A Big Game for Vikings Bubble Players in Denver
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
This training camp has been a culture shock for me after watching two-a-day practices and vets playing in every preseason game except perhaps the last one during my NFL front office career. It’s clearly a new day for the players as coaches such as the Vikings’ Kevin O’Connell and their athletic trainers chart a training camp and preseason course that includes a couple of days of heavier hitting with no live tackling in joint practices leading to little or no veteran player exposure in preseason games and lots of recovery days in the camp schedule.
With the Vikings having a scrimmage/simulated game in Thursday’s practice, that strongly indicates the final preseason game in Denver will not be a “dress rehearsal” for the starters leading up to hosting the Packers on September 11.
O’Connell confirmed that in his press conference Thursday by saying we should expect to “not see a lot of the starters” on Saturday. He added, “The real test will be at 3:25 on September 11 on where our guys are at. I told our guys if you had told me where we’d be now as far as the volume we’ve installed in our offense, defense, and special teams and the amount of healthy bodies we’ve had on our practice fields day in and day out competing hard, I’d have been very happy. And I am very happy, but that by no means lets us rest easy. We’re taking our preparation all the way to that first game.”
Star receiver Adam Thielen says the lighter workload in camp (with 11 padded practices when 16 are allowed) and sitting out preseason games agrees with him. “I feel great,” Thielen told Paul Allen of the Vikings Entertainment Network. “I’m in the best shape of my life. It comes with experience and the people around me. We have endless resources to make us feel our best, and the strength staff is making sure we’re feeling strong, and we have recovery days.
“I thought the 49er joint practices were fantastic. Great work—the physicality we needed. It was like playing in a preseason game, and I was tackled three times. The simulated game is one more step, like playing a whole game. It’s better than playing 10 plays in a preseason game, and it’s prepared me for Week 1. Not playing preseason games is no big deal, and everybody will forget about it in Week 1 and 2, once we start playing real football.”
We’ll see if that holds true, and the Vikings are ready to win a big opener against the three-time defending NFC North champs. It seems like it would make sense to at least have the starting secondary play a few game snaps together before facing Aaron Rodgers, but that would mean taking on the injury risk in playing star safety Harrison Smith and top corner Patrick Peterson. It’s a tough call for the coaches, especially a coach with several decades of playing starters in preseason games, such as defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
O’Connell saw this lighter workload in preseason pay off with his Rams team last season as they came out of the gate with three straight wins and wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. And let’s remember he did start the No. 1 offensive and defensive line against the Raiders.
It seems Packers Coach Matt Lafleur is taking a similar approach as O’Connell, at least through their first two preseason games in not playing offensive stars such as QB Aaron Rodgers or top running back Aaron Jones.
With most or all the starters sitting out, it clearly makes for a less exciting last preseason game, but there will be plenty on the line in Denver (as was the case in the simulated game at practice) for the bubble players seeking to make the Vikings 53-man active roster or as a fallback, the 16 player practice squad with these decisions looming at final cut day next Tuesday.
For players such as QB Kellen Mond and tight end Zach Davidson who are coming off down games against the 49ers, as well as preseason star T.Y.McGill on the defensive line, they need to reinforce that they belong on the active roster or practice squad. There are players like linebackers Chazz Surratt (a third-rounder last year) and Blake Lynch, DBs Nate Hairston and Josh Metellus, and rookie receiver Jalen Nailor. They want to make a good final impression on the coaches before the final cut.
O’Connell says he hasn’t decided yet if new QB Nick Mullens will play in Denver (he is getting snaps in practice as he learns the offense), but O’Connell added that he is “super positive early on with Nick.”
But in a minor surprise, even though the punter competition was fairly even in camp, the Vikings did go ahead and release last year’s punter and holder Jordan Berry on Thursday and, as of now, are going with rookie Ryan Wright.
Other Training Camp Observations:
Starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. returned to limited practice this week, and he’s doing individual drills and walkthroughs but not yet catching passes or blocking full as he recovers from his thumb injury with the hope of facing the Packers. Rookie corner Andrew Booth Jr. continues to rehab his ankle injury, and O’Connell thinks he’ll be ready for Week 1.
And based on the reps in practice recently, it appears second-round guard Ed Ingram has moved ahead of vet Jesse Davis in the coaches’ minds and could well be the starter come opening day.
Around the NFL Observations:
1.There are still plenty of NFL teams who prefer to play their stars in preseason games, at least on a limited basis. Pro Bowl quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen have started preseason games this year. Bucs Coach Todd Bowles announced that his now-returned-to-camp QB Tom Brady and the rest of the healthy offensive starters would open against the Colts on Saturday.
2. Several other quarterbacks will play in their final preseason game because they are still in competition for the starting job. Pittsburgh’s No. 1 pick Kenny Pickett has had a terrific first two preseason games, completing 19 of 22 passes for 171 yards and 3 TDs in his effort to overtake vets Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph as the replacement for retired Ben Roethlisberger. We’ll see if Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin chooses the rookie Pickett to start their big opener against the defending AFC champion Bengals in Cincinnati.
In Seattle, will Coach Pete Carroll go with Geno Smith or Drew Lock—seemingly not a great option either way–when the Seahawks host their former QB Russell Wilson and the Broncos in the Monday night opener?
Carroll probably is hoping the 49ers release Jimmy Garoppolo rather than have him hit the Niners’ salary cap for $27 million this year, but San Francisco wants to trade their former starter and try to avoid him being picked up by division-rival Seattle.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl