10 days separate us from the first Vikings practice of the 2019 season. Finally, we will get at least a few answers to the many questions that have surfaced since draft day. As training camp nears, we present the six most pressing stories to watch as the Vikings hit the practice field.
Separation in third receiver battle
The receiver situation has been covered ad nauseum, and we are certainly part of that. But the fact is that the Vikings, at least on paper, have a depth issue at the position. Sure, Irv Smith’s role will likely mean a lot of targets, but depending on a rookie tight end to effectively handle third receiver duties is a precarious spot to be in. Ideally, one of the Minnesota receivers takes a leap in camp to separate himself from the pack.
Jordan Taylor and Chad Beebe are the primary candidates to step up. Realistically, the two could tag team the third receiver spot. Taylor is bigger, but quick, so he could play inside or outside. Beebe is more of the prototypical slot option with his quickness and strong route running underneath. A myriad of rookies and second-year players are also in play to make a splash, from Brandon Zylstra and Jeff Badet to Olabisi Johnson and Dillon Mitchell. And of course, Laquon Treadwell has to figure into this conversation, given his pedigree. But if last season was any indication, Treadwell’s spot on the team may be more a matter of saving money than any on-field expectation.
Top rookies asserting themselves
At least three Vikings rookies figure to be in significant roles right out of the gate. Garrett Bradbury is the anointed starting center, so his job is clear. Second- and third-round picks Irv Smith and Alexander Mattison, while technically reserves, are penciled in as impact players. The Vikings figure to pass a lot out of two tight end sets, and probably move Smith to the slot as a de facto third receiver. As for Mattison, Dalvin Cook’s injury history means the Vikings will probably manage his load, leaving a lot of touches for the Boise State product.
Beyond the top three picks, later-round picks Armon Watts, Dru Samia, Marcus Epps and Cameron Smith, among others, should be in play for depth spots. How all the rookies figure into the Vikings’ plans will be must-watch in preseason.
Stefanski’s personnel packages
Those top two stories on offense will directly impact how Stefanski utilizes his personnel this season. Minnesota is going to use two tight ends a lot; this much we know. They did it plenty in the past before they had a second tight end with the receiving upside of Irv Smith. The questions are A) how much will they use 12 personnel and B) what form will it take? It could entail a basic two tight end set with both in-line or one as a wing, or Smith could see a lot of action out of the slot. Kyle Rudolph has run his fair share of routes from the slot, so stands to reason Smith will do the same.
That will especially hold true if the Vikings’ receiver situation does not clear up. In fact, Minnesota has four tight ends that they may be comfortable giving bulk snaps to, so three-receiver sets could be exceedingly rare in Stefanski’s system. Obviously, we will not get the full breadth of Stefanski’s plan in camp. What we will get, however, is a glimpse of how he views his personnel in general.
Mike Hughes’ health
It is not yet clear how much of camp Mike Hughes will take part in. Typical ACL recovery time indicates that he should be able to at least get limited action fairly early on, and possibly be full-go for a game or two. That said, there have been few updates regarding his timetable for return. As such, there is a chance Hughes does not see much of the field at all prior to the regular season. All we know is that Rick Spielman at one point saw Hughes as “ahead of schedule.” Beyond that, everyone is in wait-and-see mode.
Anthony Barr’s role becoming more malleable?
Part of Anthony Barr’s appeal in free agency was his potential as a three-down pass rusher. Barr has consistently been one of the best off-ball rushers in the game, and coming out of college was seen as a 3-4 outside linebacker. However, Mike Zimmer has gotten a lot out of Barr playing off-ball in his five-year career. His versatility in pass coverage and run defense as well as rushing the passer has been invaluable to the Vikings defense. Still, there has always been that lingering feeling that Barr could flourish in a full-time pass rushing role.
Last preseason, the Vikings experimented with Barr putting his hand in the ground. It never came to fruition in the regular season, but the thought has clearly entered the minds of Minnesota’s staff already. With a bit more linebacker depth behind him and a little bit weaker unit in front of him, perhaps we see more experimentation with Barr in camp this year.
Young defensive linemen making push
In some ways, the Vikings are hurting for depth along the defensive line. While they have four proven starters and at least one capable backup at end, the rest of the rotation is relatively unknown. That said, the Vikings have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential up front. Over the last few years, Minnesota has loaded up on young, athletic defensive linemen. Few of them have made the leap to regular rotation guy, save for Jaleel Johnson. But there is plenty of room for optimism that others can not only challenge for playing time, but also threaten a starting job at some point.
To name a few of the potential rotation pieces, there are third-year players Johnson, Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo, second-year players Ade Aruna, Curtis Cothran, Hercules Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes and rookie Armon Watts. Mata’afa and Holmes in particular have received praise from coaches for their strong showings in spring practice, and Watts carries a rare combination of size and power that are enticing. While Johnson and Stephen Weatherly will likely hold third tackle and end spots, respectively, out of camp, look for one of these guys to become a surprise threat for second-team action.
–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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