To many, the Vikings’ final preseason game Thursday night in Nashville might seem like the most inconsequential of their 20 scheduled contests this season.
Most of the Vikings’ prominent starters, from quarterback Kirk Cousins on down the roster, figure to sit out against the Tennessee Titans. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian likely will start before giving way to Kyle Sloter and Peter Pujals, while most of the Vikings’ core players don baseball caps and watch from the sidelines.
To the players whose employment status with the team beyond Thursday remains uncertain, though, the game is anything but trivial.
“To them, it is the Super Bowl,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “They have to go out and play hard. They have to play to the best of their ability and prepare themselves for Week 1. They could be somewhere else or not in the NFL at all. They have to go out and play hard. I am going to put the onus on them that they have to play fast and physical, cut it loose and go have some fun.”
The members of Priefer’s units might have the most at stake. The Vikings often use special teams as a key criterion in final decisions between players on the fringes of the roster, and they will be looking to end the preseason on a better note after allowing a punt return TD in the first preseason game, a long punt return in the second and another return TD that was called back because of a penalty in the third.
Priefer said one of his strengths as a special teams coordinator has been devising drills to fix problems in practice, and the Vikings will look to shore up some of their issues with players for whom special teams might be the ticket to a roster spot.
“The young guys have done better in the past in the preseason,” Priefer said. “I’m sure I have to do a better job coaching. Absolutely that is part of it. Our guys have to step up and play better. I think it’s a combination of the two things.”
It won’t just be on special teams where players can make a final impression Thursday night.
Running back Mike Boone, who has stood out in the team’s past two preseason games after Roc Thomas excelled in the Vikings’ opener, can make a bid to lock down the No. 3 running back spot behind Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Players in the Vikings’ deep group of defensive linemen can take one more opportunity to assert themselves.
The Vikings undoubtedly will have a close eye on Brett Jones, the center they acquired in a trade with the Giants this week, and they still need to iron out the bottom of their receiver depth chart, where injuries to Stacy Coley and Brandon Zylstra have kept those players from building on the momentum they created during the spring and summer.
“Obviously, it’s a whole body of work,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “But there’s been guys that have done a nice job in practices and stuff that get to the final game and they play well and they end up making the team.”
Once the Vikings return from Nashville early Friday morning, they will begin evaluations in earnest before cutting the roster down to 53 players by Saturday afternoon. Some decisions, Zimmer said, could be affected by whether the Vikings think they can stash a player on their practice squad, or the depth of a particular position around the league as a whole.
And the roster the Vikings submit Saturday could go through a few more iterations if their decision-makers see something they like while rifling through another team’s cuts.
“Even though the cuts come out Saturday, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the final roster,” Zimmer said. “You’re going to be looking for everybody else’s cuts. There will still be some trades being made, I’m sure. A lot of this is still fluid.”
For players on the bubble, though, their closing argument comes Thursday — and that means the game is anything but inconsequential.
“I think all of these guys are going to come out and play hard and anticipate,” Zimmer said. “Most of them know they are fighting for jobs now so the intensity and everything like that won’t change one bit.”