Thanks to everyone who submitted questions for this week’s Vikings mailbag, via social media or e-mail. We’ll split our time between questions about the roster and a bigger-picture discussion about how the 2020 season could work. Let’s get started:
David Friedman (via e-mail): Shouldn’t the Vikings be trying to sign a veteran O-line man? With the so-so season of Elflein, and an expected learning curve for Cleveland, with questions surrounding Reiff’s viability at tackle … isn’t the biggest need a stable, experienced plug-in for a year or two? (such as Cordy Glenn, even Josh Kline).
Ben Goessling: We had quite a few questions about the makeup of the offensive line, and this one summed up the prevailing concern pretty nicely. The Vikings gave themselves a left tackle of the future by picking Ezra Cleveland in the second round, and though his initial offseason will be altered by the effects of coronavirus and the league’s decision to conduct workouts virtually, Cleveland could be ready to supplant Riley Reiff in the not-too-distant future. The Vikings still have questions to answer at guard, though, with Pat Elflein coming off a tough first year on the left side and Josh Kline being released as a cap-cutting move. My sense in March was that the Vikings’ decision to cut Kline didn’t necessarily close the door on him returning, and if he can agree with the team on a price, it’d make sense to bring him back as a player who could step in quickly.
The Vikings like 2019 fourth-rounder Dru Samia, and I’d watch for him as competition for Elflein this year. The Vikings have mused about the idea of moving Reiff to guard in the past, but they’d have to feel comfortable with Cleveland at left tackle to think about that kind of a move. Of their options on the roster right now, I’d think Samia, Oli Udoh or Aviante Collins would be most likely to push or start alongside Elflein, and the Vikings still have Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier on the roster for depth. But yes, adding an affordable veteran at guard would make sense.
Top workout guys
@escribianodavid2: Ben, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were renowned for their other worldly work ethic and practice habits. Who on the current squad is the guy who “out works” everybody.
Ben Goessling: This was a really interesting question, David — my mind went initially to Adam Thielen and Danielle Hunter, for obvious reasons: Thielen’s is as much of a self-made man as you’ll find in the NFL, and Hunter — in addition to looking like an Avengers character — absorbed a wealth of knowledge from defensive line coach Andre Patterson, on his way from 1½ sacks in his final year at LSU to his status as the youngest player to reach 50 career sacks in the NFL. Thielen has opened his own gym in the Twin Cities, and Hunter trains in Houston as part of Adrian Peterson’s famously grueling sessions with his longtime trainer James Cooper.
Four other names came up in conversations with a couple people in the know: Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook on offense, and Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris on defense. Cousins’ position demands he be one of the Vikings’ most thorough students in the film room, but even in an organization that seeks out football junkies, he stands out. Cook has won admirers in the organization for his thoroughness in the classroom and tenacity on the practice field.
And while Smith has learned the key to longevity as an NFL safety is understanding how to be in the right place, Harris has used a similar approach to become an impressive playmaker at safety. I had a conversation with him in training camp last year about how he’d realized the ability to understand an offense has as much or more to do with creating big plays and turnovers as athletic ability does. Being fast and hitting hard is great, but isn’t worth much if you’re five yards out of position. He’s undoubtedly learned from Smith’s approach, and they’ve turned into quite the tandem.
Under the radar
@Eli_Dewey: How much playing time do you foresee the 4th rd draft picks getting and who is most likely to elevate to a starter status?
Ben Goessling: It’ll depend on how quickly they pick things up; as much as the Vikings have talked about using a defensive line rotation over the years, they generally haven’t given away playing time to young players just because they’re on the roster, and shouldn’t need to do that in 2020 with Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen and Ifeadi Odenigbo on the roster.
But of the three players they took in the fourth round — South Carolina’s D.J. Wonnum, Baylor’s James Lynch and Oregon’s Troy Dye — Lynch might have the best path to a starting spot. The Vikings were particularly high on him as a pass rusher, and see him as a three-technique tackle; they’ve had to turn to defensive ends like Brian Robison or Stephen Weatherly for consistent interior pass rush in some years, and could benefit from a player like Lynch if he can translate his pass rushing productivity to the NFL. They love his athletic ability and his energy, and he could play his way into a role quickly.
Wonnum, the Vikings’ top fourth-round pick, was an Andre Patterson favorite who could morph into a solid contributor over time, though he’ll need to develop strength against the run especially.
@ZachfromRollag: Do you think the schedule will have built in contingencies (i.e. — staggering division games Weeks 1-3, 15-17 that could easily be flipped to end of season if there’s a delay) or do you believe an entire revamped schedule would be rereleased if games are delayed/canceled?
Ben Goessling: The NFL is set to release its 2020 schedule on Thursday night; the slate is about two weeks later than normal for obvious reasons. The league has maintained it plans to open the season as scheduled on Sept. 10, but it’s difficult to read much into that now; the NFL isn’t likely to concede changes to the schedule — in the form of a shortened or delayed season — until medical data about the effects of coronavirus forces it to do so. That said, it’s been widely reported the league is considering various contingencies for the upcoming season, and I’d bet we see a schedule on Thursday night that could be quickly altered or (somewhat) equitably shortened if need be.
The NFL has been in the habit of backloading schedules with division games for the past decade, anyway — all three of the Vikings’ NFC North home games were in December last year — and I’d expect to see that happen again this year (put your Week 17 game against the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on the calendar!). The fact the league has waited to put something out, though, makes me think that whatever it releases on Thursday night will form the foundation for the 2020 schedule; it’s much more reasonable to expect tweaks to the schedule, in other words, than a revamped slate of games. There are simply too many logistics involved in creating the schedule to expect the NFL would tear this one up and start over.
@PJ_Vikes: How do they play without spreading the virus?
Ben Goessling: The answer to this question might ultimately determine what the 2020 NFL season looks like, and I’d be lying if I knew the answer to it right now. Instead, I think it’d be worthwhile to look at a few of the questions the league will have to answer to make the 2020 season happen safely.
In terms of putting fans in the stands, the NFL will have the advantage of watching how the NHL, NBA and MLB make decisions about resuming their seasons, in all likelihood, before football comes back. But even if games happen without fans, the number of people on an NFL sideline and the amount of contact on the field would seemingly create fertile conditions for the virus to spread. Does the league quarantine players between games? Would the NFL Players Association give its blessing to such an arrangement? How reliably can players be tested, and how will the league manage things if a star player like the Broncos’ Von Miller tests positive for coronavirus during the season?
The NFL has undoubtedly been thinking through these issues as it prepares to release its schedule on Thursday night, and will have to continue to do so before players reconvene in person. But the question you raise is a tricky one, and based on the conversations I’ve had with people in the league, it will have to be managed carefully for a 2020 season to happen with any sense of normalcy.