We've just barely gotten our first glimpse at the 2020 Minnesota Vikings, with three training camp practices having taken place since the media was allowed access last Friday. Monday's practice was the first of 14 with pads on, so there's still a long way to go over the next few weeks.
But at the same time, we've already learned a lot. The season-opener is less than four weeks away, so things are ramping up quickly and there has been plenty to observe during these few first few sessions.
Here are five early takeaways from Vikings camp in Eagan.
1. The depth chart on the offensive line is taking shape
One of the most pressing questions heading into this year's camp was what the offensive line would look like, specifically at the two guard spots. So far, we've gotten some answers on that front.
Pat Elflein appears to be entrenched as a starting guard yet again, although he has moved from the left side over to the right guard spot occupied by Josh Kline in 2019. That's where Elflein spent almost all of his time in 2014 and 2015 before moving to center for his senior year at Ohio State. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has been complimentary of Elflein, but I still think this position switch means this year is his final chance to prove himself worthy of a place in the Vikings' plans going forward. This is a contract year for Elflein, after all. We'll see if Dru Samia pushes him at all for that job in the coming days, but it seems highly unlikely at this point.
With Elflein almost certainly the starting right guard on September 13th, that leaves just one spot open. So far, Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins have been getting all of the first-team reps at left guard, with Dozier leading the way in that rotation. I'd say he's the favorite to emerge with that starting job out of camp.
There probably isn't much more time for a shakeup at either guard spot. Mike Zimmer recently said that they're going to pick their best five pretty quickly and go from there.
"Some of the things that we’re looking at right now, we’re going to look at for a few days," Zimmer said. "And then after a few days, we’re going to settle in and start getting going with where we’re at. We’re going to try to make a quick decision with some of these offensive linemen. Probably after three days in pads or something like that.”
I'm going to continue to keep an eye on rookie Ezra Cleveland, who has been taking the second-team reps at left guard. With a shortened offseason, can he push to see the field at guard in year one?
The O-line depth chart has looked something like this so far:
- First team: Riley Reiff, Dozier/Collins, Garrett Bradbury, Elflein, Brian O'Neill
- Second team: Rashod Hill, Cleveland, Brett Jones, Samia, Oli Udoh
- Third team: Blake Brandel, Collins, Jake Lacina, Kyle Hinton, Udoh
2. The picture is getting clearer on the defensive line, too
Nose tackle Michael Pierce opting out of the 2020 season threw a wrench in the Vikings' plans on the defensive line, but there's some interesting depth there. Shamar Stephen has drawn a lot of recent praise from coaches, and he's always made more sense as a nose tackle than at three-technique. Stephen seems like a virtual lock to start at the nose this year.
At three-technique, Jaleel Johnson has taken a bunch of first-team reps so far. That's not entirely surprising, given that the 2019 Vikings prioritized having two big-bodied run stoppers in the middle over generating interior pressure. Outside of Stephen, Johnson is the best run-stuffing defensive tackle on the roster. The fourth-year veteran can probably offer more pass-rushing ability than Stephen did last year, though.
The other name to keep a close eye on at DT is Armon Watts, who the Vikings are expecting big things from this year. He's been working as the second-team nose tackle, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see him push Johnson for that starting job at three-tech. Watts needs to keep improving as a run defender in order to see the field consistently and reach his lofty upside. The second-team three-tech has been Hercules Mata'afa, meaning he's ahead of rookie James Lynch on the depth chart for now. Mata'afa bulked up this offseason and plays with a lot of burst and tenacity.
Notably, Jalyn Holmes has moved from defensive tackle to defensive end. With Danielle Hunter missing practice on Sunday and Monday (more on that in a second), Holmes has taken the majority of the first-team reps opposite Ifeadi Odenigbo. Holmes is another player whose position switch suggests it's his last chance to leave a lasting impression. Eddie Yarbrough is the No. 4 DE right now, with Stacy Keely at No. 5 bumping up to the second team during Hunter's absence. That means Anthony Zettel and the two rookies (D.J. Wonnum and Kenny Willekes) have some work to do if they're going to play major roles in 2020.
3. It looks like there's a clear top four at cornerback
The Vikings will have a completely revamped cornerback group this year after the departures of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander. There are nine players competing at that position right now, but there appears to be a pretty clear top four: Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney, and Cameron Dantzler. Notably, two of those are rookies and all four are 23 or younger.
Hughes has the most experience and is the top guy in that room. He has made some nice plays early on in camp and just needs to stay healthy in 2020. Zimmer did have an interesting answer to a question about Hughes on Monday, though.
"He needs to continue to have more confidence in himself," Zimmer said. "He needs to have more belief that when he goes out there he can cover anybody. I think that's the biggest thing with Mike. If Mike will just say, 'Hey I got this guy, it's me, let's go, you and me,' I think that part will help him mature faster and be a better player quicker."
So far, Hughes and Hill have been the two starting corners in base defense, as expected. Hill is a very interesting player because he has flashed a ton of talent over the past couple years, but he's also been suspended twice and has been in Zimmer's doghouse for various reasons. The early results in year three are encouraging.
"He's done a good job," Zimmer said. "He's come back, seems to be a lot more mature this year. A lot more business-like. I told him the other day, his deal is that he has to prove he can be the same guy every day. He's done a pretty good job of that so far. As it starts getting longer into camp that will be the key. Holton has all the attributes you need at corner. Hopefully he'll continue to progress each and every day."
As for the rookies, it's been the third-rounder and not the first-rounder who has stolen the show a little bit. Dantzler was the big winner from Monday's padded practice with several nice plays, including the highlight of the day on a full-extension pass breakup. He seems like he has a chance to be one of the steals of this year's draft, but it's also very early and that might be a reckless overreaction. We'll see.
Gladney missed Friday's practice with a little "flare-up" related to his offseason meniscus surgery. He was out there on Sunday and Monday and should be fine moving forward. Both Gladney and Dantzler have taken some first-team reps – Dantzler on the outside, Gladney in the nickel. Hughes has also played some of both. Gladney moves to the outside with Dantzler or Kris Boyd on the second team.
With all four of these top cornerbacks being so young, there's a lot of potential upside there. However, there could be growing pains in 2020. Outside of that top four, don't forget about Boyd. UDFA Nevelle Clarke has made several nice breakups and might be pushing for a spot on the 53-man roster.
4. Justin Jefferson looks great, but he's not the No. 2 receiver yet
There's no denying that rookie Justin Jefferson has been everything he was advertised to be so far. He has looked the part in every practice we've seen, and has been drawing rave reviews since he first reported to camp a couple weeks ago. There's just something that feels special about the way he runs routes, catches everything in a wide radius, and makes people miss after the catch. Don't expect him to put up crazy statistics right away, but I think he's going to be really good before too long.
One reason why Jefferson might not put up huge numbers immediately is that he's not actually the No. 2 receiver right now, as many assumed he would be. At the moment, that title belongs to second-year wideout Bisi Johnson. Kubiak was a big fan of Johnson's during the pre-draft process, and the seventh-rounder seized his opportunities as a rookie last year.
Now he's entering his second year in this system, and he's been excellent so far. Johnson is a really smart player who understands route-running and how to get open, which is very valuable for this offense. Does he have the athleticism and upside of Jefferson? No. But given the nature of this offseason, it wouldn't be shocking to see Johnson stay ahead of the rookie on the depth chart for a while longer.
Behind that top three, it looks like veterans Tajae Sharpe and Chad Beebe are competing for the No. 4 spot, though Alexander Hollins and K.J. Osborn could also be factors. Both Sharpe and Beebe have had some good moments in these practices. Kubiak is definitely fond of Beebe, who needs to stay healthy this year.
"I think he’s going to be a really fine player," Kubiak said. "I think the key for him is just staying healthy and getting that first season under his belt where he is healthy, and I think you’re going to see his career take off."
Being in that top four is going to be big for playing time this season, based on this recent comment from Kubiak: "From a receiver standpoint, we’re going to probably play four guys throughout the course of the game, so I look at all of them as starters."
Further down the depth chart at receiver, UDFA speedster Dan Chisena has had some impressive moments. It's been a rough camp for Dillon Mitchell, who dropped several balls on Monday.
5. Some stars are standing out, others are taking things slowly
For most of the roster, training camp is about proving what you can do and trying to earn a role or just make the team. It's a big opportunity, it's intense, and it's the time to go as hard as you can. For a handful of stars, there isn't much to prove or any reason to risk injury.
Running back Dalvin Cook is among the latter group. He's been out there every day with his teammates, just like he said he would be, but he hasn't been doing a whole lot. Cook goes through the stretches and position drills, but sometimes he's off by himself doing drills. During the team periods, he rarely handles any reps, ceding those to Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, and the rest of the Vikings' backs. It's a workload similar to what Adrian Peterson used to handle in camp, and is unrelated to his contract situation.
“We’re going to be smart with him," Zimmer said. "We’re just trying to make sure that we continue to give him what he needs and get him ready for [September] 13th.”
Danielle Hunter is another star who doesn't have to prove much. He was a dominant force during Friday's practice, but has sat out the past two sessions with what Zimmer described as a "little tweak." Doesn't sound like anything to worry about. The Vikings have every reason to exercise caution with their star players if they pick up any minor ailments.
With that said, several of those stars have been out there in full force and setting an example for their younger teammates with their play. Harrison Smith had two interceptions on Monday and remains extremely good at football. Eric Kendricks is all over the place, as usual. The Kirk Cousins-Adam Thielen rapport is still obvious, even if Dantzler made a heck of a play against them on Monday. Oh, and C.J. Ham is a beast.
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