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With Vikings training camp getting underway next week, it’s time to go through all of the team’s notable position battles to watch on offense, defense, and special teams. These can range from two players competing for a starting spot to a wide group of players hoping to earn a key backup job.
First up is the offensive side of the ball, where the Vikings have eight or nine starters set — depending on what personnel grouping they’re in — but a couple spots up for grabs and tons of upcoming competition for depth roles. This was an explosive, efficient offense in 2020 that could be even better with some improvement on the offensive line, so that’s where we’ll start.
Projecting the Vikings’ 53-Man Roster and Practice Squad Ahead of Training Camp
The battles that matter most
Starting left tackle: Christian Darrisaw vs. Rashod Hill
Ever since the Vikings drafted Darrisaw 23rd overall this year, most people have assumed that the highly-touted Virginia Tech product will immediately take over for Riley Reiff as Kirk Cousins’ blindside protector. Despite Mike Zimmer cautioning that Darrisaw will have to earn his spot like everyone else, the line of thinking has been that he shouldn’t have much trouble beating out a career backup in Hill.
Although I do believe Darrisaw will be the Week 1 starter at left tackle, Zimmer wasn’t saying that just to say it. The rookie was running with the second team during OTAs and minicamp and will continue doing so to begin camp. He’ll have to prove capable and effective at both pass protection and run-blocking — and show a willingness to finish blocks through the whistle — in order to leap ahead of Hill on the depth chart. Darrisaw’s upside is immense, but it can take rookie linemen a little while to learn the playbook and adjust to the speed and strength of the NFL game. Hill is a solid veteran who has improved steadily over his time in Minnesota, and there’s a real scenario in which the Vikings feel more comfortable with him out there to start the regular season.
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Starting right guard: Wyatt Davis vs. Dakota Dozier vs. Mason Cole
Left tackle isn’t the only spot on the offensive line where the Vikings will have a rookie competing against a veteran (or two) that he should theoretically be able to beat out. Although Davis was a third-round pick, not a first-rounder, the Vikings’ incumbent options at right guard aren’t as talented as Hill, so the competition is similar. There’s Dozier, who started all 16 games last year (at left guard) and was quite possibly the worst offensive lineman in the NFL to do so. Then there’s Cole, the former Cardinals center who was picked up in a trade this offseason and might have some real upside at guard. Dru Samia or Kyle Hinton could also theoretically factor into this competition, but that seems unlikely.
From a talent perspective, there’s no reason why Davis shouldn’t win this job, unless Cole really surprises. The Ohio State product was a steal with the 86th pick due to his prowess as a pass blocker, athleticism in the run game, and ability to consistently pick up stunts. But after the Vikings trotted out Dozier every week in 2020, you never know what they’ll do at the guard position.
No. 3 wide receiver: Chad Beebe vs. Bisi Johnson vs. Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Update: The Vikings have signed veteran WR Dede Westbrook, who is now the favorite to win this competition.
It’s been discussed at length this offseason, but the WR3 job isn’t quite as important for the Vikings as it is for most NFL teams. Minnesota ranked dead last in 2020 in its rate of personnel groupings with at least three receivers, frequently using fullback C.J. Ham or a second tight end as its 11th player. With that said, it’s still a significant role. Even though the Vikings ran the least 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) of any team last year, it was their most common personnel grouping, just like it was for every other team. Whoever wins this job will play a solid number of snaps every week and receive at least a few targets in most games.
The incumbents are Beebe and Johnson, two serviceable but unspectacular players who finished with lines of 20/201/2 and 14/189/0 last season, respectively. You know what you’re going to get from Beebe, a prototypical undersized slot receiver who can usually generate separation over the middle and has fairly reliable hands. He’s not going to do anything remarkable or impress with his quickness, but he’s a veteran who Kirk Cousins and the coaching staff trust to be where he’s supposed to be. Johnson is four years younger and has more size than Beebe, so he may have a higher ceiling. The former seventh-rounder is also faster than Beebe and can go up and get the ball, but he’s not as suited for work in the slot Johnson filled in decently as an outside receiver when Thielen missed time in 2019, recording nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.
The newcomer to watch is Smith-Marsette, who the Vikings drafted in the fifth round. There’s reason to believe that he was held back by his quarterback play at Iowa, and despite that, he still showed plenty of flashes of exciting playmaking ability during his college career. If Smith-Marsette is up to speed on the intricacies of the playbook and has refined his route-running a bit, he could win this job by bringing an extra dimension of explosiveness that Beebe and Johnson simply don’t have. It just depends on how quickly he can demonstrate consistency and earn trust. Second-year player K.J. Osborn and UDFAs like Blake Proehl and Whop Philyor would need to really impress in camp to even sniff the WR3 job.