Training camp kicks off this weekend, and we’re just as excited as you are to see the Vikings back in action. Every season, an under-the-radar player that really stands out at training camp is dubbed “Mr. Mankato.” Last season, wide receiver Adam Thielen took home the honors. Who will earn Mr. Mankato this year? Here are our thoughts:
Adam: Babatunde Aiyegbusi, OL
With a listed frame of 6′ 9″ and 351 pounds, and the “Babs” nickname already catching on, I think it is only natural that the foreign-born lineman sticks out to fans getting a first look at him in Mankato. He is sure to stand out, there is certainly a need for offensive line depth, and potential usefulness on special teams (blocked kicks!) could be his greatest advantage. Mr. Mankato doesn’t always make the team, and Aiyegbusi certainly has his work cut out for him, but I predict he’ll be the under-the-radar newcomer that creates the most buzz throughout August.
Andy: Stefon Diggs, WR
The dude from Maryland was an under-utilized stud in college (blame Randy Edsall and those terribad uniforms), who turned some heads at OTAs and will continue to do so in Mankato. I wouldn’t be shocked if he broke a few kick or punt returns for scores in scrimmages or the Hall of Fame game versus the Steelers, just to really put pressure on Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels. Offensively, Diggs should have an advantage against the third and fourth teamers, which will make him to appear to shine brightly in camp and look like the second coming of DeSean Jackson (without the attitude). If Diggs can stay healthy — he never completed a full season as a Terrapin — he could become the dynamic play maker that we expected Cordarrelle to become. Or Jarius Wright. Or [insert name here].
Brent: Justin Coleman, CB
An UDFA signing this spring, Coleman is an interesting option for the Vikings who will be looking for some extra CB depth after Josh Robinson went down with an injury. Coleman is a long shot to win Mr. Mankato, there is no doubt about it, but he’s athletic, not afraid to play run defense and is a good fit in the slot. With Captain Munnerlyn sitting out OTAs while in a walking boot, Coleman has a chance to make an impact battling with Marcus Sherels and Jabari Price. I think Munnerlyn will win the as the No. 3/slot CB, with Sherels and Price battling for additional depth. Coleman, however, will have the opportunity to make enough of the plays needed to get recognition as a Mr. Mankato frontrunner.
Austin: MyCole Pruitt, TE
Pruitt, a fifth-round pick out of Southern Illinois, is less “under-the-radar” than other candidates like Justin Coleman and Jalil Carter, but no less worthy of winning the Mr. Mankato award. In 2014, he led all Division I tight ends in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, showing off a nifty ability to get open and make plays with the ball in his hands. During OTAs and rookie minicamp, Pruitt flashed on highlight reels and consistently made the difficult catches look easy. His play was good enough to vault him past Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison, and the 6’5″, 255-pound Pruitt will open training camp behind Kyle Rudolph. I’d love to pick Diggs here, but I played tight end, so I’m rooting for Pruitt to take the Mr. Mankato title from Adam Thielen — yet another wide receiver. A typical “Turner Tight End,” Pruitt should get opportunities to line up at multiple spots on the field and show off his wide range of skills. I’ll be looking for more one-handed catches as training camp begins.
Lindsey: Antone Exum, Jr., S
There’s still some debate over who will start at safety opposite Harrison Smith this season, and I think Exum has a strong upper hand to get in at that role. To do that, he will have to make a big impact at training camp. Although he’s flown pretty well under the radar, the Virginia Tech alum has shown some real potential and even got noticed during a few games last season. Exum was almost non-existent for the first two-thirds of last year, but in the final four weeks he notched four tackles and a fumble recovery. I think he has the necessary speed and tenacity, and in my opinion he can be a more effective tackler than Robert Blanton. Exum is my easy pick for Mr. Mankato.
This might be one of the first weeks that there was zero overlap in the VT writers’ responses. If one of the writers’ selections gets named Mr. Mankato, I think there should be some sort of prize … don’t you?
Guest of the Week
Matt Vensel, Star Tribune: Stefon Diggs, WR
Given the loose criteria my buddies over at ESPN have set for inclusion in the annual Mr. Mankato competition, I think the two clear frontrunners are the two pass-catchers selected in the fifth round, wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end MyCole Pruitt. Both players flashed this spring, with Diggs having a particularly impressive minicamp and Pruitt getting plenty of work with the first-stringers in June. Pruitt will probably end up having the more meaningful role once the games start, but Diggs is sure to a head-turner down in Mankato, so would be my pick. Now if you’re like me and want to pick a player who will actually have to work to get on the roster instead of going with a mid-round pick, consider undrafted free agent Anthony Harris. The competition at safety is wide open, and if he picks off a couple of passes or gets first-team reps, fans and media will start buzzing about him big time.