The Vikings wrapped up their spring workouts yesterday with a cookout after coach Mike Zimmer decided they had worked hard enough and looked good enough the past few weeks to cancel Thursday’s practice.
In all, the Vikings had 11 practices in the past four weeks. Nine of them were of the OTA variety. Then the two minicamp practices this week.
Unfortunately, we only had access to five total practices, so we cannot give you a complete snapshot of what has gone down at Winter Park. But we did see enough and hear enough, both at the podium and in private conversations, to give you 10 takeaways from Vikings spring workouts.
1. A couple of weeks ago, Zimmer, without prompting, praised third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for an improved deep ball this spring. He doubled down when asked about it on Tuesday. But in the five practices that were open to the media, I do not recall Bridgewater connecting on any bombs in team drills. He only chucked a few of them, once overthrowing sixth-round pick Moritz Boehringer, who is 6-foot-4 and can fly. This is not to say that I think Zimmer is fibbing about Bridgewater’s improvement in that area. I’m just saying that in a pretty small sample size for us media folks I didn’t see it. That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing Bridgewater let it rip deep during training camp and possibly in the preseason, too.
2. The wide receiver who popped out most during spring workouts was Charles Johnson, who got the bulk of the first-team reps at split end. Take Wednesday’s minicamp practice for example. In an 11-on-11 red-zone drill, Bridgewater lobbed a pretty pass to the back right corner of the end zone. Johnson made a leaping catch and tapped down two feet for the touchdown. Later, in a feisty team drill, Johnson ran a sharp dig route on third down and moved the chains with a catch in traffic, leading to loud cheers from his offensive teammates and groans from defenders. I still think top pick Laquon Treadwell, who had a solid spring with the second team, will be the Week 1 starter. But Johnson did well this spring to suggest to the coaching staff that the guy they saw late in 2014 might still exist.
3. Sifting through all the coachspeak this spring, the comment that was probably the most noteworthy was Zimmer saying he has not seen many mental errors from fourth-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Zimmer has consistently been blunt in his assessment of Patterson, admitting in the past that the 2013 first-round pick too often botched his assignment. Patterson appears to be more focused and we will see if that translates to actual games. At the very least, it seems the coaching staff is committed to trying to get him the ball on offense here and there. In each of the two minicamp practices, Patterson got a touch in an unconventional way.
4. NFL teams are not permitted to practice in pads during the spring, so it is dangerous to draw any conclusions about offensive line play. But I can say this: It sounds like the open competition along the offensive line and the addition of Tony Sparano as their position coach has lit a fire under any of the returning offensive linemen who needed one to be lit. The battles there during training camp are going to be fascinating, particularly at center and right tackle. John Sullivan and Joe Berger took turns with the first-team offense at center and it seems like there was a pretty even split between right tackles Andre Smith and Phil Loadholt, too.
5. The absence of pads and the lack of tackling also made it difficult to evaluate Adrian Peterson as a shotgun runner. But he did make a couple of impressive plays as a pass-catcher, including a nice cut and catch during a red-zone drill on Tuesday’s first day of minicamp. That said, being skeptical of any praise of Peterson in the passing game would be totally reasonable considering he is entering his 10th season in the league. We’ll see what he does in the games. Jerick McKinnon, on the other hand, figures to be more involved in the gameplan this season. He looked good this spring.
6. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes didn’t take that big leap forward last season, in part because he was plagued by penalties early on and it appeared to take him a while to get back to playing with complete confidence. After working out with All-Pro receivers Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. early in the offseason, Rhodes was locked in throughout the spring here in Minnesota, giving hope that a big leap forward might still be coming.
7. Speaking of the secondary, Zimmer this spring trotted out the same five guys in the secondary that he did throughout the 2015 season. Rhodes and Terence Newman were the corners in the base defense with Captain Munnerlyn manning the slot in the nickel package. Andrew Sendejo was the safety next to Harrison Smith as free-agent addition Michael Griffin tried to get up to speed with the playbook. I’m eager to see if 2015 top pick Trae Waynes is ready to push Newman to start at left cornerback. And the competition at safety likely won’t be decided until September.
8. When it comes to that battle to start at strong safety, don’t forget about third-year safety Antone Exum. Exum finally got a chance to start last season but it didn’t last long as injuries to his ribs and shoulder sent him to injured reserve. He was back on the field for the start of spring workouts and lined up with either the second- and third-stringers. Of the contenders to start alongside Smith, Exum might be the best athlete. And he now seems to have a better understanding of what Zimmer is looking for from his safeties. If Exum can become more consistent, he could start.
9. Over the past three offseasons, Zimmer and the Vikings have brought in a bunch of young, athletic linebackers. If they can stay healthy, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will be every-down players. So assuming Chad Greenway remains a starter in the base defense, Zimmer will have to be creative to get guys such as Emmanuel Lamur and Edmond Robinson on the field. Perhaps one of them will be a candidate for a sub-package role similar to what Gerald Hodges had before he got shipped out of town.
10. Finally, I’m not one to obsess over injuries during the spring because the head coach doesn’t seem to obsess over them. Yeah, ideally, you want everybody out there for these voluntary spring practices, especially young starters like Barr and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. But having them healthy for the start of training camp is what really matters. Since Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph, who is recovering from offseason toe surgery, were ready to do individual drills during recent practices, one thinks they will be good to go the morning of July 29. We will see, though, about offensive linemen Alex Boone and Andre Smith, who suffered undisclosed injuries late in the spring, and Floyd, who is still dealing with lingering injuries from 2015, which is not ideal. Zimmer was hopeful, but not certain, that none of those guys would have to start camp on the PUP list.