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It's rookie Dalvin Cook's backfield as Vikings ramp up practices

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For the first time Tuesday, Vikings’ top pick Dalvin Cook will line up against Linval Joseph and the rest of Mike Zimmer’s defense.

Zimmer won’t be monitoring Organized Team Activities this time, taking a few weeks to recover from the latest surgery to his right eye. But coordinators George Edwards and Pat Shurmur, along with trusted defensive line coach Andre Patterson, will have plenty to evaluate as practices intensify this week.

These voluntary OTA sessions (10 in the next three weeks) are the first of 2017′s practices to resemble actual football. Helmets can be worn. Second-year receiver Laquon Treadwell can now try his hands against Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes. And Cook, the heir apparent to Adrian Peterson, can test his knowledge of the playbook in the first 11-on-11 drills.

Still, no pads outside of protective knee and elbow gear are allowed. No live contact is permitted.

The Vikings practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week with Wednesday’s session open to reporters. Below are some keys for the Vikings as they begin the most important part of their offseason to date.

Find a rhythm to the run game: Schematic and personnel tweaks to last year’s last-placed running game will finally take shape as Cook, the 41st-overall pick, will start his bid for the Vikings backfield without his biggest competitor. Veteran Latavius Murray isn’t expected to be ready until training camp after undergoing ankle surgery in March. So Cook should get plenty of important reps behind a revamped offensive line. That should give the rookie a solid foundation ahead of the real competition in training camp.

Produce a tentative starting five, build chemistry: Riley Reiff, the Vikings’ $58.75 million man, will take over at left tackle after Matt Kalil’s five years in Minnesota came to an end this offseason. That’s one of four spots you can pencil in along the offensive line with Reiff, left guard Alex Boone, rookie center Pat Elflein and right tackle Mike Remmers. Veteran Joe Berger figures to take the lead at right guard, where he could face a handful of challengers, including Jeremiah Sirles, Danny Isidora and Zac Kerin.

Bring second-year draftees along: Focus will be on this year’s rookies, but don’t forget about last year’s quiet draft class. Treadwell will need to put an injury-marred rookie campaign behind in a crowded receiver room. The Vikings have 12 receivers under contract, all ages 21-27, with veteran Michael Floyd directly competing with Treadwell at split end. Floyd had the remainder of his house arrest transferred from Arizona to Minnesota, allowing him to join the Vikings right away this week. Mackensie Alexander, returning from groin surgery, will also be under the spotlight as he’s tasked with taking over a key role as slot cornerback.

Who’s the leader at defensive tackle?: With Sharrif Floyd’s long-term playing future uncertain, the Vikings brought in former Packers defender Datone Jones, drafted Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson and could even return Pro Bowl end Everson Griffen to his interior pass rush role with the emergence of Danielle Hunter at end. The Vikings have a supremely talented defensive line, but they may have to make do without a former first-round pick.

Sharpen the backup quarterbacks: As Teddy Bridgewater continues his long road in recovery, the backup job behind Sam Bradford is an open competition between third-year passer Taylor Heinicke and free-agent addition Case Keenum. Either can get a foothold on the job ahead of training camp with how they throw in the next few weeks.

Get a read on specialists: The exit of Cordarrelle Patterson will be missed most in the return game. Fifth-round receiver Rodney Adams may be the leader in the locker room with veteran punt returner Marcus Sherels a solid fallback option for coordinator Mike Priefer. Competitions at punter and kicker will also continue with both Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke on different teams. Kai Forbath will try to ward off Marshall Koehn and veteran punter Ryan Quigley gets another shot to stick in the NFL against the young Taylor Symmank.

Zimmer taking time away from Vikings after another eye surgery

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Coach Mike Zimmer, who last Wednesday had yet another surgery on his right eye, “will be taking time away from the team to dedicate to recovering from eye surgery and restoring his health,” General Manager Rick Spielman announced in a statement this morning.

“We all agree Mike’s health is the priority and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term,” Spielman.

The Vikings anticipate Zimmer “back on the field in a few weeks.”

Zimmer over the weekend revealed that he had another surgery last week and shrugged when asked if it would be the last. The 60-year-old has now undergone eight surgeries on his right eye since last November.

He missed the team’s game against the Dallas Cowboys last December following emergency eye surgery for a detached retina. And his vision issues in the eye have carried over into the offseason. At the NFL scouting combine in March, he told a reporter who was sitting a few feet away from him that “I can make you out, but you’re blurry.”

Zimmer has since undergone four more surgeries, three unplanned.

Zimmer said in March that doctors told him there is “a high likelihood” that he will experience similar issues in his left eye someday.

Zimmer has tried to maintain a sense of humor about his eye problems when speaking publicly. And he was again active in the scouting process this offseason, hitting the road with Spielman to attend pro days and work out players. But after his latest eye surgery, it was decided by either Zimmer or the Vikings that he needs to be away from the team.

The Vikings have not made Zimmer available to local reporters following their announcement that he needed to leave the team. But they did arrange for him to appear on KFAN, their official radio partner, this morning.

Zimmer, who admitted to “pushing back” when doctors recommended he take time off, will spend the coming weeks at his ranch in Kentucky.

“The doctors all got together and we had a long meeting about what’s the best recuperation of this eye and they said that I need to try to spend the next couple of weeks just working on my recovery,” Zimmer said. “I just left the doctor’s office, got really good news. The retina looks great and the pressure in my eye is really good. At this point now we just need to take it easy and make sure it continues to heal the right away.”

Zimmer said that during a recheck “a couple days” after he had surgery to put an oxygen bubble in the eye on April 17, doctors told him that he had developed a cataract. So he had a follow-up procedure to remove the cataract and put more oil back in the eye.

But that oil made the pressure in his eye “very, very high,” so much that the doctors were concerned he could develop glaucoma. So another surgery was needed to take the oil out and put more oxygen back in.

In his latest appointment with his doctors, he was told the retina is now totally attached and “looks great” and pressure in the eye is down.

“This is probably the best it’s ever been and if I don’t screw it up by going out and yelling at players and doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, then I think this will be the best development we’ve had,” Zimmer said.

While special teams coordinator Mike Priefer oversaw the team while Zimmer was sidelined for that December loss to the Cowboys, the plan is for the entire coaching staff to split up his duties in the coming weeks. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson will take on a larger leadership role, making sure Zimmer’s message continues to get across to the players.

Zimmer said the coaches will send him video of practice for him to evaluate and he will communicate with them and provide feedback daily.

This is the first week for organized team activities (OTAs) as the Vikings’ voluntary offseason workout program reaches its third and final phase.

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