However brief, Kirk Cousins is expected to make his long-awaited Vikings debut on Saturday night in Denver. Thus starts the clock on 2018 — and the immediate hyper-comparative analysis of Cousins to Broncos’ quarterback Case Keenum, who will face the team he led to the NFC Championship Game last season.
It will be hard to resist. But, it’d be wise to temper expectations just a bit.
Last year’s starters opened the preseason with just 10 and 11 snaps on offense and defense. The early snaps of an exhibition opener can be misleading. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo isn’t expected to show much of what his offense will look like in Minnesota.
“Looking back at my preseasons, personally, I don’t know if it is a very good indicator of how the season plays out,” Cousins said. “I know in 2016 we [Washington] did not really get our offense going but almost threw for 5,000 yards during the regular season.”
Still, there is plenty of intrigue that awaits. Running back Dalvin Cook, 10 months removed from ACL surgery, is expected to play in the preseason, according to coach Mike Zimmer, but it’s not clear when he will suit up for exhibition reps. Cook, the projected starter, may have to wait. For many others, these moments can propel long-shot players onto an NFL roster, whether it’s with the Vikings or another team.
The Vikings will get to more closely examine their depth — and they’ll get a chance to see which players might separate themselves in vying for primary roles. There’s a lot to see beyond Cousins.
1. How ready are these reserve offensive linemen?
Three starters — right guard Mike Remmers (ankle), center Pat Elflein (shoulder/ankle) and left guard Nick Easton (neck/back) — are not expected to play. Easton is likely to miss the entire season after undergoing neck surgery to correct a herniated disc. Their absences leave ample opportunity for backups to show how much they can be counted on.
Easton had moved from left guard to center to fill in for Elflein, who is currently on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Now with both players out, once-third-string center Cornelius Edison enters this game as the starting center until Elflein returns. Edison will face veteran nose tackle Domata Peko, whom Zimmer coached in Cincinnati for six seasons. Keep your eyes fixed on Tom Compton, who will get the first nod at left guard, where he could start all season. Behind the top group, tackles Brian O’Neill and Aviante Collins demand attention. O’Neill, the second-round pick, will be taking his first NFL snaps.
2. Will the kicker job be decided quickly?
The Vikings traded up to draft kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round, yet veteran Kai Forbath remains on the roster as insurance. Zimmer declined to share his plan for how the kickers will play in Denver, but it’s assumed they’ll each get chances against the Broncos. They’ve oscillated the lead in practices. Carlson, who set 14 kicking records at Auburn, made more field goals in the spring. Yet Forbath, an 86 percent career field goal kicker, has been more even in camp and outdid the rookie in a practice this week. Lopsided results in preseason games could decide the competition sooner than later.
3. Can receivers step up behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs?
Camp standout receiver Brandon Zylstra is recovering from an injury suffered in practice Wednesday and might not play. His ailment is described as “minor,” according to a source, but he might have a leg up on making the team anyway. The New London-Spicer graduate has been put on nearly every special-teams unit in practice. Barring a disappointing preseason, he should take roster spot four, five or six on the receiver depth chart. Who else can step up? Laquon Treadwell enters a pivotal third year as the No. 3 receiver. Veteran Kendall Wright needs to earn that job or risk being inactive insurance on Sundays. Also keep an eye on unproven talent Stacy Coley, Cayleb Jones and Tavarres King.
4. What shape will the defensive line rotation take?
Newcomer Sheldon Richardson is expected to solidify the under tackle position, giving the Vikings a hyper-talented, and expensive, defensive line. Yet it seems Zimmer talks annually about getting a better rotation. This year, the backups — especially at defensive tackle — are unproven. Watch for Jaleel Johnson, who could start for Linval Joseph; the veteran nose tackle nursed an undisclosed injury this week. Johnson, if he takes a leap in his second season, can play a pivotal role as the No. 3 defensive tackle. Ifeadi Odenigbo has moved from end to tackle. Young ends Stephen Weatherly, Tashawn Bower and Ade Aruna are all playing for snaps in the rotation.
5. Where will Mike Hughes fit in?
Special-teams snaps are perhaps the best indicator of which youngsters are in line to make the team. Cornerback Mike Hughes, the 30th overall pick, is obviously a lock. So you’ll see him backed up to return kickoffs and possibly punts as the Vikings figure out his range. Ball security has been a focus during practice, since Hughes showed up with some bad habits from college. He’ll also get his first NFL snaps as a slot and outside cornerback. His play, particularly in the slot, could determine if he’s the top backup corner during his rookie season.