The Vikings re-signed cornerback Mackensie Alexander just days before the April incident that eventually led to cornerback Jeff Gladney's release this week. The decision to bring back Alexander, who was a 2016 second-round pick and played his first four seasons in Minnesota, is now even more significant. He's the only experienced slot corner on the team.
It's his new Vikings teammates whom Alexander said drew him to return after playing one season in Cincinnati.
"This is the best roster I've been a part of in my career so far," he said.
Alexander lauded the Vikings' defensive depth chart, particularly the retooled secondary that has deployed him as the nickel corner with Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland starting as the outside cornerbacks. Coach Mike Zimmer was equally boastful about Alexander's progress after the two butted heads early in his NFL career.
"There were times when Mackensie was very difficult," Zimmer said. "He's very fortunate I'm more hard-headed than he is. But when he came back, like now, he's like a completely different guy. He's engaging. He's communicating, listening to everything, and not making mistakes. So that's been very impressive."
Zimmer needs Alexander's best on the field this season. He's the last Vikings cornerback to have at least 10 pass deflections in a season, doing so in 2018 when he became the full-time slot defender. Alexander and Zimmer can benefit from the reunion, but not everything is like old times.
"You know what, he's right about that," Alexander said. "He's way more hard-headed than I am. I've softened up, so has he a little bit, but he's still hard."
Conklin, Hill return to practice
Three injured Vikings players returned to practice Thursday: tight end Tyler Conklin (ankle), tackle Rashod Hill (undisclosed), and center Cohl Cabral (undisclosed). Defensive end Hercules Mata'afa (undisclosed) was the only known injured player sidelined. Kicker Riley Patterson (undisclosed), the undrafted rookie, was activated off the Physically Unable to Perform list and practiced for the first time.
Nose tackle Michael Pierce (calf), receiver Dede Westbrook (knee) and rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw (groin) remained limited. However, Pierce participated in his first 11-on-11 reps in a lighter practice where players wore shells, or lighter pads.
During the eighth practice in nine days, four veteran players — Peterson, receiver Adam Thielen, safety Harrison Smith and guard Dakota Dozier — got a "vet day" off to rest. This came a day after linebacker Anthony Barr also had a rest day, according to co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer. Barr returned Thursday.
"Just being mindful of they're getting up there in years and taking care of their bodies," Adam Zimmer said.
'I know I'll be better'
Darrisaw, the 23rd overall pick, said his goal remains to be the Vikings' opening-day starter at left tackle. First, he needs to participate in a full practice. Darrisaw hopes that will be as soon as Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium as he eases back into action from a lingering groin injury that was surgically repaired in January.
"It's definitely tough because you want to be available for the team," Darrisaw said. "But right now, I'm dealing with this little injury, and I know I'll be better. Once I'm out there, I'm going to be out there."
Handing over the play sheet
The younger Zimmer, the 37-year-old linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator, has been calling defensive plays during camp practices. Mike Zimmer has been reluctant to hand over play-calling duties during regular-season games, but he's done so during practices and preseason games to give younger coaches the experience.
"Especially when we get in the game situations, calling the two-minute and stuff like that, that's really good for my growth," Adam Zimmer said. "I'll go in there and I'll talk with Coach about it afterwards, you know, do you like this call? Do you like that call? What would you do different? Just trying to learn that way."