With Vikings training camp getting underway next week, it's time to go through all of the team's notable position battles to watch on offense, defense, and special teams. These can range from two players competing for a starting spot to a wide group of players hoping to earn a key backup job.
First up is the offensive side of the ball, where the Vikings have eight or nine starters set — depending on what personnel grouping they're in — but a couple spots up for grabs and tons of upcoming competition for depth roles. This was an explosive, efficient offense in 2020 that could be even better with some improvement on the offensive line, so that's where we'll start.
The battles that matter most
Starting left tackle: Christian Darrisaw vs. Rashod Hill
Ever since the Vikings drafted Darrisaw 23rd overall this year, most people have assumed that the highly-touted Virginia Tech product will immediately take over for Riley Reiff as Kirk Cousins' blindside protector. Despite Mike Zimmer cautioning that Darrisaw will have to earn his spot like everyone else, the line of thinking has been that he shouldn't have much trouble beating out a career backup in Hill.
Although I do believe Darrisaw will be the Week 1 starter at left tackle, Zimmer wasn't saying that just to say it. The rookie was running with the second team during OTAs and minicamp and will continue doing so to begin camp. He'll have to prove capable and effective at both pass protection and run-blocking — and show a willingness to finish blocks through the whistle — in order to leap ahead of Hill on the depth chart. Darrisaw's upside is immense, but it can take rookie linemen a little while to learn the playbook and adjust to the speed and strength of the NFL game. Hill is a solid veteran who has improved steadily over his time in Minnesota, and there's a real scenario in which the Vikings feel more comfortable with him out there to start the regular season.
Starting right guard: Wyatt Davis vs. Dakota Dozier vs. Mason Cole
Left tackle isn't the only spot on the offensive line where the Vikings will have a rookie competing against a veteran (or two) that he should theoretically be able to beat out. Although Davis was a third-round pick, not a first-rounder, the Vikings' incumbent options at right guard aren't as talented as Hill, so the competition is similar. There's Dozier, who started all 16 games last year (at left guard) and was quite possibly the worst offensive lineman in the NFL to do so. Then there's Cole, the former Cardinals center who was picked up in a trade this offseason and might have some real upside at guard. Dru Samia or Kyle Hinton could also theoretically factor into this competition, but that seems unlikely.
From a talent perspective, there's no reason why Davis shouldn't win this job, unless Cole really surprises. The Ohio State product was a steal with the 86th pick due to his prowess as a pass blocker, athleticism in the run game, and ability to consistently pick up stunts. But after the Vikings trotted out Dozier every week in 2020, you never know what they'll do at the guard position.
No. 3 wide receiver: Chad Beebe vs. Bisi Johnson vs. Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Update: The Vikings have signed veteran WR Dede Westbrook, who is now the favorite to win this competition.
It's been discussed at length this offseason, but the WR3 job isn't quite as important for the Vikings as it is for most NFL teams. Minnesota ranked dead last in 2020 in its rate of personnel groupings with at least three receivers, frequently using fullback C.J. Ham or a second tight end as its 11th player. With that said, it's still a significant role. Even though the Vikings ran the least 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) of any team last year, it was their most common personnel grouping, just like it was for every other team. Whoever wins this job will play a solid number of snaps every week and receive at least a few targets in most games.
The incumbents are Beebe and Johnson, two serviceable but unspectacular players who finished with lines of 20/201/2 and 14/189/0 last season, respectively. You know what you're going to get from Beebe, a prototypical undersized slot receiver who can usually generate separation over the middle and has fairly reliable hands. He's not going to do anything remarkable or impress with his quickness, but he's a veteran who Kirk Cousins and the coaching staff trust to be where he's supposed to be. Johnson is four years younger and has more size than Beebe, so he may have a higher ceiling. The former seventh-rounder is also faster than Beebe and can go up and get the ball, but he's not as suited for work in the slot Johnson filled in decently as an outside receiver when Thielen missed time in 2019, recording nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.
The newcomer to watch is Smith-Marsette, who the Vikings drafted in the fifth round. There's reason to believe that he was held back by his quarterback play at Iowa, and despite that, he still showed plenty of flashes of exciting playmaking ability during his college career. If Smith-Marsette is up to speed on the intricacies of the playbook and has refined his route-running a bit, he could win this job by bringing an extra dimension of explosiveness that Beebe and Johnson simply don't have. It just depends on how quickly he can demonstrate consistency and earn trust. Second-year player K.J. Osborn and UDFAs like Blake Proehl and Whop Philyor would need to really impress in camp to even sniff the WR3 job.
The battles for depth roles
Backup QB: Kellen Mond vs. Jake Browning vs. Nate Stanley
As is the case with the competitions for starting jobs, each of these battles for backup roles involves a rookie looking to jump ahead of a veteran or two. Mond will command as much attention in training camp practices and preseason games as anyone on the Vikings' roster, and perhaps more. The hype might be unfair for a third-round pick, but that comes with the territory when you're the franchise's highest-drafted QB in seven years and have certain traits notably lacking in the oft-criticized starter. Mond's big arm and athleticism are exciting, there's no doubt about that. But he faces a bigger learning curve than rookies at other positions and will need to show growth in his processing, mechanics, and decision-making to surpass Browning and Stanley for the backup gig.
No. 3 running back: Kene Nwangwu vs. Ameer Abdullah
This role, previously held by Mike Boone, will matter if Dalvin Cook or Alexander Mattison miss time due to injury. Given the nature of the running back position, that will probably happen at some point. Abdullah is the experienced veteran looking to earn a roster spot for a third straight year, Nwangwu is the exciting rookie hoping to impress in his first NFL training camp. Stop me if you've heard this before: the rookie has more athleticism and upside but needs to prove he can handle all of the responsibilities of the position. That means picking up blitzes in pass protection, catching the ball out of the backfield, and hitting the right holes on handoffs time after time.
No. 3 tight end: Brandon Dillon vs. Shane Zylstra vs. Zach Davidson
Last but not least is the three-man competition for the third tight end job behind Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin. This is another one where the winner won't see the field much barring injury. I love this group because it features players from an NAIA program (Dillon attended Marian in Indiana) and two DII programs (Zylstra dominated as a WR at Minnesota State and Davidson was a star at Central Missouri). Dillon is the favorite because he's in his third season and is the best blocker of the trio, but Zylstra and Davidson have exciting potential as receivers. Davidson, who is 6'7" with great speed, is the only member of this trio who was actually drafted.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all season long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.