EAGAN, Minn. — The first of two scheduled night practices at Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel is in the books, and we're 11 days in since the reporting deadline for veterans.
While plenty of camp remains, including two days of joint practices with the Titans (Aug. 16-17) and two more with the Cardinals (Aug. 23-24), plus three preseason games, we thought we'd share 11 impressions so far from camp.
Players are off Friday and scheduled to return to practice Saturday.
1. System momentum for Cousins | by Craig Peters
The changes on offense, either with a system or play caller or both, from year to year for Kirk Cousins have subsided for the first time since he joined the Vikings in 2018.
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips and multiple other assistants are working with the QB for a second consecutive season.
"I don't have to grind quite as much pre-practice to make sure I can call the plays," Cousins said. "I can be focused on other things. I can be thinking about the play clock, thinking about the defensive personnel, thinking about our offensive personnel, the situation while [O'Connell is] calling the play and kind of multi-process while I'm hearing the play.
"It used to be, 'Shut out the whole world. OK, let me hear this play to make sure I can call it in the huddle,' " Cousins added. "I think the ability to handle more and take in more information while you're processing the system is a big help."
The added understanding can help with efficiency at the position, and veteran backup Nick Mullens and rookie Jaren Hall can benefit from the smoothness as they compete behind Cousins.
2. Jefferson determined to keep delivering | by Ellis Williams
Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson believes he can be even better this season.
For Jefferson, it's not enough to lead the league in yards and receptions. In pursuit of legendary receiving records, overall greatness and team success, Jefferson plans to prove his excellence again.
"It's the same as my first year, getting 1,400. They asked how I was gonna do it, and it's just doing better than what I did before," Jefferson said. "I always try to find new ways to better my game. Always try to find a way to learn new moves and to be better at my craft. So there's always room for improvement. I'm not the most perfect guy on the field."
Jefferson may not consider himself a perfect player, but he's the best receiver in football. Last season, he led the league in receiving yards (1,809) and receptions (128) and notched a third straight Pro Bowl selection. His 4,825 receiving yards are the most in NFL history by a player in his first three seasons.
And he's already putting on a show at Vikings Training Camp. During the first practice open to fans last week, he scored two deep touchdowns from Cousins, celebrating one with his signature "Griddy" dance and the other with a bow.
3. Mattison for sure … and then who? | by Lindsey Young
Minnesota parted ways with Dalvin Cook this offseason and handed the reins to Alexander Mattison, who is well-versed in the offense. He has taken the majority of first-team reps during practices, with some competition behind him on the depth chart.
Kene Nwangwu, Ty Chandler and DeWayne McBride are being evaluated.
Nwangwu, a third-year player, primarily contributed as the Vikings kickoff returner in 2021 and 2022, but has shown some of his speed on offense. He has not participated in the past two practices.
Chandler, whom the Vikings drafted in the fifth round last year, and McBride, a 2023 seventh-round selection, were involved in the passing game a bit this week and took extra reps Thursday night.
Perhaps preseason games will provide a more comprehensive evaluation. The backs' ability to handle blitz pickup and keep as much of the playbook an option as possible are other significant factors.
Since coaches complimented Mattison on the latter last year, we asked O'Connell about that this week.
"You'd like to think we can take that same mindset. … [McBride] being a rookie, it's a lot. He's swimming a little bit right now, but you can see the daily growth. But, with those other two guys, the idea of they've seen it done at a really high level with Alex in that role, and now it's on them to show that they can handle every phase of our offense, both in the run and pass game.
"Pass protection always seems to be, especially with the looks that we get out here on the practice field, there will be no greater test than that, especially when we're not game-planning. We're just traying to install our systems and teach as we allow these guys to compete," O'Connell added.
4. Tight ends will diversify attack plan | by Craig Peters
Folks who have read Vikings.com's Monday Morning Mailbag have seen a steady drumbeat from me in responses to fan questions about what I think Josh Oliver will add to this offense. He's going to help the run game and the pass game with his blocking but then force teams to account for him in their coverage plan as well. Oliver showed the fluidity he has as a big man during Thursday's night practice.
People already know what T.J. Hockenson looks like in Purple. He recorded 70 catches in his first 11 Vikings games (including the Wild Card round).
Johnny Mundt, who caught his first career touchdown last season, has showed strong hands and the ability to catch in traffic during multiple practices, as well.
The Vikings will have options to use two or three tight ends, depending on specific situations.
"When you just look at [Oliver's] production, a lot of it last year with Baltimore was in the run game, but he was also a guy coming out [of college] that we all graded that was very productive in the pass game. He's just a big physical player," Phillips said. "When you have Johnny Mundt, as well as when you have C.J. Ham, guys who have been productive in this league, it just makes sense to make sure that we're using all available players."
5. Continuity key for Vikings offensive line | by Ellis Williams
The Vikings return all five starters from last year's offensive line. Right tackle Brian O'Neill has not fully practiced yet, but avoiding the Physically Unable to Perform list to start camp is encouraging. O'Neill handled first-team reps at Wednesday's walk-through and participated in position drills Thursday night.
Left tackle Christian Darrisaw seems poised to take another leap in Year 3. Phillips said he expects Darrisaw to be recognized as one of the league's best tackles this season.
"I think he's got a real mindset that this is a year where if anyone hadn't noticed him – I know the players who play against him certainly noticed – but I think across the league, we'll be talking about him as one of the elite tackles for years to come," Phillips said.
The interior should benefit from continuity. For the first time, center Garrett Bradbury can expect to start the season with the same set of guards, with Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram to his left and right, respectively.
Minnesota hopes to run the ball efficiently this season versus lighter boxes thanks to the two-high safety looks from opponents that Jefferson commands. Year 2 under O'Connell and offensive line coach Chris Kuper should breed more consistency, assuming the group remains healthy.
6. Versatility and rotation on D-line | by Lindsey Young
Indications are strong that new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores will present multiple looks, and the Vikings could rely on a rotation of players to capitalize on versatility and keep guys fresh.
Harrison Phillips is returning after starting all 17 games last season, and Jonathan Bullard also remains in the fold after starting seven games in 2022.
The Vikings are weathering the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson, who joined the Browns in free agency this spring. They added former Packers defensive tackle Dean Lowry in free agency, and they also are rotating in Ross Blacklock, James Lynch and Khyiris Tonga up front.
Minnesota has some competition for depth spots on the d-line, as well. Coaches are getting looks at former Golden Gopher Esezi Otomewo, 2023 draft pick Jaquelin Roy, International Player Pathway Program participant Junior Aho, Sheldon Day, T.J. Smith and Calvin Avery.
The first-team base defense opened with Phillips in the middle of Tonga and Lowry on Thursday night.
7. Hicks, Asamoah leading linebacker room | by Ellis Williams
For seven of the past eight seasons, the Vikings leading tackler was Eric Kendricks. That crown will likely shift to Jordan Hicks or Brian Asamoah II, who have taken the most starters' reps at inside linebacker in Minnesota's 3-4 base.
Hicks, 31, offers eight years of veteran experience. He's had 100-plus combined tackles in three straight seasons and played in all 18 Vikings games last season.
Asamoah played just 11 percent of defensive snaps for Minnesota last season but showed some positive elements last preseason. He showcased his speed and tackling as a specialist, which the Vikings rewarded with an increased role this season.
Undrafted rookie Ivan Pace, Jr., stepped in to take some first-team reps on defense Thursday night.
Troy Dye and veteran addition Troy Reeder offer plenty of experience for the group.
Dye, a 2020 fourth-round pick, has six starts in his 45 games with Minnesota. Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels said Pace is already standing out as a specialist.
8. Hunter's return a big boost (eventually) at outside linebacker | by Craig Peters
The Vikings opened training camp with speculation as to whether three-time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter would report. He did but did not participate early while his agent and the team worked out a new deal for 2023.
The Vikings were calm in trusting they'd be able to reach a deal with Hunter and are patiently executing the plan they have for him to be in a prime position to affect the Buccaneers in Week 1. O'Connell has talked about targeting the joint practices with the Titans and Cardinals.
While he's been limited, the Vikings have usually had D.J. Wonnum opposite free-agent addition Marcus Davenport, who has not participated in the past two practices. Pat Jones II has stepped in for the brunt of the work with Wonnum.
Beyond those players, the Vikings are developing Luiji Vilain, Benton Whitley, Curtis Weaver and Andre Carter II (a rookie who opened camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list).
Reaching an accord with Hunter is key at a position group that is a bit thin on proven NFL experience and because of just how dynamic he can be on the edge.
9. Swiss Army safeties | by Lindsey Young
Keep your eye on the safety position in Flores' defense, which has already has shown itself to be more exotic and aggressive than what fans observed last season. He promises to bring the pressure … and not exclusively from the front seven.
All-Pro safety Harrison Smith has shined at training camp practices so far, and more than once he's been able to scream across the line of scrimmage for a "would-be sack" of the QB during non-contact drills. Since being drafted by Minnesota in 2012, Smith has 16.5 total sacks – recording 3.0 in three separate seasons. Will he rack up more in the Vikings new system?
"[Flores] likes having his own style and then kind of turning it over to his players. It's been great learning from him, and we just kind of scratched the surface," Smith said at the beginning of camp. "It's more of an aggressive approach in general, with things mixed in. You can tell he likes to be multiple with things and not stuck in one way. So, it's fun to learn new styles and new ways of doing things, and I'm sure we'll just keep building with that."
Flores has had fun utilizing Josh Metellus in multiple ways, too. The 25-year-old has lined up at safety, in the slot and at linebacker in different situations.
10. Cornerback competition heating up | by Ellis Williams
The Vikings reshaped their defensive backs room this offseason, signing cornerbacks Byron Murphy, Jr., and Joejuan Williams as free agents.
Murphy, 25, is the most experienced cornerback on Minnesota's roster with 48 starts. He has five career interceptions.
So far, it's clear Murphy is an every-down defender. Flores is using Murphy in multiple ways. In certain situations, he's a starting outside cornerback. Sometimes Flores moves Murphy inside as a nickel defender.
Akayleb Evans has taken plentiful starting reps opposite Murphy. When Murphy slides inside, Williams and Andrew Booth, Jr., have earned first-team opportunities. Booth left Tuesday's practice with an injury that kept him sidelined on Thursday.
Rookie Mekhi Blackmon is competing for playing time as well. O'Connell said he's encouraged by how the group has quickly adapted to Flores' new scheme.
"The whole group, I've really felt they are taking to the coaching," O'Connell said. "We are playing differently. We are asking them to play with different kinds of keys and vision principles and being physical at the line of scrimmage."
11. Competition at kicker | by Lindsey Young
Greg Joseph is working toward his third season in Purple, and Minnesota also signed rookie free agent Jack Podlesny to set the stage for a kicking competition. Joseph was 26-for-33 (79 percent) on field goals in 2022 and 40-for-46 (87 percent) on extra points.
During his redshirt senior season for Georgia, Podlesny was 23-for-26 on field goals, earning SEC Special Teams Player of the Year and All-SEC First-Team honors.
Podlesny was good from 45, 48 and 50 but missed a kick from the distance of an extra point on Thursday.
Joseph was good from 44 to conclude a 2-minute drill but went 4-for-7 with his other kicks. He bounced back after misses from 53 and 58 to make a 58-yarder to end the session.
Daniels emphasized the value of competition.
"Last year we had Jordan Berry, we had Mr. [Ryan] Wright, there was a punt competition. This year we have Greg Joseph and Jack Podlesny, and it's a kicking competition," Daniels said. "The goal is, the way this roster is built, we're looking to compete at every single aspect, every single level of every single position.
"Ideally, the goal is once we get [the roster] down from 90 to 53, the other 37 individuals that were a part of it are playing for 31 other teams in this league. That's how this roster is built out," Daniels added. "Our personnel [department has] done an unbelievable job putting it together, so it is a kicking competition between those two."