Vikings defensive linemen are spending more time on their feet during Organized Team Activity practices this spring.
The third and final practice open to reporters on Tuesday, before next week’s June 11-13 mandatory minicamp that ends the offseason program, showed more glimpses of defensive adjustments head coach Mike Zimmer has discussed since last season ended.
Defensive tweaks have stayed on Zimmer’s mind this spring.
“The coaches don’t particularly like it when I go away and watch tape by myself,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “The other day I was coming back from Memorial Day, I guess it was. I called a defensive meeting at 6:30 in the morning — and I was on the plane — because I didn’t like how something was looking.”
Zimmer said he spent down time this offseason studying other NFL defenses to pick up ideas. He looked at how other defenses countered plays the Vikings saw often last season, a year in which Minnesota dropped from first to ninth in points allowed.
“Some of the things we’re doing are because [of] how the offenses are moving now in this league and the things they’re trying to do, trying to scheme you,” Zimmer said. “Part of that is we always try to stay one step ahead of things. Now is the time to look at things, get practice at it, whether it’s a different technique or personnel group or different alignments, different blitzes.”
From Everson Griffen to Stephen Weatherly, Vikings defensive linemen could have a handful of roles in 2019. Dropping into coverage and standing over center before the snap are assignments we’ve seen from defensive linemen during 11-on-11 drills in OTAs. Weatherly, entering his fourth and final year under contract, is among the most intriguing. The Vanderbilt product learned a lot from retired Vikings end Brian Robison, and it appears he could play a similar role as a stand-up pass rusher roaming around the line of scrimmage.
“I anticipate he’ll have a much larger role for us this year,” Zimmer said of Weatherly. “You can just see he’s much more confident in what he’s doing.”
Defensive line depth, featuring Jaleel Johnson to Hercules Mata’afa, has some intrigue. The Vikings boast promising, yet inexperienced, depth behind established D-line starters. The one making the most noise so far (before strapping on pads in late July) is the second-year Mata’afa, who is recovered from a torn ACL that ended his rookie season in June last year. He’s up 20 pounds, to 275, to combat the “undersized” label that likely led to him being undrafted despite 22.5 tackles for a loss in his last season at Washington. Mata’afa now has earned the occasional first-team rep on defense this spring as he tries to make the team as a three-technique defensive tackle.
Mata’afa showed his agility when he looped by center Garrett Bradbury during an 11-on-11 session. Mata’afa halted in front of Cousins (clad in a red, no-contact jersey), who quickly threw a pass that hit Bradbury in the face.
Competition at end will eventually increase whenever Tashawn Bower returns from offseason ankle surgery. In his stead, Ifeadi Odenigbo has seen a lot of second-team work at defensive end.
Kyle Rudolph returned (after missing one OTA to attend a charity event) and caught two touchdowns from Kirk Cousins. The Vikings’ first-team offense ended both of its goal-line drills with touchdowns as Cousins found Rudolph on quick strikes. Safety Harrison Smith blitzed on the first throw, which Cousins released in time to Rudolph on a slant route. On the next series, Rudolph’s touchdown came in the back of the end zone over rookie corner Kris Boyd.
Quarterback Sean Mannion remained the No. 2 behind Cousins, while Jake Browning and Kyle Sloter took reps behind him. For the second straight OTA open to reporters, Browning took all of the third-team reps instead of Sloter, who did not throw a pass in 11-on-11 drills. The Vikings continue to give a lot of work to Browning, whom they guaranteed $130,000 out of Washington to compete for a job on the roster.
Mannion threw the play of the day to receiver Jordan Taylor, who on the first play of a goal-line period caught a leaping, tiptoe touchdown over cornerback Duke Thomas. The play was close enough that defenders argued to practice officials about whether Taylor’s second foot was in bounds.
Speaking of arguing, remember our note about Eric Kendricks being the most hyped player this spring? The linebacker had a funny moment Tuesday during a two-minute drill. On the first play, Cousins found fullback C.J. Ham for a quick screen to gain 10-plus yards. When Ham fell and rolled out of bounds to stop the clock, Kendricks animatedly stated his case to an official for why Ham was in bounds and therefore the clock (at 1:50 left) needed to keep rolling. Safety Harrison Smith quickly reminded Kendricks “it doesn’t matter.”
The Vikings defense won the round, anyway. After Cousins overthrew receiver Chad Beebe down the seam, he looked for Beebe again. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander deflected that pass, ending the two-minute drill.
Kicker Dan Bailey converted 5 of 6 field goal attempts during team drills, missing only his first try from 33 yards away. Bailey, who is working with newly-hired kicking consultant Nate Kaeding this summer, made the rest of his field goals ranging from 33 to 50 yards.
Receiver Stefon Diggs’ absence again opened lanes for a young and unproven receiver group. Taylor, as mentioned, continued to get a lot of reps with the first-team offense, as did Beebe and Laquon Treadwell. They were the primary three mixing with receiver Adam Thielen. Diggs has been in and out of the Vikings’ Eagan headquarters since players reported for voluntary work in April. His absence only potentially costs him a $100,000 workout bonus, which is tied to his participation this spring pending team consent to miss time. The Vikings expect Diggs to report for next week’s mandatory minicamp.