From the Former GM: Irv Smith’s Thumb, Camp Battles Heating Up, Deshaun Watson
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
The pads came on this week at Vikings training camp, and as is always the case, the intensity increased significantly. So too did the competition to determine which young safety— second-year man Camryn Bynum or first-round draft pick Lewis Cine — will join Harrison Smith in the starting lineup against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on opening day. Similarly, the battle at right guard has several players competing, with vet Jesse Davis the current frontrunner and second-rounder Ed Ingram in the mix.
And with camp off to a positive, upbeat start with lots of good vibes among the team and fans in attendance, the news came down that starting tight end Irv Smith injured his thumb in the first padded practice Monday and had surgery. The team is hopeful he can return by the opener, but there is less experienced depth at the position than in past years when Tyler Conklin and Kyle Rudolph manned the tight end spot with Smith, who missed last season with his knee meniscus injury.
Back to the safety battle, most Vikings fans assume Cine will win the starting job due to his lofty draft status and high-level athleticism and physicality. I say not so fast and don’t sleep on Bynum, last year’s fourth-rounder who played very well when he replaced the Covid-ridden Harrison Smith for two games last season.
Bynum had an exceptional game with 12 tackles and an interception in the loss to the Ravens and Lamar Jackson in Week 9. That performance was all the more impressive because he had no practice time with the starters that week as Smith tested positive on gameday. Bynum followed it up with six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and a QB hit in the win over the Chargers.
Bynum has been working with the starters thus far in camp, and Cine likely will overtake Bynum eventually, but it’s questionable if that will happen by opening day. Bynum’s experience and smarts, along with looking good in camp, may make him the coaches’ choice early on—especially against Rodgers in the opener– but regardless of who starts, both of them are expected to play in certain packages such as dime coverages and they both should be key special teamers.
As for right guard–a key to solidifying an offensive line that has had trouble in recent years in the interior spots–it was somewhat revealing to see Ingram taking first-team reps ahead of Reed when Davis was given a rest day on Tuesday (to manage his knee issues). Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips says Davis is the frontrunner as of now due in part to his veteran savvy.
We’re evaluating every day, and we have several guys who are very capable of playing that position so we feel good about that,” Phillips said. “Jesse’s been doing a great job with the ones. We’ve mixed in other guys—Chris Reed is doing a nice job and Ed Ingram is doing a nice job. There’s just some things as a rookie, it’s going to take you a minute to get the techniques we’re asking whereas Jesse is such a veteran who has been in so many systems, he probably picked it up a little bit faster in the new system.– Wes Phillips | Vikings Offensive Coordinator
As with Cine at safety, it seems likely that Ingram will eventually become a starter. He has the strength and good feet to become a solid pro if he picks things up and develops as expected by the team. But the coaches like the veteran Davis as the starter in early August, and we’ll see where things stand on opening day at right guard and if Garrett Bradbury–with his 10-15 pound weight gain to help him anchor in pass protection–steps up his game at center or if Reed pushes him at that key spot since he can play center or guard.
At tight end with the Smith thumb injury, Coach Kevin O’Connell said, “We decided the best move would be to go ahead and fix that thing. We still feel very strongly about our process to get him back and, barring any setbacks, available for that opener.”
Phillips added, “We all feel for Irv with how hard he’s worked in the offseason, but it gives other guys opportunities to get in there and show what they can do. Johny Mundt’s a smart player, and we’re excited he’s here. He’s physical in the run game. Ben Ellefson has had a nice camp thus far. Zach Davidson is a talented guy who is getting better every day.”
But Smith is a potential Pro Bowl tight end, and the Vikings clearly need him to recover and become a great option for Kirk Cousins when teams try to focus too much on Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, and Dalvin Cook.
Other Training Camp Observations:
1. As the team’s excellent No. 3 wide receiver, Osborn has bulked up, and he’s making big plays in camp, such as a diving goal-line TD catch from Cousins this week. And, of course, Jefferson and Thielen look terrific as usual. This is one of the best trios in the NFL and reminds me of my years with another great Vikings wide receiver trio — Cris Carter, Randy Moss, and Jake Reed — who were unstoppable in our 15-1 season in 1998.
2. I like what I’m seeing from second-round pick Andrew Booth at corner, where he is competing with Cam Dantzler for a starting spot. Booth competes hard on every rep in 1 on 1’s and full team drills, had an interception in the first practice last week, and is very physical in coverage. Dantzler also looks good so far in camp but can the coaches trust him to stay consistent after coverage lapses were costly last year, such as on the final play of the loss at Detroit?
3. Interesting to see Kellen Mond take full team reps as the No. 2 QB ahead of Sean Mannion at Monday’s practice. That could change, but O’Connell has talked up Mond during the offseason and looks like he’s giving him a solid shot at winning the No. 2 job. The preseason games and the joint practices with the 49ers in a couple of weeks will have a lot to say about how that battle turns out.
Around the NFL Observations:
1.I think retired federal judge Sue L. Robinson’s ruling of a six-game suspension for Deshaun Watson is an awful decision that should be appealed by the NFL, which asked for a full-year suspension. Robinson wrote of Watson’s “egregious conduct” that was “pre-meditated” and said he showed a lack of remorse. Yet she called the sexual assault and harassment allegations “non-violent sexual conduct.” I disagree, and I’m sure the vast majority of women disagree with this statement.
Michael Vick received a deserved indefinite suspension that lasted two years for his involvement in dogfighting (and he spent time in prison). Calvin Ridley was suspended a full season for gambling, and Mychal Kendricks was suspended eight games for insider trading. Surely Watson’s conduct –that included settlements with 23 of the 24 massage therapists who filed civil suits against him—warrants a full season suspension, in my view. I hope the league seeks that full season even if it undermines the decision of the former judge jointly brought in by the NFL and NFLPA to handle such cases.
It is also ridiculous that Robinson didn’t rule that Watson should be fined more than the $345,000 salary he’ll lose for the six weeks without pay since his base salary is just over $1 million. But he received a $45 million signing bonus as part of his $46 million per year contract from the Browns. I think she should have fined him 6/17 of his $46 million average pay per year, which would be $16.2 million. Or better yet, suspend him for a full year and have it cost him $46 million. That would send a message rather than this slap on the wrist.
2. Despite lessening padded practices in camps compared to years past, major injuries are popping up. Tom Brady has lost his Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen for at least several months with a knee injury. One of the Broncos leading receivers—Tim Patrick—suffered a torn ACL in Tuesday’s practice.
Understandably, O’Connell wants to limit full padded practices to only 11 (16 are allowed). A coach has to look at the big picture, and that’s having starting players and key backups available for the season opener and the 17 games (plus hopefully playoffs) that count while also preparing the team. It’s a tough thing to balance, and I always held my breath in training camp and preseason games, hoping our teams would stay as injury free as possible.
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