Normally at this point in the calendar, we've seen more than a dozen offseason practices — from rookie minicamp through voluntary organized team activities and a mandatory minicamp — and made multiple observations from those sessions.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, canceled all in-person offseason programs for each team, prompted meetings and "walk-throughs" to occur virtually and required interviews with coaches and players to be conducted via video conferences or phone calls.
There are still plenty of questions to answer for the Vikings once teams are able to open training camp, but Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters put together 10 takeaways from the virtual Vikings offseason program.
1. Adaptability the best ability this offseason | By Craig Peters
Coaches are famously creatures of habit, with many thriving when they can continue implementing what they've found to be successful or maybe make subtle changes over the course of time.
Head Coach Mike Zimmer has made multiple adjustments since his hire in 2014, a span that includes the team's move from Winter Park to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. That includes training camp last year when he shortened players' days and implemented other changes designed to help them stay fresh over the course of the season.
Some say the best ability in football is availability, but in an unprecedented 2020, it might be adaptability.
The Vikings ramped up their use of technology for meetings and tried to maximize efficiencies even though coaches and players were scattered from coast to coast.
Zimmer did admit that he relied on help from Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer with some of the technology to transform Zimmer Ridge Ranch in Northern Kentucky — normally an escape from it all — into functional workspaces (Mike worked upstairs, and Adam worked downstairs) with benefits. Zimmer Ridge Ranch now features a few golf holes and driving range on the property and a meat smoker. It also includes an outdoor space where the father-son coaching duo drew up ideas on a whiteboard and visualized potential innovations.
This Vikings staff has a blend of well-established coaches who have thrived for 25-plus years in the NFL and emerging youngbloods who are excited to help in every way possible.
Veteran coaches complimented multiple younger coaches for their help with technology, and the assists provided could help build a connection between a group that usually bonds during in-person meetings.
Another adaptation occurred when Zimmer opted to wrap up the offseason program for veterans ahead of the initial schedule.
View photos of the Vikings 2020 coaching staff.
2. Eyes still on the offensive line | By Eric Smith
Perhaps this is the biggest question when the Vikings finally hit the practice field: who are the first five players who make up the offensive line?
The Vikings have a mix of veterans and youngsters on the roster. Minnesota released veteran right guard Josh Kline but added three linemen in the draft, beginning with Ezra Cleveland in the second round.
Garrett Bradbury is back and feeling more comfortable as he prepares for his second season at center. Brian O'Neill is entering his third campaign after starting 26 of 30 games played in the previous two seasons at right tackle.
But does Cleveland win the left tackle job as a rookie and shift Riley Reiff inside to guard, or does Reiff continue to be the blindside bookend and maybe work with Cleveland at left guard, where Pat Elflein started all 15 games he played last season after manning the middle for 27 games from 2017-18?
Vikings GM Rick Spielman called both guard spots "an open competition" in the spring, and that mantra still holds true today.
Veteran Dakota Dozier could be in the mix there, along with Dru Samia and Aviante Collins — non-rookies who also don't have a ton of game experience.
Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak admitted that the virtual offseason might hamper some players more than others, but he expects plenty of competition when training camp does get underway.
"I would say it's tough for some of those young guys. I'd love for Dru and Oli [Udoh] and those guys to have about 15 practices under their belt," Kubiak said. "Riley's a veteran, Garrett's got a lot of snaps under his belt after one year, obviously Pat does; we lost Josh, and obviously Brian's a good, young player. I think those guys who played all those snaps last year, I think they'll be fine. They'll adjust very well.
"Dru's going to have to catch up, Oli's going to have to catch up, AC. I think we've created a very competitive and a very flexible group, so we've just got to get to work and see how this is going to pan out," Kubiak added. "I say it all the time, 'We're going to play our best five.' But I like our group, I like our players. There's so many things we can improve upon as coaches and players, and I look forward to getting to work on doing that."
3. After further review, Kubiak 'impressed' by progress | by Lindsey Young
Following the 2019 season, Vikings coaches spent time going through and evaluating film from each game.
Was there anything that jumped out at or surprised Kubiak? Minnesota's new offensive coordinator said "impressed" might be the right word. Reflecting on the season as a whole, Kubiak is proud of the way the Vikings offense picked up a new scheme and executed it throughout the year.
"I know there was some overlap [from] what they had done in the past, but Kevin [Stefanski] did a tremendous job of meshing what I'd done for years and what they wanted to hold onto," said Kubiak, who joined the Vikings last season as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor. "I think we made up some ground really, really quickly. There's always things you can do better, but I think the good thing is, we've been able to go back and evaluate every play probably 10 times over and decide where we want to continue to grow and what we maybe want to take out."
Kubiak added "hopefully that path can continue" into the 2020 season.
View photos of the stadiums where the Vikings will play during the 2020 season.
4. Coaches focused on coaching | By Craig Peters
Time flies, and so does Dalvin Cook.
It's hard to believe the running back is at the onset of the final year of his rookie contract. The 2017 second-round suffered an ACL injury that ended his rookie year after just four games.
An early hamstring hampered him in much of 2018.
Last season, however, he had career bests of 1,135 rushing yards and 13 scores in 14 games.
Kubiak is well-aware of Cook's talents and the time remaining on the running back's rookie deal. The former head coach in Houston and Denver said it is important for coaches to stay focused on their jobs and let General Manager Rick Spielman and the personnel staff work on contract talks with players.
"Dalvin's a great player, I don't have to tell you guys that. He's a great person, also," Kubiak said. "I've been around Dalvin one year, and I knew a lot about him as a player when he came out. Obviously, he's stepped to the plate and played very well.
"When it comes to contracts, I'm not a negotiator. That's between Rick and Dalvin, but it's part of the business. We all understand that," Kubiak added. "Those guys will do their jobs, and we have to stay focused on our jobs as a football team going forward. We support Dalvin … Rick and he will go about their business … but we've got to get ready to play this season, so we'll stay focused on that."
5. Commitment to running to continue | By Craig Peters
Some have bandied about the importance of a running back and committing high percentages of a team's salary cap to one player at the position.
Players can provide exceptional juice at the position, but late picks have shown they can produce — sometimes surpass — production of players who were drafted earlier. Kubiak's career will always be linked to success in the ground game. He was asked about the value of the position and quipped, "You're probably talking to the wrong guy there. I love running backs."
One thing is for certain, the Vikings appear ready to continue their commitment to the running game that helped Minnesota improve its rushing yardage from 1,493 yards in 2018 (30th in the NFL) to 2,133 a season ago (sixth in the NFL).
"I've had some really good [running backs] in my day, and I've got a couple world championship rings because of one I'm thinking of in my head right now (Denver's Terrell Davis, a 2017 Pro Football Hall of Famer who was drafted in the sixth round in 1995)," Kubiak said. "We believe in running the football, and obviously Dalvin did a hell of a job doing that last year, along with [Alexander Mattison] and Ameer [Abdullah], and [Mike] Boone came in and helped us out. I believe that's a big part of the game. You need everybody to win, but you guys know how much I think of a good back."
Kubiak was asked if his system brings out the best in any running back, and he pointed to the attitude of the team playing a role.
"Anything you do in football, if you're committed to something then you've probably got a pretty good chance of being successful at it," Kubiak said. "We really start our classroom offensively, we walk into the room and tell our guys, 'We're committed to running the football and being a physical team.' I work for a head coach that talks that same way."
6. Year 2 jump for Irv? | By Eric Smith
Each offseason, there's a player on each side of the ball who is seemingly ready to take the next jump in his NFL career.
Offensively, that buzz has been generated by Irv Smith, Jr., a second-round pick in 2019 who played in all 16 games as a rookie.
Smith hauled in 36 catches for 311 yards and two scores, and he seemed to get better and better as the season went along. Both of his touchdowns came over the final six games of the season, when his snap counts rose.
View the top photos of Vikings TE Irv Smith Jr. from the 2019 season.
Kubiak said last week that he saw plenty of flashes from Smith this past season but is ready to tap into more of that talent in 2020.
"Very impressed. That was a great pick by Rick. Irv was a great player coming out, very young, and the biggest thing for me, I just see so much upside," Kubiak said of the 21-year-old. "Watching Irv come into camp, we asked him to do a lot. I made him learn [fullback C.J. Ham's] position, as well as his tight end position.
"You watch throughout the course of the season, we called on Irv more and more. I think there's a big, big upside," Kubiak added. "I love Irv as a kid and a competitor. He really enjoys coming to work every day. And he's benefited from sitting right there next to [Kyle Rudolph] every day and watching a seasoned pro go about it. I think there's a lot more there, and Irv's going to give it to us, and I've got to make sure I get him in position to do that."
Smith is part of a tight ends room that also features Rudolph, Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon and Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
7. New decade, new defensive line | By Lindsey Young
The Vikings defensive line room looks different now than it did a year ago.
Linval Joseph and Stephen Weatherly signed with the Chargers and Panthers, respectively, in free agency, and Everson Griffen voided his contract this offseason, becoming a free agent.
The Vikings signed veteran defensive tackle Michael Pierce in March and added three defensive linemen through the draft in D.J. Wonnum, James Lynch and Kenny Willekes.
Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson said he feels "really good" about the position group.
"We've got great competition in that room from top to bottom," Patterson said. "Obviously I'm excited about Ifeadi [Odenigbo] to continue to improve as a player. He made great strides last year, and he's a tremendous hard worker. I know he's busting his tail right now to continue to improve."
He specifically emphasized "great talent" among the defensive tackles. He appreciates the age range there, despite the loss of Joseph. In addition to Pierce, the Vikings also retained veteran Shamar Stephen.
"You've still got a good group of guys that are working to continue to progress their games, and I think we've got some guys that are ready to turn the corner," Patterson said. "It's going to be a great competition with that group throughout training camp to see how it's going to figure itself out.
"That's what you want as a coach," he continued. "Players have to keep the pressure on themselves because everybody is fighting for a job and nobody feels comfortable. That gives a chance for everybody to improve. I really love the makeup of that group."
8. Library of 'film' comes in handy | By Craig Peters
The Vikings aren't rebuilding their defense, but they are replenishing the roster on that side of the football, particularly up front and on the back end.
"I think the biggest thing about the NFL, it's about developing talent," Patterson said. "That's what you've gotta do. You can't keep everybody forever. Even though you would love to, as a coach, you've got to be willing to bring in talent, number one. And then number two, you've got to have confidence that you can develop that talent. I feel great about our defensive coaches and their ability to develop players, so to me, that's how you remain good for a long time. You've got to be willing to know that your job as a coach is to develop players. So I feel very confident in our defensive staff and that we can get that done."
Adam Zimmer pointed to a core of returning veterans "that know how we do things around here and are going to help the new guys." Some of the best lessons will occur in person when veterans can demonstrate expectations and quickly pass along tips they've picked up over the years.
The help, however, has already started thanks to an extensive library practice and game "film" (easily relayed digital video) at the fingertips of Vikings coaches and players.
"Each player is going to have their own attributes that they are good at, but we need to show the players how to execute the scheme," Adam Zimmer said. "I've gone back in the linebackers room … and we've watched training camp practices from last year … so they can see how we're supposed to look and how we're not supposed to look in certain cases. I think it's very valuable to look at the way Eric Kendricks plays 'Mike' linebacker or the way Anthony Barr plays 'Sam.' It's something you have to do so these guys can get a visual of it because they can't physically do it right now."
Patterson said the Vikings used a reallocated window of time to create video clips for how each returnee played the run and rushed the passer.
9. Youth and inexperience in the secondary | By Eric Smith
Of the 16 defensive backs currently on Minnesota's roster, 11 are cornerbacks. And the player with the most NFL experience out of that group is Holton Hill, who has played all of 24 games after being picked up as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2018.
Yes, there is some inexperience there, but also a bevy of talent in a group that includes Mike Hughes, Hill, Kris Boyd, Marcus Sayles and a trio of 2020 draft picks in Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand.
Hughes, Hill and Boyd could get the first cracks at starting jobs among players who aren't rookies, but expect Gladney and Dantzler to fight for spots of their own, too.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Kris Boyd is someone who could take a step forward in 2020.
"I like Kris a lot. I think he has a good mental attitude toward it. He works really hard at it," Adam Zimmer said. "You can give him one thing to do, and he'll work on it nonstop. He did that at the end of the year.
"He played great on special teams for us, and he's just going to hone in on the little details of the position and keep improving his technique," he added. "But I like his mental makeup, I think he's a competitor, and I think he wants to be great, and he's going to do everything he can to be in the mix for us."
At safety, the Vikings boast of arguably the top duo in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. But the trio behind them are all rookies in Josh Metellus, Brian Cole II and Myles Dorn.
Smith and Harris will be counted upon to be leaders throughout the entire secondary.
10. Potential at punt returner | By Lindsey Young
During his video conference with Twin Cities media members, Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf was asked what improvements he hopes to see from the Vikings special teams in 2020.
Maalouf pointed out positives and negatives, saying he was impressed with punter Britton Colquitt's performance last season and emphasized that "guys on the interior" of punt team were "excellent." He also pointed out a solid kick return game behind Abdullah.
Maalouf is aiming for an uptick in the punt return game, however. The position was inconsistent in 2019 with a number of players contributing, including longtime punt returner Marcus Sherels being brought back twice.
The Vikings drafted receiver K.J. Osborn 176th overall in April, and Maalouf feels confident in Osborn's potential as a punt returner.
"He did it for Miami last year, with the Hurricanes, and I thought he did a really good job," Maalouf said.
"He gets downhill very quickly, has a knack for catching the ball. I think that's one of the most important things that always gets overlooked. I think people sometimes will look for athletic guys who can do it, but you've got to be able to catch the ball. He's actually done both in college – and done it very well.
"And you can see his explosiveness, and just his vision and his anticipation before he catches the ball. You can kind of see his eyes scanning," Maalouf added. "He's got the talent to do that, and I'm really looking forward to just getting together with him."