EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings offseason program has come and gone, and players and coaches have some time away from Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center before reporting for training camp late next month.
The mostly new offensive staff led by first-year Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski installed its scheme, and the defensive staff mixed in a few new wrinkles and players in Minnesota’s established system.
1. Adjusting to changes
Stefanski is the fourth offensive coordinator the Vikings have had under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who retained Stefanski as an assistant coach in 2014. The 37-year-old is entering his 14th season in Minnesota, after beginning his NFL career as an assistant to former Head Coach Brad Childress.
He knows that change can be a way of life in the NFL and places emphasis on teaching and having players who are ready and willing to learn.
“Honestly, it’s kind of a part of the NFL, and it happens almost everywhere, every year,” Stefanski said last week. “That’s why it’s so important when we add players to this team, that we add guys that are pretty smart. Luckily we have a really good group. It is challenging, and I’m glad that it’s challenged them. I’m glad that the guys that have been here walked into the building back then in April and, even now, have to work at it. It’s definitely not something that’s going to come easy. They have to spend some time at their craft, certainly.”
2. Defense finding some challenges
The Vikings defense steadily climbed from worst in many categories in 2013 to first in points allowed and yards allowed in 2017.
Minnesota ranked ninth in points against (a figure that includes points scored by opposing defenses) and fourth in yards allowed a year ago. The flywheel is spinning by most accounts, but even a vaunted unit got burned by some opponents last season.
In practices this spring, the defense, particularly the returning starters, had a head start on the offense, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges by Minnesota’s new offense, which Zimmer believes will help.
“Some of the things they’re doing are very hard on us, which is great for us defensively,” Zimmer said. “But yeah, we are a little bit ahead of them, and some of the terminology is new for the offense. It’s not really new as much for us on defense. And I guess when I say that, they might give us some formation that we haven’t seen, and our guys can adjust to it just because they’ve seen it and done it before, maybe not this spring, but they’ve seen it and done it before.”
The Vikings placed considerable effort this offseason on helping the offense by promoting Stefanski, hiring Gary Kubiak as Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor and bringing in assistants like Rick Dennison (offensive line coach/run game coordinator) and Brian Pariani (tight ends) who have decades of NFL experience and with Kubiak.
The former Texans and Broncos head coach spent the past two seasons as a personnel advisor for the Broncos. He’s been able to share thoughts on 2019 rookies, as well as his days as an assistant under George Seifert and Mike Shanahan.
Kubiak has enjoyed seeing Stefanski grow in a similar role he held earlier in his career and their daily chess matches with Zimmer, which should be fun to watch at training camp.
“You know, it’s a different role, but I’m really enjoying it,” Kubiak said. “I mean, I get to watch guys coach. I’m watching all the good young coaches on the offensive staff, being with Kevin [Stefanski] every day, and watching him do the things I did for 30-something years and then sitting down with him after practice and talking through situations. Being around Coach Zimmer, me and Zim’ have battled for many, many years, and now we get to battle every day in practice. But it’s been really good. I’ve enjoyed it. Great organization, good people, and got some good football players. So I’m looking forward to it.”
4. Extension for Rudolph
The 2019 season was set to be the final year of Kyle Rudolph’s contract with the Vikings, but the tight end and team were able to reach a contract extension on June 11. Rudolph is the most-recent example of a veteran who wanted to remain a Viking.
“I’m under contract for the next five years, and I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that the next five years are better than my last five,” Rudolph said. “I feel like I have a lot of good football left in me, and I feel like this team is just starting to scratch the surface, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen over the last 11 practices, and the way that these guys come to work every day, the way that our staff prepares us, the new system, the guys that we have in that locker room.
“There’s a reason why people come back to this organization,” Rudolph added. “There’s a reason why Anthony Barr left more money on the table. There’s a reason why I had no interest in testing free agency. It’s because of the culture that we’ve established around here. Culture is what ultimately brings championships. In this league the talent level is so even across the 32 teams, and if you don’t have good culture then you don’t have a chance. We have the culture here, and I’m really excited for this upcoming season.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins opened his final media session of the spring by saying he is “thrilled … that Rudolph is back for another few years” because of his talent, experience, track record and role as “a core piece of our locker room.”
View images from the Vikings final minicamp practice on June 13 at TCO Performance Center.
5. Already ‘like a pro’
The Vikings used the 18th overall pick of the NFL Draft to select center Garrett Bradbury out of N.C. State, making him the first interior offensive lineman selected by the Vikings in a first round since guard Randall McDaniel in 1988.
The 2018 Rimington Trophy winner showed plenty of athleticism and effectiveness on his college tape, and he’s also shown professionalism during his first couple of months in the organization.
“With Garrett being a rookie, he carries himself like a pro. I don’t think that’s a mistake, that’s just who he is and that’s how he’s always been,” Stefanski said. “Certainly, when you’re playing that center position and you’re directing traffic, it helps to have a personality like Garrett that, even though he’s a rookie, has no problem making calls. I think that meeting room is different than most meeting rooms, and I think he fits in really well.”
Bonus quote to define the break
Most Vikings coaches and players left the Twin Cities for some time away, but Adam Thielen explained the mindset he and teammates should have before reporting to training camp.
“We’re going to go back to the grindstone. We talked about this after practice, that this isn’t vacation. This next month isn’t our offseason. This is leading into training camp and the season,” Thielen said. “Nobody wants to go 8-8, nobody wants to miss the playoffs … so what are you going to do this next month to help the team get better and help the team make the playoffs?”