The Vikings made a successful return to the outdoors on Friday night, kicking off their 2014 preseason with a win over the Oakland Raiders at TCF Bank Stadium. By now, you've read the game recap and you've seen the highlights. So what does it all mean going forward?
Here are three lessons and three questions from the preseason opener.
1. Matt Cassel leads the quarterback competitionTeddy Bridgewater is the future, but Matt Cassel made his case on Friday night that he is the present. Cassel was sharp while leading the first team offense, going five of six on his lone series and driving the offense 70 yards in 10 plays over 5:28 for a touchdown. The drive began with a 17-yard pitch-and-catch to Cordarrelle Patterson and was extended thanks to a pair of 3rd-down conversions – one on an eight-yard, back-shoulder completion to Patterson on 3rd and 7 and another on a 13-yard completion to Greg Jennings on 3rd and 8. Two plays after the Jennings completion, Cassel found Kyle Rudolph for 22 more yards, which set up the one-yard Matt Asiata touchdown plunge. Keep in mind, all of this was without the threat of the best running back in the NFL, as Adrian Peterson did not play in the game.
It's probably too early to call the Vikings quarterback competition over, but it's hard not to point at Cassel as the front runner after his performance in the preseason opener.
2. Jerick McKinnon can be a contributor right awayJerick McKinnon continues to show he can be more than an offensive wild card or a scat back. On Friday night, he showed off his quickness and speed with a few runs off tackle and to the outside. Be, just as he has during training camp, McKinnon was also a productive runner between the tackles. On 3rd and 4 mid-way through the 1st quarter, McKinnon ran off right guard and picked up 12 yards. Just moments later, he ripped off eight more yards running off right guard again. In total, McKinnon had 45 rushing yards on 12 carries, rushing both inside and outside with effectiveness and only affirming what he's been demonstrating in Mankato – that he can be a contributor in Norv Turner's offense right away.
3. The defensive backs are already improved from last yearMike Zimmer made no bones about it from the moment he was hired as head coach – the pass defense needs to improve drastically. One of the teaching points Zimmer continuously preaches to his defensive backs is "contested catches." He wants every catch the opponent tries to make to be a difficult one. This year's crop of defensive backs are off to a decent start after Friday night's game. The Vikings tallied five pass breakups (PBUs), with four of them coming from the secondary and with a couple other nice plays that weren't registered as PBUs also being made. Kurt Coleman even had an interception for the Vikings defense. Zimmer mentioned a couple times after the game that he expects more from the secondary, but anyone who's watched the Vikings defensive backs in recent seasons clearly saw improvement from this year's group on Friday night* *
1. Who will start at safety next to Harrison Smith?Yes, we did see improvement from the Vikings defensive backs on Friday night, but we didn't get any closer to figuring out who will lineup as a starting safety next to Harrison Smith in Week 1. Robert Blanton figured to be the guy, but he's out now with a hamstring injury. Jamarca Sanford didn't play on Friday because of tightness in his back. Mistral Raymond left the game early with an injury. Chris Crocker was signed last week, but didn't play in Friday' game. Coleman started with Smith on Friday and had an interception, so he made the most noise of anyone during the game. This is one position battle that remains wide open as the Vikings return to Mankato for one more week of camp.
2. Who starts at quarterback next week?Cassel had the best night of the three Vikings quarterbacks, but if the coaching staff feels the competition for the starting job is still open, might they want to start Bridgewater on Saturday against Arizona so as to give him an extended look with the rest of the starting lineup? It'll be a question both Turner and Zimmer are asked all week.
3. Did Adam Thielen just make the team?Coaches have a saying: "The more you can do." That saying applies to Adam Thielen after Friday night's game. He's listed as a receiver, of course, and he did have a 15-yard reception on 3rd and 3 mid-way through the 3rd quarter. But it was Thielen's contributions in other areas of the game that stood out on Friday night, and that may have earned him a roster spot. Thielen had three punt returns on the night, one for 26 yards and another for 23. And he also made a great tackle on a punt late in the 2nd quarter. How much more can you get from your fourth/fifth receiver?