EAGAN, Minn. — Verizon Vikings Training Camp will look and feel different this summer, as the team has had a longer ramp-up period than in recent years.
Friday's practice will be the first full session of 2020 and provide media members with their initial up-close look at Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's squad.
There are plenty of fresh faces on the roster, but numerous veterans are also expected to lead the way in 2020.
Here are the top five position battles we're looking forward to as training camp gets going:
The starting offensive line | By Eric Smith
The Vikings return four starters — Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury and Brian O'Neill — from the 2019 season, and Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak recently indicated those players are all likely to be in starting roles in the early stages of camp.
There will still be plenty of competition, Kubiak noted, recently saying he has "big expectations" for Dru Samia, Aviante Collins and Dakota Dozier. Kubiak also noted that the Vikings were beginning their work with second-round pick Ezra Cleveland at guard instead of the tackle spot he played at Boise State.
"We've got a lot of good football players there. We've got to let them go compete," Kubiak said. "Losing [2019 starting right guard] Josh [Kline] … naturally opens up a spot, but I don't get too consumed with just a spot, you know what I mean? We feel good about our depth.
"Let's start practicing football, let's start doing the things that we normally do, which is come in here in about four or five days, and those things will take care of themselves. I like our guys," Kubiak added. "We've got a lot of smart guys that play really hard, and it's our job as coaches to get them in the right spot so they can be successful."
Rashod Hill and Brett Jones provide experienced depth for the unit. Samia and Olisaemeka Udoh worked together as reserves for most of their rookie seasons. The Vikings also like the potential of late-round 2020 draft picks Blake Brandel and Kyle Hinton.
Reiff recently emphasized how time is of the essence for the big fellas up front.
"I think we're one of the groups on a football field that really needs to get those lives reps," Reiff said. "Everybody's working with the same platform. We've just got to take advantage of the time that we do get and make sure that we're putting in good work."
The battle at defensive tackle | By Eric Smith
Minnesota has endured a bit of a roller-coaster ride at defensive tackle in recent months.
Michael Pierce was a free-agent signee tasked with replacing Linval Joseph, but the run-stuffer chose to opt out of the 2020 season for health reasons amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vikings then had a trade fall through, but none of that has fazed Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson.
"I feel great. We have a lot of talent in that room," Patterson said. "I always go back to last year when we played the Dallas Cowboys. They have the No. 1 offensive line in the league and one of the top running backs in the league, and we played that game with Shamar Stephen and Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson, and they played great that night.
"We have great competition in that room at that position, and I think we're going to be just fine," Patterson added.
Watts and Johnson appear to be the top candidates to start at nose tackle in Pierce's absence, but Patterson noted Stephen can play that spot, too.
In fact, Patterson lauded the versatility of each of his defensive tackles, noting they all have the ability to switch seamlessly from the 3-technique spot to nose tackle.
Jalyn Holmes is also in the conversation at defensive tackle, as is Hercules Mata'afa and 2020 draft pick James Lynch out of Baylor. David Moa joined the group as an undrafted free agent.
With no preseason games on the docket in 2020, the starting spots on the interior of the Vikings defensive line will be determined by practices over the next few weeks.
"[Players are] going to be evaluated on everything [they] do, so in years past, you may watch the walk-through tape, but it's just to make sure a guy's lining up correctly and that kind of thing," Patterson said. "Well, now you're evaluating that tape as a coach. You're evaluating, is a guy just going through the motions? Or is he trying to keep his pad level down?
"So as coaches, now we have to evaluate every single thing that they do in order for us to have the greatest evaluation to pick the best 53 guys on this roster," Patterson added. "I just wanted to make sure the players understood that, that you're being evaluated on every single thing you do, and to me, I think that's the big difference."
Cornerbacks | By Lindsey Young
It's no secret that opportunities at cornerback are ripe for the picking in Minnesota.
The Vikings saw the departures of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander this spring, which means that starting spots are up for grabs.
The most experienced corners currently on Minnesota's roster are Mike Hughes (five starts), Holton Hill (four starts) and Kris Boyd, who played in all 16 games as a rookie in 2019 but primarily contributed on special teams.
The Vikings addressed the position in the draft, as well, selecting TCU's Jeff Gladney with the 31st overall pick and Mississippi State's Cam Dantzler 89th overall.
All-Pro safety Harrison Smith said he's looking forward to working with a young group of corners and seeing how the competition shakes out.
"There's a lot of new faces … but I think it's kind of cool to be a part of that because you're going to see guys get things and catch on and grow," Smith said. "One thing we're not talking about as much, we say we have proven players, but you have to prove yourself every year. You have to prove yourself every snap. If you're one of [the returning players], you can't just show up and be like, 'Boom, I'm here. Everything's cool. I'm just going to roll it out and I'll be good.'
"You have your experience, but everybody is trying to beat me every day, so I constantly have to be proving myself, and it's the same thing with new guys," Smith said. "They just don't have any experience behind it. They'll gain it, and some of ours will rub off on them. I'm excited about what we can do."
Patterson specifically was asked about replacing Alexander at nickel.
The co-defensive coordinator said that his focus is developing multiple corners who can play on the outside or in the slot.
View photos of Vikings players who participated in workouts at TCO Performance Center.
"You know how the season goes, you lose guys in the NFL to injury and somebody's got to come out and play," Patterson said. "Right now you've got to go through the evaluation process to find out what these guys can do and what they can do well, and we as coaches have to put them in the best role to allow them the opportunity to succeed.
"Obviously, it's an important position and that's the reason we want to roll as many guys through there to see what's the best combination for us to put out on the field, who understands it the best, who's the best cover guy," Patterson added. "That guy has to run support, too. Who's the best guy in run support? So we want to roll as many guys in there that we possibly can to see what's the best move for us to put on the field."
Backup QB | By Craig Peters
Recent and long-term history has shown the importance of a backup quarterback in Minnesota, and the Vikings should have a good competition between veteran Sean Mannion, 2019 practice squader Jake Browning and rookie Nate Stanley.
Without preseason games, the Vikings must do their best to simulate game action to evaluate which QB can best enact the offense.
The team might also evaluate the backup QBs on the support they may be able to provide undisputed starter Kirk Cousins with studying opponents before games.
Cousins, who will turn 32 on Aug. 19, is coming off what was arguably his best season yet in the NFL — certainly his most efficient, as evidenced by his 107.4 passer rating that was the second-highest in team history. Cousins would have become the first Vikings QB to ever start all 16 games in back-to-back seasons (schedules have had that many games since 1978) if not for a decision to rest most starters in Week 17.
Mannion and Browning worked well with Cousins in the quarterbacks room last year, and Stanley has been said to fit right in with the group, which met virtually throughout the offseason.
Coaches commented on Mannion's intelligence last year and value his experiences with the Rams. Browning was fourth on the depth chart during the 2019 preseason, but he completed 10 of 13 passes in limited duty. When asked about Stanley over the summer, Kubiak noted that past Hawkeyes he's coached in the NFL have caught up to speed quickly.
Minnesota will have to decide whether to keep two quarterbacks or three when the Vikings reduce their roster to 53 players for the start of the season.
Punt returner | By Lindsey Young
Earlier this summer, Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf told media members that he'd like to shore up Minnesota's punt return game for the 2020 season.
The position was locked down for eight seasons by Marcus Sherels, but in 2019 it became somewhat of a revolving door. Zimmer and Maalouf would like to see more stability there, and it's possible that fifth-round draft pick K.J. Osborn could be the solution.
"He was very productive in what [Miami] did, and he was a great specials player and returner," Kubiak said following the draft. "I think offensively we can kind of bring about some more of his talents in what we ask him to do as a receiver, but I think he's definitely going to help our team and help move us from a return standpoint. So, I see upside here."
That doesn't mean there won't be competition for the role, however.
Maalouf emphasized that punt return is a "very important part of our game" and that he's looking at a number of different players there during training camp.
"K.J. has done a good job for us so far. He's a mature rookie," Maalouf said. "He's taking reps; there's a bunch of guys who have taken reps. Mike Hughes, K.J., Justin Jefferson has taken reps for us, Chad Beebe is healthy and back. So we have some options, and we have good competition."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Maalouf added that Ameer Abdullah, who has primarily served as the Vikings kickoff returner since joining the team in 2018, also has returned punts and is "getting better" there.
"I think it's just a matter of making sure we have the right person at the right opportunity," Maalouf said. "Who knows, there could be a chance where we put two guys back there; but so far, K.J. has done a good job."
Watch 'Vikings Training Camp Live' Today at 2:15 PM
Tune in today at 2:15 PM to watch live coverage of Verizon Vikings Training Camp from the TCO Performance Center. Paul Allen, Pete Bercich, Ben Leber and Greg Coleman will break down position battles and look ahead to the 2020 season.
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