As the Vikings wrap up the preseason Thursday night in Buffalo, resting most of their starters with hopes of maintaining the relatively healthy state of the roster heading into the regular season, they’ll likely shine the spotlight at least one more time on a preseason subplot that’s gained quite the following over the past two years.
Quarterback Kyle Sloter — the 25-year-old whose gaudy preseason stat lines have yet to lead to a regular-season NFL appearance — should play plenty Thursday against the Bills, in one final shot to secure a spot on the Vikings’ active roster for the third straight season. He’s stayed third on the Vikings’ QB depth chart, behind Sean Mannion and ahead of rookie free agent Jake Browning, as a coaching staff that’s already plenty familiar with him tries to sort out what he’s worth.
“When he comes in the game, you saw it, he produced in that ballgame last week and I think for him, it’s just putting one good day in front of another,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said this week, after Sloter posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating Saturday against Arizona. “The quarterback position, when you step into the huddle, your job is to make those 10 players believe and perform. Certainly, in that second half I was pleased with what the guys did moving the football down the field and ultimately winning the football game for us.”
The quarterback has become something of a Rorschach test for what the preseason is worth. Sloter’s fourth-quarter preseason heroics — even though they’ve been fashioned largely against other teams’ backups — have earned him a cult following among Vikings fans.
His teammates wear “Sloter House” T-shirts, designed by the sons of Waffle House executives, that the quarterback also sells on his website. Fans on Twitter, some with only a hint of irony, call for Sloter to move up the Vikings’ QB depth chart — sometimes to the top spot. His Wikipedia page reads, “On September 4, 2017, Sloter was signed to the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad. Since the signing, Sloter has posted some of the best preseason stat lines of all time.”
And Sloter’s numbers are no joke. He leads all NFC quarterbacks with a 146.9 passer rating this preseason, having gone 23 of 27 for 280 yards and three touchdowns, and ranked fourth in the NFC with a 114.1 passer rating the year before. According to Pro Football Focus, his 10.4 yards per attempt this preseason rank fourth in the NFL — just behind reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes (10.7).
It was Sloter’s strong preseason for the Broncos in 2017 that got the Vikings interested him in the first place; the team gave him $20,000 per week to get him on their practice squad that year, after Sloter threw for 413 yards and three touchdowns for Denver.
The challenge, for the Vikings, is squaring Sloter’s success as a freewheeling quarterback during preseason games with what they’ve seen on the practice field. He finished the preseason practice slate with another two-interception day Tuesday, and has been spotty enough that coach Mike Zimmer sought to quell the Sloter hype with a fairly specific dissection of his practice performance earlier this month.
“He’s got to get a lot better in a lot of the other parts of being a quarterback: making the right checks, getting people in the right formation, making sure the motion is there, not missing the time clock when it’s eight yards in front of you,” Zimmer said on Aug. 20, two days after Sloter went 11-for-13 for 116 yards and a TD in the Vikings’ second preseason game. “There’s a lot of things that he has to get better at if he wants to be the backup quarterback.”
The Vikings have kept at least three quarterbacks under team control every year since Rick Spielman became the general manager in 2012, so Sloter’s first challenge is to beat out Browning, who got $140,000 guaranteed to sign with the Vikings this spring. New Vikings QB coach Klint Kubiak was an offensive assistant in Denver when the team waived Sloter before the 2017 season, and Stefanski spent 2018 as Sloter’s QB coach. The Vikings knew plenty about Sloter when they made the investment in Browning, and they’ll first have to determine whether they want to keep one or both QBs in their system.
It’s seemed all preseason as if Mannion — the only Vikings quarterback behind Kirk Cousins who’s played in a regular-season game — would be Cousins’ primary backup. Zimmer wouldn’t divulge who will start for the Vikings on Thursday night, but No. 2 quarterback Trevor Siemian started last year’s fourth preseason game, and it’d seem like a good bet Mannion will play first in Buffalo.
Even if that happens, though, Sloter should get enough playing time to try and deliver one more rousing preseason performance. The question will be whether the shiniest part of his résumé is the one the Vikings value most.
“Every time he’s come in the game, he does well,” Zimmer said. “He makes plays, gets the team going. I think he’s done a good job all preseason.”