The adaptations required for the Vikings’ offseason to function during the coronavirus pandemic, from virtual meetings to altering coaching and scouting job descriptions, were intended to maintain a strong sense of their own talent as camp and preseason time evaporated.
The evaluations come to a head Saturday at 3 p.m., when all NFL teams must trim 80-man offseason rosters down to the initial 53.
The deadline is typical, but the decisions are not.
General Manager Rick Spielman found himself evaluating walk-throughs. Scouts, some who typically watch all preseason games around the league for information on possible additions, were brought further inward, observing practices and sharing evaluations on the Vikings’ own roster.
Without exhibitions and joint practices this summer, old preseason film and college tape have been dug up. The leaguewide shell game of sneaking talent onto practice squads is intensified. Regarding players on the Vikings’ roster bubble, coach Mike Zimmer has kept opinions close to the vest.
“There’s been a few [standout] guys. You see their traits and athletic ability,” he said Friday via videoconference. “Sometimes they’re not as up to speed mentally as you’d like, so it just takes more time. I know you’re looking for names, but I’m not giving them to you.”
With the roster at 75 players, the Vikings need to make 22 moves by Saturday afternoon; 16 players can return on a newly expanded practice squad, which can include up to six veterans with unlimited NFL experience.
Players released this weekend can stay in team hotels and continue COVID-19 testing, according to NFL Media, which would help avoid restarting the five-day entry protocols if re-signed to the practice squad. Teams can begin filling practice squads at noon Sunday.
The Vikings’ roster decisions have changed twofold. Coaches spent more classroom time with players than normal, but on-field evaluations were drastically reduced.
Seventeen practices in the past 22 days provided a more consistent look at players, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said, but having no exhibitions leaves unanswered questions.
“We haven’t paused for a game where they only play 10 [snaps],” Kubiak said. “We’ve gotten a good look at them. But at the same time, how do young men react when they walk in a stadium and it’s time to go? It’s a lot different than practice. Those are decisions we’re having to make this year that we haven’t in the past [when] we’ve had more to go off of. So, it’ll be tough.”
Some of the Vikings’ toughest cuts may come at receiver and defensive back, where preseason games could have further separated many unproven talents. At receiver, the pecking order is unclear after Adam Thielen, Olabisi Johnson and first-round draft pick Justin Jefferson.
The rest competing for likely two spots are Chad Beebe, Tajae Sharpe, K.J. Osborn, Alexander Hollins, Quartney Davis and Dillon Mitchell.
“They’ve made it hard on us,” Kubiak said. “Justin’s come a long way. Tajae, Bisi, Adam have done a great job with Justin, bringing him along. You sit there and watch [Beebe], who’s had a great camp, he’s really done a great job. Hollins had a good camp.”
Extended game simulations in practices, including the last 10 minutes of a mock fourth quarter and a two-quarter scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium, helped fill in some evaluation gaps, co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. Coaches radioed in plays from the sideline, trying to see how young players fare without a coach on the field alongside them.
But before anybody can play full-speed football, roster decisions will be made.
“You see in the game situation we had [this week], how guys react to some plays we haven’t seen and react well, and some of them didn’t react as well,” Adam Zimmer said. “Obviously you haven’t seen them take on a block or a cut block or have to tackle in the open field, but you work on that with the angles and technique as much as you can, and you trust that that’s how it’s going to be on game day.”