EAGAN, Minn. — The annual night practice at Verizon Vikings Training Camp has come and gone, wrapping the first half of this year’s 16 scheduled open sessions.
Players have today off and will return to action Monday. Until then, here’s 12 takeaways so far from the Vikings.com team:
1. Setting the tone | By @Eric_L_Smith
It’s clear the Vikings are a little ticked off following an 8-7-1 season that didn’t include a playoff berth.
Multiple players, including wide receiver Adam Thielen, have talked about focusing on the task at hand and forgetting about season-wide expectations for now.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has been encouraged by both the offense and defense at times in camp, but he also hasn’t been afraid to be vocal, which was evident when he publicly criticized his defense earlier this week. The unit responded with three solid practices in a row.
Zimmer also has emphasized getting work done by dividing the units during walk-throughs to get more looks and then adding a session for the offense to put extra work in on protections while other players are going through special teams.
He’s required sideline-to-sideline sprints at the ends of practices but also has adjusted the schedule so that players spend a little less time in the building during the evening. There was even a day off for several vets on Friday.
And, in an extended message from the end of the 2018 season and the recent offseason, Minnesota has spent a considerable amount of time working on its rushing attack.
Zimmer wants his team to be smart, physical and aggressive — all traits the team is building on throughout camp.
2. Cousins looking comfortable ahead of Year 2 | By @LindseyMNSports
Entering his second season in Purple, Kirk Cousins looks comfortable and confident in the Vikings offense.
The quarterback had some fun in the red zone Wednesday afternoon, completing four touchdown passes to three different teammates. Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski has implemented a variety of looks – including boots, play-action and new routes – and personnel packages, and Cousins is continuing to build rapport with his play-makers.
Cousins specifically talked about an increased confidence in tight end Kyle Rudolph recently, and he said he looks forward to giving Rudolph “more opportunities to make it right” this season.
Cousins connected on deep passes to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs early Saturday for respective gains of 56 and 40 yards.
3. A look at the backup QB battle | By @Eric_L_Smith
Cousins is the clear-cut starter in Purple, but the battle behind him still has a ways to go.
Sean Mannion, a free agent acquisition from the Rams, has taken the majority of the reps with the second-team offense so far in camp.
But don’t count out Kyle Sloter just yet. The third-year quarterback has had his ups and downs in practice but has flashed plenty of potential in the past two preseasons — one in Denver and one in Minnesota.
Rookie undrafted free agent Jake Browning has also gotten some work with the third-team offense as he navigates through his first NFL training camp.
Performances in preseason games will be quite helpful.
4. Diggs and Thielen Still Going Strong | By @Eric_L_Smith
No surprise here, but perhaps the best wide receiver duo in the league has made play after play on the practice fields.
For Stefon Diggs, it seems he’s found a connection with Cousins down the left sideline, where the two have connected for multiple deep passes.
Thielen, meanwhile, has been a noticeable red-zone threat and has showcased those trusty hands time and time again.
But perhaps as important as the play-making ability of the tandem, is that they have also embraced being leaders of the wide receiver room that features seven of 11 players who are either rookies or in their second season in the league.
The combination of the duo’s on-field play and off-field demeanor could prove to be a boon for the Vikings in 2019.
5. Wide receiver competition remains wide open | By @wobby
Chad Beebe has fulfilled expectations of what he might add to the aerial attack to go along with Diggs and Thielen. But you can be sure the Vikings will carry more than three receivers on the 53-man roster.
There’s a good chance it’ll be five, or perhaps even six, receivers who make the final cut on Aug. 31, meaning two-to-three spots are there for the taking.
Who else in that room can step up?
Veteran Jordan Taylor knows the system, Brandon Zylstra is back on the practice field, Dillion Mitchell and Bisi Johnson were draft picks this year, and Laquon Treadwell has had his moments during this camp. None of those five should be ruled out; plus, there are a few others in the mix, including the speedy Jeff Badet.
6. The Chef is cooking | By @wobby
Dalvin Cook is healthy. Anyone who’s watched the third-year running back on a football field knows that, when healthy, he’s a special player. And Cook has been just that – special – so far during training camp.
Stefanski was effusive in his praise of Cook during a press conference last week, explaining the lack of flaws in his skill set makes him a fit in any scheme and also calling the playmaking ball-carrier a leader.
The Vikings big-time emphasis on improving the running game is coming closer and closer to realization and there’s no question in watching practices that Cook is not only a beneficiary of that, but also a reason for it.
7. Work and decisions remain along interior of the offensive line | By @wobby
While it may seem as if a starting five has been determined along the offensive line, the calendar says the regular season is still more than a month away, and everyone knows you need more than five linemen upon which you can rely.
When it comes to the interior, the Pat Elflein-Garrett Bradbury-Josh Kline trio from left guard-to-right guard seems to be coming along nicely.
After that, though, the Vikings seem to have plenty of options to work through when it comes to rounding out the depth.
Brett Jones would be a logical choice as the backup center, although Elflein played that position the past two seasons. Fourth-round pick Dru Samia has shown some promise as a potential backup interior player, but also remember that Dakota Dozier came to the Vikings from the New York Jets, along with Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison.
There are others in the mix along the interior, too, such as Cornelius Edison and John Keenoy, so don’t be surprised to see the coaching staff continue to experiment with combinations and ideas in the days leading up to the preseason opener this week.
8. Vikings TEs impressive through first half of training camp | By @LindseyMNSports
Rudolph signed an extension this spring to stay in Purple, and he’s impressed on the field since doing so. The veteran tight end caught a pair of touchdown passes from Cousins during Wednesday’s practice, and Zimmer told Twin Cities media members that Rudolph appears to be “running better” this offseason.
It’s no secret that the 2019 Vikings offense will likely utilize some 12 personnel, and that could include rookie Irv Smith, Jr., whom Minnesota drafted in the second round. Zimmer said the young tight end has been doing well so far with the responsibilities he’s been given and “hasn’t been making too many mistakes.”
Also showing flashes throughout camp have been second-year tight ends Tyler Conklin and Cole Hikutini, who have made a couple of impressive grabs, and UDFA-signee Brandon Dillon, who comes from some small-school roots, earned a mention from Zimmer Thursday.
9. Griffen & Hunter Strong at DE; Intrigue Thereafter | By @pcraigers
The Vikings have a pair of Pro Bowl defensive ends whose capabilities are well-known around the league, a young and versatile player continuing his rise and some intriguing prospects to evaluate.
Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have shown their elite physicality that features strength and speed that’s hard for opponents to match 1-on-1. The teammates have combined for 77 sacks since Hunter’s rookie season of 2015, the most of any teammates in the NFL.
Griffen has looked impressive in 1-on-1s against Riley Reiff and gave out some beard tips to Anthony Barr. He also brightened the day of a young man who has faced adversity. Hunter cracked the NFL Top 100 for the first time in his career.
Stephen Weatherly, who is coming off a season of career bests, is prepping for his fourth pro season and being asked to do more and more. Examples include playing from a 2-point stance at the end of the line and executing a rush from the interior. It makes one wonder if Weatherly might be utilized in some ways similar to Brian Robison in 2017.
There’s been just one week of padded practices, and there are four preseason games on the horizon to further evaluate the position after that.
Ifeadi Odenigbo, a 2017 draft pick, and Ade Aruna, a 2018 selection without extensive experience in organized football, are building on what they’ve learned from past Vikings camps. Karter Schult, an Iowa native who starred in the AAF, is also in the mix, along with rookies Stacy Keely and Anree Saint-Amour.
Tashawn Bower, a former teammate of Hunter’s at LSU, is on the NFI list.
10. Young DTs making the most of opportunities | By @LindseyMNSports
It’s never ideal to be without your starters, but young interior defensive linemen have gotten extra reps throughout the first part of training camp.
Linval Joseph is on the active roster but has yet to participate in team drills during practice. Shamar Stephen spent time on the NFI list but was removed from it Friday. Coaches are slowly working Stephen back into the defense.
Meanwhile, the absences of Joseph and Stephen have provided “bonus reps,” of sorts, for younger guys like Jalyn Holmes or Jaleel Johnson.
Johnson has been mostly used at nose tackle, although he also is asked to know the 3-technique spot. Holmes has been plugged in at both spots; at times, he has stepped in at nose, and Hercules Mata’afa has played in the 3-tech spot. Mata’afa has put on size while maintaining his explosiveness after spending the 2018 season on Injured Reserve.
11. LBs facing challenges from offense | By @pcraigers
The Vikings offense’s inclusion of more play-action passes, misdirection and marriage between the run game and the pass game is giving the linebackers a good deal of practice against things that can be tricky to defend.
Rudolph mentioned that defenders have told him “how much they’ve struggled” with how the Vikings are making runs and passes “look the same,” which should help the linebackers prepare for the teams that are the most difficult to decode.
A major storyline with the Vikings this offseason was four-time Pro Bowler Anthony Barr deciding to re-sign with Minnesota after turning down a reportedly more lucrative offer from the Jets.
Barr and Eric Kendricks are on the cover of the 2019 Vikings Yearbook and traveled together to Europe and Japan during the offseason. The cover feature details what they observed on their journeys and how each makes the other better within the Vikings defense.
Ben Gedeon has gotten most of the work with the first team when Minnesota is in its base defense, but the Vikings are likely to play in the nickel defense with two linebackers and five defensive backs quite often. Eric Wilson, a UDFA in 2017, has played in all 32 games, made four starts last season and had an impressive showing in the night practice.
The other five players in camp are a pair of fifth-round picks Kentrell Brothers (2016) and Cameron Smith (2019), as well as Reshard Cliett, Devante Downs and Greer Martini.
Vikings fans attend training camp practice at TCO Performance Center to participate in fan activities and watch practice.
12. Alexander’s approach could further help secondary | By @pcraigers
The Vikings secondary, like much of the defense, has great continuity. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are back on the outside corner spots. Harrison Smith is doing Harrison Smith things, and Anthony Harris is picking up where he left off in 2018.
Zimmer might be most pleased, however with Mackensie Alexander at the nickel back position. Alexander, an outside corner at Clemson, has admitted that he first balked at the notion of playing inside because he thought it was less important of a position.
“He’s probably changed as far as work ethic and attitude and everything more than maybe any guy I’ve ever coached,” Zimmer said.
Alexander, however, has been around long enough now to know the opportunities that await in Zimmer’s defense, such as freeing him up on a blitz, which helped him tie a Vikings record last fall with 4.0 sacks in one season.
With Mike Hughes on the mend, and Holton Hill facing two suspensions that total eight games, the Vikings added experienced depth at cornerback Saturday when they signed Bené Benwikere.