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The Skinny Post: Vikings to Open Preseason in Buffalo

Training camp is over and done, and it's time to turn the page to preseason football.

The Vikings get their exhibition slate underway tonight in Buffalo as they square off against the Bills at 6 p.m. (CT) at New Era Field. 

This is the first of four preseason games for the Vikings, and it will give players a chance to impress Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer in the battle for playing time and roster spots.

The Vikings and Bills both missed out on the postseason in 2016. Minnesota finished third in the NFC North with an 8-8 mark. Buffalo went 7-9 and has not made the playoffs since 1999.

Here are three areas to watch in tonight's preseason opener, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

Dalvin Cook's NFL debut

Dalvin Cook will celebrate his 22nd birthday by making his NFL debut. Although it's only an exhibition and the rookie running back's performance won't count in the statistics, he'll be running in the same stadium that opened in 1973, the season that former Bills running back O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards.

Now named New Era Field, the venue also was the home turf for Thurman Thomas, who rushed for 11,938 yards with the Bills. Thomas finished his career with 12,074 yards, which ranks 15th, one slot ahead of former Viking Adrian Peterson (11,747). Simpson totaled 11,236 yards in his career, including 10,183 with Buffalo.

Cook is the all-time leading rusher in Florida State history after posting 4,464 yards in just three seasons to break Warrick Dunn's record. Dunn went on to rush for 10,967 yards in the NFL, which ranks 22nd all-time.

An important thing to note is that the Vikings aren't trying to make him Simpson, Thomas, Peterson or Dunn. The team just wants him to be Dalvin Cook, and from what he's shown so far, that should be enough to help a team that ranked 32nd in rushing yards per game in 2016.

It will be fun to see Cook show how he eludes opponents who have the green light to tackle him.

 

Mining for depth at defensive tackle

Linval Joseph is the main man in the middle of the Vikings defensive line, even more so now that the mammoth defensive tackle signed a multi-year contract extension last weekend. But the Vikings will need plenty of depth behind him, and today's preseason game is a good time to ramp up evaluations of the pecking order.

Tom Johnson has been the 3-technique defensive tackle next to Joseph in camp and could be the starter. But Shamar Stephen also had a strong camp and is valuable as a run stuffer.

Newcomers from a pair of NFC North teams, Datone Jones and Will Sutton, flashed potential in camp and could secure roster spots with strong play in the preseason. But don't forget about rookie Jaleel Johnson, a fourth-round pick in April who should only get better with live game competition. Dylan Bradley could also make an impression, as could Chunky Clements.

Special teams job opportunities 

Vikings coaches will be zeroed in on special teams during tonight's game. A number of positions were battled over during training camp, and now players will have the chance for a live game-day audition.

The kicking and punting decision has yet to be finalized. Kai Forbath and Marshall Koehn have each taken field goal reps from various distances throughout training camp. They've both been fairly consistent but had a handful of missed attempts along the way. Koehn has a reputation for the stronger kickoff leg, but Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said that's been a focal point of Forbath's this offseason. Forbath easily holds the upper hand in game experience, so it will be interesting to see how they both perform if given the opportunity Thursday.

The Vikings will also be evaluating between punters Taylor Symmank and Ryan Quigley. Quigley has played 51 regular-season games, according to Priefer, has strength in consistency. Symmank is less experienced but has impressed with 5-plus-second hang times.

Finally, Priefer will be looking to settle on a new kickoff returner after Cordarrelle Patterson, who signed with Oakland in free agency, has held the position for the past four seasons. A number of players were given practice reps at returner during camp, including current punt returner Marcus Sherels, Jerick McKinnon and rookie receivers Rodney Adams and Stacy Coley. Preseason contests will be a good test to see how each one performs under in-game pressure.

Substantial Stats 

— Minnesota had one of the top defenses in the NFL in 2016. The Vikings ranked third in yards allowed per game (314.9) and sixth in points allowed per game (19.2). They were one of one of three teams, along with Denver and Seattle, to rank in the top six in both total yards and points allowed.

— Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford set an NFL record with a 71.6 completion percentage in 2016. Acquired just two weeks before the start of the regular season, Bradford started 15 games and threw for 3,877 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. 

— Buffalo's offense fittingly ranked 16th in yards per game in 2016 with 354.1. The Bills were first overall with 164.4 rushing yards per game, but ranked 30th in passing with 189.8 yards per game.

— There will be plenty of fresh faces for Vikings fans to follow this preseason. Of the 90 players currently on Minnesota's roster, 40 were not with the team in 2016. That includes rookies, free agent acquisitions and the signings of undrafted free agents.

 

Quotable 

"Put your game uniform back on, you know, football's actually back. You're getting back in tune with things, hitting your own guys a little bit, but now you get to hit everybody else. So I just look forward to it. I'm excited."

 — Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs on the first preseason game of 2017

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