Center Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings' 2019 first-round draft pick, is entering a contract year after the team declined a fifth-year option this spring. So far, he has been the unquestioned starter entering his fourth season, but that doesn't mean he's looking to be the same player.
After three inconsistent seasons to begin his NFL career, Bradbury said he's enjoying learning a "completely new" offense under new head coach Kevin O'Connell while trying to add weight to offer a steadier anchor in front of quarterback Kirk Cousins. Bradbury got back above 300 pounds this offseason and said it's a "full-time job" between reaching a daily caloric mark and properly shaping those calories in the weight room.
"Adding it the right way," Bradbury said. "Anyone can eat a bunch of pizza and put on some pounds, but trying to add it the right way, working with the right people. I'm naturally not a 350-pound guy, but that's part of the job requirement, so that's something I've tried to hone in on this offseason and will reap the benefits from it this season."
Bradbury, who turns 27 this month, has said he fought complacency during struggles that led to former center Mason Cole, who signed with the Steelers this spring, briefly taking his job last season. He said resetting mentally was important, too, adding that new coaching and training staffs have helped to that end.
"I feel good," Bradbury said. "There's a new light, a new energy in the building and I think that's a good thing. I think our locker room and our team will be as close as ever, and I think that plays a big key in how you perform on and off the field, how you're doing mentally, it matters. You want to have fun doing what you're doing."
He's eager to show off improvement when pads are donned in training camp.
Offensive line coach Chris Kuper said Bradbury has been a "natural" at setting protections in the new playbook this spring, when linemen are limited to mental reps without full contact. Kuper, the former Broncos assistant O-line coach, said they're making plans for the interior line that's often targeted by opposing pass rushes.
"Defenses are able to, with their personnel packages, isolate players, specifically on the interior of the offense," Kuper said. "A lot of times, it's the center because the centers are that fulcrum of the offensive line."
"We're doing our own thing to defeat that with the guards helping out," Kuper added, "and I think it's been good. We've taken some really good steps in the protection system so far."
'Like a kid in a candy shop'
Vikings defensive coaches are also making plans to target opposing interior O-lines. Multiple defensive fronts were featured during Wednesday's practice, ranging from heavy packages with six-man fronts to lighter approaches. One saw a lone interior lineman, nose tackle Harrison Phillips, on the edge paired with three speedy edge rushers and linebacker Eric Kendricks down the line.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith, who works with edge rushers from Za'Darius Smith to Danielle Hunter, is tasked with coaching previous 4-3 defensive ends like Hunter into more versatile threats.
"The one package we have where you see 'Z' rushing up the middle and doing that type stuff, and now [Hunter] is getting to do it," Smith said. "He's like a kid in a candy shop. He gets to move around. Now he gets to understand that once you get everything built, and once you learn all these protections, why it's so beneficial. You've got a really athletic guy, and most guards aren't very athletic. They are athletic because they're in the NFL, but not like those tackles."
Health prioritized over full speed
The starting offense's hurry-up drill seemed to end prematurely Wednesday after cornerback Chandon Sullivan laid a hit on receiver Adam Thielen, dislodging a pass from Cousins. Pulling back on the physicality summed up O'Connell's first offseason program in Minnesota, where health and learning were prioritized over going full speed in every team drill.
"Coach made it very clear that no one is making [the team] or getting cut from the couple of practices," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We want to see how we learn on the fly. How do we learn when it's time to make a check? How do you adjust when offenses are shifting and you've got all the jet motions and things like that? This period was basically just a mental aspect of the game."
Six players were held out as the Vikings ended the offseason program, including receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette, K.J. Osborn and Blake Proehl; linebacker Ryan Connelly; quarterback Nate Stanley; and defensive lineman James Lynch, who was evaluated for a lower-body injury during Tuesday's practice.
Kicker Greg Joseph, the incumbent starter, had a strong finish to the offseason, making all four field-goal tries ranging from 38 to 46 yards. His competition, undrafted rookie Gabe Brkic, missed two attempts from 41 and 44 yards.
Quarterback Kellen Mond operated the hurry-up drill with the second-team offense, getting to the goal line before throwing an end-zone interception to cornerback Parry Nickerson.