By Jason Wisniewski
The Minnesota Vikings have wrapped up their voluntary OTA sessions and will take a short break before returning for Mandatory Mini-Camp which is scheduled June 11-13. Here are my top takeaways from the OTA sessions:
1.) The Vikings starting O-line appears to be set going into Mini-Camp.
The Vikings only used 1 starting O-line combo in the sessions where all of the starters were available (Rashod Hill filled in twice when O’Neill was absent). The lineup from left to right in nearly every session was: Reiff/Elflein/Bradbury/Kline/O’Neill. June 1st came and went and Riley Reiff is still on the roster so it doesn’t appear the Vikings will be moving on from him. Garrett Bradbury took every starting rep at Center and Pat Elflein took every starting rep at Left Guard so that transition is now set in stone for Elflein. Josh Kline has thus far solidified himself as the starting Right Guard and Brian O’Neill returns at Right Tackle with 10 extra pounds of weight added on in an effort to get stronger. Granted the guys did not play with pads on but Zimmer said they were still out there hitting. Once the pads come on perhaps some of the backups can establish themselves for roster spots behind the starters. Players I like for the backup roster spots on the 53 man roster are Dru Samia, Brett Jones, Rashod Hill & Aviante Collins. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings go with 8 or 9 O-lineman on the 53 this season.
2.) The WR 3 spot has some early favorites
A few players seem to be emerging and separating themselves from the pack in this position battle. The Vikings will likely keep either 5 or 6 players on the 53 man roster at WR this season and right now the guy who has been getting the most reps as the 3rd WR option for the Vikigns has been veteran Jordan Taylor. The 6’5 WR has played in Gary Kubiak’s offense before and has been instrumental in helping other WRs learn the new system. Kirk Cousins raved about his route running and he has shown excellent hands thus far according to reports. Chad Beebe, Dillon Mitchell, Laquon Treadwell & Jeff Badet have also gotten some WR 3 reps as well but not as many as Taylor. Beebe however has gotten more playing time then Laquon Treadwell which is quite telling about his status with the team right now as he will really have to fight for his roster spot this off season. Others like Brandon Zylstra, Bisi Johnson and UDFA’s Alexander Hollins & Davion Davis appear to be a little bit behind the others in the competition so far.
3.) Chad Beebe is the favorite at Punt Returner
Beebe has taken the early lead in the battle to become the Vikings main Punt Returner. Jordan Taylor has also gotten reps here and appears to be the guy the Vikings could turn to if Beebe were hurt. Others that have gotten the most consideration out of a large group of contestants include Ameer Abdullah who has also being considered as the main Kick Returner and UDFA WR Davion Davis. With Beebe solidifying himself as the main Punt Returner and also emerging as a WR4/WR5 type he figures to be a lock to make the roster.
4.) Dan Bailey has looked good so far
Reports on Bailey’s performance have been excellent thus far and is probably why the Vikings have not bothered to bring in any competition for him during camp. The Vikings recently hired a specialized kicking coach for Bailey in former Pro Bowl NFL Kicker Nate Kaeding to help out Bailey & Matt Wile this season. So far Marwaan Malouf’s Special Teams units have shined this off season.
5.) The Offense really suits Kirk Cousins & the O-line
Several players have commented that the 2019 offense really seems to suit Kirk Cousins strengths and its no surprise that he has looked sharp during the OTA’s. Cousins ran a similar system under Kyle Shanahan who is a Kubiak disciple when he was in Washington and the bootlegs and play action passes that come from establishing a consistent and persistent running game really suit Cousins and play to his strengths as a passer. These types of plays also make life easier on an offensive line as they naturally mitigate pressure by rolling away from the opponent’s pass rushers and getting O-lineman on the move to angle block. This also highlights the athleticism of the Vikings starting 5 O-lineman. Cousins has thrown some outstanding passes so far this spring with Thielen, Diggs, Taylor Rudolph & Irv Smith JR being his primary targets.
6.) The Vikings are committed to running the ball and having balance.
When starting Right Tackle Brian O’Neill was asked what he liked best about the new offense installed by Kevin Stefanski & Gary Kubiak he replied “we run the ball”. The Vikings are doing just that this off season and intend to keep doing it throughout the the 2019 season. This commitment to the running game is key to having a successful offense and was a key when the Vikings won 13 regular season games and made an NFC Championship game appearance following the 2017 season. That year the Vikings ranked 10th overall in the NFL in rushing and led the league in rushing attempts. Conversely in 2018 the Vikings barely tried to run the ball and ranked 30th overall in rushing and went 8-7-1. A return to running the ball will mean a more balanced offense which is less predictable than the pass happy 2018 Vikings offense under John DeFillipo and the Vikings have a nice 1-2 punch in Dalvin Cook & Alexander Mattison who have both looked good so far as well. It will also mean more 2 TE sets where the Vikings can use misdirection and play action to keep defenses off balance and reacting instead of attacking. The Vikings will also be able to create mismatches and dictate the flow of the game with this personnel grouping and with a position group that includes Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith JR & David Morgan they should more than effective in these areas.
7.) The Vikings red zone defense has looked good.
So far in the OTA sessions the defense has really excelled in red zone situations being able to prevent TDs. The Vikings defense has players that have been together for a long time and through much or all of Mike Zimmer’s tenure with the team so they know the defensive scheme inside and out which helps. Zimmer’s group however has also added some new wrinkles in focusing on areas they need to improve on and on plays where they were beat last season and have come up with a few new tricks which is great to keep offenses off balance. Zimmer said that guys like Stephen Weatherly will have expanded roles this season so don’t be surprised to see more of the D-line lineup of Griffen, Weatherly & Hunter playing together on 3rd downs along with one DT for maximum pressure this season. Some candidates for the 3rd down DT rusher include Hercules Mata’afa as well as Jalyn Holmes & Armon Watts. Shemar Stephen will be the starting 3 tech on early downs next to Linval Joseph for maximum run defense. Reports also have been high on Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen & Mack Alexander so far this spring which is a great sign as those 3 are players the Vikings are really counting on big time to play well this season and make an impact.
8.) Garrett Bradbury has been everything the Vikings could have hoped for so far.
Bradbury has come in right in from day one and established himself as the team’s starting center. His impression was major as QB Kirk Cousins remarked that he’d like to see Bradbury be the center here for the next decade. Reports say Bradbury looks every bit as quick & strong as advertised and he has dove right into the playbook and isn’t looking back. This is a great sign for the Vikings O-line and offense as a whole.
9.) Irv Smith JR & Alexander Mattison will get plenty of playing time this season.
The Vikings 2nd & 3rd rd picks from the draft are also playing key roles early on. Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski has been extremely impressed with both Smith JR & Mattison and said that Smith JR has been playing more like a veteran than a rookie so far which bodes well for his development. The Vikings figure to be using a ton of 2 TE sets this season so both Kyle Rudolph & Irv Smith JR will be on the field at the same time quite a bit which will mean Smith JR will be getting plenty of work on offense. The same goes for Mattison who has been taking all of the RB2 reps this off season and has reportedly been showing off his pass receiving skills out of the backfield which are a key advantage for any offense to have RBs who can do it all.
10.) The Vikings “Vibe” seems more upbeat this season.
When you listen to player & coach interviews this off season it appears they are sincerely happier than they were last season. I believe there was a ton of pressure on the Vikings last season and with tragedies like Tony Sporano’s passing and the Vikings losing players like Nick Easton & Joe Berger on the O-line in 2018 it made for a difficult situation to have sustained success. This season players like Pat Elflein & Dalvin Cook are not battling injuries and trying to come back from major injuries and they seem to have some more pep in their step and in year 2 Kirk Cousins and his WRs Diggs & Thielen seem more settled in and comfortable with each other. It appears to be producing some promising results so far and the vibe seems infectious as the whole team just seems more upbeat about things this season. The Vikings are also flying a bit under the radar this season and Mike Zimmer’s teams tend to play better when they are perceived as underdogs.
Those are my top 10 observations from Vikings OTA’s. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments section!