EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings are reaching their midpoint for Organized Team Activity practices on Wednesday, and Head Coach Mike Zimmer couldn't be happier to be back on the field after missing this part of the offseason program in 2020.
Zimmer spoke with Twin Cities media members Wednesday and described the multi-layered benefits for coaches, returning veterans, second-year pros who could only participate virtually in their first NFL offseason program last year, and rookies that are showing promise in their first few sessions at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
Zimmer said he's tried to "take a little bit of physicality off the offensive and defensive lines" at this point in the year when practices are not padded, but he's emphasizing "full-speed" for the back end.
"With the front guys, we're basically taking two steps and not finishing, not continuing on the rush if you're a defensive lineman, so we're just trying to take off some of the physical parts," Zimmer said.
As advanced as virtual teaching devices and tech have become, there's still no substitute for time on the field.
"Like I've talked to the team about, it's hard to run play-action pass if you don't have a play," Zimmer said. "It's hard to have timing with the quarterbacks and receivers if they're not running full-speed. It's hard for defenders to understand pass-game concepts if you're not working full-speed on particular routes, so we're trying to spend a lot of time with that, and with the lines, it's more about alignment and assignment.
"The other thing is football is a reactionary game, right, where, 'If this guy does this,' so we're trying to get the initial reaction where these guys can get something out of it in the front," Zimmer said. "It's like the old saying, 'What does a boxer do to get ready?' Well, he's got to spar. He's got to box. Football players, that's what they've got to do. They've got to play football, so that's kind of our mentality and the way we're going about it."
View photos of the Vikings organized team activity on June 1 at the TCO Performance Center.
With newcomers, including starters, at multiple position groups, another focus so far has been on building team chemistry.
"Most really good teams have really good chemistry. They get along with one another, don't complain and sit there and gripe about the coaches or what this other guy gets to do and they don't get to do," Zimmer said. "That part, and everything in life, you feel good about the guys you're working with and you enjoy coming to work. I think that's what this football team has been doing lately."
Here are four other topics covered by Zimmer:
1. Jefferson 'very confident'
Receiver Justin Jefferson was among the 2020 rookies who did not benefit from an in-person offseason program. The star out of LSU was still able to thrive after hitting the starting lineup in Week 3. Jefferson broke the franchise rookie record for receptions with 88 and set a Super Bowl-era mark for receiving yards (1,400) last season.
Zimmer said Jefferson is more than comfortable entering his second pro season.
"I think the biggest thing that I've seen out of JJ is he's very, very confident right now. He's a lot more talkative, a lot more excitable, I guess, is a way to go," Zimmer said. "He still runs great routes, catches the ball. But he's still got to continue to do things right every single day, and that'll allow him to continue to ascend into the player that he has the ability to be."
2. Developing linemen
Much attention has been cast on the opportunities that could be ahead for left tackle Christian Darrisaw and right guard Wyatt Davis. They have been working with the second units, although Zimmer said that Darrisaw was dealing with "a little groin pull today or something, and I don't think he'll go today."
The first-round pick did not participate in drills during the session that was open to the media.
Zimmer was asked what the young players should try to show at this point to prove their readiness.
"It's a little bit different this year than it was last year. We do have some preseason games. We're going to practice against the Broncos, so we'll get to see them against other competition," Zimmer said. "They are competing right now, whether or not, you know, if they're the best guy, they're going to play. It just depends on how soon that happens.
"It's always a big jump when you come into the NFL from college, whether it's terminology and getting to know teammates and footwork, and the way the NFL, especially the NFL, is different, so sometimes that takes a little while, like it did with Justin. We got a chance to play him when he got a chance to play," Zimmer added. "You can go through a lot of guys that may not have started the season there but at some point you've got to get them in there if they're a talented guy and doing things right. Sometimes it's a baptism by fire, but you know that they're going to be better down the road, so they're competing. Once we get the pads on, they'll all be competing for that job, and we'll just see how it all shakes out."
View the best images from Week 1 of OTAs at the TCO Performance Center shot in black-and-white by the Vikings team photographer. Andy Kenutis.
3. About those practices?
Few details have been announced regarding the Vikings and Broncos practice sessions that are expected to occur before the teams open their preseason slates at U.S. Bank Stadium on Aug. 14, similar to the way Minnesota hosted Jacksonville for practices before a 2018 exhibition contest.
"I think we set up the parameters. We haven't set up the practice schedule or anything like that," Zimmer said of the sessions with Denver. "It's just another chance, with three preseason games, gives us a chance to kind of evaluate … especially the younger players … against other players. And evaluate our guys, too, where we are at each position and where we are as a football team."
4. Barr's hidden impacts
The Vikings put forth considerable efforts in free agency to revamp the defense that failed in 2020 to uphold the standard that has been set during Zimmer's tenure.
The moves included bringing in defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, which were recently credited for their merit by ESPN. Minnesota also is poised to have Michael Pierce, who opted out last season because of COVID-19 concerns, suit up in Vikings Purple for the first time.
But another big boost for the defense is the anticipated return of Anthony Barr, who missed all but six quarters of last season with a torn pectoral injury.
Barr was the first player drafted after Zimmer's hire. The ninth overall selection of the 2014 NFL Draft is a four-time Pro Bowler and expert communicator of Zimmer's defense.
"I think he was missed everywhere," Zimmer said. "He's tremendously smart. We always have a lot of packages for him, things that he can do differently where a lot of players can't do that. But not only that, he's a terrific leader, and guys respect him in the locker room.
"The coaches respect him in the way he goes about his business," Zimmer added. "He's a guy that can communicate to me [about] where things are or if I need to adjust things or change things up a little bit as well. He's a really important part of our football team."