You know things are getting real when the pads come on.
The Vikings held their first padded practice of this year's training camp Tuesday, and intensity is ramping up with less than two weeks to go before Minnesota's first preseason game on Aug. 14.
Chad Graff of The Athletic earlier this week rolled out a "what we’re watching" piece now that practices will feature more contact.
First on Graff's list was quarterback Jake Browning, who has received plenty of reps – and then some – with Kirk Cousins, Nate Stanley and Kellen Mond on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Graff wrote:
The backup quarterback thrived Saturday night. He was the only quarterback on the field and probably threw more than 75 total passes, but he made the most of them. Playing with the first-, second- and third-team offense, Browning led the units on multiple scoring drives and hit Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn for big gains.
He's been shelved as a practice-squad player the last two seasons with the Vikings, but this training camp was always going to be an important one for him. Even after the team drafted Kellen Mond in the third round, Browning was a slight favorite to replace Sean Mannion as the No. 2 quarterback. After Saturday's practice, Browning took a big lead in that competition.
How the quarterbacks perform in the preseason games will make the biggest difference in sorting out the depth chart behind Cousins, but if multiple quarterbacks miss more practices this week, Browning has a chance to cement himself as the primary backup.
View photos of Vikings players during training camp practice on August 3 at the TCO Performance Center.
Graff also noted that he's tuned into "defensive ends not named Danielle Hunter" and the competition at right guard.
The Vikings drafted Wyatt Davis out of Ohio State in the third round, but he hasn't yet stepped up into the first-team offense. Instead, it's been Dakota Dozier and Olisaemeka Udo sharing the right guard reps with the 1s.
That's not a huge shock given the Vikings tend to want their rookies to "earn" that playing time with impressive performances with the backups, but it's still a situation worth monitoring. The Vikings have seen Dozier and [Dru] Samia both play in meaningful games, and the return hasn't been great (to put it mildly). Maybe Udoh can be the answer there. That's something we'll learn a lot more about this week.
Speaking of the offensive line, Graff said he's keeping an eye on first-round pick Christian Darrisaw, who continues to be sidelined with a groin injury.
There's plenty to watch among the Vikings receivers group, which recently lost Bisi Johnson to a non-contact ACL injury, and the battle for the third spot behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. And on defense, Graff is keeping an eye on Minnesota's efforts to improve its run defense after struggling in 2020.
Last but not least, Graff is intrigued by rookie running back Kene Nwangwu.
I can see why scouts fell in love with the former Iowa State running back during the draft process even if he never earned a starting role with the Cyclones. The team's fourth-round pick can flat-out fly, and he's pretty shifty, too.
Vikings DL falls middle-of-the-pack in PFF rankings
Analytics site Pro Football Focus has been going through each position and ranking teams by strength at the respective role.
PFF's Ben Linsey on Tuesday looked at defensive line units across the league, and he placed Minnesota 14th overall, due largely to struggles there last season. Linsey wrote:
The Vikings defensive line ended up as one of the NFL's worst in 2020. The group ranked 30thin expected points added allowed per run play and had the lowest pressure rate in the league both with and without blitzing. The 2021 version should look significantly different — Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce are expected to return from injury and an opt-out, respectively. Minnesota also brought in Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency.
Pierce and Tomlinson both rank in at least the 83rdpercentile of interior defenders in run-defense grade over the past four seasons. The recent addition of Sheldon Richardson also gives them a more viable pass-rushing threat on the interior than either Pierce or Tomlinson. It still remains to be seen whether they have enough pass rush outside of what Hunter is able to provide.
Division-rival Green Bay was listed just above the Vikings at No. 13.
Kenny Clark and Za'Darius Smith are tremendous individual talents. They rank eighth and seventh, respectively, in PFF WAR at their positions since the start of the 2019 season. But Green Bay's surrounding pieces keep this unit from ranking inside the top 10. Rashan Gary did raise his overall grade from 55.8 as a rookie to 68.1 last season, though. The Packers will need continued improvement from him next season opposite Smith.
Linsey ranked the Bears at No. 6 and the Lions 24th overall.