Kirk Cousins returned to Vikings practice on Thursday following five days off while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. After dancing around vaccine questions during his press conference, Minnesota's QB1 went out and threw the ball well, showing minimal signs of rust.
Oddly, one of the takeaways from practice was that Justin Jefferson — one of the best wide receivers on the planet — struggled a little bit. That was an unusual sight. It coincided with a solid practice from second-year cornerback Cameron Dantzler, who snagged a pair of interceptions on the day. More on that coming up.
There was some positive injury news for the Vikings, with nose tackle Michael Pierce taking live reps for the first time in training camp. It was a padless practice, but that's still a positive development as Pierce works back from a calf injury. Anthony Barr, Rashod Hill, and Tyler Conklin were also back out there after missing Wednesday's practice (and in Conklin's case, the last three days).
Hercules Mata'afa was the only new injury. He sat out after getting banged up on Wednesday. Dede Westbrook continues to be very limited. The Vikings also gave veteran rest days to Patrick Peterson, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, and Dakota Dozier. Christian Darrisaw didn't take any live reps but hopes to be a full go pretty soon.
Let's get to the takeaways.
Cousins got off to a hot start in his first practice since last Friday, dropping a deep ball into the bucket for Jefferson on a corner route. The throw was placed perfectly, just beyond the reach of Harrison Hand, and offered a reminder that even though Jake Browning performed admirably over the past four practices, Cousins is on entirely different level of arm talent.
The ball was zipping out of Cousins' hand all afternoon, although he did have a couple throws he'd like back. With Thielen out, he was looking Jefferson's way time and time again. The two connected twice on well-placed throws to the sideline late in the day, the second one going for a toe-drag touchdown.
The concerns due to Cousins being unvaccinated aren't going away anytime soon, but he looks primed for a big season if he can stay off of the COVID list.
After Cousins, the QB depth chart for now is Browning, Nate Stanley, and then Danny Etling. All four took live reps on Thursday.
Jefferson is human, apparently
Justin Jefferson has had the type of dominant training camp you'd expect from someone who shattered rookie records with a 1,400-yard season as a 21-year-old during the height of a pandemic. He's been outstanding every day, showing why he thinks he'll benefit from the normalcy of having an offseason program this year and knowing a lot more about being an NFL player.
Thursday just wasn't his day.
Yes, he made a bunch of catches, but you expect that from him. What was unusual was seeing him drop two passes and lose a fumble.
The first drop led directly to a Dantzler interception.
The very next play, Cousins went back to Jefferson deep down the left sideline, but he couldn't quite haul it in against good coverage from Bashaud Breeland. I wouldn't call it drop, but it was a play you'd expect him to make.
The second drop, on an incredible throw from Cousins from deep in his own territory, prompted a scream of disgust from Jefferson.
The fumble came later on when he tried to make a move after a catch.
Despite the off day, I don't think there's anything to be concerned about with Jefferson. He still got open seemingly at will and made plenty of nice plays. He's so competitive that I'd imagine Jefferson will learn from this and try to make sure it never happens again. He only had four drops on 121 targets during his rookie year.
As an example of his work ethic, Jefferson was one of the last people on the field after practice, working on releases with Dantzler, K.J. Osborn, and Kris Boyd for a good 20 minutes.
Dantzler snags two picks
Last season, Dantzler was maybe the biggest breakout star of a weird Vikings training camp without fans in attendance. He was sticky in coverage and showed a knack for making plays on the ball. It ended up leading to a very strong rookie season for the former third-rounder, with a couple incredible games against the Jaguars and Bears in December.
This year's camp has been a bit up-and-down for Dantzler, as he's understandably had trouble with Jefferson and Thielen at times. But he had a strong day on Thursday, showing his ball-hawking ways with a pair of interceptions. You already saw the clip of the ball that bounced off Jefferson's hands and into Dantzler's. Here's his first interception of Cousins, which came on a slightly underthrown deep ball intended for Osborn:
Dantzler needs to keep stacking good days together to fend off Bashaud Breeland for the starting outside cornerback spot opposite Patrick Peterson.
- The return of Nate Stanley was a mix of good and bad. The QB3 for now, Stanley started his day by throwing a ball right to Eric Kendricks in 4-on-4 drills. It was tipped and picked off by Mackensie Alexander. Later on, though, he made a nice throw to Blake Proehl and connected with former Iowa teammate Ihmir Smith-Marsette twice, including once for a touchdown.
- Speaking of Proehl, he continues to have a sneaky good camp. He made a great adjustment on an underthrown deep ball from Etling and continues to impress as a route-runner. Proehl definitely has a chance to be a practice squad guy.
- It was interesting to see who stepped up with the starters due to the veteran rest days. With no Peterson, it was obviously Dantzler and Breeland at corner. No Harrison Smith meant Myles Dorn and Camryn Bynum rotated at the safety spot next to Xavier Woods (and Bynum had a PBU against Chad Beebe). No Thielen meant Beebe and Ihmir Smith-Marsette slid into three-WR sets with Jefferson and Osborn. And no Dozier meant Oli Udoh took all of the first-team reps at right guard, with Rashod Hill back out there at left tackle.
- Zach Davidson had a solid practice. He seems to make at least one catch for a big gain with the second or third unit every day. Browning took a boot to the left and found the rookie tight end in a lot of open space. Importantly, Davidson also made a nice reach block on Janarius Robinson on a running play later in practice. His blocking development is going to be the key to getting on the field.
- The Vikings continue experimenting with using Dalvin Cook in the wildcat formation. They had some success with that earlier in camp, particularly with Cook handing the ball to Alexander Mattison. This time, Cook faked the handoff and kept it, but Danielle Hunter wasn't fooled.
- Oli Udoh keeps stacking good days together. He cleared a lane for Mattison to rip off a big run, and also held his own in pass protection against the likes of Dalvin Tomlinson. With Dozier out and Wyatt Davis not having the best day — the rookie whiffed on blocks a couple times, leading to pressures — Udoh may have taken another step towards winning the RG job.
- D.J. Wonnum continues to be used as an off-ball linebacker at times.
- Armon Watts made a nice play to burst into the backfield for a run stop.
- The Vikings did a bunch of work from their own 1 or 2-yard line, pumping in fake crowd noise to add pressure. The offense didn't do a great job in those scenarios. They also got in plenty of red zone work.
- The order for kick return reps was Ameer Abdullah, K.J. Osborn, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Kene Nwangwu. And yet, I still think one of the rookies wins that job instead of incumbents Abdullah and Osborn. The rookies are so fast and explosive, Abdullah may not make the team, and Osborn might be needed on offense anyways.
One more practice in Eagan this week and then a scrimmage on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Then the Broncos come to town next week.
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