Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski Photography
Pre-Camp 53-Man Projection
With Minnesota Vikings training camp softly kicking off on Tuesday as rookies and select other players report to TCO Performance Center, the battle to make the 53-man roster is about to get underway. The young players will seek to either reinforce a strong first impression that might’ve been made in the spring, or show improvement after about a six-week hiatus.
Veterans report Friday, hoping to fend off any young challengers and avoid the unenviable distinction of being the dreaded veteran cut.
Here are five position battles to keep an eye on over the next several weeks.
Hercules Mata’afa vs Armon Watts vs Jalyn Holmes
The Vikings lost big-name defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in free agency, and while their acquisition of former Viking Shamar Stephen might seem like Richardson’s man-for-man replacement, it’s more likely the Vikings will look to fill that void with a platoon. Stephen typically never played more than 40-50 percent of snaps in his time with the Vikings and seemed to struggle when given more responsibilities with Seattle in 2018. The bodies behind him in the defensive tackle rotation will take on greater importance.
Mata’afa and Holmes enter their second seasons with Watts trying to beat them out as a rookie. It’s possible the Vikings could structure the roster in a way that would allow them to keep two of these three — even with Linval Joseph, Jaleel Johnson and Stephen being near locks — but nonetheless, it would seem nearly impossible to get all three onto the 53-man without an injury occurring above them on the depth chart.
Holmes and Mata’afa have both added substantial offseason weight to hold up in the trenches, while Watts should already possess the size to compete. But with only one season of full-time play under his belt in college, Watts may require more technical seasoning.
After spring practices, Mata’afa and Holmes seem to have an advantage.
Alexander Mattison vs Mike Boone vs Ameer Abdullah
With Latavius Murray now a member of the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings are in need of a new backup running back, and they have a rookie, a second-year back and an intriguing veteran to compete for Murray’s job and potentially one other backup position.
In 2018, Minnesota kept five running backs including fullback C.J. Ham, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to keep all three of these challengers. There are no other backs on the roster besides Dalvin Cook, Ham and these three after the Vikings waived Roc Thomas Monday following his three-game substance abuse suspension. But with greater depth at other, arguably more important, positions, it would be surprising to see the Vikings use an extra roster spot here.
Boone was a lightning bolt at last year’s training camp and one of the surprises of preseason. He lasted the entire year on the 53-man roster after being a UDFA from Cincinnati but scarcely saw playing time, presumably because of pass-blocking limitations.
Mattison is a 220-pound bruiser from Boise State that got massive workloads in college and looked the part in Vikings OTAs. He profiles as someone to fulfill Murray’s duties in short yardage, though, rather than a bellcow that will wear down defenses. In today’s NFL, it’s rare to see teams put much on one running back’s shoulders anyway. Mattison was sure-handed and tough to bring down in college, and his frame lends itself to better potential as a blocker. While he may not have the jaw-dropping lateral quickness of Boone, he presents a more complete package.
And finally, there’s Abdullah, who spent half of 2018 with the team after getting waived by Detroit. He seemed to be the preferred kick returner during spring practices, but as the kickoff declines in importance throughout the league, that role may be easily filled by another rosteree. Abdullah is only 26, but the last time he had a meaningful workload he posted a season-long 3.3 yards per carry average in 2017 with the Lions. The Vikings signed him before knowing they would draft Mattison, so Abdullah could be the odd one out at the moment.
Chad Beebe vs Jordan Taylor vs Brandon Zylstra vs Laquon Treadwell vs All Other WR3 Candidates
Some might criticize the Vikings for not addressing their wide receiver depth in a more meaningful way this offseason, as the team opted to spend its limited cap resources on in-house extensions and other minor moves. They’ve selected, instead, to have a six-to-eight-man competition for their third wide receiver spot, which makes this one of the most compelling races in camp.
It’s hard to tell who has the lead at this point, since most of the candidates were hurt at some point during OTAs and mini-camp. At various times, Chad Beebe, Jordan Taylor and Brandon Zylstra saw first-team reps. Jeff Badet, Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson got reps with the 2s. Laquon Treadwell lurks as a fourth-year project. And UDFA Davion Davis had one of the best camps of any pass-catcher, mostly against 2s and 3s.
Considering the Vikings brought in four rookie receivers between the draft and UDFA signings, it’s conceivable that two or three of their five “vets” — Beebe, Taylor, Zylstra, Badet and Treadwell — will get cut. Mitchell and Davis looked great in the spring and contractually have multiple years of cheap team control, giving them as good a chance as holdovers like Zylstra or Badet to make the squad. The real wild card is Treadwell, who is still making rookie contract money and possesses the most NFL experience in the group. His exclusion from the first team throughout most of the spring scrimmages could indicate the team is phasing the former first-round pick out of the mix.
Devante Downs vs Kentrell Brothers vs Other Depth LBs
A lot of projections have the Vikings keeping just five linebackers, but it’s worth remembering that Minnesota has kept six each year of the Mike Zimmer era except for 2018, when they had Kentrell Brothers returning in Week 5 from a suspension. That means beyond backups Eric Wilson and rookie Cameron Smith, they are likely to hold on to an additional backer, probably one with special teams prowess.
Brothers has been a reliable option for three seasons now, but it makes sense to move on from the former Day 3 draft pick now that he enters a contract year. Downs is far healthier than he was last year coming off a knee injury and still has three seasons left under contract. Reshard Cliett had an awesome preseason in 2018 and, despite being one of the last cuts, curried enough favor to find his back on the roster this year. We don’t know much about AAF castoff Greer Martini, but if he provides elite special teams effort he should be considered.
Brett Jones vs Dakota Dozier
Boring, right? The backup guard spot? But considering the Vikings have dipped into their backup ranks for numerous starts at the guard position in recent years — Nick Easton in 2016, Jeremiah Sirles in 2017, Tom Compton in 2018 — this is significant.
Jones was with the team a year ago and probably has more knowledge of his surroundings, but considering the new coaching staff and scheme, that may have less value. Dozier is familiar with Rick Dennison from the coach’s year in New York and was brought in partly thanks to Dennison’s recommendation. Dozier was 54th in pass blocking last year, per Pro Football Focus, while Jones was kept on the Vikings bench after Pat Elflein’s return, despite the offensive line’s struggles in pass protection. Both he and Dozier are on one-year deals.
Bonus: Austin Cutting vs Kevin McDermott
Fans will be watching every snap with rapt attention now that rookie draftee Austin Cutting has officially been cleared by the Air Force to play in the NFL while he serves part-time as an Air Force recruiter.
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) May 26, 2019
By virtue of his youth, cheap contract and apparent knack for the art of long-snapping, Cutting may be favored to win this battle. Factors to consider are how efficiently he’s getting the ball to the holder and punter, whether McDermott shows any signs of deterioration and how Cutting jibes with Matt Wile and Dan Bailey. The Vikings will have an extra set of eyes on the specialists this year with part-time kicking coach Nate Kaeding.