwell was the anointed number three; Brandon Zylstra a big, productive player with professional experience; Stacy Coley similarly big and fast with special teams value. Beebe was on the outside looking in. Well, now Beebe has a wide open door he can step through. Treadwell and Zylstra are far from guarantees, while the third, fourth and fifth spots are open for business. And through minicamp, it appears Beebe has a leg up.
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Behind Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Jordan Taylor is the only receiver who has received the pre-camp buzz Beebe has. Given they have disparate skill sets, prevailing wisdom is that the two are favored to split third receiver duties. Taylor can be the big slot and outside threat with Beebe as the smaller, quicker route specialist to work off of Diggs. Beebe has shown in limited time that he knows how to get open. In 2019, expect a lot more looks his way from Kirk Cousins.
RB Dalvin Cook
This is where the description “breakout” gets murky. Cook was a breakout pick a season ago, and in some ways, he succeeded. While he missed some time, he was a reliable dual threat runner who was a major cog in a streaky Vikings offense. He flashed star power with some big plays, but at the core, Cook’s first full season was hampered by weak offensive line play and under-utilization. Sure, the 2018 version of Dalvin Cook is a reliable bell cow back who can be the feature on a good team. However, with his draft position and hype, the end goal is super-stardom.
The effect of porous line play and uneven play calling can not be overstated in Cook’s 2018. For someone of his dual threat value (51 catches in 15 career games), Cook finished with under 1,000 scrimmage yards. Even when taking his injury time into account he under-performed expectations. 27 players had more scrimmage yards per game last season. And it is not as if Cook was inefficient in his touches. He had a strong 4.6 yards per carry and 6.2 yards per target. Yet, John DeFilippo thought of him as little more than a decoy.
Alas, Kevin Stefanski taking over full-time along with the voice of Gary Kubiak should boost Cook’s production. The offense will favor outside zone heavily, allowing Cook to work the edges and cutbacks far more. That should play to his strengths better than DeFilippo did. Plus, now Cook has Garrett Bradbury in front of him, the best outside zone blocker in the 2019 draft class, and Pat Elflein can move over to a more natural guard spot. The blocking should be better, then scheme a stronger fit. Thus, Cook should finally have the elite breakout fans have waited for for two years.
–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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