Training camp is a grind. Sometimes people have to miss a practice here and there.
I missed practice on Wednesday for health reasons, hence the lack of a recap yesterday. If you're curious, I heard from those on the scene that Justin Jefferson, Cameron Dantzler, and Jordan Hicks were standouts.
On Thursday, there was a slightly more notable absence. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was sent home this morning with an unspecified illness that could keep him out for Sunday's preseason opener against the Raiders. That meant Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion were the only available quarterbacks for practice and might be the only QBs who play in Las Vegas.
Although Cousins wasn't at Thursday's practice, I'm back at full health and was in Eagan to watch the action. Akayleb Evans and Dan Chisena were also back from injuries.
Let's get to some observations.
Za'Darius Smith's big day
Thus far in training camp, Za'Darius Smith hasn't exactly looked like the dominant force the Vikings are hoping he'll be this season. Danielle Hunter has shined nearly every day, but Smith has lost more than half of his 1-on-1 reps vs. Christian Darrisaw and Brian O'Neill and hasn't jumped out a ton in 11-on-11 action.
That changed on Thursday. Smith was one of the best players on the field, recording two sacks and being involved in several other pressures and run stops. On the first sack, he beat Darrisaw cleanly around the edge. On the next one, he looped inside on a stunt and came free up the middle.
That's the vision Ed Donatell and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith have for Za'Darius. At his peak with the Packers before getting injured last year, what made him so dangerous was his ability to move all over the defensive front and attack tackles, guards, and centers depending on where he and the coaches thought his biggest advantage lied. Smith racked up a league-leading 93 pressures in 2019 doing that, and the Vikings are going to use him (and Hunter) in that same role this year.
I don't think there's any reason to worry about Smith. He's too good to not have a big 2022 season, provided he's healthy. If anything, his lack of dominance early in camp probably says more about Darrisaw and O'Neill than it does about him.
Backup QBs again come into focus
With no Cousins, it was Mond and Mannion taking all of the reps during this practice. They alternated with the 1s, the 2s, and the 3s, splitting things pretty evenly down the middle from an opportunity standpoint.
My overall takeaway is that Mond was the slightly better of the two on this day, but that the performances of both players didn't do much to alleviate general concerns about the Vikings' backup position.
Mannion got off to a rough start. He nearly threw a pick-six to Camryn Bynum early on, also missing Justin Jefferson on a fairly straightforward throw. Mannion took several sacks by holding the ball too long, with players like D.J. Wonnum and Eric Kendricks getting home. He did bounce back a bit to hit Jefferson several times, but overall, it wasn't Mannion's best day.
Mond was slightly more impressive, although he had some issues of his own. He made a nice throw to Adam Thielen for a chunk gain over the middle, hit Zach Davidson in stride on an out-breaking route, and completed a few other passes during 11s. Mond also delivered a fairly accurate deep ball to Myron Mitchell, but the decision to throw it into double coverage was questionable and the pass fell incomplete.
Accuracy and decision-making have been inconsistent for Mond, but his biggest issue has been simply receiving snaps from whoever's playing center. There have been far too many balls that have ended up on the ground before the play can even begin, and that happened one more time on Thursday. At first, I thought it might have been an issue with guard-turned-center Chris Reed and his snapping, but it's happened to Mond with both Austin Schlottmann and Garrett Bradbury snapping the ball too.
To close out practice, Mond led a 2-minute drill with mostly third-team players on both sides of the ball. After a slow start that was mostly caused by the offensive line struggling, Mond hit Mitchell on fourth down and then hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette (I think) for a decent gain to get into long field goal range.
That sets up my next section...
Stay hot, Greg Joseph
To cap off the drill and the practice, Greg Joseph stepped up and drilled a 60-yard field goal that looked like it would've been good from 70. It's hard to overstate how strong of a training camp he's had. Joseph has made nearly all of his kicks that we've seen, including a bunch from 50-plus. 60 was his new long in training camp, beating out a couple 58-yarders to end previous practices.
If you're an optimistic Vikings fan, you're happy to hear that the team might finally have a reliable kicker again. If you're a more pessimistic, jaded fan (and no one can blame you for that), you might be worried that Joseph has been too good in camp and that it could all come crashing down in the regular season.
I'll leave that up to each individual reader.
- Rookies Andrew Booth Jr. and Ed Ingram spent time with the 1s on their respective sides of the ball. I believe this was the first time Booth has mixed in with the starting defense during a practice where Patrick Peterson was present and participating. Cameron Dantzler also saw plenty of reps with the 1s. Peterson briefly left practice before returning with a wrap on his ankle.
- Ingram's competition at right guard is Jesse Davis, who may not have helped his case by giving up a sack to Jaylen Twyman while working with the second-team O-line. Patrick Jones II also got into the backfield on the play.
- Sleeper alert: backup nose tackle T.Y. McGill keeps making plays. He made a beautiful move to get into the backfield and shut down a run play on Thursday.
- Another name deep down the depth chart is Kyle Hinton, the 2020 seventh-rounder who has been paired with Wyatt Davis at guard on the third-team OL. On a Mond screen pass to rookie RB Ty Chandler, Hinton was out in front with some excellent lead blocking that turned the play into a big gain.
- One last sleeper that I think could make the 53-man roster is defensive end Jonathan Bullard. A former third-round pick by the Bears who played for Vikings D-line coach Chris Rumph at Florida and was with Donatell in Chicago, Bullard seems to fit this 3-4 defense very well. He's had some nice moments during camp and stood out a couple more times today.
That's it for today. The Vikings will have a walkthrough-type practice on Friday before flying to Vegas on Saturday and playing their first preseason game on Sunday. I'll have plenty of coverage of that game both leading up to it and afterwards. Next week, the 49ers come to town for joint practices, which should be a lot of fun to watch.
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