MANKATO — The soaring passes to Stefon Diggs would wait. An announced crowd of 10,500 at Blakeslee Stadium took in the Vikings’ final night practice in Mankato after 52 years of training camp and saw… three tight ends take the field.
The Vikings’ retooled run game was at the forefront Saturday night, beginning with goal line and red zone work in 11-on-11 drills. They actually opened with some live tackling. And, perhaps to be expected, last year’s third-ranked defense controlled the line of scrimmage and kept Dalvin Cook and Jerick McKinnon from finding much room.
Thursday’s preseason opener in Buffalo will provide a better update about how the Vikings offense has progressed, but training camp practices like Saturday night put on display its run-centered approach after ranking 32nd in the league last season. And there’s room to grow about a month away from the season opener. Below are some takeaways from the practice:
The Vikings offense is looking to create on the ground and build off that production. Quarterback Sam Bradford carried out many play-action passes, including an impressive 50-yard bomb to Diggs for a touchdown as he glided past cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. Whether its Cook, McKinnon or Latavius Murray, who has yet to practice in purple while recovering from March ankle surgery, the Vikings are looking for returns on investments.
Speaking of Diggs, the Bradford-to-Diggs connection has been healthy throughout the summer. The third-year receiver looks as fast and evasive as ever and he’s one to rarely miss when Bradford makes a big throw. Diggs caught a couple long passes on Saturday night, including the 50-yard touchdown and another 25-yard grab via a deep crossing route. Diggs, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph also worked the middle of the field with contested catches.
Terence Newman is still getting some work at safety, where he lined up for Harrison Smith in the defense on Saturday night. Newman started at safety in 2015 when the Vikings were in a pinch and he’ll remain a safety valve for the secondary. On defense, linemen Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter, along with linebacker Edmond Robinson, stood out with disruptive plays in 11-on-11 sessions. Waynes pitched in a deflection, blocking another Bradford target to Diggs in the middle of the field.
Jarius Wright is still involved in the Vikings offense. Without receiver Laquon Treadwell practicing due to a leg injury, Wright was in three-receiver sets with Adam Thielen and Diggs. Now Floyd’s strong camp could mean he’s eventually going to command a large role, but as the Vikings plan the first four games without Floyd, they’ve turned to Wright in Treadwell’s stead. Wright caught perhaps Bradford’s best throw of the night, a touch pass more than 30 yards just over Wright’s shoulders as he ran a deep crossing route with Anthony Barr and Mackensie Alexander trailing close.
The specialist competitions appear close to this point. Both kickers Kai Forbath and Marshall Koehn made 3 of 4 attempts from 39, 44, 48 and 51 yards. Forbath missed from 44 yards while Koehn didn’t hit from 51 yards. Punters Taylor Symmank and Ryan Quigley each got seven attempts in team drills and the edge seemed to go to Symmank, who had better hang time. Quigley had a couple early ducks, including one 30-yard punt from his own end zone. Preseason games will loom large for both competitions.
Tight end Kyle Carter, who spent last season on the practice squad, was the third tight end in heavy personnel formations for the Vikings with Rudolph and David Morgan. Minnesota has an interesting and inexperienced group behind Rudolph at tight end, but when the Vikings needed some push they turned to Carter instead of Bucky Hodges and Nick Truesdell, a former receiver.