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Vikings facing 'tough' roster decisions along defensive line

In 10 days, the Vikings will trim the 90-man roster by nearly half.

Some positions will make for easier decisions than others. One of the tougher areas to thin, according to head coach Mike Zimmer, will be the defensive line, which has been a strength of the roster for a couple years.

The decisions aren’t getting any easier with young players like defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and defensive ends Tashawn Bower and Ifeadi Odenigbo playing well during two preseason games.

“There’s several [defensive line] spots I think we’re going to have some tough issues and that’s why it’s good to have the fourth preseason game,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “This week will be a big week again for a lot of these guys.”

Since the first roster cut deadline was eliminated, all teams get the final preseason game (Aug. 31 for the Vikings) to evaluate everybody on the 90-man roster before making any decisions. That gives the Vikings two more exhibitions, including Sunday night vs. the 49ers, before the Sept. 2 roster cuts.

So Odenigbo, the seventh-round Northwestern product, and Bower, undrafted out of LSU, will get two more games to state their cases for a roster spot over teammates like defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Bower has two sacks this preseason. Odenigbo has been credited with a sack and a forced fumble.

Johnson, the fourth-round pick out of Iowa, was particularly impressive against the run during last week’s exhibition in Seattle. That could help his case while competing alongside defensive tackles Tom Johnson, Datone Jones, Shamar Stephen and Will Sutton for roster spots.

“Some of these young defensive linemen have looked good. Jaleel Johnson has had a couple good ball games,” Zimmer said. “Ifeadi has done a nice job in some areas. Bower, Weatherly, some of these guys. They’re showing some things we like.”

Shurmur says no limits on roles for Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray

Before seeing Latavius Murray play a game in a Vikings uniform, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur says he’s not going to limit the veteran running back’s potential role in his offense.

The same goes for rookie Dalvin Cook. When asked if Murray, listed four inches taller and 17 pounds heavier than Cook, would be more suitable for short-yardage situations, Shurmur dodged the labels.

“I think they both can play on all three downs,” Shurmur said. “From a play calling standpoint, that gives you great flexibility. It doesn’t matter who’s in there.”

The Vikings should take whichever running back produces after last year’s historically weak rushing offense. They’re expected to get a first look at Murray, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound former Raider who has been nursing a surgically-repaired ankle, during Sunday night’s preseason game against the 49ers.

Murray was a three-down back in Oakland, drawing praise for his ability to pass protect while also running effectively in short-yardage situations. He scored 12 touchdowns for the Raiders last season, including eight from 1-3 yards away, according to Pro Football Reference. The Vikings had nine rushing touchdowns as a team last season — two from Jerick McKinnon, who will also be a factor.

“[Murray] is kind of a slasher,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We had a play down there in goal line [Sunday], when he saw the cut that he had to make, he lowered his pads and accelerated into the tackler, which I thought was good.”

While the Vikings could eventually trend to using Murray near the goal line, that doesn’t mean Cook won’t get his opportunities. Cook has been used as an every-down back during two preseason games, flashing his elusiveness in Seattle, where he picked up 33 yards in one three-play stretch. He’s also taken a rookie lump or two in pass protection, but shown to be a fluid receiver out of the backfield.

“We’ve been impressed with what [Cook] has done,” Shurmur said.

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