EAGAN, Minn. — Justin Jefferson in 2020 showed the Vikings got the real deal.
A Super Bowl-era NFL record of 1,400 receiving yards and a team rookie record of 88 receptions earned Pro Bowl honors.
And that was after a fully virtual offseason program.
A year later, almost all Vikings are participating in person during voluntary Organized Team Activity practices.
The teaching and learning have gone from computer conceptualizations to again be supplemented by the on-field lab in four dimensions on the practice fields.
The outdoor learning lab offered by Organized Team Activities is back in session.
"We're fortunate to be on the grass this time of year. We didn't have that luxury last year," Kubiak said Wednesday after the third of 10 scheduled OTAs that will precede a mandatory minicamp. "I really appreciate our guys that are here working hard, trying to get better."
Kubiak has been more than pleased with the number of Vikings players choosing to participate and their focus as he prepares for his first season in the role. He coached Minnesota's quarterbacks the past two seasons, helping Kirk Cousins to the two highest season-long passer ratings of his career.
"It's a blessing because last year we're doing all of this on our computers," Kubiak said. "Teaching Justin Jefferson on our playbook online every day is so much different than getting to physically do it, so it's a real advantage for us right now to have these guys out here practicing, and their attitudes are excellent. [Head Coach Mike] Zimmer has a great plan every day of getting great situational work. You just can't beat being on the grass."
Nucleus in place
Kubiak has certain important elements in place, including Cousins as the starting QB, Jefferson and Adam Thielen as the team's top two receivers and Dalvin Cook looking fresh after posting career highs of 312 rushes, 1,557 yards and 16 scores on the ground to earn his second consecutive Pro Bowl designation.
"I think we know our identity as an offense, and I think things haven't changed much. You get different languages, you get different calls now and then," Cook said. "Klint is a smart coach and … he's one of those coaches that is fun to be around. He's going to bring that competitive side out of you. Having him as an offensive coordinator, I know it's going to be a fun year. Like I said, the only thing that's changed is some of our wording, but identity as an offense, I think we know who we are."
The Vikings also are returning starting center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O'Neill, in addition to experienced players and promising rookies up front.
Irv Smith, Jr., and Tyler Conklin have logged meaningful reps at tight end and are expected to see opportunities increase after the release of veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph.
What remains to be determined?
So many conversations in 2021 about the Vikings offense have started with the offensive line.
One week in, Minnesota has gone with veteran Rashod Hill at left tackle, moved second-year pro Ezra Cleveland from right guard to left guard and flipped him with 2020 starting left guard Dakota Dozier to join Bradbury and O'Neill for first-team reps.
First-round pick Christian Darrisaw worked with the second team at left tackle, and third-rounder Wyatt Davis took reps at right guard with the second and third units.
"We want those guys to earn their stripes. There's a lot of things that are new to them right now, so we've got good veteran coaches in Rick [Dennison] and Phil [Rauscher], getting those young guys ready to play," Kubiak said. "But the mindset right now, we want to move some guys around and see, Ezra at left. We can get Dakota to right. Those guys are Swiss Army knives. They know many positions.
"We want to make sure they know as many as possible because things happen in the season and you've got to move guys around. This is the time of the year to try those things," he added.
Intrigue at tight end/receiver spot behind Thielen & Jefferson
The 82 jersey worn by Kyle Rudolph the past decade is now worn by Brandon Zylstra, who is switching to the position after starring as a receiver at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Smith is back for his third season. He boosted his touchdowns from two to five and his yards per reception from 8.6 in 2019 to 12.2 in 2020.
"Irv has come back in phenomenal shape. He's really been working at it since we last saw him in the building. But I don't want him to do anything different. I want him to be himself," Kubiak said. "And now he's going to have more opportunities, and I'm excited to see what he does with it. But I just want to push him in the day-to-day, just like we said with Justin, to get better at a few things every day and just get some aggregate gains and put those forward toward the payoff in the season."
Conklin is returning for his fourth season and primed to build of a strong finish to last season when Rudolph missed time because of injury. He had at least three receptions in each of his final four games, totaled 40 or more receiving yards against three of four opponents and caught his first career touchdown.
Zylstra, Brandon Dillon (Marian) and fifth-round selection Zach Davidson (Central Missouri State) represent small-school finds with high intrigue that will be fun to watch in camp.
Will the Vikings frequently use two-tight end formations the way they have in recent years? Will they try to establish a third receiver with more opportunities?
Kubiak said the Vikings will consider all ways to boost production in the passing game behind Thielen and Jefferson.
"We have some guys that fit that bill at that third receiver, but there's a lot of competition there. Chad [Beebe] has experience. Bisi Johnson has experience," Kubiak said. "There's a lot of young receivers that are really pushing them right now, and just like you said: Those two tight ends, they can play wide out, too. Those guys are extremely versatile. They're complete tight ends: run, block and line up in a 2-point stance and go at you, so in addition to that, we have our halfbacks we're going to use in the pass game as well. So there's no criteria. It's like, 'Who's the third-best wide out?' It might be a tight end. It might be the halfback in the game at that point. But we have a lot of options, and we're working on identifying who those options are come the fall."
This time of year should be particularly beneficial for Vikings backup quarterbacks.
Jake Browning, a 2019 undrafted free agent, and Nate Stanley, a 2020 seventh-round pick, worked with the second unit Wednesday. Rookie Kellen Mond, the 66th overall player drafted last month, repped with the third unit.
Kubiak has the benefit of having coached Browning and Stanley last year, even if so much work was done virtually. He was asked about his initial impressions of Mond and described the Texas A&M product as a "quick study."
"He's here early and leaves late. He really possesses all those quarterback traits that you want mentally," Kubiak said. "We're throwing a lot at him. We're making it hard for him, and he's responding well. [General Manager] Rick Spielman, Coach Zimmer and the scouting staff do an excellent job in the draft identifying these guys."