Matthew Coller: 13 things we learned from Vikings minicamp

The Vikings' spring is nearly over, here'...
Matthew Coller

The Minnesota Vikings only have a few more days of spring practices before summer officially begins for the team. There has been a lot to talk about during the OTA and minicamp periods so let’s have a look at everything we have learned so far….

1. They are taking things slow with McCarthy and Darnold is QB1 (and looking good)

Kevin O’Connell said from the beginning that the Vikings were going to have a development plan to bring JJ McCarthy along at the right pace rather than asking for too much too fast. That was evident in OTAs and minicamp. Darnold took all of the QB1 reps while McCarthy worked with the younger players on another field.

There were a lot of learning-moment type plays from McCarthy. One that stood out from Thursday’s practice, for example, took place during a 7-on-7 drill. McCarthy didn’t see an open receiver on his first read and then pivoted to throw toward the sideline in the direction of Lucky Jackson. The pass was either released a little early or thrown a little too hard and it missed Jackson by a wide margin. He walked right over to QBs coach Josh McCown and McCown and the former quarterback pantomimed the type of footwork he was looking for.

While McCarthy had a number of throws that demonstrated his need to improve accuracy, he also showed the arm talent that made him a top 10 pick. When everything clicked it looked like a golfer smashing a 300-yard drive down the middle of the fairway.

The Vikings tweeted out this example, a bullet to Trent Sherfield.

The approach from all viewers of practice to analyzing McCarthy has to be patient just like the team. It’s the truth that he doesn’t look like a consistent veteran who is ready to start Week 1 but that’s not what anyone should expect yet. We will have a much better understanding of where he stands when we get into the dog days of training camp.

For now Sam Darnold is the starter and he left a strong first impression. Darnold looked confident throwing to the Vikings’ receivers and running the operation. The football came out on time and was more accurate than not. His arm talent was on display on a number of throws that required touch or anticipation. Each day had several highlights of his skill, including one on Wednesday where he led Trishton Jackson perfectly to the back of the end zone and another Thursday where he guided the ball over the linebackers to Jordan Addison 20 yards down field.

Minicamp isn’t going to give us any definitive answers on Darnold or McCarthy but we can say that they will head to training camp pretty clearly set in their spots. Will that change? We’ll have to wait and see.

2. The Vikings tried different avenues with Justin Jefferson’s contract

Amidst the celebration and swatting away of rumors on Tuesday, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah offered an interesting detail about the negotiations with Justin Jefferson. He told TC beat reporters in a side session that they had been working toward one structure and couldn’t come to an agreement and then pivoted to another layout for his deal in order to get over the finish line.

“We exhausted our ways in one avenue and got to a point where we didn’t think that was going to be done so we had a conversation, ‘hey, let’s try this other avenue,’ and once that other avenue it became pretty clear — these deals for premiere players are out there, there’s a blueprint to go off and you’re working through different things,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I told his agent, ‘I’m trying to build a championship team,’ so it’s recognizing the player he is but structuring it the way we want to over the next number of years was critical.”

The Vikings have often signed their star players to five-year extensions in the past but receivers around the league did not sign past four years this offseason.

“In terms of term — when you give something like term they are going to want something back and maybe that’s not worth the term to you,” Adofo-Mensah said.

The brass didn’t make a big deal out of the fact they were able to complete the Jefferson negotiation before mandatory minicamp but it’s significant. Darnold was able to get a bunch of reps with Jefferson over the three-day minicamp period, which matters when you have a new quarterback under center. It also matters that the organization won’t have to deal with any distractions when they arrive for training camp. The A1 story is the quarterbacks and new pieces like Jonathan Greenard and Aaron Jones, not when Jefferson is going to sign.

3. Blake Brandel and Dalton Risner will compete at left guard

Kevin O’Connell gave a 400-plus word answer when I asked him about the competition at left guard. The main takeaway is that there will be competition between Brandel and Risner and that the staff told Brandel to focus solely on left guard this year with the plans for him to fight for the starting position.

“Thought Dalton did a lot of good things when he got here last year,” O’Connell said. “But at the same time Blake has been a guy really since he's gotten here has been asked to really be ready to play two or three different spots at one time. So our challenge to Blake was really embraced that left guard spot through the spring, really get the teaching and the mastery of your craft at one spot.’

O’Connell said that they would try a “bunch of different combinations” on the offensive line, which does raise an eyebrow about the right guard position, though it doesn’t appear that Ed Ingram truly has competition at the moment.

4. Jonathan Greenard clicks with Brian Flores

It doesn’t take very long talking with the Vikings’ new edge rusher to figure out that he’s a very good communicator. Early in the week at minicamp he talked about enjoying the atmosphere that Brian Flores has created which asks the players to give their feedback and thoughts on the defensive scheme. It appears that the Vikings under Flores are looking for players that fit from a personality perspective as much as skillset.

It will be interesting to see if Greenard takes on any type of versatile role with the Vikings or if he’s more like Danielle Hunter last year where he was almost exclusively in his usual edge rushing spot. Per PFF, Greenard rushed off the right outside edge 576 times out of 629 total snaps.

5. Robert Tonyan looks like he could take the TE1 spot with Hockenson recovering

If we were doing a winners and losers of minicamp column, Robert Tonyan might be the biggest winner outside of the guy who signed a $140 million contract. The former Packers and Bears tight end caught a number of passes each day and looked quick running his routes.

“It’s a great place to get back on track,” Tonyan said of signing in Minnesota.

During his time with the Packers the former Indiana State tight end caught 17 touchdowns in 85 games but things did not work out last year in Chicago where he only made 11 catches.

“It’s very similar [with the Vikings] to what I’ve been in the past and it’s been so stressless, the coaches are great,” he said.

There has been no official timeline given for TJ Hockenson in his recovery from ACL surgery, though O’Connell said they are happy with his progress. Still it would be a surprise if he was ready to start the season considering when he got hurt (Week 16) and the fact his surgery was initially delayed. Tonyan being more of a pass-catching tight end than Johnny Mundt or Josh Oliver could allow him to slide into that spot while Hockenson recovers.

6. Speaking of tight ends, N’Keal Harry is now one of them

The former first-round pick appeared in nine games for the Vikings as a special teamer and occasional blocker, playing a total of 23 offensive snaps without a target. Now they are moving him to tight end. Here’s what O’Connell had to say about the move:

“You're hoping to see the receiving traits kind of lead the way early on as they get a little bit more comfort in maybe having their hand down, being a part of run schemes, the different kind of run schemes that we're implementing. And N’Keal has shown that. His route ability, his ability to be explosive, contested catches, different variations where we're hoping we're really developing, even at thisstage in his career. A position change is always unique, but we're hoping we're developing a guy that can grow into a real third down weapon, red zone weapon.”

When Harry was drafted by the Patriots he immediately became one of the strongest and biggest receivers in the NFL so he may have a chance to settle in as a tight end. However, the room is pretty crowded now with Tonyan in the mix.

7. Jordan Addison had an offseason plan

It was evident pretty quickly in OTAs and minicamp that Jordan Addison isn’t interested in a sophomore slump. He jumped out in nearly every practice, even some after Justin Jefferson arrived — almost like he wanted to let everyone know that they shouldn’t forget about him.

Addison said that he went into the offseason with the mindset to improve his releases off the line of scrimmage. He already has an array of moves as a route runner that we saw last year and the ability to make spectacular catches but the concern coming into the league was that opposing DBs would be able to slow down his 175-pound frame. After a year of getting beaten up at the line of scrimmage he decided that the best answer was to have a plan. So he worked on developing that plan during the months away and in the offseason program.

The best players in the NFL go into each year looking for parts of their game that they can strengthen so it’s a good sign that Addison recognized that his strong rookie year was only the beginning rather than taking his skills for granted. The Vikings will need him to take that next step considering they do not have the same proven WR3 that they did last year with KJ Osborn and the beginning of the season could be played without TJ Hockenson.

8. Ivan Pace Jr. appears to be the green dot linebacker

At this time last year Ivan Pace Jr. was an undrafted free agent just getting his feet wet during OTAs and minicamp. Now he’s one of the centerpieces of the Vikings defense. Last year he was the highest graded PFF rookie linebacker and even took on defensive play calling [green dot] responsibilities when Jordan Hicks was injured. Pace Jr. said that experience helped him grow quickly as a player. From O’Connell’s comments about Pace Jr., it looks like he’s going to be the main green dot player.

“He's had a very good spring, just the type of communication Flo [Brian Flores] is putting on his plate,” O’Connell said. “We also want to have Blake Cashman and Kamu Grugier-Hill ready to handle some of that green dot work. BA [Brian Asamoah II] has done it a little bit in the past so you look at those four guys and some of the down the line young guys we have – we got Abe [Abraham Beauplan] back as well. The depth of that room, just the versatility and that's when you continue to say man, we're versatile in that room.”

9. Shaq Griffin could change the CB group, Byron Murphy Jr. could get more time in the slot

The Vikings’ signing of Griffin late in the free agency process got more ink on the internet for the possibility of losing a compensatory draft pick (which Ben Goessling reported that the Vikings did not think they were actually getting) rather than where he fits in within the secondary. However, Griffin seemed to have a good spring and we saw some evidence of the potential trickle down effect of his presence.

Last year the Vikings were short at corner and Akayleb Evans ended up in the CB2 spot, meaning that Byron Murphy Jr. had to take on the role of CB1 and Josh Metellus took a lion’s share of the slot snaps. With Griffin in the fold and Makhi Blackmon having a year under his belt, it appears Murphy Jr. could end up getting a lot more work in the slot, where he had better numbers than outside during his time in Arizona.

Griffin is expected to provide more coverage flexibility as a man coverage specialist and the depth chart simply looks deeper with someone like Evans coming off the bench rather than being asked to play 50 snaps per game.

10. Jerry Tillery could play a significant role

Another signing that didn’t draw a ton of attention, Tillery got a ton of work with the first teamers during minicamp alongside Harrison Phillips. The former Chargers first-round pick flashed his ability to cause pass rush disruption last year in Vegas by creating 27 pressures. While he hasn’t turned into the game changer LA wanted him to be, his glimpses give some hope to the idea that he could make an impact. If nothing else the DT position has more viable players than before with the add of Tillery, Jonah Williams and James Lynch returning.

11. Nothing has changed with 2022 draft class, Theo Jackson stood out

If you were hoping to read that there has been a change of heart from Brian Flores about the players from the 2022 class that were picked for the Vikings defense before he arrived, well, we’re yet to see any evidence of that. Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr. and Brian Asamoah were not seeing much of the field in starting roles, which means they have a lot to prove in order to get snaps this season. The emergence of Theo Jackson, who made a number of nice plays during minicamp, could keep Cine down at the bottom of the depth chart. Jackson has looked like a player Flores wants to use even more than last year.

The NFL is funny like that. The Vikings may have failed on their top draft picks but they found key pieces like Josh Metellus and Ivan Pace Jr. in other places.

12. Brandon Powell is WR3, Lucky Jackson and UDFA Jeshaun Jones might be worth watching in the WR battle

The Vikings still could add another wide receiver to the mix but for now Brandon Powell is the guy at WR3. Last year he had 29 receptions for 324 yards including a game-winning touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons. The coaching staff has praised Powell since he arrived and seems to be sold on him as a complimentary player alongside Jefferson and Addison.

Behind Powell, we did not see Jalen Nailor at minicamp. It is unclear whether that is due to injury or another reason but Nailor battled injuries last year. If healthy he will have a chance to earn playing time. There are a handful of receivers who could emerge in the WR4/5 spots, including former XFL’er Lucky Jackson, who seemed to be around the ball a lot during OTAs and minicamp, veteran Trent Sherfield and UDFA Jeshaun Jones. Jones looked like the most comfortable rookie at minicamp. He had 56 catches for 790 yards at Maryland last year.

With Sterling Shepard signed in Tampa Bay, there aren’t many free agent options available outside of Hunter Renfrow.

13. Seth Vernon might be legit competition for Ryan Wright

The wind at TCO Performance Center was sending punts flying the length of the field when Seth Vernon and Ryan Wright were practicing so it’s not easy to say what those kicks would have normally looked like but Vernon was booming the ball every bit as far as Wright in practice. By that unscientific way of observing and Matt Daniels’ comments about Wright’s “sophomore slump” last season, it seems there will be a punting battle come training camp and Vernon will have a shot to win it.

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