Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he doesn’t expect to play any of the starters in the team’s final preseason game against the Titans on Thursday night, although he has no questions about running back Dalvin Cook’s availability for their Week 1 contest against the 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 9.
Zimmer said several things with the team are the same as they were a year ago, but the expectations are completely different.
“Last year, no one thought we were any good, and [now] everyone thinks we’re pretty good,” he said. “The difference is we’re going to have to play really good. We’re not going to surprise anybody, I don’t think. We’ve added a few pieces with [quarterback Kirk] Cousins and we’ve added [safety George] Iloka, [defensive tackle] Sheldon Richardson. The offensive line a year ago no one knew about, kind of like this year. We had three new guys in there — [Pat] Elflein, [Mike] Remmers and [Riley] Reiff.
“So I think every year there’s a lot of unknowns, really, but I think defensively these guys feel pretty good about where they are understanding the system, the scheme, playing together. The offense is still working on trying to get everything down pat.”
Zimmer said it’s generally three or four players who make the 53-man cut coming this week really difficult.
Who does he think has been playing well so far?
“I really like this tight end, Tyler Conklin, I think he has a chance to help us,” he said. “Getting Cook back, [running back Latavius] Murray is healthy, which he wasn’t at this time [last year]. [Linebacker] Eric Wilson has done a really nice job and he’ll help some more on special teams. [Rookie cornerback] Mike Hughes is going to end up helping us quite a bit in some areas. Hopefully the kicker [rookie Daniel Carlson] kicks better than he did the other night.”
Offensive line help?
With the trade for former Giants center Brett Jones, it’s clear Zimmer and the front office know the offensive line remains a question mark.
“It is still a work in progress,” he said. “I feel good about Remmers and Reiff, [Tom] Compton has done a nice job. Rashod Hill needs to be consistent. We’re still hopeful that Elflein gets out here pretty quick, but you know that’s part of the reason why we made the trade for Jones.”
What’s the scouting report on Jones?
“Tough guy, really smart, a good athlete … started 13 games for the Giants a year ago, has played center and guard,” Zimmer said.
How does he feel about other draft picks, such as second-round offensive tackle Brian O’Neill?
“O’Neill is getting better all the time. There is a chance that he can help us this year as the season progresses, he still has some areas to improve on,” Zimmer said. “[Defensive tackle] Jalyn Holmes shows flashes of being very good. He has to get more consistent and needs to get a little stronger. I kind of like this Devante Downs, the linebacker, seventh-round pick. I kind of like him.”
While the Vikings were the No. 1 defense last season in both total defense (275.9 yards per game) and points allowed (15.8 ppg), the one area lacking was in creating turnovers. They were tied for 23rd in the league with 19 takeaways (14 interceptions, five fumbles) while tied for 12th in turnover differential (plus-5).
“The defense has a chance to be better,” Zimmer said. “We may not be as good statistically, but we’ve been emphasizing get turnovers. We have to be able to stop the run and get them in passing situations, that is our strength — our coverage and our rush. Danielle Hunter has had an excellent spring and fall so far. He has a chance to be good, along with [Everson] Griffen.”
As for Cousins, who was hard on himself after completing 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards in a 21-20 preseason victory over the Seahawks last Friday, Zimmer still likes what he sees.
“He is pretty darn good, pretty accurate, throws the deep ball well,” he said. “He is very inquisitive, asks a lot of questions, he’s a good person. I think he is good.”
How does he feel about the team’s depth?
“Our defensive line depth is good, our secondary depth is good,” Zimmer said. “You know, I like the running back group, [Mike] Boone and Roc Thomas and Latavius and Cook and then C.J. Ham, I think that group is pretty deep. But you know, if you get the wrong guys hurt at some of the other spots, you can be in trouble.”
Cashman ready to go
As the Gophers prepare to open their 2018 season Thursday against New Mexico State, linebacker Blake Cashman is a rarity on the roster as one of only 13 seniors (eight redshirt seniors and five four-year seniors).
Cashman knows he will be asked to be one of the leaders on a defense looking to take steps forward after ranking ninth in scoring defense in the Big Ten in 2017 (22.8 points per game) and seventh in total defense (346.7 yards per game).
“The sky is the limit,” Cashman said when asked about his feelings heading into the 2018 season. “We’re very young, but very talented and we’re learning fast. I’ve never been in a fall camp where guys have been able to pick up the playbook [so quickly]. We’re moving fast, guys are getting better, and it’s fantastic to see.”
Will the Gophers improve on their 5-7 overall mark and 2-7 record in Big Ten play last season? Cashman said he thinks it’s doable.
“I hope so; I mean, I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “I think we’ll be a better team, yes. Every year, keep getting better.”
The 6-2, 235 pound Eden Prairie native said he knows the team and Gophers fans have a bad taste lingering after they were beaten 39-0 by Northwestern and 31-0 by Wisconsin to end last season.
“That’s something Coach [P.J.] Fleck has been harping on us,” Cashman said. “He has a saying: Start fast, accelerate in the middle and finish strong. That’s something we struggled with, but I’ve seen great things from our team this year and I have a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to finish games out in a great way.”
• Powers Warren, the son of Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, is a redshirt freshman tight end at Mississippi State. The 6-3, 240-pound Powers attended Minnetonka before going to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. IMG also produced Gophers QB Zack Annexstad, offensive linemen Curtis Dunlap and Daniel Faalele and receiver Brock Annexstad.
• Former Twins starter Lance Lynn seems like a different pitcher after being traded to the Yankees on July 30. Lynn was 7-8 with the Twins, including a 5.10 ERA, and averaged 5.5 walks and 8.8 per nine innings. With the Yankees, Lynn is 1-1 with a 3.98 ERA and averaging 2.6 walks and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings.