Early Candidates for Top Vikings Training Camp Battles

Zimmer and Spielman talking
Oct 18, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer speaks, right, with general manager Rick Spielman. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports.

We are roughly two months away from the projected start of Minnesota Vikings Training Camp. This is of course assuming that the NFL will be operating at that time, which seems to be the plan with the league giving teams the ability to open their facilities. If training camp goes as planned, it will be an interesting one for the Vikings, who selected 15 players in this year’s draft, seven of which were in the first four rounds. Here is some of those camp battles to (hopefully) look forward to.

Tajae Sharpe vs Olabisi Johnson vs Justin Jefferson for WR2/3

This is the first battle in camp and probably the most interesting one to watch for the casual fan. Jefferson obviously brings clout being the Vikings first overall pick and coming off a year where he lit up the SEC en route to an LSU national championship. However, the Vikings obviously made a commitment to the new guy Sharpe by signing him in a year where they didn’t have much cap space to maneuver. Throw in Olabisi Johnson who did an excellent job when given opportunities last year, but may not have a high enough ceiling to justify playing over Jefferson, and you have a three god fight that should be a good one.

Personally, my money is on Jefferson and Johnson to get the second and third wide receiver spots respectively. That leaves Sharpe as a possible odd-man out, similar to Jordan Taylor last season. Sharpe’s dead cap hit isn’t enough to save him from a possible cut and with the Vikings stacking young talent, the 25-year old will have to fight for his life to grab a roster spot.

Pat Elflien vs Dru Samia vs Dakota Dozier vs Ezra Cleveland for LG/RG

The Minnesota Vikings biggest weakness on offense the last couple of seasons, or really the last decade or thereabouts, was their offensive line. Although Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill are serviceable tackles, Pat Elflien has been a disaster at left guard and management let Josh Kline go after one fairly good, if injury riddled, season. That leaves two big holes on either side of second year center Garrett Bradbury.

The Vikings could choose to fill those holes with Dakota Dozier, who looked okay in his backup role last season, and hope that year two of Elflien at guard is more successful than the first. However, they have much more compelling and younger options in sophomore Dru Samia and rookie Ezra Cleveland. 

Cleveland played left tackle at Boise State, and is projected to eventually play there for the Vikings, but he could slide inside and get NFL experience while also learning from Riley Reiff in practice. Samia was hyped last year in preseason, but only played in two games during the regular season. However, with a year of watching and learning under his belt, offensive line coach Rick Dennison might just be ready to trust Samia.

In this battle, I’ll have to go with Elflien and Samia starting the season, but not for long. I think Cleveland has a good chance to bump Elflien, and only with an injury do we see Pat back on the field in 2020. Then hopefully the Elflien experiment will be over.

Armon Watts vs Shamar Stephen vs Hercules Mata’afa vs Jaleel Johnson for 3-tech DT

With the departure of Linval Joseph, the Vikings needed to replace his power on the defensive front. Luckily, they seem to have done that by bringing in the massive Michael Pierce from Baltimore. That addresses half of the biggest issue that the team had on defense last season which was that the defensive tackles were constantly manhandled and pushed out of the way.

In fairness to Joseph, he was injured for a good portion of the season and he didn’t have the best counterpart. Shamar Stephen, after a year in Seattle, returned with a contract fit for a good starting defensive tackle. However, Stephen was mediocre in stopping the run and somehow worse in the pass rush.

This will, hopefully, prompt the Vikings to find an answer to compliment the newly signed Pierce. They could stick with the status quo, and try to justify the money they spent, by keeping Stephen playing or they could give a chance to a number of talented players waiting in the wings. Armon Watts and Hercules Mata’afa flashed in the pass rush when used last season, and Jaleel Johnson has been okay in the run game.

This battle may end in a strange tie with Zimmer and company running all these players out in rotation, but my money would be on Watts and Mata’afa being the clear cut winners come week one. They each just have more to offer in the long run than the others.

Hughes vs Hill vs Gladney vs Boyd vs Dantzler for CB

This is truly my favorite battle upcoming. With the departure of Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, and Mackensie Alexander the cornerback position is wide open. You factor in that the Vikings just spent two of their top picks on high upside guys in Cam Dantzler and Jeff Gladney to go with former first rounder Mike Hughes and, oft in trouble but so much potential, Holton Hill and special teams darling Kris Boyd, and you’ve got a recipe for magic. Or it could be that none of them pan out and we’re all left empty inside.

Either way, this should be a good battle. Hill and Hughes have the obvious advantage and are, as of now, my picks to be the team’s starting outside corners when they break camp. That leaves Gladney and Boyd to fight for the slot corner and Nickel spots.

However, I think there is a good chance that the surprise of camp, and possible steal of the draft, is Cam Dantzler. Dantzler has the ability to be a shutdown guy and gave some of the best receivers in the college game trouble last season. He’s got issues, but if anybody can get his technique cleaned up and turn him into a gem it’s Zimmer.