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Notebook: Stefanski Assesses Newcomers at Midpoint of OTAs

EAGAN, Minn. — School's out — or almost out — from coast to coast, but the learning lab is continuing into June at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

The Vikings held their fifth of 10 voluntary Organized Team Activity practices on Wednesday, continuing to install the new system under Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and evaluate how returning and new players are comprehending the details of the scheme.

Stefanski spoke to media members and provided assessments on several newcomers that the Vikings added through free agency and the draft.

Second-round pick Irv Smith, Jr., was a topic of conversation after a highlight-reel diving touchdown in the back left corner of the end zone that resulted from a pristine pass by another newcomer, free agent veteran Sean Mannion.

While many took note of Smith's steady hands on the play, Stefanski said he's been impressed by the way the youngest player drafted in 2019 has handled his business so far.

"Irv is doing a nice job. Like all of our young guys, he has a long way to go, and that is why he is working really hard with [tight ends] Coach [Brian] Pariani," Stefanski said. "It's important for those guys, and I think he understands that. He is a young man, but he is older in how he acts and presents himself. He understands he has a ton of work to do in the run game and the pass game, and certainly we thought enough of him and his skill set to get him up here, and you could see today, just putting him in some spots where he could go and make a play."

Stefanski said the maturity that has been shown by the 20-year-old could partially have been influenced by his time at Alabama and his parents. Smith's father was a first-round pick by the Saints.

"He is here and is very serious about minding his business," Stefanski said. "We have some fun with him, but I am just impressed by the kid. He breaks the huddle, most of the time he knows what to do. … I can see this kid developing into a veteran who knows what to do every single time.

"He is a threat in the pass game, but we didn't draft him just to be a threat in the pass game," he added. "He needs to be a complete tight end for us and across the board for every one of our players."

Mannion signed with the Vikings in April after spending his first four pro seasons with the Rams. He, Kyle Sloter and Jake Browning have had reps at quarterback behind Kirk Cousins.

"He came from a successful program the last few years there," Stefanski said. "He is really a guy that I think fits in extremely well with Kirk, extremely well with the backups, a guy that I have enjoyed being around. He is a really smart guy. That room is an impressive room, and he fits in really well in just his breadth of knowledge that he has brought to that room."

As Stefanski has merged concepts with those brought by new Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak, he's had another on-field teacher of sorts in the form of receiver Jordan Taylor.

Stefanski said Taylor, who signed with Denver in 2015 as an undrafted rookie, has been a "consummate pro" so far.

"I think it's really nice to have a guy like Jordan in that room that has a little bit of a head start on the system for those young guys around him, so we are trying to nudge some of those young guys toward him," Stefanski said. "It's not like Jordan has to tell them what to do; he can show them what to do. He's been out in the field, and I've been very impressed. You see the skill set again with Jordan with his size and length and speed. We are pretty happy to have him."

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was a guest on KFAN's 9 to Noon live broadcast from TCO Performance Center Wednesday and told "Voice of the Vikings" Paul Allen that he's been "extremely impressed with the things we're doing offensively, the way that the coaches are implementing the system, the way that the players are adapting to it and adjusting."

"Cousins has looked good throwing the ball; play-action pass has been unbelievable," Zimmer added. "Honestly, I couldn't be [happier] with the direction that the offense is going right now."

Zimmer notes a couple of Day 3 draft picks

During the broadcast with Allen, Zimmer mentioned three defensive players that the Vikings tabbed on the third and final day of the 2019 NFL Draft.

"Some of these young guys have come in here, and I kind of like them," Zimmer said. "Cameron Smith, the linebacker out of USC, has done a really nice job of working into the system. He takes every rep. The other kid that's kind of shown up is this [Marcus] Epps kid from Wyoming. He's been doing a nice job."

Zimmer said the Vikings have looked at Epps at safety and at nickel before mentioning that cornerback Kris Boyd is "a kid with a lot of ability, is learning."

Maalouf on punt and kickoff return candidates

New Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf said the Vikings have "a lot" of experienced candidates in the mix right now for the team's punt return and kickoff return spots.

Marcus Sherels — the franchise record holder in multiple punt return categories — departed in free agency, opening a spot that the former Golden Gopher held for nearly a decade. The Vikings were able to re-sign running back Ameer Abdullah, who handled kickoff return duties after joining Minnesota in November.

"We will probably start paring it down closer to training camp," Maalouf said. "I think guys' roles start to define themselves at that point. There is a lot of guys that can do it, which is a good thing. That is a good problem to have.

"All of them have done a really good job," Maalouf added. "[Chad] Beebe has been out there, Jordan Taylor, who has done it in games before. [Adam] Thielen has done it. We have a lot of options. It may come to a point where each one of those guys have a role, depending on what the situation is on punt return."