EAGAN, Minn. — U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp is nearing its end, as Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's squad is headed into a final week of practices before the preseason begins.
Players are off Sunday and will practice Monday and Tuesday at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
Before we get there, however, let's take a look at the biggest standouts and storylines of training camp thus far.
Here are eight takeaways from Eric Smith and Lindsey Young:
Irv is on fire — Eric Smith
The Vikings have talent up and down their roster and on both sides of the ball.
But the standout player in camp so far doesn't have a Pro Bowl to his name and is only entering his first season as the top Vikings player at his position.
Yes, 2021 feels like it's going to be Irv Smith, Jr.'s, breakout party.
Smith, in his first season as the Vikings clear No. 1 tight end, has been anywhere and everywhere on the field.
He has shown improvement as a blocker (something the Vikings value in the run game), but he's also been a monster in the passing game.
Smith has caught everything thrown his way and has been a top target no matter who is throwing him the ball. That includes in key areas of the field such as the red zone and on third downs.
"He looks a little bit quicker and faster to me — running routes a little bit faster, setting guys up a little bit better, as well," Zimmer said last week. "He's very confident; he's catching the ball really well."
Keep an eye on Smith in 2021.
Lots of shuffling up front — Eric Smith
The spotlight is seemingly always on the Vikings offensive line, but more starting spots than not seemed to be settled.
Brian O'Neill (right tackle) and Garrett Bradbury (center) are back in their roles from a season ago. Ezra Cleveland will also start, but he's switched from right guard to left guard.
"I'm pretty dialed in on the calls and knowing where all my help is and where they need my help," Cleveland said. "Just having the whole offseason to know where I was going to be playing, it's helped me a lot."
The other two starting spots have yet to be firmly figured out, but Zimmer offered some hints last week.
Rashod Hill has been the first-team left tackle with rookie Christian Darrisaw still not fully partaking in a practice yet.
"He's one step forward and two steps back," Zimmer said of Darrisaw, who has been battling an injury.
Olisaemeka Udoh has transitioned from tackle to guard and has split reps with Dakota Dozier, who is now at right guard after starting all 16 games at left guard in 2020. Zimmer recently said he likes Udoh's size and toughness as he competes for a starting job.
A key thing to note about the offensive line is that the unit hasn't had all 15 rostered players available for a practice yet because numerous players have dealt with minor injuries here and there.
Perhaps there's some movement up and down the depth chart this week, which is also something to watch with preseason games on the horizon.
Barr & Kendricks return … joined by whom? — Lindsey Young
Last season, the Vikings played all but the first six quarters without starting linebacker Anthony Barr, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle against the Colts in Week 2. And if that wasn't bad enough, Eric Kendricks missed the final five games of 2020 with an injury of his own.
It's always tough to lose a starter at any position, but being without two of the league's top linebackers for a big chunk of last season was deeply felt by Minnesota's defense.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Barr and Kendricks – who have been playing together since their UCLA days – have been back in action for the majority of training camp and are raring to go for the 2021 regular season. It's worth noting that Barr did not participate in Friday or Saturday's practices, but it's not immediately clear why.
If both healthy, Barr and Kendricks will be a lock; and the Vikings often line up in nickel defense anyway, utilizing just a pair of linebackers and an extra cornerback. But when the team plays out of its base 4-3 defense, which LB will take that No. 3 spot?
During camp, it's been largely Cam Smith and free agency addition Nick Vigil lining up there. That doesn't mean they're the only options, though.
"I'm going to give Blake [Lynch] some reps at Will, as well. We'll get Troy Dye over there a little bit, so... mix-and-match those guys and see what the best combination is," said Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Adam Zimmer.
As the final handful of camp practices take place this week before the team's first preseason game, it will be interesting to see if any one person stands out as the favorite at that spot.
View exclusive black-and-white photos from the July 31 night practice during 2021 U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp by team photographer, Andy Kenutis.
Browning looks like the backup — Eric Smith
What a whirlwind of a camp for Jake Browning, who was thrust into first-team action with Kirk Cousins missing time due to COVID-19 protocols.
The Vikings backup quarterback stepped up to keep the train moving along, showing great moxie, leadership and accuracy in the spotlight.
Cousins will obviously be the starter this season, but Browning has certainly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches with his recent performances. And there is no doubt that many inside TCO Performance Center have been rooting for his successful development since he arrived as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2019.
"He's been waiting for this for two years," Bradbury said. "He was the guy in college [at [Washington]and a lot of people don't understand how talented he is and nobody knows how much work he's put in the past two years as the third-string and practice squad quarterback.
"People don't really see all the work that he's putting in week-in and week-out with the game plans and the scripts," Bradbury added. "It's awesome to see the behind-the-scenes work that he's put in and the success that he finally gets to have."
Preseason games will be important for all of the quarterbacks, but Browning has made the most of an opportunity to try out for the backup job behind Cousins.
WR3 remains key question — Lindsey Young
Similar to the linebacker situation, Minnesota's starting receivers are set in stone with Adam Thielen and second-year wideout Justin Jefferson.
Note: Jefferson did leave Friday's practice session early with an apparent injury and did not participate in Saturday's practice at U.S. Bank Stadium.
It remains to be seen how much time Jefferson could potentially miss, but assuming he's good to go for the season, the Vikings are evaluating to fill the third receiver spot.
Bisi Johnson, who had been in the mix for the role, suffered a torn ACL during camp.
Other options to compete for WR3 include Chad Beebe, who received reps there last season, and recent free agent addition Dede Westbrook. K.J. Osborn, whom the Vikings drafted out of Miami last year, didn't play a snap of offense in 2020 but has shined in camp thus far, and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette also has drawn some early attention.
New-look CB room for 2021 — Lindsey Young
The 2020 cornerbacks room looked starkly different from that of 2019. This season, the position group has gone through additional changes.
After a rookie campaign in which he battled multiple injuries, Dantzler said he's placed extra focus on recovery and body maintenance this spring and summer.
"I just knew going into the offseason I had to take better care of my body. That's what I did," Dantzler said. "I felt I came in 100 percent and ready to roll. Me staying healthy this year so I can provide for my team and help my team win [is important]."
The Vikings added some experience to the young group of corners in a pair of free agent additions: Bashaud Breeland and eight-time Pro-Bowler Patrick Peterson.
Breeland entered training camp still rehabbing an injury but has been in on recent action. And adding Peterson to the mix will be invaluable entering the 2021 campaign.
Danielle's back – and looks the part — Lindsey Young
Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said earlier this training camp that he's not quite where he’d like to be after missing all last season with a neck injury.
But honestly, you could have fooled us – as well as Peterson.
"I remember when he first walked out here at minicamp … I was like, 'Uh, we got us one here for sure.' He's just a freak of nature, just ripped up, has a body of a gladiator," Peterson said this summer. "Reminded me a lot of a young Javon Kearse, just has that same body structure, that same tenacity off the edge, and he's able to create havoc every single time he's on the football field, so our job and the training staff's job is obviously to keep everyone healthy so we can make a run at this thing."
A healthy Hunter will be key to improving a defensive line that struggled greatly in 2020.
"Having Danielle back out there makes our D-line and our whole defense a lot better," second-year end D.J. Wonnum said. "Even the young guys. His presence, us being able to watch him do different things and do different moves is making us better, as well."
But the Vikings have made other adjustments to the trenches, as well, bringing back Stephen Weatherly and Sheldon Richardson and signing free agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, also adds a stout presence in the middle.
"It's a very fun group of guys, guys from different backgrounds. We're very diversified on the defensive line; strong guys, quick guys," Hunter said. "Richardson, Pierce, Tomlinson, Armon [Watts], those are guys we can count on up front. All the ends pretty much all look the same and [are] learning the same. It makes everybody really excited and ready for the season."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.
Let the kicking competition commence — Eric Smith
The Vikings finally have a kicking competition on their hands, something we weren't able to say for the first portion of camp.
Riley Patterson was removed from the Active/Physically Unable to Perform List on Thursday, meaning he was able to participate in practice.
He had a solid showing in his first live team drills at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday, nailing his kicks from 36 and 49 yards out. Greg Joseph also made both of his kicks, hitting from 35 and 47 yards away.
Joseph certainly has the head start in the competition, as he has now made 20 of 26 total field goals in team drills in camp, but Patterson will try to catch up to him in the next few weeks.
Kicking in practice is certainly important, but coaches and the front office will also want to see how the two do when the pressure ramps up in game action.