EAGAN, Minn. — School's out for summer.
The Minnesota Vikings wrapped their offseason program Thursday with meetings and a 'BBQ Blitz' lunch for the football and business operations at TCO Stadium.
First-year Head Coach Kevin O'Connell had the option of a third day of minicamp practice for more "class on the grass," but he opted to reward players for their high participation even during the voluntary parts of the program.
"These guys worked day in and day out. They've done everything we've asked them to do. It's been absolutely phenomenal," O'Connell said. "I told them I'm having a blast out there with them every single day."
But coaches and players who have invested in teaching and learning are due for a break before the grind of training camp kicks up next month.
O'Connell has poured tremendous energy into his role since mid-February when he was hired days after helping the Rams win Super Bowl LVI.
"Personally, I do feel like I've been working since training camp started last year, so it will be very nice for me to get some time with my family, rest, and make sure that I come back, recharged and ready to go," O'Connell said. "I'm sure I'll take about a week and then be wanting to come right back in here, but I can tell you right now, I cannot wait to spend some time with my family and my wife and my kids. It'll be phenomenal for me."
Here are 10 takeaways from the 2022 Vikings offseason program.
1. O'Connell thankful for high participation | By Lindsey Young
Organized Team Activity practices may be voluntary, but Vikings players showed up in full force for the practices that were held over the course of the three weeks before the mandatory minicamp.
Except for a smattering of excused absences here and there – including Harrison Smith celebrating the birth of his first child – the entire roster participated in the majority of the spring program.
O'Connell and other coaches who are installing new systems on offense, defense and special teams appreciated the engagement level from players, their focus in meetings and their execution of tasks on the field.
2. Focused on the neck up | By Lindsey Young
The Vikings are entering the summer break relatively injury-free.
While O'Connell certainly paid attention to on-field performance and his players' skill sets, he emphasized a few times the importance of "stressing them above the neck"; in other words, his priority throughout OTAs was to train the players mentally.
That all means that when the team returns for training camp, though, the physicality will ramp up.
"Everything we do will have a purpose, but we also are going to work — and when we work, we're going to really compete and we're going to push these guys," O'Connell said Wednesday after the second and final minicamp practice. "The way this offseason is set up, it's great, it's phenomenal work.
"You can stress them above the neck, you can get the reps, you can get a lot of great tape to watch, but in the end, we have to make our football team tough," he continued. "We have to make sure they can understand how to compete and not only in situational football, but how we want to go apply pressure in all three phases."
3. Carefully competitive | By Craig Peters
The Vikings opted to have their players along the line of scrimmage practice at less than full speed, but O'Connell gave the skill players the green light for 7-on-7 drills and during their portions of 11-on-11.
"We did some 2-minute [drill practice] the last few days where we were full speed, as you guys saw in the pass game with the back seven and the skilled players," O'Connell said. "But those guys up front the O-line and the rush [were reduced], just to avoid being around the quarterback, just to be able to let us get our work in. We'll have plenty of time to find out about our pass rush, to find out about our ability to protect full speed, and it'll be great work because I feel really good about both the offensive line and our defensive front and their ability to rush and play the pass, so it's really a matter of working the situations."
There was an understanding on offense and defense to the importance of taking care of teammates while being carefully competitive.
O'Connell also rewarded players by removing an OTA practice from the maximum of 10 in order to take the entire team to enjoy fellowship at Topgolf.
4. Rest for vets = reps for younger players | By Craig Peters
Even though the Vikings have so much this offseason that is new even for veterans, the Vikings made sure to withhold vets from some reps.
The payoff could come in multiple forms, from reducing the workload of experienced players to giving younger players time on the field with some members of the first team. That exposure is part of the preparation for potential reserves who enter the game as part of a purposeful rotation or if needed.
5. Whole team approach | By Craig Peters
O'Connell's rise through the coaching ranks has been by working on the offensive side of the ball. The former NFL backup QB found ways to help defenses over the years and is part of his strong connection with new Vikings Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine.
O'Connell frequently made the rounds to various position drills, including Wednesday when he lobbed some passes for outside linebackers to track.
He also could strike the balance of being pleased by Parry Nickerson's red zone interception near the end of the session while pivoting to coach up second-year quarterback Kellen Mond after the pick.
"I want to be right there, really anywhere, any position on our team, because whether I leave it to the position coach or I just want to be involved, it truly is about them being aware that I'm around because I care," O'Connell said. "I want them to know that I know their roles and their responsibilities."
He said being present will help maintain an accountability to standards because players will realize, "Hey, he's been here every step of the way, right alongside with us."
6. Positive carryover in passing game | By Lindsey Young
The Vikings are picking up where they left off in the passing game.
Adam Thielen has continued to do Adam Thielen things, going all-out in practices and flashing some impressive grabs.
And of course, Justin Jefferson is also continuing to turn heads. After two phenomenal seasons, he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.
Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell said Jefferson should "continue to get better and set more goals" after already setting the bar high.
"Every year is a new year," McCardell said. "Don't rest on your laurels; come out and be a different person."
The Vikings are also anticipating the returns of K.J. Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, both of whom have been rehabbing minor injuries. Bisi Johnson, who missed all of 2021, made a couple of clutch snags at Wednesdays practice, and there were a handful of impressive catches from rookie wideout Jalen Nailor.
7. Positive trajectory for tight ends | By Craig Peters
The 2022 Vikings did not return a player who caught a pass with Minnesota in 2021.
Irv Smith, Jr., would have been among the group, but he missed all of his third pro season with an injury suffered in the preseason finale at Kansas City.
Minnesota native Ben Ellefson appeared in five games after joining the Vikings, but he was targeted just once. Ellefson also has returned from injury.
The rest of the position group includes veteran Johnny Mundt, who played with O'Connell and Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips, in Los Angeles but also is coming off an injury.
Smith, Mundt and Ellefson returned to action in full-team reps by the end of the offseason program. The other two players among the position group that is so critical to the run and pass games are Zach Davidson, who spent last season on the practice squad, and rookie Nick Muse.
8. 'D' & 'Z' form dynamic duo | By Lindsey Young
With a healthy Danielle Hunter back on the field after battling injuries the past two seasons, Minnesota's defense receives an automatic boost.
But the Vikings have added another Pro Bowl edge rusher to the mix in Za'Darius Smith, who previously played for division-rival Green Bay.
Hunter and Smith already had formed a connection through overlapping Pro Bowl appearances and have deepened that bond since becoming teammates in Minnesota. That chemistry is sure to translate to game days, as well.
"Long before we really got going, when we were bringing Za'Darius in to potentially sign him, I know Danielle and him had been in communication," O'Connell said. "And when you have a position coach like Mike Smith, he demands it. That room is as close-knit as any position group on our team for a reason."
9. Competition remains at RG | By Lindsey Young
It seems every year, there's at least a question or two around the starting offensive line heading into training camp.
The unit this season appears set at four of the five spots, with some competition remaining at right guard.
During first-team reps at practice, the consistent pieces have been Christian Darrisaw at left tackle, Ezra Cleveland at left guard, Garrett Bradbury at center and Brian O'Neill at right tackle.
The right guard spot hasn't yet been determined, but Jesse Davis, whom the Vikings signed as a free agent in March, has most recently been taking reps with the 1s.
Ed Ingram, a second-round draft pick by Minnesota in April, lined up at right guard with the 2s on Wednesday when veteran Chris Reed was at left guard.
The competition is sure to ratchet up when the pads go on for training camp.
10. Ending with kicking | By Craig Peters
Right guard isn't the only spot with position competitions to watch when training camp opens.
In addition to returning punter Jordan Berry and kicker Greg Joseph, the Vikings brought in rookies Ryan Wright and Gabe Brkic at the respective positions.
Field goal attempts by Joseph and Brkic ended both minicamp practices.
Joseph was 4-for-5 on Tuesday, with kicks ranging from 33 to 50 yards. His miss was a 46-yard attempt that followed a false start penalty.
Brkic missed from 41 and made from 46 before a 49-yarder also was off the mark at the end of Tuesday's session.
Joseph made all four of his kicks during Wednesday's team session, with successes from 38, 41, 44 and 46.
Brkic lined up from the same distances and made three of four kicks, with a 41-yarder being the miss.