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Potential Factors at Play as Vikings Approach Roster Cuts to 53

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EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings and all NFL teams will finish their preseason slates this weekend, which also means they are less than a week away from the Aug. 31 deadline to establish 53-man rosters and set up 16-man practice squads on Sept. 1.

Numerous factors come into play when teams determine these decisions. The long list includes, but is not limited to, the following: depth at a position; versatility of a player; anticipated workload for a position group (think how often the Vikings might use multiple tight ends instead of a set with four wide receivers); and whether a player on the rise can be stashed on the practice squad without getting poached by another team.

With all of that in mind, here's a look at the 79 players on the Vikings roster, a summary of how many players have been kept at each position during Head Coach Mike Zimmer's tenure and a list of potential factors at play as Minnesota prepares for next week's roster reduction.

Note: Players listed as starters are based on Minnesota's unofficial depth chart; reserves are listed alphabetically by last name.

Quarterback

Starter: Kirk Cousins

Reserve options: Jake Browning, Kellen Mond and Nate Stanley

Recent history: The Vikings kept two quarterbacks on the 53 in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. Minnesota placed three in 2014, 2015 and 2018. Browning and Stanley spent 2020 on the practice squad.

Potential factors at play: Cousins is the unquestioned starter, and he's been incredibly durable throughout his career, but the Vikings have to make sure they have depth at the sport's most important position.

Browning for several days of training camp was the only Vikings QB available. He responded well during that stretch, but it hasn't carried over to preseason games yet. He has two years of practice squad experience in this system, giving him much more familiarity in it than Mond or Stanley.

Mond has an interesting combination of a lively arm and athleticism that made him a third-round pick this spring.

Stanley was added in the seventh round of 2020, but he's missed time because of COVID-19 protocols and an undisclosed injury that followed. He is yet to play in a preseason game this year and didn't get the opportunity last year because contests were canceled.

Running back

Starter: Dalvin Cook

Reserve options: Ameer Abdullah, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu, A.J. Rose, Jr. and Ito Smith

Recent history: The Vikings retained three running backs on the 53 from 2014-17 and bumped the number up to four in each of the past three seasons.

Potential factors at play: Cook is ready to take another run at an NFL rushing title after his 1,557 yards last season ranked second. He also scored 16 touchdowns on the ground to bring is career total to a jersey-matching 33.

Mattison has been an impressive backup for Cook. Will he receive more carries in 2021 as the Vikings try to manage Cook's workload with an extra week of the regular season? The former Boise State standout didn't practice this week after starting against the Colts.

Abdullah opened the game against the Broncos and looked solid on six carries for 35 yards against Indianapolis. He gives the Vikings an option as a receiving target, has returned kicks and punts and has become more of a core special teams player.

Nwangwu might be the fastest Viking on the roster, but he suffered a knee injury against Denver and hasn't been able to participate since. Rose handed an extra workload with 25 carries for 100 yards against the Broncos. Smith was just added this week. He has three seasons of experience with the Falcons.

Fullback

Starter: C.J. Ham

Reserve option: Jake Bargas

Recent history: The Vikings retained two fullbacks (Jerome Felton and Zach Line) back in 2014, but it's been one player ever since.

Potential factors at play: Ham has locked down the spot since 2017 after spending the previous season on the practice squad. His work ethic has yielded incredible results, landing him in the Pro Bowl that followed the 2019 season. Bargas was on Minnesota's practice squad last season and has had some nice moments in the preseason.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Sept. 13, 2021.

Wide receiver

Starters: Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen

Reserve options: Chad Beebe, Dan Chisena, Myron Mitchell, K.J. Osborn, Whop Philyor, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Dede Westbrook

Recent history: After keeping just four players at the position in 2019, Minnesota retained seven in 2020, including Jefferson, Thielen, Beebe, Chisena and Osborn. The other two receivers were Bisi Johnson, who suffered a torn ACL in this year's camp, and Tajaé Sharpe, who was lightly used before his release last season.

Potential factors at play: Chisena and Osborn played exclusively on special teams as rookies but have had more opportunities in the offense with the benefit of an offseason program and preseason contests. Chisena landed awkwardly Tuesday while making a catch on a deep pass.

Beebe has shined the brightest with a pair of catches for a team-leading 47 receiving yards this preseason. Both occurred late in the first half against Indianapolis (he did not play against Denver).

Smith-Marsette uncorked a 41-yard kickoff return and added a 17-yard punt return against the Colts. Both plays were longer than any returns by Minnesota in 2020, and special teams may be his quickest path to contributing.

Westbrook is a bit of an X-factor. He has proven experience as a receiver and returner and has spent the past four seasons with Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, but will he be ready for Week 1? Added just before camp, Westbrook has been working his way back from an ACL injury that cost him most of 2020.

Tight end

Starter: Irv Smith, Jr.

Reserve options: Tyler Conklin, Zach Davidson, Brandon Dillon and Shane Zylstra

Recent history: The Vikings kept just two tight ends in 2014 before retaining four in 2015 and 2016. The number dropped to three for 2017 and 2018. Minnesota again kept four in 2019 before opting for three a season ago.

Potential factors at play: Smith has had one of the most impressive camps, showcasing his hands and route running. He often, however, notes the importance of being a complete tight end and prides himself on his blocking.

Conklin has been more of a blocker as an extra tight end than a receiving option, but he showed his readiness late last season. Conklin didn't play against Denver, when Zimmer rested most players he viewed as starters, illustrating the view that the Vikings have of him. Conklin has been sidelined recently, however, by an injury.

Dillon has next-most experience in the system. He made the 53 in 2019 as an undrafted rookie and was active for Minnesota's season-opening win over Atlanta, but it was his only game that season. Dillon appeared in three games in 2020.

Davidson, a draft pick out of Central Missouri, and Zylstra, who rewrote records as a receiver at Minnesota State, Mankato, have little experience blocking the likes of NFL edge rushers and blitzers.

Offensive line

Starters: LT Rashod Hill, LG Ezra Cleveland, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Olisaemeka Udoh and RT Brian O'Neill

Reserve options: T Zack Bailey, T Blake Brandel, C Cohl Cabral, C Mason Cole, T Christian Darrisaw, G Wyatt Davis, G Dakota Dozier, G Kyle Hinton and G Dru Samia

Recent history: Nine on the line has been the magic number for Minnesota under Zimmer in every year except 2019 when 10 were retained.

Potential factors at play: The Vikings have generally rolled with the combination listed as starters for most of the preseason.

Darrisaw and Davis were chosen in the first and third rounds, respectively, of the 2021 NFL Draft. Darrisaw underwent a minor procedure earlier this month and has been rehabbing. Davis has tried to work his way up the depth chart, but Udoh has drawn praise from coaches and teammates with the way he's transitioned to guard from tackle, a move made when camp opened.

While the Vikings have usually retained nine on the roster, teams often have seven linemen active on a game day. That places an emphasis on position versatility. After the starting five, there's usually a swing tackle and an interior lineman who can step in at center or either guard spot. Brandel handled some center duties when the Vikings were thin at the post, but the sixth-round pick has moved back to tackle. Cole has been Bradbury's backup. Among reserves listed, he has the most NFL experience (46 games with Arizona) after Dozier.

Defensive line

Starters: DE Danielle Hunter, NT Michael Pierce, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DE Stephen Weatherly

Reserve options: DE Everson Griffen, DE Jalyn Holmes, DT Zeandae Johnson, DE Patrick Jones II, DT James Lynch, DE Hercules Mata'afa, DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Armon Watts, DE Kenny Willekes and DE D.J. Wonnum

Recent history: The Vikings retained eight defensive linemen in 2014 and 2016 and nine in 2015, 2017 and 2018. The number increased to 10 in 2019 and a whopping 11 last season.

Potential factors at play: This is one of the most loaded position groups for the team because of considerable efforts this offseason to replenish, and the returns of Hunter and Pierce.

Weatherly and Wonnum have been competing for the starting job opposite Hunter. Zimmer said after the Colts game he thinks Vikings coaches have decided which player won the gig but said neither player had been informed yet.

The returns of Richardson (2018) and Griffen (2010-19) to Minnesota, albeit in reduced roles, will add a lot of juice. Both are expected to be maximized as pass-rush specialists, which means the Vikings might tip scales toward an all-arounder when deciding one or more remaining roster spots. Zimmer was asked about Holmes this week and pointed out his experience at end and defensive tackle.

Watts handled the bulk of work at nose tackle while Pierce was recuperating from a calf injury he suffered while training. Lynch and Willekes, two draft picks in 2020, have been mentioned recently for what they've shown in practices.

Linebacker

Starters: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Nick Vigil

Reserve options: Tuf Borland, Ryan Connelly, Troy Dye, Blake Lynch and Chazz Surratt

Recent history: The Vikings have retained five linebackers in each of the past three seasons, which is down dramatically from eight in 2014. Minnesota kept six in 2015 and 2017, bookending the seven retained in 2016.

Potential factors at play: No Vikings position group was quite as decimated by injuries as linebackers, even though the defensive line and secondary tried to give that distinction a run for the money. The challenges to the group's depth a year ago might prompt retention of more than five players.

Another factor important in determining the number of linebackers is how many are tasked with core roles on special teams.

After working back from a torn pec, Barr has missed most of August with an undisclosed injury. Vigil has joined Kendricks a significant amount when the Vikings have two linebackers and five defensive backs.

Dye has shown a nice progression in his second season and is gaining comfort if he has to be tasked with relaying calls. His 33-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Colts was a good thing to see for a defense that didn't have a return TD in 2020.

Connelly, the Eden Prairie product, has the next-most experience among the group. Surratt and Lynch flashed multiple times against Indianapolis. Vikings coaches said reserves took a big leap between the first two preseason contests.

Defensive back

Starters: CB Bashaud Breeland, CB Patrick Peterson, S Harrison Smith, S Xavier Woods

Reserve options: CB Mackensie Alexander, CB Kris Boyd, S Camryn Bynum, CB Cameron Dantzler, S Myles Dorn, CB Harrison Hand, S Luther Kirk, S Josh Metellus, CB Parry Nickerson and CB Tye Smith

Recent history: The Vikings kept eight defensive backs in 2020, the fewest under Zimmer. The previous low was nine in 2015. Minnesota retained 10 in 2014, 2016 and 2019. Eleven defensive backs were on the initial 53 in 2017 and 2018.

Potential factors at play: Minnesota opened 2020 with just two safeties on its roster. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris were able to start all 16 games. Woods joined this offseason to replace Harris and has drawn credit for multiple aspects of his game. Will the Vikings be more inclined to open with depth at safety?

Dorn, who missed all of his rookie season because of injury, and Bynum, a draft pick being converted from corner to safety, have logged a good bit of experience together.

Metellus was placed on the practice squad initially but quickly elevated in Week 2. He was a standout special teamer in his rookie season, but Metellus left the field during Tuesday's scrimmage with an injury, and his status is unknown.

Alexander is essentially a starter as the team's nickel back, a role he really began to excel in during the 2019 season before heading to Cincinnati.

Boyd, Dantzler and Hand have had positive moments, but they've also experienced some learning curves along the way. Nickerson and Tye Smith brought experience from other teams.

Specialists

K Greg Joseph, LS Andrew DePaola and P Britton Colquitt

The Vikings have retained one at each position every year under Zimmer, but there has been movement in previous seasons after cuts by other teams. Colquitt, for instance, was added after his release by the Browns in 2019. He replaced Matt Wile, who had been added in similar fashion in 2018.

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