Quest for Roster Spots: A Look at Current Vikings Offense and Zimmer-Era Trends

EAGAN, Minn. — We’re less than two weeks away from the Vikings setting their initial 53-man roster.

But with two preseason games remaining, a lot can change for the dozens of players battling for roster spots in Minnesota.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Tuesday described the evaluation process.

“I would say what we’re trying to do is figure out if the guys on our roster are good enough to play for us, first off,” Zimmer said. “Then, while we’re evaluating the other guys from other teams, it’s more about if we think this guy will get released, number one, and number two, is he better than the guys that we have on the roster that we think aren’t good enough.”

Here is a look at where things stand with the Vikings roster for offensive players as of now. (The defense/special teams look will post Thursday).

There is also a peek back at how Zimmer and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman have set their roster in the past five seasons together.

Quarterback

Number of players kept:

2018: 3

2017: 2

2016: 2

2015: 3

2014: 3

Roster breakdown

There’s no debating the starter, as Kirk Cousins is firmly entrenched in that role. But the battle for the backup job has been one of the most hotly contested of the summer, especially of late.

Sean Mannion has taken the reps with the second-team offense in practice and games, and has drawn praise from the coaching staff while throwing a touchdown in each of Minnesota’s first two preseason games.

“He’s very, very smart. I think that’s a good thing in the quarterback room because he can spit out answers a lot faster than a lot of them can,” Zimmer said during camp. “Having him in there has been good. He’s done a good job. He’s a little bit of a fastball thrower, but I think he’s been good for the room so far.”

But Kyle Sloter is charging hard, mainly due to his recent performance in preseason games. The quarterback has completed 17 of 20 passes (a whopping 85 percent) for 178 yards and two touchdowns in games against the Saints and Seahawks reserves.

Perhaps that isn’t a surprise based on what Zimmer said in the opening week of camp.

“You know, Sloter’s always been a guy who hasn’t looked very good in practice but looks good in games,” Zimmer said.

Cousins is expected to get plenty of work Saturday against Arizona, but the opportunities will be there for Mannion and Sloter in the latter stages of the contest, as well as the preseason finale against Buffalo.

Running back

Number of players kept:

2018: 4

2017: 3

2016: 3

2015: 3

2014: 3

Roster breakdown

Dalvin Cook is expected to be the Vikings featured back, and Zimmer said a little over a week ago that rookie Alexander Mattison has impressed.

“I’ll try to say this the correct way — I think Mattison has got a really bright future,” Zimmer said. “I think the other two guys can help in change-of-pace situations.”

That would be Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone, who could both end up making the roster if the Vikings decide to keep four running backs as they did a year ago.

Abdullah has more experience with four NFL seasons under his belt and has been the first in line for kick returner when healthy. Abdullah did not play Sunday against Seattle, but ran for 60 yards on four carries against New Orleans.

Boone stood out in a big way Sunday with Abdullah out, as he had 21 carries for 66 yards while adding an impressive catch-and-run that went for 45 yards.

“He’s an explosive kid, runs hard. He’s got juice to get to the perimeter,” Zimmer said Sunday night. “Yeah, he did well last week, as well. That’s a good thing for him.”

While both players have run the ball well in the preseason, an area to watch in the next 10 days is how each player fares in pass protection.

Fullback

Number of players kept:

2018: 1

2017: 1

2016: 1

2015: 1

2014: 2

Roster breakdown

The recent numbers show that the Vikings will keep just one fullback on their roster, but both C.J. Ham and Khari Blasingame have been impressive in camp and preseason play.

Ham is the veteran who has played in 31 regular-season games over the past two seasons, while Blasingame is an undrafted rookie free agent out of Vanderbilt.

Zimmer made it clear after the preseason opener against New Orleans that he is a fan of both players.

“I think they’re both athletic, former tailback guys, that are smart and tough,” Zimmer said. “C.J. is very important because there are a lot of things that he can do. Khari is a very good athlete. Those guys are hard to find.”

Blasingame had a touchdown catch against the Saints, and added a 20-yard reception Sunday against Seattle.

View exclusive images shot by Vikings team photographer Andy Kenutis as the Vikings and Seahawks competed against each other in a preseason matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Wide receiver

Number of players kept:

2018: 5

2017: 6

2016: 6

2015: 6

2014: 5

Roster breakdown

Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are locks to make the team, while Chad Beebe has shown his versatility with his receiving skills, as well as on special teams with his ability to return punts and hold for field goals and extra points.

Behind them, a two players have impressed in each of the Vikings first two preseason games. Bisi Johnson had two catches for 35 yards and a score against New Orleans, and Brandon Zylstra caught all five targets Sunday for 37 yards and a touchdown.

The rest of the wide receivers room features a group of players trying to make their mark. Laquon Treadwell is a former first-round pick, and Jordan Taylor is trying to make the roster after missing all of 2018 with Denver. Jeff Badet is a speedster who has shown potential as a kick returner.

A gaggle of rookies, including Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis and Alexander Hollins, have run mostly with the third-team offense in recent weeks.

Zimmer said during camp that the final few roster spots at wide receiver could go to players who stand out in the third phase of the game.

“Obviously what we’re looking at first is receivers, but if they can separate themselves by playing special teams, that will be a big plus for them,” Zimmer said.

Tight end

Number of players kept:

2018: 3

2017: 3

2016: 4

2015: 4

2014: 2

Roster breakdown

The Vikings have an established veteran in Kyle Rudolph, a promising rookie in Irv Smith, Jr., and an up-and-comer in second-year tight end Tyler Conklin.

That trio might take up the three tight end spots, but with the Vikings placing an emphasis on multiple tight end sets in spring practices, training camp and preseason games, a fourth spot could perhaps be available.

David Morgan has been one of the league’s top blocking tight ends for the past few seasons, but he is currently on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and hasn’t practiced at all in 2019.

With Morgan’s status up in the air, that could leave the door open for Cole Hikutini or Brandon Dillon to make the 53-man roster.

Hikutini spent the 2018 season on the Vikings practice squad; Dillon is a rookie undrafted free agent of Marian.

Zimmer recently said it was too early to tell how many tight ends the Vikings would keep, adding that it’s usually a numbers game between positions on offense.

“Rick and I sit down and we talk about maybe keeping five tight ends, six backs, or whatever it is,” Zimmer said. “It always changes, but we talk about it and kind of see where we are. I have had a lot of questions lately about the last preseason game, but I have seen several guys make the team that you didn’t think were going to make the team because of how they played in the last preseason game. Injuries happen, a lot of different things can happen.”

Offensive line

Number of players kept:

2018: 9

2017: 9

2016: 9

2015: 9

2014: 9

Roster breakdown

If history tells us anything, it’s that the Vikings like to keep nine offensive linemen on the roster to start the season. More than half of those spots appear like they will be claimed by the starting unit of Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, Josh Kline and Brian O’Neill.

That leaves 11 players for four presumed spots.

Rashod Hill has filled in for O’Neill of late since the second-year player is dealing with an elbow injury. Aviante Collins is also dealing with an injury and hasn’t practiced recently.

Versatility might play a role on deciding who the Vikings keep. Hill can play both tackle spots, and Collins can play tackle or guard, while Brett Jones can slot in at center or guard.

Dakota Dozier has also lined up at tackle and guard during camp, his first with the Vikings.

“It’s how versatile can we be with some of the players that are on the second team right now,” Zimmer said. “[His camp has] been solid. He’s been doing good.”

Storm Norton has played at both tackle spots, and Danny Isidora has lined up on both sides of the center at guard and has also played center in the past.

Rookies Dru Samia and Olisaemeka Udoh have often manned the right guard and right tackle positions, respectively.

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