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Monday Morning Mailbag: Vikings Rookies Poised for 1st NFL Preseason Action

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View photos from the set of the Vikings Entertainment Network production day shoot.

Welcome to game week.

Sure, it's only the preseason, but every regular season has to start there (I guess, except for 2020), and this year, it will be a trip by the Vikings to Seattle. The 9 p.m. (CT) kickoff Thursday will be a little rough on folks back here. So will the redeye flight on the way back, but it's really not right to complain about this milestone.

View home and away photos of the Vikings 2023 regular season schedule.

Viewers in the Twin Cities can watch the game on FOX 9 KMSP. The five-state Vikings Radio Network will deliver the action, as well. NFL Network will show the game nationwide.

It will mark the NFL debut for several rookies, and although it's an exhibition, it's still taking an NFL field to fulfill dreams that are several years in the making.

We'll start today's edition with questions about several rookies and close with some more fan reactions to the Danielle Hunter contract resolution.


Vikings Classic Jerseys Now Available

Shop the Classic jerseys the Vikings are bringing back to the field and wearing during the Week 1 home opener.

Was not happy with dismissing Dalvin Cook, but we may have something with our [seventh-round pick] DeWayne McBride. Looking forward to seeing him go in preseason.

Throwback Jersey question: I was under the impression that we were moving back into the jerseys, but the team will only wear them for one game???

— Jamie & Debbie Doherty in Dallas, Georgia

I'm also looking forward to seeing McBride (and all the Vikings running backs — most likely minus Alexander Mattison) in action.

Mattison appears to have a lock on the starting role and has turned in some impressive practices so far, including last week's Thursday Night Practice. Based on what Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell did in the preseason last year, it would be quite a surprise if Mattison takes the field Thursday.

After him, though, the Vikings are evaluating Ty Chandler, McBride, Kene Nwangwu and Abram Smith.

Chandler turned in a really nice preseason as a rookie a year ago. Will McBride be able to do the same?

Nwangwu last participated in a practice on July 31, so it remains to be seen if he'll be available by Thursday.

Smith just joined the Vikings last Friday and took full-speed reps on Saturday, hitting the ground running.

McBride looked pretty good on some route running in 1-on-1s early last week. He had a drop during the developmental period on Saturday but came back with a nice run at the end of the drill.

The NFL game goes so far beyond running and catching for running backs, who also have to assist with blitz pickups. I don't know how much heat Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll and his staff will try to send, but ideally, McBride gets in some good work and transfers the tackle-breaking ability he showed in college to this level.

As for the Vikings Classic uniform, the team will wear that in Week 1 against Tampa Bay. Minnesota will wear that uniform at least once in the next few seasons.

View photos from the Vikings Classic jersey photoshoot. The Classic throwback jerseys will be worn Week 12 of the 2023 season against the Bears on Monday Night Football.

When will Jaren Hall get more recognition, get more of a push for the backup job?

— Demarous Davis

So far, the Vikings have opted to have Nick Mullens lead the second-team offense most of the time. Mullens had an excused absence for a personal matter last Monday, and Hall stepped in to take those reps.

Beyond that, there have been some practices where time on the field for Hall and the developmental group have been limited.

Mullens and Hall have had some nice moments in practices, and both seem to exhibit numerous leadership qualities that are always nice to have at the position.

Mullens and Hall led their units on nice drives at the end of Saturday's practice. I'm looking forward to numerous opportunities for both in the preseason.

I am hearing good things about Ivan [Pace, Jr.]. What can you tell us about how he is looking?

— Gerald Goblirsch

Pace stepped in for some reps with the first-team defense this past week at multiple practices. I wouldn't read that as a demotion for any player who has been here longer, but as part of the developmental philosophy of the coaching staff.

Ever since Pace signed as an undrafted free agent, there's been some steam toward his potential impact on the team. Many believe he should have been drafted and would have if he was taller (he's listed at 5-foot-10).

While some may have disregarded his play in college because of his size, that's similar to criticism that people put on Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson. I can remember going to the 2017 preseason opener at Buffalo and a colleague listing Wilson as a player he was excited to see.

Wilson, who joined the Vikings as an undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati like Pace, led the team with six tackles and two passes defended that night.

Keep an eye out for Pace in No. 40 on Thursday.

I wondered how camp was looking for Calvin Avery? I have high hopes that he and [Khyiris] Tonga could be a force on short yardage and goal-line defense.

— Brad in Stanton, Iowa

Avery is listed at 343 pounds — five more than Tonga, so I definitely get the thinking they'd be good to plug gaps on short-yardage plays.

You may have caught a word I used in described in the answer above: developmental.

That's a phrase O'Connell intentionally uses for players who are trying to work their way up the depth chart. The coaching staff is committed to trying to elevate every player on the developmental team.

Tonga, by the way, has looked good so far, continuing to build momentum on what he showed last year.

Reps have been limited to assess Avery, but he's another candidate for some opportunities on Thursday.

It seems like we have an excess of talent at safety: [Harrison] Smith, [Camryn] Bynum, [Lewis] Cine & [Josh] Metellus. Has there been any thought of moving Bynum back to corner where he played in college?

— Bruce in Gilbert, Arizona

Safety is one of the deeper position groups in terms of players with high ceilings and valuable prior experience.

Based on what we've seen at practices so far, the players Bruce listed are going to be able to impact games.

Smith is going to have a great deal of fun in new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' system, which will make sure it capitalizes on The Hitman's continued versatility and reliability.

We've seen Smith paired with Bynum a good bit in base but have also seen Metellus join the fray. We caught up with Cine recently, and he described how he's been able to connect the dots between the system he played in at Georgia under Kirby Smart and Flores' system.

As far as Bynum potentially shifting to corner, we have not seen that, but Flores does place a premium on versatility and flexibility. The fact that Bynum played cornerback in college could help diversify the looks the defense can offer.

I know that Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith are both still performing at a high level, but both must also know the end of their playing days is approaching. I wonder if either will consider coaching after hanging up the cleats. Both of them have been such smart, disciplined, versatile players over the years, both so beloved in Minnesota. It would be great to see them return to the team on the coaching staff someday.

— Dan in Santa Barbara, California

I don't want to speak for Adam or Harrison and what their post-playing plans entail. Both were teammates with former Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, who wound up working in 2018 as an assistant coach, and both can speak directly with him to gather his thoughts on that experience.

I can predict that and fans will always appreciate what Adam and Harrison have meant to the organization. It's been cool to see the continued support for Thielen, even after his departure. It's even cooler to still see Smith rocking the Purple 22 for a 12th season.

I wanted to pass along this from Flores' media session this past Saturday about Smith when asked the biggest thing he's learned about Smith:

"I mean, I've learned that he flies planes. I thought that was interesting. That's a lot more interesting than blitzing off the edge, in my opinion," Flores said. "I think that's part of it. Just starting to really build some relationships with a lot of the players, Harrison being one of them. Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, [Jonathan] Bullard. Probably the more-veteran players are more apt to come talk to me than some of the younger rookies – I get that.

"I try to reach out to some of those younger players, as well. But yes, to get back to your question – Harrison is, his veteran presence, he understands the game similar to the conversation I was having about Dean [Lowry]," Flores said. "Protections, coverage, disguise, blitz technique. Coverage technique. Tackling technique. And he's still a student of the game. So I think he's a great leader by example, just the way he works, the way he takes notes, the questions he asks. I know oftentimes he's asking questions for some other young guy who doesn't want to say it in front of the room, and that, in itself, is something I appreciate. Yeah, I'm excited to work with him, to continue to work with him. He's done a great job."

While Flores is thrilled to have a wingman as he teaches his system, the coach sounded less enticed to join Smith in the skies.

"My immediate answer is no. I have not [gone for or asked for a flight]," Flores said. "Nor do I want to, but maybe after a few conversations I can get comfortable. I don't see that happening. Probably not."

I'm so perplexed with signing an often injured [OLB] (Danielle Hunter). We have so many player contracts coming up this year and next (Jefferson, Hockenson and Cousins). So, we really just laid down $20M for one stupid year??? All of these contract and financial moves upper management have taken is absolutely mind blowing to me. Like, we could have signed Marcus Peters and [Yannick] Ngakoue for around the same amount of total money and possibly include longer tenures. It's clear that we have so many high-caliber players that we can't afford all of them, but plopping down that amount of money for one year is ridiculous!!

— Cyrus Sutherland

It is professional privilege to have Hunter back. Nothing (no verbal advice) can take the place of physical demonstration from the bank of years of experience for the young players.

— Vince

Combining these differences of opinion to start the Hunter discussion.

I'll begin by saying I don't agree with labeling Hunter as often injured. He played in all but two games in his first five seasons, and the two he didn't were because of a coaching decision early in his rookie season. Hunter started every game from 2017-19 before suffering the fluke neck injury during the early days of 2020 training camp.

View the best photos of Vikings OLB Danielle Hunter from the 2022 season.

He worked his way back from that and recorded 6.0 sacks in the first seven games of 2021 before a Dallas player got blocked into him at the end of a play. Simply bad luck on that and nothing he could have done. Hunter started all 17 games last season and played 78 percent of Minnesota's defensive snaps.

He had two unfortunate injuries that cost him a total of 26 games during some of his prime, which he's still in.

The market for elite edge rushers is what it is, and he and the Vikings found a way to have his 2023 salary at the level he wanted.

Ngakoue was here in 2020 after Hunter's injury. His era in Purple lasted six games and included 5.0 of his 65 career sacks before the Vikings traded him to the Ravens.

The Vikings were able to reach a deal with Hunter while maintaining the most flexibility for the team in the long run. Minnesota will be able to assess multiple players this year to help shape their decisions going forward.

To Vince's point, younger players stand to benefit so much from observing Hunter's approach in the weight room and classroom. He brought a learner's mentality and soaked up information, filling notebooks as a young player. Those lessons have led to results.

Danielle's potential impact in 2023 makes the Vikings a much better team.

Great to see Danielle Hunter deal get done. Now, with Zeke Elliott still out there and Jonathan Taylor wanting out of Indy, is there any interest from the front office in these two? IMO, extensions to [T.J. Hockenson] & [Justin Jefferson] come first, but if there's a chance, why not add more talent to the roster? I like Mattison, but I also like the idea of sharing the load and less wear and tear.

— Colt in South Dakota

Some interesting developments have occurred at the running back position this offseason. Because Taylor is under contract with the Colts, and I'm employed by a team, I can't comment on his status, per NFL rules.

Elliott has had a long run of success, but his production in Dallas fell to 58.4 yards per game in 2022 after he opened his career by leading the NFL in yards per game in 2016, 2017 and 2018. While total yards per game can depend on carries, his average per carry was a career-low 3.8 last season. Not saying he won't be able to boost that whenever and wherever he signs, just pointing out those numbers.

The Vikings have been overt in communicating their interest in Jefferson and Hockenson being with the Vikings for years to come.

What they've done at running back this offseason has been a shift to Mattison, who re-signed after briefly hitting free agency, while developing the group behind him that features multiple recent picks. I do think the coaching staff will be mindful of not overusing Mattison.

Craig, again thanks for doing this for us fans.

We asked the question in June about Danielle, and now management has spoken. Looks like they agreed with your assessment. So, with so many players needing this to be a big year for a new contract, is this the year we see progress in the playoffs even with a tough schedule? Is this our year?

— Doug B. in Troutman, North Carolina

Man, oh man, thank you and everyone else for letting me do this and your readership.

General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah often mentions time horizons, and with several key players at important decisions entering the final years of their contracts, it is a good time for the Vikings to try to replicate similar regular-season win totals and make a deeper run in the playoffs.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been comfortable in the offensive system, but he's also sounded at peace of mind about playing this year out and not worrying about the next contract. After all, he's actually done that multiple times before and delivered impressive results in those seasons.

Folks who saw Quarterback have a greater understanding of how he can guide his focus.

The overwhelming number of players here, there or anywhere who are good enough to make it to the NFL are so driven by maximizing their gifts, but Doug may be on to something where a player in a "prove it" year finds that extra ounce, even when tired, to be better than an opponent of similar rare talent.

View behind-the-scene photos from the Vikings 2023 production days.

Finding a solution with Hunter so the defense is positioned to be better than it would have been without him is a way of showing other players like Cousins that the organization wants to win and will do what it thinks is best.

There's no guarantee of a deeper playoff run, but there's a great deal to like about this roster and the coaching staff to have a shot.