The Vikings are set to open organized team activity practices on Tuesday with the first of 10 sessions spread across the next three weeks.
The practices offer a chance for coaches to work with players — returnees, veteran free agents and rookies — to build up to a three-day mandatory minicamp June 14-16, which will be followed by a break until training camp in late July.
The practices also offer a chance to learn more about coaches' plans for players.
The Vikings have strong continuity in terms of coaching staff and players returning from the 2015 NFC North title squad that went 11-5, but changes are inevitable. To that end, the Vikings have tried to add competition and depth at multiple positions to build on successes experienced last season.
The Vikings.com staff of Mike Wobschall, Lindsey Young, Eric Smith and Craig Peters came up with a few big picture items/questions we look forward to learning at OTAs.
How is the facelift up front?
From a new position coach to the return of injured starters and nearly everything in between, the Vikings offensive line will have a new look in 2016. It will be interesting to see how new OL coach Tony Sparano operates and if there are any significant changes to the way he approaches guiding Minnesota's moving company.
Alex Boone and Andre Smith were added via free agency, Mike Harris was re-signed and both Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan return from injury. Throw in a couple of possible position switches, maybe Brandon Fusco back to right guard after a season on the left side, and the Vikings offensive line has the makings of an intriguing position group to watch beginning on Tuesday.
Where do the rookies fit in?
It's never easy for rookies to step into a NFL program and begin contributing, but it seems like an especially tall task on the Vikings roster this year. The Vikings re-signed 14 of their own free agents plus they added two potential starters in free agency with the signings of Boone and S Michael Griffin. Second-year players LB Edmond Robinson and CB Trae Waynes figure to take steps forward, too, and that will make it that much tougher for the new faces to find ways to help. It wouldn't be surprising, though, if Mackensie Alexander, David Morgan and Laquon Treadwell found their way on the field.
What happens in depths of defensive line?
The Vikings defensive line proved an effective threat to opposing offenses in 2015, and all four starters remain on the 2016 roster. With Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph returning to anchor the line and Danielle Hunter and Tom Johnson playing solid rotational roles in 2015, it seems the main frame is set.
It will be interesting to see what kind of reps the linemen receive, and two rookies also prove intriguing prospects. Reserves Shamar Stephen, Justin Trattou and Scott Crichton suffered injuries in 2015. B.J. DuBose, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, made a couple of nice plays early this month during rookie minicamp. Defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis re-signed after playing part of 2015 with the Vikings.
Minnesota snagged Stephen Weatherly in the seventh round of this year's draft. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Weatherly is an athletic defender who played both linebacker and defensive end at Vanderbilt but is expected to line up at defensive end for Minnesota. The Vikings also signed undrafted defensive ends Theiren Cockran, a former Golden Gopher, and Denzell Perine and defensive tackle Toby Johnson in the offseason.
The safety situation
While Harrison Smith continues to establish himself as one of the top safeties in the league, the starter opposite him hasn't been written in stone. This week will offer a number of players a chance to begin competing for that position. Andrew Sendejo held the role in 2015 and re-signed with Minnesota for 2016, but the tough tackler and special teams asset isn't a lock in the starting lineup. The Vikings signed veteran safety Michael Griffin during free agency. His nine previous seasons of experience is valuable, and Griffin could establish himself as a contender if he shows he has plenty left in the tank. Antone Exum, Jr. and Anthony Harris are back for another go. Exum was a sixth-round pick in 2014, and Harris spent time on the practice squad and active roster.
And let's not forget the newest safety, rookie Jayron Kearse. At 6-foot-4, Kearse said falling to the final round of the draft motivates him to prove he deserves to be here. Kearse has the length that Zimmer likes in a player, and he's a self-professed quick learner. If the athleticism and speed he showed during rookie minicamp continues in OTAs, he'll provide an interesting option against returning players.
Teddy's third year
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has progressed in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, improving his completion percentage, quarterback rating and interception rate in 2015 after winning Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year in 2014.
The former first-round pick will be expected to take another step forward this season. Teammates have raved about Bridgewater's leadership, whether it's been organizing offseason workouts in Florida and taking charge in the locker room. Bridgewater was asked to protect the football in 2015 and reduced his interception total from 12 in 12 starts as a rookie to nine in starting all 16 games last season. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has indicated there might be an opportunity to "cut it loose" a little more this season while still protecting the football.
Cornerback Trae Waynes became the third first-round pick the Vikings have at cornerback and played behind Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman. Waynes played just 195 defensive snaps, compared to at least 964 apiece by Rhodes and Newman. Waynes led the Vikings with 14 special teams tackles and seemed to progress as the season went along. He picked off Russell Wilson in the Wild Card playoff game. Newman, who is 37 years old and has 40 career interceptions, will likely have something to say about Waynes' bid for a starting job, but if Waynes earns himself a starting gig it will only help improve an already strong Minnesota defense.
In the running game
One of my favorite images from 2015 OTAs was the broad grin that Teddy Bridgewater had on his face the first time he handed the ball off to Adrian Peterson. Many from the outside questioned how Peterson would perform at age 30 after missing all but one game in 2014. The answer came in the form of 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns as the running back won his third NFL rushing title. Peterson and Bridgewater hadn't had much time in the backfield together by the start of the season, and the Vikings have said they want to better maximize the duo moving forward.
In addition to that, it will be interesting to see a few of the potential uses of Jerick McKinnon, who shared the load with Matt Asiata in 2014. McKinnon, who played four different positions in college, was productive with opportunities late last season, and the Vikings even offered a couple of looks with McKinnon and Peterson on the field at the same time.
The Vikings linebackers unit has contributed some game-changing plays the past two seasons under Zimmer. From Anthony Barr's forced fumble that he returned 27 yards for a touchdown in overtime at Tampa Bay as a rookie, to venerable Chad Greenway and his 91-yard return of an interception against San Diego in 2015. Eric Kendricks posted 4.0 sacks and became the first rookie to lead the Vikings in tackles since Rip Hawkins in 1961.
The Vikings re-signed Greenway and Audie Cole and brought in Emmanuel Lamur and Travis Lewis in free agency. Zimmer has already mentioned using Lamur in a few ways that their past team, Cincinnati, didn't. Minnesota also has Robinson, the seventh-rounder from 2015, fifth-round pick Kentrell Brothers and undrafted free agent Jake Ganus. An increase in the use of the nickel package across the NFL has led to more defensive snaps with only two linebackers on the field, but depth — and potential contributions on special teams — are important for the gritty group.