The 3 Most Important Things to Watch for at Vikings Training Camp
While the 2020 Minnesota Vikings offseason was limited for excitement due to coronavirus precautions, the team did manage to host training camp in Eagan. No fans attended; this year, fans return.
The pandemic season started with high hopes as Yannick Ngakoue was added to the team just before Week 1, a transaction that generated enthusiasm because, along with Danielle Hunter, the pass rush was theorized to be ferocious. It wasn’t. Hunter was lost for the year to injury, Ngakoue was traded some seven weeks into the season, and Minnesota’s defense showcased its worst output since 2013 en route to a 7-9 record.
At last year’s camp, though, notable events transpired. Inklings were evident that rookie Justin Jefferson would be quite productive. Guess what? He only shattered the NFL record for rookie receiving yards (1,400) in his maiden voyage. Another rookie, Cameron Dantzler, played like the real deal at camp, even prompting wide receiver Adam Thielen to proclaim, “[That] guy is going to be good.”
Dantzler was excellent, in fact, ending the 2020 season as the NFL’s top rookie cornerback per Pro Football Focus.
So, what storylines are on the docket for 2021? What should Vikings loyalists glue their attention on the practice field? In descending order of importance, these are three things to watch for at Vikings training camp.
1. The Progress of Wyatt Davis
A strong case can be argued that the future of head coach Mike Zimmer’s employment depends on the fruition of the Vikings offensive line, particularly in terms of pass-protecting prowess.
Wyatt Davis — who may or may not be ready to start at right guard — is the pivotal component to 2021’s offensive line. Christian Darrisaw, drafted in the 1st Round of the 2021 NFL Draft, will probably start right away, so left tackle should be no large mystery. But Davis assuming starting duty early in the season is a mystery. Matters complicated this week when offensive line coach Rick Dennison was reported to encounter a change in job title or perhaps not be with the team at all after COVID-related hubbub. Dennison seemed to be an enthusiast of Dakota Dozier, a guard that struggled in 2020 despite receiving oodles of meaningful playtime.
If Davis indeed starts sooner than later, the Vikings own an offensive line from left to right of (LT) Christian Darrisaw, (LG) Ezra Cleveland, (C) Garrett Bradbury, (RG) Wyatt Davis, (RT) Brian O’Neill. All homegrown, drafted-by-the-Vikings talent. And, that fivesome is young with a mammoth upside.
However, if Davis takes longer to progress — or Darrisaw doesn’t see the field right away — a hodgepodge or Rashod Hill plus the aforementioned Dozier will inspire groans from fans.
The summer maturation of Davis is the tell-all for the outlook of the 2021 offensive trenches. If he’s ready in a starting capacity for games in September, the OL hype is real.
2. The Cornerback Battle
Should anything become contentious at training camp or amid the depth-chart posturing in general, it will be a product of the cornerback room. Put simply, the Vikings are incredibly deep at the CB section of the depth chart. What felt last year like skimpiness of essentially Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney only — is now Patrick Peterson, Dantzler, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, Harrison Hand, and maybe-but-longshot Jeff Gladney. That’s a lot of mouths to feed as defensive snaps are distributed.
It would be odd to thwart the development of Dantzler by sliding his snaps to Peterson or Breeland, both seasoned veterans. But Peterson wasn’t signed to sit on the bench. Nor was Breeland — he’s an outspoken, Super Bowl-winning talent that starts everywhere he goes. He will not quietly accept CB4 or CB5 status — remember that.
Alexander is a familiar face, signed back by the team at a discounted price after one year with the Cincinnati Bengals. His services were acquired with intent.
One of these players — never mind the fact that Gladney probably won’t play at all — will get lesser snaps than they’re accustomed to. Who’s it going to be?
That’s why the CB joust next week is so intriguing.
3. Kellen Mond, in General
Since joining the Vikings in 2018, Kirk Cousins is responsible for the fifth-most touchdown passes (91) in the NFL. For many, that isn’t good enough. Vikings fans boast an “on to the next one” philosophy at quarterback, dating back to the post-Tommy Kramer era. It is so vivid in the psyche of fans to switch quarterbacks every couple of seasons that anything Cousins does is scrutinized like a governmental audit.
Ergo, Kellen Mond, a rookie from Texas A&M, is the next installment in the Vikings long history of quarterback carousel. If Cousins doesn’t deliver one or two playoff wins in 2021, the prospect of watching Mond on a regular-season field accelerates.
This is rarified air for Minnesota. During the last 30 years, the Vikings move from veteran to veteran, squeezing the past-prime accolades out of men like Warren Moon, Jeff George, Brett Favre, Sam Bradford and others. Or if a veteran is not on the menu, the team auditions players like Daunte Culpepper, Christian Ponder, and Teddy Bridgewater.
But the Vikings seldom employ the Kansas City Chiefs heralded strategy. In 2017, the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes to sit behind Alex Smith — a player with an admirable skill set like Cousins — for a season, biding his time to start. Mahomes barnstormed the NFL soon after.
Mond likely won’t be as Superman-like as Mahomes, but the blueprint for watch-and-learn is present with Cousins-into-Mond if Cousins doesn’t dazzle in 2021.
Training camp is the first spot to get a glimpse of Mond. His career will not be defined at his first camp, but the tarot cards will hit the field for the first time.