The Vikings head into another full week with their last afternoon practice in Mankato today. Time sure goes fast when the road trip to Mankato lasts only 10 practice days and two off days.
Last week, I offered up five observations, led off by Everson Griffen standing out as the Beast O’ Camp Award winner. Today, let’s look at five under-the-radar players I’m anxious to see in the preseason:
1. Scott Crichton. I get the switch from defensive end to tackle. The other ends the Vikings have are quicker and can separate from tackles much better than Crichton. He leans into contact and seems to spend too much time dancing with the O-lineman.
But I don’t see the move to tackle greatly improving Crichton’s chances of making the team unless a spark goes off in his game. He’s a third-round draft pick, 72nd overall in 2014. Yet he’s had an invisible career to this point. It’s not over, but the fork in the road awaits.
If Crichton takes the wrong turn, don’t slam the Vikings too hard for making a poor third-round choice. Remember, a year later, they took Hunter in the third round. And Hunter’s early career arc has him looking more like a first-rounder.
2. Antone Exum. Coach Mike Zimmer is a noted defensive backs whisperer. He builds young players and salvages old players. But watching him deal with and talk about Exum, I wonder if Exum is one of those nuts that will be too tough to crack. I get the sense that the team wishes Exum believed in himself as much as the team believes in him.
Exum was a sixth-round pick in 2014. So we’re not talking real high expectations under normal conditions. But the Vikings have spent two-plus seasons practically begging the more physically gifted Exum to seize control of the starting strong safety job next to Harrison Smith. But Exum has been too inconsistent. And based on Zimmer’s public comments about Exum, the inconsistencies are mental errors, not physical.
As a side note, as this strong safety situation enters its third season, I can’t help but admire Andrew Sendejo, who’s like a pitbull with his jaws around the position. He has holes in his game, but he’s not letting go of the job until someone puts him down.
3. Brandon Watts. I barely remembered he was still on the team when Zimmer singled out the third-year outside linebacker in a practice last week. Zimmer wasn’t unhappy, to say the least, when Watts got caught inside and didn’t fulfill his outside responsibilities on back-to-back snaps. In colorful language in front of a packed grandstand of fans and reporters, Zimmer told Watts that he had made the same mistake the day before.
The fact that Watts is still on the team with little production to show for it says Zimmer still believes in him. And admonishing him in front of everybody wasn’t done to earn Zimmer the cheers he got. My guess is it was his way of making darn sure that a good athlete remembers that it takes a lot more to succeed at this level than athleticism. I’m thinking Watts studied his assignments a little harder that night.
4. Michael Griffin. He’s not the first older defensive back to come to camp under the widespread belief that he’ll win a starting job. I remember assuming that of Zack Bowman and Chris Carr a few years back, and Chris Crocker in Zimmer’s first season. None of those guys survived the final cuts.
Griffin is 31. He’s a former first-round draft pick who had a good career in Tennessee. Can he still play? I have no idea. He hasn’t gotten much action with the first unit and hasn’t stood out so far.
That’s not to say he won’t stand out and start. A 10-year veteran can ease into the pool, so to speak, rather than leap into it from the second-story balcony like a rookie. I think the preseason games will tell a lot as to how much tread is left on Griffin’s tires and whether it’s good enough to beat out Sendejo.
5. David Morgan. Like everyone else, I’m intrigued by what we’re about to see from German-born receiver Moritz Bohringer. But the real rookie sixth-round draft pick to watch probably is Morgan, a tight end who appears to be doing a lot of what Rhett Ellison does when Rhett isn’t recovering from torn patellar tendons.
Morgan, who went to Texas-San Antonio, doesn’t look overmatched blocking on the line and from out of the backfield. At 6-4, 265, he looks versatile and seems to have better-than-advertised hands.
Ellison is one of the most underrated players on the team. Morgan might be able to help in a lot of ways until Ellison returns.