How Are the Vikings Progressing with 23 Days until Green Bay Game?

Za’Darius Smith Breaking Packers Hearts
Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

It’s been 23 days since the Vikings’ first training camp practice on July 27. And it’s 23 days until the exciting regular season opener on September 11 against the arch-rival Green Bay Packers. So at this mid-point in training camp and preparation for the opener, where do the Vikings stand?

I’m judging based on the Vikings performance in the two joint practices with the 49ers this week with all healthy players participating, more so than how the team looked in the preseason opener in Vegas with 10 starters sitting out. I think they’re doing fine at this juncture but have work to do in terms of continuing to master the new offensive and defensive schemes, solidifying a couple of starting spots (at cornerback, safety, and right guard), and identifying key rotational players and backups as the roster is trimmed to the final 53 plus practice squad. Meanwhile, it will be critical to keep the team’s key players healthy and get Irv Smith Jr’s thumb to heal in time for the opener.

I thought the Vikings held their own in the joint practices against a top-quality team in San Francisco, a final-four team last season. I felt the Vikings new-look 3-4 base defense got the better of their matchup with the 49ers offense, although we must factor in that new starting quarterback Trey Lance is still learning the ropes. 

The Minnesota D kept Lance, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Co. out of the end zone in Thursday’s two-minute drill. Linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Cam Bynum made nice plays in coverage, the front seven played the run tough, and the Vikings edge rushing dynamic duo—Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith—had sacks in team drills (along with Hicks, who looks like a fine free-agent addition as a playmaker alongside Eric Kendricks at inside linebacker). 

Jun 8, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith (left) and Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

The defensive line of Harrison Phillips, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Armon Watts followed up their good performance against the Raiders with solid play up front in the 49er joint practices. The secondary play appeared to be good against the 49ers with all hands on deck after Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson were held out of the Raiders game.

Defensively, I’d call it a good sign for significant improvement this season, but keeping key players healthy will be essential, starting with Hunter and Za’Darius Smith since they are the key to an effective pass rush.

I thought the Vikings offense and 49ers defense battled to a draw. And I do mean battled as it was testy between these two units as emotions ran hot, especially early in Thursday’s practice. Coach Kevin O’Connell said he emphasized to his players that they would be kicked out of practice if they threw a punch. It got close to that but mostly just a lot of pushing and shoving before things settled into high-energy reps.

Having returned from Covid this week, Kirk Cousins was sharp in 7-on-7 on Thursday with two TD passes to Justin Jefferson and one each to K.J. Osborn and Zach Davidson. But Cousins was sacked twice in team drills by the 49ers stout front four and last year’s third-ranked defense was tough to run on early before the offensive line started playing better. 

Cousins hit Jefferson with a nice deep ball in the two-minute drill, but the Vikings couldn’t finish the drive with a TD. 

Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion had some good moments as they continued their competition for No. 2 QB (that will be a focal point when these two teams meet at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday night in the second preseason game). Mond flashed his running ability–an area he has an obvious edge over Mannion—and Mond executed a long TD on a screen to running back Bryant Koback. Meanwhile, Mannion threw a TD bomb to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that excited the team and the full house of fans at the Vikings’ Eagan facility. 

Vikings Preseason Game 1 Analysis -- at LV
Aug 14, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kellen Mond. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

On the O-line, tackles Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw were impressive in their matchups against one of the NFL’s top pass rushers in Nick Bosa. 

There was intense competition with the 49ers on special teams each day as the coaches got a good look at players’ ability to cover and return kicks along with live field goal kicking at the end of Wednesday’s two-minute drills. Vikings kicker Greg Joseph booted game-winning 42 and 46-yarders to finish drives. Then he went 4 of 6 in further field goal attempts, but his two misses were with the backup holder.  

O’Connell was delighted with the joint practices and hinted he would sit a lot of the team’s top players in Saturday’s game as he did in Vegas. “It was everything I hoped when planning the joint practices,” he said. “You know it’s going to be really good work, the physicality that shows up. Joint practices give you the repetitions and volume you need to give guys these game reps without being tackled to the ground, even though that still happens occasionally, and we’re trying to avoid it. 

“This takes the place of some of those preseason games where they’re exposed to a little more injury when tackled to the ground.” 

Translation: after their extensive action in these joint practices, don’t expect to see Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, Eric Kendricks, Patrick Peterson, or Harrison Smith against the 49ers on Saturday. Perhaps Cousins will get a series or two but don’t be surprised if he’s held out of this game and the final preseason game next week in Denver. 

It again proves that NFL teams do not need three preseason games to prepare for the regular season as long as they have the benefit of joint practices with another team. Two preseason games would be just fine to give young players an opportunity to compete in game conditions as they seek roster spots and rotational roles. 

More from O’Connell: 

1.He says Irv Smith Jr. is on track for Week 1 in his recovery from thumb surgery and is ramping up his conditioning work.

2. Speaking of tight ends, O’Connell praised Ben Ellefson, who is “having a great camp and has found a nice role for us.” 

3. On second-round guard Ed Ingram, who took all the reps with the starters in the joint practices (Jesse Davis was with the second unit on Wednesday and sat out Thursday with his knee soreness): “Ed is progressing; he’s right where we want him to be and continues to ascend. He’s getting more comfortable with more reps with the 1s. He’s doing a great job, but there are always things with young players that they can learn from.” 

4. O’Connell praised the play of defensive linemen Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson, saying they’re both having “a great camp with good performances against the Raiders and 49ers.”

5. Regarding Saturday night’s game, he said, “It’s going to be exciting to play our first home game.”

I’ll add—not nearly as exciting as that September 11 opener at home against the Pack.

Around the NFL Observations:

1.So much for the kinder, gentler, loving Aaron Rodgers after his retreat to Peru, where he claims to have changed his outlook on his personal and football life. He went off publicly on his young receivers this week, saying, “A lot of drops, a lot of bad route decisions, running the wrong route. We’ve got to get better in that area.” But don’t get too comfortable thinking that will be the case on opening day. Remember, we heard the same things about Ja’Marr Chase last summer in Cincinnati’s camp, and then on opening day, he had a big game with no drops, 101 receiving yards, and one TD as the Bengals beat the Vikings in OT.   

2. The Deshaun Watson settlement won’t sit well with many NFL execs, coaches, and fans. Eleven games, a $5 million fine, and mandatory evaluation/treatment was agreed to by the league and the NFLPA. And in a bizarre twist that is surely no coincidence from the standpoint of the league creating drama, Watson is eligible to return on December 4 in Houston, of all places, against his former team.

I still believe his actions warranted a full season suspension and at least a $10 million fine. The only positive is that it’s a much stronger punishment than Sue Robinson had called for in her arbitration decision which was a six-game suspension with no fine, and now we won’t have to hear about Watson on a daily basis until he is eligible to return to practice in late November. And by then, the Browns should be out of contention, and if they’re not, how effective can Watson be when he can’t practice with the team during his suspension? If they so decide, Cleveland would be putting him in the lineup after playing one preseason game last week (and poorly at that) in the past two years.

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

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