Coach Mike Zimmer, Vikings players and surely their NFL opponents are well aware of the lofty expectations and targets on their purple-clad backs entering the 2018 season.
As the Vikings held the first full-team practice of training camp Saturday, a loaded roster saw cameras from nearly every major national and state media outlet dot the sidelines of the new Eagan practice fields. Whether this attention affects the Super Bowl chase remains to be seen.
“I think it’s [the players’] job to come out and perform well enough so we exceed expectations,” Zimmer said Saturday. “It’s probably my job to talk about how bad we’re going to be as opposed to them. I think having good players and having high expectations is a good thing. It’s bad for coaches, but it’s good for the fans and everybody else.”
The Vikings’ foundational changes will determine much of this season’s successes or failures. A roster returning 19 of 22 starters from a year ago still underwent an evolution of key players, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and coordinator John DeFilippo.
On Day 1, Zimmer didn’t set the sights much farther than a pad-free July practice. The Vikings coach came away feeling good about the players’ “professional” approach. The coaching staff will first convene to evaluate the start of camp on Wednesday, the players’ first day off following four practices.
“If the spring carries over from what they did,” Zimmer said, “to where we are hoping to continue to go, I think this will be a good football team. We are going to have to play good and eliminate the things that are going to get you beat and all that. I feel good about where we are on Day 1 of no pads. How’s that?”
No longer will Case Keenum, Jerick McKinnon and Adam Thielen catch opponents by surprise. With Cousins under center, running back Dalvin Cook returning from injury and Thielen a top-flight receiver, Thielen is embracing the fact opponents can’t overlook last season’s 13-win team.
“You love having people want to play their best against you,” Thielen said. “And that’s what we’re going to get. And that’s exciting.”
Members of the NFL’s reigning No. 1 defense deflected talk about repeating in 2018. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes claimed “no,” they don’t set such goals: “We just talk about the plays, helping the rookies out and playing ball,” Rhodes said.
Defensive end Everson Griffen, a team captain, echoed Zimmer’s team message about starting 0-0 following the NFC Championship Game collapse in Philadelphia only six months ago.
“Teams, they may get to the NFC championship and then 12 years later, coach can be in the league 12 years and never make another one,” Griffen said. “Doesn’t matter if you made it to the NFC championship, the Super Bowl or anything like that. The only thing that matters is what you’re doing today to get better to win games.”
What Griffen did Saturday was line up at right defensive end and battle with left tackle Riley Reiff, a good sign after the Vikings’ sack leader nursed a minor knee injury this spring. Reiff chuckled at the notion of outside expectations being sensed in the building. “We go up against a pretty good defense out here at practice,” Reiff said. “We worry about them.”
The Vikings’ offensive makeover was the darling of the offseason, but the defense should command the tallest expectations, given the group’s continuity and offseason investments such as first-round cornerback Mike Hughes and a free-agency prize in Richardson.
Richardson is expected to provide the type of push up the middle Zimmer hasn’t had much of since he left Geno Atkins in Cincinnati. The former Jets first-round pick had just transitioned to 4-3 defensive tackle last season after being shipped to Seattle in September. He’s enjoying the “big difference” an entire offseason can make at one position.
The real tests begin Monday, when the Vikings can finally strap on the pads and play football.
“Some teams are different,” Richardson said. “But they’re real excited around here for pads.”