After two weeks in Mankato, Minnesota Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is ready to face a real opponent. “We just want to go out and play and it’s going to give us a good judge of where we’re at,” Zimmer said in a press conference Wednesday morning.
The Vikings will open the 2014 preseason against the Oakland Raiders Friday night at TCF Banks Stadium.
While training camp practices have been light and mostly in helmet, shells and shorts, facing off against the Raiders will provide a prime opportunity to see how players react in the heat of a game situation. For the 10 rookie draft picks selected by the Vikings in May, it will mark their first chance to put their talent on tape in a full contact NFL contest.
Nerves, anxiousness and rookie miscues are to be expected as these young ball players fight to climb the depth chart and prove they belong on the 53 man roster.
Coach Zimmer has thrown a lot of information at these guys in a short time. Yet, when he was asked how the Raiders game plan looked? He explained with a chuckle, “it’s good. It’s very simple, very simple,” Zimmer said. “Really, what we’re trying to do in this football game is I want our players to play fast and I want them to not think about what their assignment is so we’ll be very, very basic in everything we do. We are trying to evaluate our players on their athletic ability, not how fast they are thinking about everything.”
First round rookies Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr might be doing a bit more thinking than the rest of the rookies simply because they will see more reps with first team and have more responsibility from a scheme standpoint. Bridgewater will be asked to run some of the first team offense with the goal to protect the football and limit the turnovers. Barr will probably be lined up in a few different positions and have multiple assignments along the defensive front throughout the game.
The rookie draft class is a smart, athletic bunch that has quickly impressed the coaching staff. The majority of the class has already move up to first or second team in their respected position depth chart. Even guys like Antone Exum, Kendall James and Shamar Stephen who are buried at the backend of the depth chart can quickly move up with a couple good preseason performances.
I expect the 10 young draft picks to get plenty of playing time under the lights Friday night. The ceiling is high and the future is bright.
First round pick Anthony Barr: The Vikings are experimenting with Barr in a number of different ways. He’s played linebacker in their dime package, has rushed from a defensive end position in the nickel, in addition to his normal work at linebacker in the base defense. Barr is currently at the top of the depth chart at SLB. A good performance Friday night would mean he is poised and ready to make his mark on the NFL as a game changing defensive playmaker.
First round pick Teddy Bridgewater: Bridgewater has been sharing some first team reps with Matt Cassel in recent training camp practices and wowing coaches in the process. A good performance against the Raiders would put him on track to open the season as the team’s starter.
Third round pick Scott Crichton: Crichton is listed as a second stringer behind Everson Griffen at DE, but the coaches are excited that he can provide a boost as a situational player.
“I love the Kid. He’s a yes-sir, no-sir kid, hard worker who goes to the whistle all the time,” coach Zimmer said. “And it’s important to him. Those kinds of guys we like here.”
Third round pick Jerick McKinnon: An explosive big play threat in the backfield. Currently listed as a backup to Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata, but a splashy showing Friday will push Norv to look for ways get McKinnon more involved in the offense.
Fifth round pick David Yankey: Yankey had a bit of a slow start to camp but appears to be on the right track getting a lot of reps as Charlie Johnson’s backup at LG. Norv Turner and Jeff Davidson like chemistry and continuity up front so don’t expect any immediate changes to the starting five if Yankey has a big game. Yankey has experience at Stanford playing both guard and tackle and has the size to cement himself as Davidson’s primary swing backup lineman.
Great Yankey article here by Andrew Krammer.
I inadvertently left Antone Exum off the list when I originally posted this article, so here is my late add on.
Sixth round pick Antone Exum: Exum is in a tough depth chart battle with some experienced NFL safeties that the Vikings are looking long and hard at. Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and newly acquired Chris Crocker all have the current upper hand over Exum at the SS position.
Exum is not a lock to make the 53-man roster, a slew of injuries have taken a toll on his NFL stock and probably his confidence as well. However, his good size, versatility, solid coverage skill and hard hitting tackling ability might get him noticed in preseason “if” he is 100% healthy. Exum could be one of those players who may not shine in the meeting rooms or on the practice field, but put him in a real game situation and his intangibles just might flash.
Sixth round pick Kendall James: James is listed behind Xavier Rhodes, Jabari Price, Derex Cox, and just ahead of Shawn Prater at the right corner back position. Don’t count James out, but he will need a step up on defense and on special teams if he wants to make the 53 man roster. The good news is Zimmer likes to keep a lot of defensive backs.
Seventh round pick Shamar Stephen: Not much buzz around Stephen as he competes for a backup spot with 30 year old Fred Evens at DT. Stephen is a late round value pick but making the Vikings 53 man roster might be a tall order. A good preseason showing might make it difficult for the Vikings to hide this big interior lineman on the practice squad. He is a productive run stuffer with a good motor who is worth developing.
Seventh round pick Brandon Watts and Jabari Price: The final two picks round out the back end of the 2014 draft. These two late rounder are turning heads and impressing the coaching staff so far at camp. Watts is listed as second string to Chad Greenway at WLB while Price is right behind Xavier Rhodes at RCB. Because injuries in the NFL can happen any time, Watts and Price might be just one play away from being called to step up and start. A good game against the Raider will help solidified that they are ready for that “next man up” responsibility.
Yes, I’m excited to watch the 2014 rookie class bring some athleticism and youthful energy to the preseason playing field. Let’s wish them luck and root them on as they embark on their dreams of playing in the NFL.