With one preseason game in the books and joint practices with the Jacksonville Jaguars on the way, here is where each training camp battle stands…
Through the first few weeks of camp, Mike Boone appeared to be in the lead for the third running back position behind Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, but Roc Thomas exploded onto the scene in Denver with two touchdown receptions, including a 78-yarder, and a solid day rushing with eight carries for 29 yards. Thomas’s big night put him squarely in line for the position as Boone and Mack Brown failed to make an impact. Brown has NFL experience in Washington and appears to be a favorite of Kirk Cousins, but preseason production will likely determine the winner.
While Boone was not a highly productive running back in college, he is sure to get plenty of opportunity in the next three games considering his outstanding athleticism. Brown has a small sample of success in D.C., but the fact he played after Thomas and Boone in the opening preseason game is telling.
“All three of them, including Mack Brown, had some very good runs,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We missed a protection one time with one of them that got us a sacked. But they showed some explosiveness. I was actually pleased with those three guys, hopefully we can continue to work with those three and see where that leads.”
While the winner of the early days of camp was Brandon Zylstra, the former CFL star, his absence from the game against Denver does not help his cause. The injured receiver flashed terrific hands and an ability to win battles for the ball. But with so much competition, if he isn’t on the field for this week’s game against the Jags, it will be tough to move ahead in the race. Stacy Coley made two nice catches against the Broncos, but suffered an injury in practice on Monday that required a cart. His status is unclear going forward.
Kendall Wright, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, is starting to work in with the first team. He will need to prove that there’s a place in the offense where he belongs, otherwise Zimmer will lean towards players who can contribute on special teams. Cayleb Jones has gotten off to a good start in camp. His suspension through Week 4 means the Vikings could keep him and make a final decision later. Chad Beebe made a strong first impression by grabbing a touchdown pass on Saturday night. Jake Weineke, Korey Robertson and Jeff Badet will have to make significant strides to earn roster spots. At this point they should be aiming for a practice squad gig.
Tom Compton and Danny Isidora started Saturday in place of Nick Easton (IR) and Mike Remmers. It was clear Isidora had the stronger night, so he may get a shot at left guard against Jacksonville. Zimmer talked on Monday about Compton’s chances to start at left guard.
“I don’t know yet,” Zimmer said. “We’re still looking and we haven’t made any decisions that way, but he played pretty well the other night, was solid. He really didn’t have any miscues in there, so we’re just going to continue to look. We still got a couple of more weeks before we go.”
Aviante Collins had a solid game, playing both tackle and guard. The 2017 UDFA signing has an outside chance at pushing for Easton’s spot. Remmers is expected to return at some point before Week 1.
I was just sitting there one day, and I said, ‘Let’s just look at him at guard and see what he can do,’” Zimmer said. “Run-game wise, the footwork is similar between a guard and tackle, so that’s not a big change. But pass sets are different, things happen a lot quicker in there, but he’s a very, very athletic guy. It happens a lot quicker in there, so that’s kind of the thing we have to find out about with him. He’s got a little bit of a nasty streak, and that’s good. He’s a big guy, so I just thought let’s look at him.”
If the Vikings are confident in the guards but not their tackles, Remmers could kick back out to tackle. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the battle between Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill got more interesting Saturday when O’Neill played well against Denver’s second and third teamers. But Zimmer still appears to want Hill as the starter.
“He’s done a really nice job, he’s moving well in the running game, when he sets good in the passing game he’s really hard to get around,” Zimmer said. “He’s done some good things.
If O’Neill continues to progress, there may be an opportunity for him to see some first-team reps in upcoming preseason game. His strength might not be at NFL tackle level yet, but his athleticism could work as an advantage for the Vikings. It’s possible they could even use both Hill and O’Neill there this season.
Jaleel Johnson played both nose tackle and three-technique on Saturday night. That could mean he will be taking over the role of Shamar Stephen, who left for Seattle in free agency.
“The biggest thing is on game day we can possibly dress one less defensive lineman because we can move guys around,” Zimmer said of Johnson’s versatility. “It is good for him because it is two different techniques when you are playing nose and when you are playing the three-technique. It is good for him to do both, and it allows us to see what he is doing better, is this better or is that better?”
Tashawn Bower had a strong night, picking up a sack against the Broncos. He’s playing for a spot in a D-line rotation. Stephen Weatherly made an athletic play in coverage, but didn’t create much in the pass rush. In Year 3, the Vikings are looking for him to earn a bigger role — though his special teams ability should keep him on the roster.
Ifeadi Odenigbo moved from DE to DT. It’s hard to find a job for him on a team that keeps drafting project D-linemen. Jalyn Holmes created a number of pressures late in the game. The fourth rounder has good odds to make the squad even if he doesn’t see a ton of the field in his rookie season.
“Jalyn did some good things,” Zimmer said. “What he has been working on is, especially in the running game, it is kind of a different animal, you have to bow up and get thick and used to the pounding. I thought he did that better the other night. He showed some flashes in the pass rush.”
David Parry had a solid game as the only pure nose tackle aside from Linval Joseph. Ade Aruna did not have a great debut, taking a very bad penalty. He’s more of a practice squad candidate. Same goes for Jonathan Wynn, who had a late-game sack.
If the Vikings keep 10 D-linemen, there’s still an odd-man out among players the team appears to want to keep.
Three linebacker spots are locked in with Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Ben Gedeon. Two or three more could make the team. Eric Wilson and Kentrell Brothers were key special teamers last year, though Brothers is suspended for the first four games. That could open the door for Reshard Cliett.
Clearly Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are locked into starting spots. Third-ear corner Mackensie Alexander has been taking nearly all of the first-team reps and played only a handful of snaps Saturday, which gives the indication he is well ahead in the nickel corner “battle.” However, first-round Mike Hughes had a solid debut against the Broncos.
“Mike did very well for the first time out,” Zimmer said. “We were talking about some of our other corners and how their first game out was a little bit different compared to his. I thought that he played really well. He made a couple of nice tackles, the deep ball down on our sideline that he covered, I thought he was going to intercept it. He made a blitz one time when he was at the nickel and tackled the running back from behind. He did a lot of very good things, it was a good step in the right direction.”
Holton Hill struggled. If he doesn’t improve, the door opens for Marcus Sherels to be on the team as a punt returner and reserve DB.
Jack Tocho had some ups and downs but came away with an INT. It still appears Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse will be the reserve safeties.
Daniel Carlson nailed a 57-yard field goal, a 39-yarder and a trio of extra points, giving himself a good shot at winning the kicking competition. Kai Forbath will still get his chance to kick field goals and hang around in the race.