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5 Takeaways: Risner's Return Adds to 'Competitive Situation'

EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell is happy about the offensive line depth Minnesota has worked at building this offseason.

That includes last week's re-signing of Dalton Risner, who joined the Vikings as a free agent after Week 2 last season and started 11 games at left guard.

O'Connell said the team had maintained "a ton of dialogue" throughout the offseason and is "very thankful" to have reached a deal with him Friday to return.

"I really thought Dalton did a lot of good things when he got here last year," O'Connell told Twin Cities media members Tuesday afternoon, before adding that Blake Brandel also is in the mix to start at the left guard spot.

Brandel has been lining up at left guard for the first team for most of the Vikings voluntary Organized Team Activity practices open to media members.

"Blake has been a guy who, since he's gotten here, has been asked to be ready to play two or three spots at one time. So our challenge to Blake is really, 'Embrace that left guard spot through the spring, really get the teaching and the mastery of your craft at one spot' – which he really hasn't been able to do since he's been a Minnesota Viking," O'Connell said. "We've seen the gains off that, between not only Blake [individually] but also his fit among those five offensive linemen.

"And then there was a purpose and a plan of bringing Dalton back – to create a very competitive situation at that left guard spot. We want to play the best five guys we can," O'Connell continued. "You could see a bunch of different combinations of guys out there, especially as we try to allow that competition to naturally play out."

Risner this year has the benefit of an entire training camp with the Vikings, in addition to having spent most of last season in O'Connell's system.

"He's a veteran player, he came in here in great shape, ready to roll," O'Connell said. "So I feel really good between [Risner], bringing in a guy like [Dan] Feeney to be another interior piece, and then you've got Quess' (David Quessenberry) back, which was huge for me, at that veteran swing spot, to go along with two rookies and some [college free agents] we feel can really push and make the first, second and third groups of that offensive line really competitive.

"That's one thing we really wanted to have an emphasis on this year," he added. "It's not just about those five guys that are there; it's the depth, and then it's the development of guys who are on the practice squad. Can we rely on them to continue to have kind of an arrow-up mindset to push people not only next year but the following year? Because when you're having to reinvent that room every single year, it can be difficult from a continuity standpoint. … You'd love to have a farm system in that offensive line room. We feel really good about the group that got put together."

Here are four other takeaways from O'Connell's post-practice media session:

1. Taking care of each other

Throughout OTAs and mandatory minicamp, all 32 teams must abide by the set of guidelines set up by the NFL Players' Association.

Among those guidelines is that "contact work" is not allowed, and "intensity and tempo of drills should be at a level conducive to learning, with player safety as the highest priority."

O'Connell appreciates the way the team has abided by the rules and kept it top-of-mind to enter the summer break healthy.

"It is a unique time of year where you're truly not as competitive as we'll be when training camp begins – when we can have pads on and the Guardian Caps and everything. So we have a mantra of taking care of each other out here," O'Connell said. "We still had a very competitive spring for it being a learning phase, especially in the passing game in those 7-on-7 periods. But there are still a few days to go, so I don't want to celebrate too early, but it's been a very productive spring, and we've been able to keep our guys coming back out there every day and working."

2. Green dot exposure

Similarly important to building depth on the offensive line is laying a foundation with players who may be tasked with wearing the green dot helmet. On offense, it's the quarterback's helmet that is equipped with the communications device that relays play calls from the sideline.

On defense, it's often an inside linebacker. Jordan Hicks was the primary wearer of the green dot in 2023, but the veteran departed for Cleveland in free agency.

When Hicks missed time last year, Ivan Pace, Jr., stepped into the role, despite being an undrafted rookie.

This year, Pace is even more comfortable and has been handling some huddle calls, but the Vikings also are having veteran newcomers Blake Cashman and Kamu Grugier-Hill, as well as returnee Brian Asamoah II and second-year pro Abraham Beauplan log experience.

"It's still remarkable, even where he's at right now to think that this is just his second year," O'Connell said. "He's had a very good spring, just the type of communication that Flo' is putting on his plate.

"We also want to have Blake Cashman and Kamu be ready to handle some of that green dot work," O'Connell added. "BA (Asamoah) has done it a little bit in the past, so you look at those four guys and some of the down-the-line young guys we have, we've got Abe (Beauplan) back, as well. The depth of that room, just the versatility, and that's when you continue to say, 'Man, we're versatile in that room."

3. N'Keal Harry transitioning to tight end

The Vikings are transitioning N'Keal Harry from receiver to tight end.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Harry would be Minnesota's biggest receiver but is the team's lightest tight end.

"I think anytime you're looking to transition a receiver to the tight end position, and N'Keal is really fired up about it – he has attacked the process long before we ever got started in the offseason program – you're hoping to see the receiving traits kind of lead the way early on as they get a little more comfort, and maybe having their hand down and being a part of the different kind of run schemes that we're implementing.

"N'Keal has shown that his route ability, his ability to be explosive, [make] contested catches, different variations where we're hoping we're really developing even at this stage in his career," O'Connell continued. "A position change is always unique, but we're hoping we're developing a guy that can grow into a real third-down weapon, red-zone weapon, with his skill set. And then the more and more he can do from an all-down standpoint will only help his value as we continue to really put together that tight ends group."

View photos of Vikings players during minicamp practice at the TCO Performance Center.

4. Update on Hockenson's progress

Speaking of tight ends, Harry is joining the group as T.J. Hockenson continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered against the Lions in Week 16.

O'Connell said Hockenson is "coming along" in the recovery process and "doing a great job" with it.

"He's on schedule. He's had great checkups with his [doctors]," O'Connell explained. "[Vikings Vice President of Player Health and Performance] Tyler [Williams] and the staff are doing a really good job with him. It is part of the grind process of that rehab at this point, where he's been able to really develop certain aspects of his movement and strength in those things, but it's still the day-to-day.

"We'll keep you guys updated as we get into training camp," he added. "With the rules the way they are now, with the ability to designate guys for return, you can find ways to get guys out practicing with the team and on a timeline that might have been different in years past where you would have used the Physically Unable to Perform list."