Vikings Training Camp Is Here — Key Things I’ll Be Watching Here and around the NFL
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
Training camp time brings back loads of memories for me. Lots of 90-minute drives to and from Mankato during my Vikings front office years. Negotiating contracts with holdouts was a regular occurrence for me during my eight years as Vikings GM (not so much a problem for modern-day GMs under the current CBA with huge fines for under-contract vets holding out and with a tight rookie salary scale that has resulted in virtually no rookie holdouts).
Sweating through watching Vikings practices on 90-degree days in Mankato, often followed by fun pick-up basketball or nine holes at a local golf course after dinner while the team was in evening meetings. And then trying to sleep in non-airconditioned Gage Hall.
Later in my career, I had to watch practices on some brutal 100-plus degrees days during my Tennessee Titans years, but at least we held camp in our top-flight Nashville team facility.
And those rotten preseason games—ugh. Six of them when I first started my Vikings career.
As we embark on 2022 Vikings training camp, here is what I’ll be closely watching as the clock ticks towards the exciting opener on September 11 at home against the Packers:
1.The new offense under Kevin O’Connell and the new defense under Ed Donatell. We know the defense will look much different with a base 3-4 vs. Mike Zimmer’s 4-3. How much different will the offense look? There were plenty of three wide receiver formations last year, and that will likely be the base offense for Kirk Cousins to operate.
2. Key position battles:
Cornerback–who lines up on opening day as the second outside corner opposite Parick Peterson? Can Cam Dantzler make the coaches trust that he will be more consistent, or will second-rounder Andrew Booth Jr. win the job? Or perhaps another vet such as Kris Boyd, Harrison Hand, Nate Hairston (who will start camp on the non-football injury list), or fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans emerges. And will Chandon Sullivan, the free agent signee from Green Bay, go unchallenged and be an upgrade at slot corner?
Interior offensive line—here we go again with the right guard spot up for grabs between experienced vets Jesse Davis, Chris Reed, and Austin Schlottman, second-round pick Ed Ingram and the seemingly forgotten third-rounder from last year—Wyatt Davis. And what of center Garrett Bradbury’s weight gain and incentive for a big season with free agency coming up after the team didn’t exercise his fifth-year option? Can Bradbury step up his game in the new offense, or will one of the aforementioned guard candidates wind up pushing him for starting center?
Starting safety playing with Harrison Smith: I look for a great camp battle between second-year man Cam Bynum who played well in a couple of starts last season, and first-rounder Lewis Cine, who comes with a good reputation as an athlete and hitter, but how fast can he pick up the defense with Aaron Rodgers looming opening day?
No. 2 QB: Does Kellen Mond make a move and earn the backup quarterback job over Sean Mannion? O’Connell has talked up Mond’s effort and progress during the offseason program, and he’s sure to get the bulk of snaps in preseason games.
No. 3 running back—who is first in line behind stalwarts Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison between second-year man and ace kick returner Kene Nwangwu and fifth-round rookie (who looked good in OTAs and minicamp) Ty Chandler?
There will be plenty of camp competition for roster spots at other positions such as the fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth wide receivers, the players earning backup spots who will be part of the rotation along the defensive line, EDGE rushers, backup linebackers, secondary personnel, and tight ends. Special teams savvy will play a big role in determining who wins these jobs.
3. How do the coaches manage the workload of four essential players, three of whom are coming off injury-filled 2021 seasons—edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith and starting tight end Irv Smith Jr.– and one who has battled injuries in the past and is so vital to the offense as a rusher and receiving back—Dalvin Cook?
The Titans already have said Derrick Henry won’t play in any preseason games. I think that’s a necessary approach for Cook, who can continue his progress with the new offense in camp practices, including the two days of joint practice with the 49ers.
Hunter and Za’Darius Smith are obviously critical for the pass rush, and they should get very limited play time in preseason and also have their snap counts closely watched in camp, which I’m sure O’Connell and Donatell will do, and this also should be the case with Irv Smith Jr. who seems ready for a big fourth season. It will also be interesting to see how Hunter handles the transition to stand-up EDGE rusher, which he has done on occasion in the past but will be doing for the bulk of his snaps in the 3-4.
4. Another question that always is on the minds of coaches and Vikings fans: can Greg Joseph carry his strong second half of the season performance from 2021 into a full season?
No shortage of drama this training camp—in Minnesota and around the league (as follows).
Around the NFL Observations as camps open:
1.There are three starting quarterback open competitions to keep an eye on and perhaps a fourth. Carolina is the most publicized, with former 2018 first-round picks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, the prime contenders, and third-round pick Matt Corral likely to sit and learn this season.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin breaks in a new starter for the first time in his career after Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. It will be either ex-Bear/ex-Bill Mitch Trubisky or first-round rookie Kenny Pickett. Seattle’s Pete Carroll is in a similar spot after the Russell Wilson trade to Denver, and he’ll choose between Drew Lock and Geno Smith unless Jimmy Garoppolo somehow is released by the 49ers and lands with the Seahawks. It’s more likely Garoppolo will be traded—and not within the NFC West to Seattle–once the 49ers receive a reasonable offer (and Garoppolo has resumed throwing after offseason right shoulder surgery).
In Atlanta, vet Marcus Mariota will try to hold off rookie third-rounder Desmond Ridder after the Falcons traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis.
2. The Vikings will keep track of the wide receiver competition and offensive line injury situation in Green Bay. Second-round receiver Christian Watson starts camp on the physically unable to perform list with an undisclosed injury. Pro Bowl guard/tackle Elgton Jenkins also is on PUP as he returns from an ACL injury, and Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari is recovering from an ACL injury, and his status is uncertain (same with starting tight end Robert Tonyan). It won’t break the Vikings’ hearts if those four players miss the opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.
3. Speaking of injuries, Bengals superstar QB Joe Burrow had his appendix removed this week and is expected to miss two to four weeks, a blow but something that can be overcome once he returns for the defending AFC champs.
4. Then there’s the new contract for Kyler Murray, who profited from the crazy QB market fueled by the ridiculous Deshaun Watson fully guaranteed, 5-year $230 million contract. Murray got the same deal in new money on his extension with a mere $160 million guaranteed. That despite no playoff wins on his resume. Now all eyes are on Lamar Jackson and whether the Ravens force him to play on his fifth-year option or give him a deal similar to Watson and Murray.
And the Browns wait to hear how long Watson is suspended for his alleged sexual misconduct, likely the entire season, with appeals soon to follow. Ex-Vikings offensive coordinator and Cleveland head Coach Kevin Stefanski probably is wishing the Browns hadn’t burned a bridge with Mayfield now that it appears journeyman Jacoby Brissett is his likely starter opening day at Carolina against probably none other than Mayfield. It could wind up a good call scheduling that one, NFL.
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