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Lunchbreak: ESPN Highlights NFL Minicamp 'Surprise Players'


With all 32 teams now on "summer break" ahead of training camps opening late next month, ESPN looked at minicamp standouts across the league.

ESPN asked its beat reporters to highlight one player from their respective team who “surprised” in all the right ways. Kevin Seifert pointed to Vikings guard Blake Brandel and wrote the following:

You wouldn't expect a former backup offensive lineman to be the talk of Vikings practices, and it's not as if Brandel was on the tip of the tongue of every coach and player this spring. But it was exceptionally notable to watch how events played out at the left guard spot. After four years as a backup guard and tackle, and increasingly unsolicited raves from coaches, Brandel opened the spring as the first-team left guard. He remained there even after the Vikings re-signed 2023 starter Dalton Risner. [Vikings Head] Coach Kevin O'Connell indicated that Risner will compete with both Brandel and right guard Ed Ingram, a strong sign the Vikings will give Brandel every opportunity to elevate into a starting role.

View the best photos of Vikings G Blake Brandel from the 2023 season.

Let's see what ESPN reporters said about the other three NFC North teams, as well.

Courtney Cronin spotlighted 2022 third-round draft pick Velus Jones, Jr., in Chicago, saying "no one benefits from the changes to the kickoff" more than the receiver and return specialist.

Jones, who struggled to carve out a role during his first two seasons, will have to be the team's best returner to secure his spot on a crowded wide receiver depth chart, but he has a solid head start given his impact on special teams. Jones banked plenty of reps on kickoff return this spring, which coaches believe will allow him to consistently show off his best asset.

Cronin quoted Bears Head Coach Matt Eberflus, who said Jones is "like a freight train" when he's running straight toward a defender.

For the Lions, Eric Woodyard pointed out that defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike is attempting to bounce back after suffering a back injury in 2022 that required spinal surgery.

Lions [Head Coach] Dan Campbell said he has been impressed with Onwuzurike's recovery, describing him as "having a really good spring." His strength and explosiveness have returned during reps this offseason, and he hopes to be an asset to Detroit's defense. The former second-round pick in 2021 has had his development derailed by injuries, recording just two sacks – and zero starts – in his first three seasons in Detroit.

And lastly, Rob Demovsky said not to write off cornerback Eric Stokes, who was drafted in the first round by Green Bay in 2021 but also has been largely hindered by injuries.

After battling knee, foot and hamstring issues, he made it through the entire offseason program and is poised to win a starting job back.

"I just say this is my story and I'm embracing it," Stokes said. "I'm embracing the full story. I ain't going to feel sorry for myself. At the end of the day, I'm blessed. I'm one of the people in this locker room. ... I'm definitely blessed just to have a story."

Click here to read ESPN's full list of minicamp "surprise" players.

Shaq Griffin tabbed as Vikings 'player to root for' in 2024

Vikings cornerback Shaq Griffin certainly isn't new to the NFL, but he's been getting accustomed this spring to his new team.

Minnesota signed Griffin in free agency, and Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell recently emphasized how happy he is to have the veteran defender on the roster.

"You feel his competitiveness," O'Connell said. "When [Justin Jefferson] got back for minicamp, you could feel those guys kind of picking up like they've been teammates for a long time, just pushing each other to get better."'s Dan Parr is hoping Griffin has a solid season in Minnesota, and he believes Griffin is a great player for fans to support, as well. He recently opined "one player to root for" from each NFC team, highlighting Griffin for the Vikings.

Parr said Griffin is "shaping up to be an important piece" and wrote the following:

Playing on a one-year, $4.5 million contract, Griffin is in line to start in Brian Flores' defense. I realize we're only talking about minicamps, but the results thus far are drawing positive reviews, with Griffin providing the seasoned leadership Minnesota needs at the position. People forget, but he was a Pro Bowler in 2019. A creative defensive coordinator like Flores might be able to help Griffin have a bounce-back year of sorts and extend his career.