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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Identifies Vikings 'Lead Breakout Candidate'

As teams prepare for their training camps, The Athletic identified one "lead breakout candidate" for each NFL roster.

Alec Lewis highlighted Vikings safety Josh Metellus as a potential breakout in Minnesota, thanks to Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' system. Lewis wrote:

The Vikings have a potential Hall of Fame safety in Harrison Smith. They also selected safety Lewis Cine in the first round of the 2022 draft. So, where does Metellus fit in? Well, if this spring was any indication, the short answer is everywhere. Think broadly about past New England Patriots defenses and how Bill Belichick — and disciple Brian Flores — used defensive backs. Patrick Chung played a quasi-linebacker spot. He blitzed when needed. He manned the middle of the field. He played pivotal roles in the team's dime packages. Metellus seems destined for that role in Flores' Vikings defense. He has the size at 5-foot-11 and 207 pounds. He also has the acumen, having been awarded team captain honors late last season. Expect Metellus to play often and occupy a pivotal position in the new-look defense.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 7, 2024.

Another name – and another safety – on The Athletic's list that will be familiar to Vikings fans is Tampa Bay's Antoine Winfield, Jr.

The son of Vikings Legend Antoine Winfield, Sr., the former Golden Gopher already impressed as a rookie in 2020, racking up 94 tackles, 3.0 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. But The Athletic's Dan Pompei is expecting Winfield to be utilized in a different way than he's been recently and is projecting big things for the 24-year-old.

Last season, Winfield was mostly a nickel corner, playing 445 snaps in that position and only 236 at free safety. He can make more plays and have more impact at free safety, so [Buccaneers Head Coach] Todd Bowles plans to line him up as a deep center fielder most of the time. This will allow Winfield to use his speed and instincts to change games. Winfield is a three-year veteran, but he's only 24 and his best football should be ahead of him. If first-round pick Calijah Kancey can give the Bucs some interior pass rush and defensive end Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can step up his game and provide some outside heat, opposing quarterbacks will throw passes that Winfield can bring back the other way.

The Vikings are slated to host the Buccaneers Sept. 10 for the season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Justin Jefferson named NFL's top WR by execs, coaches & scouts

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler spent time talking to league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help rank the top 10 players at each position. He detailed his process:

Voters give us their best 10 players at a position, then we compile the results and rank candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, along with dozens of interviews, research and film study from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 80 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with those surveyed.

The NFL certainly isn't short on receiver talent, but Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson has risen above the rest.

Not many NFL players at any position are as relentless as Jefferson, whose 4,825 receiving yards since 2020 is a league record for a player's first three seasons.

The Vikings gave Jefferson a massive 32.2 [percent] target share, and he rarely disappointed, becoming the third receiver in NFL history to record back-to-back 1,600-yard seasons, joining Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown.

"You can put him in all 32 offenses, and he will produce and fit in seamlessly," an NFC executive told ESPN. "Most consistent, most complete, the ability to separate, has a knack to make the play when it needs to be made, shows up in big moments. The game is just really natural to him. Can beat doubles and can work inside or out."

Talk about exceeding expectations: Jefferson's 413 receiving yards above expectation leads NFL wide receivers by 123 yards. His 643 yards after the catch led all at his position.

If Jefferson has a weakness, evaluators say, it's attacking press-man coverage from bigger cornerbacks who will wrestle him, knowing officials can't catch every holding call.

"But he's relentless enough and a smart enough player where by the second half he usually figures things out," the exec said.