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Vikings-49ers Joint Practices: Storylines, Individual Matchups to Track

The 49ers are in Minnesota this week for a pair of joint practices ahead of Saturday's preseason game.
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Joint practices are a fun August tradition that infuse some life and excitement into the latter stages of NFL training camps. They're also an invaluable evaluation tool for the coaching staffs on both sides, as they provide the opportunity to watch players take numerous reps against unfamiliar foes.

Eight months removed from an NFC championship game appearance, the San Francisco 49ers are in Minnesota this week for a pair of joint practices with the Vikings before the two teams play a preseason game on Saturday. The practices are open to the public and will take place from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. central time on Wednesday and Thursday morning at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.

There are some fun storylines here. 

The two central pieces of the Vikings' new regime, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O'Connell, used to be employed by the 49ers. Adofo-Mensah began his NFL career by spending seven years in San Francisco's research and development department. O'Connell's second coaching job in the league was a "special projects" role on Chip Kelly's offensive staff in 2016. Adofo-Mensah's relationship with 49ers GM John Lynch presumably helped this all come together.

Here's another fun one. The team that beat the 49ers in the NFC title game earlier this year, coming back from a 17-7 deficit after three quarters? The Los Angeles Rams, who went on to win the Super Bowl. Of course, O'Connell was the Rams' offensive coordinator, and current Vikings coaches Wes Phillips and Chris O'Hara were also on Sean McVay's staff at the time.

One of the other candidates the Vikings interviewed in January for their head coaching vacancy was 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Their initial interviews with O'Connell and Ryans took place the week before the NFC title game, adding some extra intrigue to that contest for Vikings fans. Even though the Rams rallied and won, the 49ers' Ryans-led defense was incredible in three postseason games.

One day after the game, Ryans declined a second interview with the Vikings, withdrawing his name from their search. He reportedly wasn't in a rush to leave a good situation in San Francisco and felt like they had unfinished business. O'Connell took the second interview with the Vikings, and after a strange couple of days where it briefly looked like Jim Harbaugh was the frontrunner, the Vikings landed on O'Connell. He officially became their next head coach after the Super Bowl and is now less than a month from his first regular season in Minnesota.

The point of recalling that story is this: just like in the NFC title game, we get to see O'Connell's offense against Ryans' defense this week, which should be a lot of fun. There's a plausible alternate reality where Ryans ends up as the Vikings' head coach instead of O'Connell. If the 49ers' defense is excellent again this year, I'd imagine he'll be one of the top names in the 2023 hiring cycle.

There are a couple other fun little connections between the two teams. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for Kirk Cousins' first two seasons in Washington, and his assistants included McVay, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, and new Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel. Shanahan and O'Connell come from the same coaching tree, so their offenses will be somewhat similar in their basic concepts and philosophy. One last one: 49ers assistant QBs coach Klay Kubiak is the younger brother of former Vikings offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who is now with the Broncos.

What will take place on the Vikings' practice fields over these two days should be fascinating to watch, as both teams are loaded with star players on both sides of the ball. Players from the two teams will compete in 1-on-1 drills as well as plenty of full-team 11-on-11 work. Tempers frequently flare up during joint practices as the competition gets fierce, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail if that happens.

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The 49ers are entering a new era on offense. Their starting quarterback this year is Marshall, MN native and North Dakota State product Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in 2021. Lance has a ton of potential as a dual threat and was sharp in the 49ers' preseason-opening victory over the Packers. He'll provide a nice challenge to the Vikings' defense as a mobile quarterback with a big arm (but not a ton of experience). Jimmy Garoppolo is still on the roster, though he'll either be traded or released before the season begins and has barely participated in practice during training camp.

Offensively, the Niners have some dynamic skill position players in Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, Elijah Mitchell, and Brandon Aiyuk. Their offensive line is led by one of the best left tackles of the modern era in Trent Williams. Ryans' defense features stars like Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead up front, Fred Warner patrolling the middle, and Jimmie Ward on the back end.

In last year's 34-26 49ers victory over the Vikings in the Bay Area, Mitchell and Samuel gashed Minnesota for 199 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, while Bosa sacked Kirk Cousins once and LB Azeez Al-Shaair picked him off.

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Unfortunately, Mitchell and Ward are among a few 49ers dealing with soft tissue injuries right now, so they might not participate this week. Cousins is back for the Vikings after missing a few days due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Here are some of the individual battles I'm looking forward to watching this week, both in 1-on-1s and full-team reps:

  • Vikings LT Christian Darrisaw vs. 49ers DE Nick Bosa
  • Vikings OLBs Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter vs. 49ers LT Trent Williams
  • The Vikings' interior O-line vs. 49ers DTs Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw
  • Vikings RB Dalvin Cook vs. 49ers LB Fred Warner
  • Vikings WR Justin Jefferson vs. whoever the 49ers have at cornerback (starters Charvarius Ward and Emmanuel Moseley are also banged up)
  • Vikings linebackers and safeties vs. 49ers TE George Kittle
  • Vikings CBs Patrick Peterson, Cam Dantzler, and Andrew Booth Jr. vs. 49ers WRs Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings
  • Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and 49ers QB Trey Lance vs. the opposing defenses

A lot of the intriguing competition will come between backups and players fighting for roster spots, but those battles between starters should be exciting.

For those wanting to follow along but unable to attend, I'll have full recaps of joint practice coming to this site on both days, and I'll be tweeting plenty of live updates as well.

Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all offseason long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.