For Minnesota Vikings fans, the days of traveling to Mankato for training camp are in the rearview mirror. It’s a weird feeling for some (especially this Minnesota State grad), but the exciting Eagan era is just a few short weeks away. As the Vikings prepare to host their first-ever training camp at TCO Performance Center, here are six developing storylines that will be worth monitoring in the weeks ahead.
1. Plenty of position battles
Kicker: Kai Forbath vs. Daniel Carlson
It’s a classic veteran vs. rookie showdown. Although Kai Forbath had a decent season last year (he made 32 of 38 field goals) — he missed five extra points. Seeing a need to be more consistent in the kicking department, the Vikings selected Daniel Carlson in the fifth round of April’s draft. Due to his solid kicking in OTAs, big leg and draft position, Carlson should be considered the heavy favorite to land the job.
The last time the Vikings drafted a kicker was in 2012 when Blair Walsh was selected in the sixth round. Walsh went on to make 35-of-38 field goals that season, including 10-of-10 from 50+ yards. In 2016, his last season with the Vikings, Walsh went 12-of-16 with four missed extra points in nine games before being replaced by Forbath.
Nickel cornerback: Mackensie Alexander vs. Mike Hughes
Trae Waynes proved last season that he’s a capable counterpart to star corner Xavier Rhodes. So with Waynes and Rhodes locking up the two outside CB positions, who will man the slot? Last season it was veteran Terence Newman that earned the majority of snaps at nickel cornerback with Mackensie Alexander seeing time there as well. This season, it appears rookie Mike Hughes may be the one stealing snaps away from Alexander.
Although Alexander saw the most first-team reps in OTAs, Hughes impressed coaches this spring and is reportedly very much in the mix for snaps in the nickel package. It remains to be seen how things will play out, but the improved play of Alexander, the acquisitions of Hughes and Holton Hill and a possible position change for Newman are all signs that point to the likely end of the 39 year-old’s reign as the regular nickelback.
Third running back: Mack Brown vs. Roc Thomas vs. Mike Boone
Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray are clearly number one and two atop the Vikings running back depth chart. After that, well… it’s anyone’s guess. The Vikings acquired Mack Brown last season off waivers from Washington’s practice squad. The 26 year-old saw action at RB3 during spring practices but appeared to be limited during the team’s minicamp.
The other contenders, Roc Thomas and Mike Boone, are both undrafted rookies. Thomas, 22, is a year younger but Boone stood out during OTAs. He received the bulk of the action at RB3 during the team’s minicamp and appears to be slightly ahead of the other two in what could be the most compelling competition of camp.
Backup quarterback: Trevor Siemian vs. Kyle Sloter
Kirk Cousins is entrenched at QB1, but what about QB2? This offseason the Vikings traded for Trevor Siemian who was Denver’s Week 1 starter in 2016 and 2017. He started 24 games the last two seasons, including ten last year. While he wasn’t great as a starter for the Broncos (13-11 record, 5,700 yards, 30 TD, 24 INTs, 59.3% completion rate), he does have substantial starting experience. Considering Kyle Sloter has yet to appear in a regular season game, it’s clear Siemian is the favorite to land the backup job.
Third wide receiver: Kendall Wright vs. Laquon Treadwell
The receiver job behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs is up for grabs and Laquon Treadwell is doing his best to seize it. The former first-round pick was targeted early and often during spring practices and didn’t disappoint. In what could be a make-or-break season for the 23 year-old, Treadwell will compete with newcomer Kendall Wright for a role that should be quite prominent in the Vikings’ new offense.
Defensive tackle: David Parry vs. Jalyn Holmes vs. Jaleel Johnson
Despite losing Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen in free agency, the Vikings upgraded the defensive line this offseason by adding Sheldon Richardson to the mix. He’ll partner with All-Pro nose tackle Linval Joseph. Richardson will replace Johnson as the starting 3-technique while the competition to replace Stephen, who was predominantly used as a spell for Joseph, may include up to three players.
David Parry was signed this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. The 6-2, 317-pound lineman proved in the first two years of his career (with the Indianapolis Colts) that he can be a disruptive force when healthy. But, will Parry be able to get his career back on track after an alcohol-related arrest in early 2017? He only appeared in one game for New Orleans last season.
His competition includes Jalyn Holmes, a 2018 fourth-round pick, and Jaleel Johnson, a 2017 4th-round pick out of Iowa. Holmes, who played at THE Ohio State, will transition from defensive end to defensive tackle (3-technique) for the Vikings.
Johnson will be Parry’s main competition. Depending on how things shake out, Johnson could be in line for a dramatic increase in playing time a year after being stuck behind Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen on the depth chart.
2. Offensive line questions
The biggest question mark heading into the season is once again the offensive line. Last year the team’s front office hushed critics by revamping the group in one offseason. This time around there’s new questions facing the front five.
Joe Berger and Jeremiah Sirles are no longer with the team, leaving two key voids to fill. The Vikings experimented by putting Mike Remmers at right guard and Rashod Hill at right tackle during OTAs. The obvious question with this lineup is whether or not Hill, who had a 43.6 Pro Football Focus grade last season (the 68th-ranked tackle), is starting material.
Would it make more sense to keep Remmers at right tackle and use a player like Danny Isidora, Tom Compton, Josh Andrews or Colby Gossett at right guard? Another possibility could be rookie tackle Brian O’Neill cracking the starting rotation. No matter who plays where, expect the Vikings offensive line to be held under a microscope throughout training camp and into the regular season.
3. Dalvin Cook returns
Cook has all but fully returned from a torn ACL that he suffered last season. The running back was able to practice with the team during the final week of OTAs and all signs point to him being ready to put on the pads in Eagan.
OTHER NOTABLE INJURIES
Pat Elflein (ankle) is still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered last season. He did not participate in spring OTAs or minicamp but is expected to be ready for training camp in late July.
Everson Griffen (undisclosed) did not participate in the team’s OTAs or minicamp. Griffen was reportedly dealing with a minor knee injury before OTAs so that could be the culprit. He’s expected to be ready for training camp.
Andrew Sendejo (calf) was also a non-participant during OTAs and minicamp. At this point it’s unclear if he will be ready for training camp. Jayron Kearse, Anthony Harris, or Terence Newman would step in for Sendejo if he’s unable to play.
Jalyn Holmes (hand) broke his hand during OTAs and missed the team’s mandatory minicamp. He’s expected to be ready for training camp.
4. Golden opportunities
With linebacker Kentrell Brothers suspended for the first four games of 2018, there will be a chance for someone to step up in his absence. Reshard Cliett, Antwione Williams, Eric Wilson, Brett Taylor, Devante Downs, Garret Dooley and Mike Needham will be given the opportunity to fill the void caused by Brothers’ suspension, or even win a spot on the roster outright.
The same can be said for wide receiver Cayleb Jones. Jones, who could have become the WR4, instead will need to prove to coaches in training camp and the preseason that he deserves to be on the roster following cuts. His four-game suspension provides an opportunity for players like Stacy Coley, Brandon Zylstra, Tavarres King, Chad Beebe, Korey Robertson, Jake Wieneke or Jeff Badet to make the squad.
5. A shiny new offense
Shortly after he was hired, Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo told KFAN radio his offensive scheme included a balanced attack that utilized diversity among running backs and a strong offensive line to close out games. He will also add RPO’s (run-pass options) to the offensive repertoire while scheming to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers early and often.
DeFilippo inherited an offense that performed well (even without a star quarterback) under former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Now, the new OC has Cousins as his quarterback with Cook, Murray, Diggs, Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, and David Morgan at his disposal. If DeFilippo schemes to his player’s strengths and, like Shurmur, takes pressure off the offensive line with clever play-calling, this could be a very entertaining offense to follow in 2018.
6. Contract extensions looming?
Although both players are signed through the 2018 season, Stefon Diggs ($1.9 million cap hit) and Anthony Barr ($12.3 million cap hit) are next in line for new deals. Considering the recent extensions of Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks as well as the Vikings’ tendency to target training camp to strike deals, will the team follow suit and announce a new contract extension (or two) during this year’s camp?
According to the NFLPA public salary cap report, the Vikings currently have $14.061 million in cap space.