By this time two years ago, the Vikings already had lost right tackle Phil Loadholt to a torn Achilles’ tendon and soon saw see center John Sullivan undergo back surgery. A year ago Wednesday, their final preseason practice ended after 20 minutes, with players ushered off the field while the team’s medical staff urgently worked on Teddy Bridgewater’s left leg.
This year? The Vikings appear to be relatively healthy heading into their final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. They’ve lost no significant players to injury at this point of the exhibition season and put veterans such as Riley Reiff and Latavius Murray back on the practice field for their third preseason game after injuries limited both of the free-agent pickups for much of training camp. And unlike previous seasons, the Vikings have 90 players, not 75, available for the final preseason game, thanks to the NFL’s decision to do away with the first set of roster cuts.
Which leads us, of course, to a question: Will Sunday’s subpar performance against the San Francisco 49ers really lead coach Mike Zimmer to put his starters back on the field five days later against the Dolphins?
Zimmer seemed to be considering that idea Tuesday, when he was asked if he anticipated using any of his starters in the fourth preseason game.
“I’ve made up my mind, but I haven’t told the team yet or anything like that. I haven’t told the coaches yet either,” he said. “After the other night, I feel like they should play, but we’ll see.”
It’s not sacrosanct that NFL teams must hold all their starters out of the fourth preseason game, and for the Vikings’ first-team offense, there might be something to be gained from a series or two of productive work after the group produced just three points in its first 12 exhibition drives.
But even if the Vikings do use their starters Thursday night, they’ve got extra resources available to help them avoid a calamity before the start of the regular season.
The NFL, which previously mandated teams cut their rosters to 75 players after the third preseason game, did away with the intermediate step this year, providing teams one more chance to evaluate players at the end of their roster while ostensibly sparing some key players from the wear and tear of two games in five days at the end of the preseason.
Teams will make a flurry of cuts to get from 90 players down to 53 by Saturday afternoon’s deadline, but for most teams, the shift in the NFL’s roster rules figures to turn the fourth preseason game into even more of a showcase for fringe players than it already had been.
“I like it,” Zimmer said when asked about the rule change earlier this month. “I think it gives a lot of other guys more chances to be evaluated with that fourth preseason game. It will be harder on [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] on the waivers when everything happens, but it’s good for the players. They get a chance to not just show in a couple of games, but four.”
Should Sam Bradford and company take the field Thursday night, there’ll be plenty of time for Taylor Heinicke to make his final bid for a spot on the 53-man roster and former Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner to play for the first time in a Vikings uniform.
“It will be pretty awesome,” Leidner said. “Even on Sunday, going out there to throw before warmups, [I was] just looking around, seeing how cool that place was, and really soaking in the moment.
‘‘… I had a pre-draft visit out here before that and was able to check out [U.S. Bank Stadium] then, but I think there was a baseball game going on or something, so you still didn’t get the full effect like you do on game day.”
Even if the Vikings use part of Thursday’s game to get their starters sharp before the beginning of the season, they’ll likely try to preserve what appears to be a fairly good state of health. And for the players trying not to be on the team’s list of 37 cuts this weekend, Thursday night represents one final showcase.
“It’s going to be extremely important,” defensive end Tashawn Bower said. “We’re going to have more plays; we’re not going to have as much rest. That’s why it’s important to do your assignment, so you can get off the field on third down.”