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With Vikings training camp getting underway on Wednesday, 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.
We already broke down the offensive side of the ball, which features a couple rookies looking to beat out veterans for starting spots on the offensive line and interesting competition for key backup jobs across the board.
Now it’s time to head over to defense, where rookies may not be quite as much of a factor. The only competition for starting spots on a defense loaded with veterans appears to be at the cornerback and defensive end spots opposite Patrick Peterson and Danielle Hunter, respectively, but there are plenty of important depth roles up for grabs as well.
Let’s get to it.
Projecting the Vikings’ 53-Man Roster and Practice Squad Ahead of Training Camp
The battles that matter most
Starting right defensive end: D.J. Wonnum vs. Stephen Weatherly vs. Patrick Jones II
The Vikings’ defense, at least on paper, is stacked with talent. They’ve got All-Pro-type players at all three levels and plenty of depth after complimenting the return of several stars who missed 2020 with an offseason free agent bonanza. However, the one area that is still a serious question mark is the pass rush. Danielle Hunter is back and it sounds like he’s healthy and ready to go, and Sheldon Richardson will make things happen from the interior on passing downs. But who else is going to step up and put pressure on quarterbacks? The competition for the DE spot opposite Hunter is an important one.
Wonnum might be the favorite after a solid rookie year in which the long, explosive fourth-rounder posted 22 pressures and three sacks. He still has a lot of growth to do in order to be capable of being a productive full-time player, so he’s someone to watch during training camp. The upside is certainly there, but Wonnum missed plenty of tackles last year and is still developing as a pass rusher. Weatherly is the safer option as a veteran who knows the system and can play against the run. Then, behind Door 3, there are middle-round rookies Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson. Of the two, Jones is definitely more pro-ready and could be a legit factor in this competition with a big-time camp. The third-rounder had 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles over his last two seasons at Pitt. It would be very surprising if Robinson — who is oozing with potential but needs a lot of molding — or a fringe player (Hercules Mata’afa, Jordan Brailford, Jalyn Holmes, etc.) won this job.
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Starting outside cornerback: Cameron Dantzler vs. Bashaud Breeland
I’m going to operate under the assumption that Patrick Peterson has one of the outside cornerback spots locked up. He wasn’t particularly effective last year, but he’s a future Hall of Famer who Mike Zimmer says had a “really good spring” and seems rejuvenated by a change of scenery. Zimmer will also use him differently, putting him in more zone situations instead of having him shadow elite receivers across the field.
With Mackensie Alexander in the slot, that leaves Dantzler and Breeland battling for the other outside spot. Both players will surely see the field plenty this year, but one of them will earn a significant playing time advantage to start the season. They both dealt with some injuries this spring, which means they’ll start training camp on a level playing field. Dantzler was more up than down as a rookie, putting together some incredible games in December after a slow start and a couple minor injuries. Still just 22 years old, his length and stickiness give him the chance to become a really good player. Breeland is legit, though. The 29-year-old has excellent ball skills and has seen a thing or two in the league, which Zimmer might value. This will be a good one.
No. 3 linebacker: Nick Vigil vs. Troy Dye vs. Chazz Surratt vs. Cameron Smith
Although the 4-3 is called “base” defense, the Vikings’ true base is nickel with Alexander out there as the fifth defensive back. There will still be plenty of downs where they need a third linebacker, particularly early downs where the threat of the run is much higher, so this competition is worth watching even if it’s not quite as critical as the first two I’ve discussed. Vigil is the favorite because of his experience playing under Paul Guenther and his all-around skillset, but he’ll be pushed by the young guys. I just don’t know if raw youngsters Surratt and Dye — or Smith coming off missing a year due to open-heart surgery — will be able to show enough to win this battle. The most interesting player here is Surratt, the ultra-athletic QB-turned-LB who was the Vikings’ top draft pick on defense this year.