In one sense, the Vikings team that will begin the most substantive phase of its offseason program on Tuesday is among the NFL’s most stable groups. Nearly every meaningful contributor returns from the league’s top-ranked defense, which added Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this offseason, and an offense that was 10th in the league a year ago should benefit from the addition of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the return of running back Dalvin Cook.
It’s on the offensive side of the ball, though, where more work awaits the Vikings than would seem typical of a team that went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They have a new quarterback in Cousins, a new offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo and a couple lingering questions on an offensive line that remains in a certain state of flux even after its improvement last season.
The Vikings will hold the first of 10 organized team activities on Tuesday, before their mandatory minicamp from June 12-14. Three of the 10 OTAs, as well as the minicamp, will be open to reporters. When we’re able to see the Vikings practice, starting on Wednesday and continuing over the next four weeks, here’s what we’ll be watching:
1. Cousins’ connections
While Cousins has been able to throw with his new receivers during part of the Vikings’ offseason program, and spent time working with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in Atlanta this spring, the Vikings’ OTAs will be his first chance to do meaningful 11-on-11 work with his new offense. The Vikings thrived at times last season on Case Keenum’s ability to make plays outside the pocket; while Cousins has some mobility, broken plays don’t figure to be quite as prominent a part of his game. His ability to develop timing with Diggs, Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and others will be an important part of the next few weeks before the Vikings head into training camp.
2. DeFilippo takes the wheel
The Vikings haven’t planned to make major changes to their offense as DeFilippo takes over for Pat Shurmur, but there will undoubtedly be some new variations on offense as the former Philadelphia Eagles QB coach runs the scheme. It will especially be worth watching the Vikings’ red zone sessions during OTAs and minicamp; they made a major improvement in the red zone under Shurmur, and the Vikings hope Cousins will be more efficient in red-zone situations now that he’s working with DeFilippo, who made his mark in the red zone during his time with the Eagles. The Vikings’ red-zone work this spring won’t be a perfect indicator of their progress, since cornerbacks can’t press receivers until training camp, but it’s still worth watching.
3. Sorting out the offensive line
The Vikings have some decisions to make on the right side of their offensive line, after the retirement of right guard Joe Berger. Right tackle Mike Remmers moved to guard during the Vikings’ two playoff games, and the Vikings have contemplated the idea of keeping him there in 2018, while playing either Rashod Hill or second-round pick Brian O’Neill at right tackle. If the Vikings elect to keep Remmers at tackle, the guard job could go to a free-agent pickup like Tom Compton or Josh Andrews, or a young player like Danny Isidora. Injuries could factor into the Vikings’ OTAs and minicamp work, too; left guard Nick Easton is returning from ankle surgery, while center Pat Elflein had ankle and shoulder injuries last season.
4. Cook’s comeback
Coach Mike Zimmer has sounded optimistic about Cook, who tore his left ACL on Oct. 1 against Detroit, and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said April 24 that Cook will participate on OTAs “on a limited basis” this offseason. He seems on track to be ready for the start of the season, but the Vikings figure to exercise caution with Cook, looking to take some early work off his plate where they can. That means more offseason snaps for Latavius Murray, who missed most of the offseason program after ankle surgery last season. The Vikings also could look for another contributor to step up after Jerick McKinnon (who posted 991 yards from scrimmage last year) signed with the 49ers.
5. Hughes starts the Zimmer CB crash course
Since 2014, when Zimmer inherited Xavier Rhodes in his second season, it’s been a rite of spring to see the coach taking a young corner through an extensive — and sometimes expletive-filled — indoctrination to the Vikings’ defense. Trae Waynes followed Rhodes in 2015. It was Mackensie Alexander in 2016, and this spring, it will be first-round pick Mike Hughes, who figures to learn the Vikings’ defense from soup to nuts before pads and full-contact drills add another element in training camp. The Vikings’ depth at cornerback means they don’t need Hughes to play right away, and they’ll likely want him to learn to play both inside and outside cornerback positions, though Zimmer has occasionally decided to start his rookie corners off learning just one spot, for simplicity’s sake. Either way, the coach — who’s made his mark in the NFL especially by molding defensive backs — will have a new pupil this spring in Hughes.