The Vikings' first Friday practice of training camp featured a big crowd, sunny skies, and a whole lot of entertaining football.
The competition and intensity level was high, to the point where the first little scuffle of camp took place between Armon Watts and Garrett Bradbury. But there was also a fun, confident vibe to the practice, with players celebrating with each other between plays, dancing, talking trash, and generally demonstrating the chemistry that this team is building. Whether it was 1-on-1, 7-on-7, or 11-on-11 reps, they were going full speed despite pads not coming on until next week. The increased number of live reps we saw led to a bunch of highlight plays that gave the thousands of fans on hand reason to cheer.
Before we get into my observations, some injury notes:
- The same players who missed the first couple days remained out: Christian Darrisaw, Cohl Cabral, Riley Patterson. Darrisaw's lingering absence is a bit concerning.
- Dede Westbrook and Michael Pierce continue to do individual drills but not live reps.
- Bashaud Breeland and Danielle Hunter are close to full participation after slow starts.
- Unfortunately, we have the first new injury of camp to report: Bisi Johnson went down during a play with a lower-body injury. He walked off the field on his own power, went inside with trainers, and returned with a large brace on his right leg. Hopefully that's nothing severe.
Let's get to the big takeaways.
Irv Smith Jr. shines with highlight-reel catches
Smith, the Vikings' third-year tight end, is a popular breakout candidate this year now that Kyle Rudolph is in New York. Keep in mind that although the Alabama product is entering year three, he turns 23 in a couple weeks. He's still very young and developing into an all-around tight end who can be a big part of this offense.
No one stood out more on the offensive side of the ball on Friday than Smith did. He made plays all over the field, from great catches down the field to big gains in the screen game. His route-running is sharp, his hands are reliable, and Minnesota's new No. 1 TE seems to have a nice rapport with Kirk Cousins. The two connected in the red zone during a situational drill.
This play, in which Smith leapt for a ball and ended up catching it as he fell to his back, was the highlight of the day.
Smith recently attended a tight end summit branded as "TE U," where he worked out and studied film with dozens of NFL tight ends, including Travis Kelce and George Kittle. He said he spent a lot of time picking Kittle's brain because of how much success he's had in a 49ers offense that is similar to what the Vikings run.
"He’s had a lot of success in this league in similar offenses," Smith said. "Just going back and forth, our favorite plays and our favorite routes and what we like to run. ‘How you get open on this play, against a certain defense when they show this look? How do you go about it?’ Just cool little things like that."
The sky is the limit for Smith, who will likely be the No. 3 option in the passing game for the Vikings this season.
Mackensie Alexander makes his presence felt
Smith was the winner of the day on the offensive side of the ball, and Alexander was my defensive MVP. The veteran slot corner is one of several defensive players — Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly being the others — to return to Minnesota this offseason after a season or two away. Alexander spent last year with the Bengals, but now is back and will play an important role this year as the team's starting nickel CB.
1-on-1 drills between wide receivers and defensive backs are typically won by the offensive player, but that wasn't the case for most of Alexander's reps on Friday. He displayed some remarkable stickiness in preventing guys like Chad Beebe or K.J. Osborn from creating separation.
Alexander stood out in a big way in those reps, and he added another pass breakup in an 11-on-11 setting, jumping in front of a Nate Stanley pass and nearly taking it the other way for a pick-six.
Of the defensive backs the Vikings brought in this offseason, Alexander might be fourth behind Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, and Xavier Woods in terms of name recognition and excitement. He's fourth on that list in salary, with a cap hit below $1 million on his one-year, veteran minimum deal. But it's possible Alexander will be just as important to this defense as any of those additions. He's just a good, physical, experienced, and reliable player to have in the slot.
The Kellen Mond-Jake Browning battle remains interesting
The Vikings' competition for backup quarterback is a fascinating one. You've got Browning, a former UDFA entering his third season, who is still getting most of the reps with the second-team offense like he has been since the spring. Then you've got Mond, the top-70 overall pick this year with tantalizing physical abilities, pushing him for that spot.
Here's how I'd assess it. Browning clearly has a better command of the offense right now in terms of knowing the playbook and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He typically goes through his progressions well and knows where to deliver the ball. The issue is that he just doesn't seem to have the arm to make a lot of the necessary throws. Browning's deep ball has been a major problem all camp long; he consistently underthrows open receivers down the field, sometimes by a lot. It's happened time and time again.
Mond, meanwhile, is still learning and developing in a lot of ways. His processing, awareness, and decision-making are all works in progress. But it's clear that once he gets there — assuming he does — he'll be a significantly better option than Browning. He's just exponentially more talented from a physical perspective. For example, Mond's deep ball has been miles better than Browning's. He made the big play of Day 1 with a bomb to Ihmir Smith-Marsette and added a couple more nice throws on Friday.
If the Vikings need someone to play a game right now, they'd probably take Browning. But it might not take long for Mond to surge past him. The preseason games will go a long way in determining who starts the year as Cousins' backup.
K.J. Osborn is the WR3 right now
I talked a little about Osborn on Day 1, but he just continues making plays day in and day out. On Thursday, it was a deep post from Cousins for a huge gain. On Friday, he made several nice catches and seemed to be getting open pretty consistently against guys not named Mackensie Alexander.
Osborn is seeing the majority of the snaps as the No. 3 receiver when the starting offense is in 11 personnel, suggesting he may have jumped past Chad Beebe on the depth chart. With Dede Westbrook still recovering from an ACL injury and Bisi Johnson now potentially hurt, there's an opportunity for Osborn to earn some real playing time at WR this season. At the very least, his roster spot is seeming safer and safer by the day.
Osborn said after practice that he spent a lot of time this summer in Miami training with Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, and Jarvis Landry, among others. He said Landry really took him under his wing and taught him a lot on and off the field, and that he's always picking the brains of receivers like those guys and Adam Thielen. After a disappointing rookie year, Osborn looks like a different player this season.
- Wyatt Davis has been taking some reps at center early in camp. He split time between right guard with the second team and center with the third team on Friday, and has been working on his snaps off to the side over the past couple days. The Vikings like to cross-train their offensive linemen, and No. 3 center Cohl Cabral is injured, so it may not mean much. Still, it's worth noting. Davis remains behind Oli Udoh and Dakota Dozier in the right guard competition, but there's a lot of time left for him to catch them.
- Something that caught my eye was the Vikings lining up in a 4-3 defense with DE D.J. Wonnum as the third off-ball linebacker next to Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. That meant three defensive ends were on the field at once. We've seen Wonnum drop into coverage a few times so far in camp, and Stephen Weatherly has started plays standing up as an outside linebacker instead of having his hand on the ground. Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson are working on all kinds of wrinkles with their scheme and personnel on defense.
- Speaking of the defense, the Vikings seem to be getting pressure pretty easily in live reps between the 1s. That'll happen when you've got Danielle Hunter out there and are running stunts and blitzes with guys like Barr and Harrison Smith, but it's clear that the offensive line still needs plenty of work.
- Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are really good, but Patrick Peterson has held his own against both guys from what I've seen. Thielen was having a blast on Friday, breaking out huge celebrations.
- Danielle Hunter is a monster. That's all.
- Nick Vigil seems to have a solid lead in the battle for the No. 3 LB job.
- Bashaud Breeland had another nice practice, including intercepting Kirk Cousins on a broken play.
- Kene Nwangwu did a few nice things again today. He's really fast.
Here are a few extra clips.
Saturday's practice is at night under the TCO Stadium lights. Then there's a day off before six straight days of camp starting on Monday. I have live coverage on my Twitter every day and recaps coming your way after every single practice.
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