EAGAN, Minn. — The opening of Organized Team Activity practices this week has allowed the Minnesota Vikings to transition from the learning stage to one that might be best summarized as reinforce by doing.
The Vikings hit the fields Monday and Tuesday for OTAs and are scheduled to do so again Thursday for a closed session. Here were observations from Tuesday's open session.
Wednesday was used for meetings, and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell spoke with media members to provide an initial assessment.
"I think you can get a feel for the information the guys have retained and how they're taking it to the first phase of competitive reps that we're going have," O'Connell said. "Ultimately, the intent is to make sure we show up to training camp in our most competitive environment as we build toward the season in the fall. That's when the real competition will take place, put the pads on and really play football, but you can definitely get a feel for where the guys are at mentally now, and then physically, as well, as far as how certain skill sets will fit."
O'Connell said the Vikings don't have "all of our systems in by any stretch" but there have been opportunities to challenge players with "nuts and bolts of what we've coached."
The previous few weeks of Minnesota's voluntary offseason program involved an emphasis on the "neck up" during meetings. Now, ideas can be workshopped on the field. It can be to solidify, refine or completely scrap based on how things look.
The current emphasis is to enable the team to hit the ground running in full stride when training camp opens in two months.
Here are three other talkers from O'Connell's press conference.
1. QB-driven practices
O'Connell was asked about the progress of second-year quarterback Kellen Mond, who played just three snaps in the 2021 regular season.
Mond is feeling more comfortable in his second pro season and recently provided a bicycle to a man who had been the victim of a bike theft. The spontaneous gift isn't the only shifting on the fly Mond has done this spring.
"Kellen's having a good spring so far, working incredibly hard, digesting the system," O'Connell said. "He made a couple checks yesterday at the line of scrimmage that he wasn't prepared play-by-play for of, 'Hey, make sure on Play 12 you're ready to do this.' He just kind of instinctively did that. Those are the little things you look for.
"Obviously Sean [Mannion] had some great work at the line of scrimmage, as well, when we were working 2s versus 2s over there," O'Connell added.
The former quarterback credited Vikings QBs "across the board" from Kirk Cousins to Mannion and Mond to Nate Stanley for being a "huge driving force" in "getting our systems taught, installed" and taken to the field.
"We're pitching, we're catching, we're getting in and out of bad plays, doing the things that we'll do in this offense, getting into the good plays and that premier mentality of, 'We want to run the plays we want versus certain looks,' and I can't be on the grass helping them do that. They ultimately have to take the things we've coached up in the meeting room and kind of apply it when they're out there leading the group."
2. Clean slates
Long before the Vikings hit the field or even had their first meeting of the offseason program last month, coaches had watched "every bit" of tape on returning players, free agents and prospects.
While film study can give some ideas on players, O'Connell said he told General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the coaching staff "we want to be able to form our own opinions about these players" from working with them. That rings especially true for players who have had limited playing time the past couple of years.
"It's really up to each individual guy how they fit into the team and how they can help us win," O'Connell said. "That can change on a day-to-day basis, based upon a guy, you know, maybe the light comes on or maybe, physically, they take that next step.
"All of a sudden as coaches, that's our job to go then find roles for those players – within the best 53 we can find to go win football games," he added.
3. Philosophy on working in rookies
It was just last Thursday when Vikings rookies arrived in Minnesota for minicamp, so a progression is expected.
The Vikings used two fields in Tuesday's session to get the most reps possible into the practice. Minnesota opted for the first-team offense facing the first-team defense (with some reserves) on one field and placed second teamers (notably rookies) on the other field.
O'Connell was asked about his philosophy of deciding when and if rookies should rep with first-teamers.
"We have a teaching progression for those young guys. We had the rookie minicamp, a lot of meeting time – they'll get extra meeting time throughout this spring with the way the rules kind of allow us to pour into those guys," O'Connell said. "But I do think [rookies] can earn [time with the first teams], for sure. And guys will. That's how we operate around here.
"We're going to put the best 11 guys out there, no matter that situation of offense, defense and special teams," O'Connell said. "But I will say I think it's important sometimes, they may not even know that they're going to be in there for two or three reps with the 1s, but we control that in this setting – and then just throw them in there and see how they react.
"Maybe a guy reacts great, maybe he learns a whole heck of a lot, but I think the best teaching and the best learning can sometimes come on those reps when you're out there with the 1s and you make a mistake and you can kind of put that away, bank that rep, knowing that it's just the start of hopefully a long process," he added. "But in the end, I think that exposure is what helps us understand if that guy is capable of earning that role. And then more importantly, I think it's great for their teammates to see them in those settings – to know that when it's time to count on them, that they can do that."