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6 Takeaways from Vikings 2021 Offseason Program

EAGAN, Minn. — Surprise good news this week wasn't just limited to 2021 Vikings Ring of Honor Inductee Kevin Williams.

A day after the defensive tackle found out from Owners Mark Wilf and Zygi Wilf that he'd become the 26th member of the prestigious group, current players received a dose Thursday morning when Head Coach Mike Zimmer announced that their third and final practice of mandatory minicamp would be canceled.

Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak still participated in a scheduled session with media members Thursday afternoon and was asked about the decision, as well as the morning's announcement that the team plans to welcome fans back to U.S. Bank Training Camp.

"I know it's definitely a reward from Coach Zimmer to the players for a hard-worked offseason," Kubiak said. "Secondly, very fortunate to hear that news. … Obviously our fan base makes a major difference in wins and losses for us, because their energy for our team really carries us throughout. So we're really blessed to have them back. It's going to make a difference for us."

The minicamp sessions are the only ones that are contractually obligated for players to attend. Some teams had multiple chunks of their roster opt to not attend voluntary Organized Team Activity practices, but the Vikings were pleased with the attendance during the spring sessions.

Zimmer also erased the 10th and final OTA session a week ago.

View the best photos from minicamp at the TCO Performance Center shot in black-and-white by the Vikings team photographer, Andy Kenutis.

While we don't know all that went into his decisions, it is likely a message to players that if they handle their business, he'll do what he can to take care of them.

One implementation he instituted was the use of soft-sided helmets during offseason practices that are similar to rugby scrum caps. Players appreciated the adjustment and not having to worry about an incidental helmet to the thigh.

Now, a generally healthy roster that includes Pro Bowlers Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr returning after missing a combined 35 games in 2020, will take another break before returning to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center at the end of July.

Here are six takeaways that Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and myself had from the 2021 Vikings offseason program.

1. QBs competing behind the scenes | By Craig Peters

Kubiak has been the quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons, helping guide Kirk Cousins to two of his best NFL campaigns. Now in the OC role, he's continuing that relationship and also building on work with 2019 undrafted free agent Jake Browning, 2020 seventh-rounder Nate Stanley and welcoming 2021 third-rounder Kellen Mond into the fold.

The Vikings are set with Cousins as the starter, but there's competition on the field and in the meeting room among the younger players.

"Really competitive group. First of all, I want to single out [quarterbacks coach] Andrew Janocko, who's really been a tireless worker getting those guys ready for practice every day. Jake Browning, Nate Stanley and Kellen Mond have really competed hard against each other.

"Those guys compete mentally … Who can have the quickest answer? Who knows the answer the fastest? Who can think of the worst thing that can happen on this play and how we're going to fix it before it ever starts? I love that room, and it's a great room."

Kubiak said Browning "had a tremendous camp, made a lot of great decisions and great throws." He said Stanley "impressed as well and has come a long way."

Stanley and the 2020 rookies missed out on in-person offseason programs and preseason games, so he has appreciated the past several weeks.

Kubiak said Mond "certainly has put in a lot of work since he's got here and has come a long way in these few weeks."

"The guy is a tireless worker, and he has to be because he's got to keep up with those guys ahead of him," Kubiak added.

2. Jefferson and Thielen regular-season ready | By Lindsey Young

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are good.

The receiver duo seems to have picked up right where it left off last season. With one NFL season – and an incredibly impressive one, at that – under his belt, Jefferson also is taking advantage of in-person spring program practices compared to last year's virtual setup.

View photos of the Vikings second mandatory minicamp practice at the TCO Performance Center.

The youngster's confidence is high as he heads into Year 2.

"He knows what he's capable of. He knows what this offense is capable of, and he's just out there, having fun and playing football like he did last year," Thielen said. 'But he's just more confident and more relaxed and having fun playing ball. Again, you know, he knew going into last year what he could do, but when you go prove it, now you can kind of come out here, work on the little things and continue to get better, and he's showing that."

Thielen and Jefferson have continued to strengthen chemistry with Cousins, and Minnesota's offense made some big plays throughout OTAs and minicamp. One such play occurred during OTAs, when Cousins hit Thielen in-stride for a roughly 50-yard catch that would have put the Vikings in the red zone, had it been a real-game situation.

Thielen and Jefferson also have benefited from working with new Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who brings 16 years of NFL playing experience to the table.

"He played the game for a long time and did it at a high level for a long time and has a lot of different experiences within the game of football and in life that he can share with us," Thielen said. "Sometimes coaches come from a coach perspective, right? That's all they've ever done. That's not a bad thing. That's just different. He's bringing a different side of the game that I've never really had in a receivers coach, and I think it's a really unique thing. I'm trying to pick that part of his brain, and it's been really good."

3. Early flashes – and intrigue – from Vikings TEs | By Lindsey Young

It's still a little jarring to see someone else wearing No. 82 on the practice field.

Longtime tight end Kyle Rudolph is no longer with Minnesota, having signed with the Giants after being released early this spring. That means plenty of eyes are on a fairly young group of Vikings tight ends.

Irv Smith, Jr., leads the pack, while Tyler Conklin also continues to improve and show the impact he can make; both had an opportunity to strut their stuff in the end zone this spring.

Being that the Vikings often run multiple tight-end sets, it will be important to have more than a couple dependable targets.

Brandon Dillon, who has spent the majority of his first two seasons on Minnesota's practice squad, and 2021 draft pick Zach Davidson snagged touchdowns from Browning during the same practice. And don't forget about undrafted rookie Shane Zylstra, who has generated some buzz with a touchdown and additional impressive catches after transitioning from his college position of receiver and donning the 82 jersey.

"It's a bigger role for Tyler Conklin [this season]. He's kind of emerged as a guy that's moving upward, and with those two guys (Conklin and Smith), we have a lot of weapons there," Zimmer said. "Irv always has been able to do what he's been able to do whether Kyle was here or not. Obviously, Kyle's a great kid and we miss him, but we're excited about these two young tight ends that we have."

4. Replenished and revamped defense | By Craig Peters

We mentioned the anticipated returns of Hunter, Barr and Kendricks to the lineup, but that's only the beginning for a Vikings defense that has replenished itself after an injury-riddled 2020.

Veterans want to show last season was an aberration from what a general core has put together under Zimmer and emphasize to young players who are returning that it can't happen again. Reinforcements have arrived at every level of the defense.

The interior of the defensive line already was expecting big things from the combination of Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson, and Minnesota this week brought back Sheldon Richardson, who is excited about his fit here, even if his role/workload is different from 2018.

Zimmer explained what he’s seen among linebackers not named Barr or Kendricks on Wednesday, and veterans have been added time and time again at cornerback. More on that next.

5. Hand shines among deep cornerbacks group | By Eric Smith

Minnesota's defensive backs room is a bit crowded with cornerbacks these days, as the Vikings have a whopping 11 players (of 90) at that position on the roster.

Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland are new faces from a year ago, and the same can be said for Tye Smith, Parry Nickerson and Amari Henderson.

That group certainly impressed at times this offseason, but the most noticeable player was actually a returner from a season ago.

Second-year cornerback Harrison Hand made splashy plays on a routine basis in practices, whether it was snagging an interception or consistently deflecting away passes.

He capped off a strong spring with a leaping pass breakup Wednesday on a deep pass attempt to Dan Chisena.

Hand will be looked upon to provide depth at the position, but could also earn playing time if he keeps it up. Jeff Gladney was not in attendance during Minnesota's offseason program. Cam Dantzler was for most days, but he was sidelined from doing team drills during minicamp.

6. Some settlement on special teams | By Eric Smith

The Vikings placed plenty of focus on special teams over the past month, which is expected after that phase struggled mightily for most of the 2020 season.

New Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken has been vocal and animated during drills, bringing good energy to the practice field.

The majority of special teams battles will be determined in training camp and the preseason, most notable at kick and punt returner.

Andrew DePaola and Turner Bernard will continue competing for the long snapping job, while Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson will look for the leg up at kicker.

It is worth noting that Patterson was not at the final three practices open to the media, leaving Joseph as the lone kicker in attendance. He fared well in that role and made a 50-yard field goal Wednesday to close out practice.

At punter, punter Britton Colquitt appears to be the guy. The Vikings released undrafted rookie Zach Von Rosenberg to clear a roster space for Richardson earlier this week.