When receiver Dede Westbrook signed with the Vikings last weekend, quarterback Kirk Cousins was one of the first people to send him a text message welcoming him to Minnesota. Special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken probably wasn't far behind.
Westbrook fielded punt after punt in his first Vikings practice Wednesday, making it clear he'll try to help his new team in more ways than one. The ex-Jaguars receiver agreed to a one-year deal on Sunday to reunite with Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, a pairing entering its fifth NFL season after four years in Jacksonville.
But it's on special teams, and the Vikings' continued search for a punt returner, where Westbrook sees an immediate opening to help.
"I honestly feel like I'm going to have a huge impact," Westbrook said. "I've been focusing on it a lot, been dialed in, and I'm trying to do everything I possibly could to get on the field and lead this team to a Super Bowl."
Returning from an injury-marred 2020 because of shoulder and ACL ailments, Westbrook is still easing his knee back into shape. He's running again, but was limited during Wednesday's practice to receiver and special teams drills. The playbook is also an obstacle, but the years working with McCardell are expected to expedite his learning curve.
"Coach McCardell is like a father figure to me," Westbrook said. "We're kind of from around the same area. He's from Houston. I'm from Cameron [Texas], so we've been knowing each other for a little while now. Every time we worked out, he killed me. He expects the most out of me. He shoots me text messages every night, so y'all kind of know how that situation is when I'm doing wrong."
McCardell pulled Westbrook to Minnesota, but so did the thought of playing alongside receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. He could find room as the No. 3 slot receiver, a job held by Chad Beebe last season. Westbrook was Jacksonville's top slot receiver in 2018 and 2019, when he combined for 132 catches, 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I've felt like we had a pretty talented receiver group, and then we brought in Dede," Cousins said. "Last year, when we lost Adam for a game or two, you realize the importance of depth."
"I know he's got great movement skills," Cousins added, "and has been a pro and knows what it takes, so he should be able to help us."
Darrisaw out; Pierce limited
All but one Vikings player — cornerback Jeff Gladney, awaiting a grand jury hearing over felony domestic assault allegations in Texas — was spotted on the outdoor practice fields at TCO Performance Center in Eagan for the first camp practice. Every player passed through COVID-19 entry protocols, while 25 players on 15 teams were quarantined Wednesday as most veterans reported to camps around the league Tuesday.
Three players were held out because of injuries: left tackle Christian Darrisaw (groin), center Cohl Cabral (undisclosed) and kicker Riley Patterson (undisclosed). Three others, nose tackle Michael Pierce (calf), Westbrook (knee) and cornerback Bashaud Breeland (shoulder), were limited.
The practice was only half-speed football in helmets, but defensive end Danielle Hunter did not appear limited nine months removed from neck surgery. He took first-team reps at right and left defensive end.
'We try to please a lot of people'
Running back Dalvin Cook said he understood why Olympic gymnast Simone Biles stepped away from the competition in Tokyo on Tuesday, citing her mental health, because Cook said he knows how critical the mind is to the rest of the body.
"Mental health is one of those things that goes unnoticed for a lot of athletes — for a majority of athletes," Cook said. "For her to do that, I think it was great for her to take a step back and focus on herself for once. I think it goes unnoticed because we try to please a lot of people."
"If you're not healthy in the mind, your body's not going to compete at a high level," he added. "That's what she was getting at. She's not in the right state of mind, so, 'I'm not going to put myself out there to get hurt.' She needs to take as much time as she can and get where she needs to be. I'm praying for her, and I take that very seriously."
Market jump for O'Neill
Being a right tackle isn't as much a second fiddle as it used to be. Brian O'Neill's market for a new contract extension, with his rookie deal expiring after this season, continued to soar Wednesday when the Colts reportedly gave right tackle Braden Smith a four-year extension worth $70 million in new money.
Smith, drafted 25 spots ahead of O'Neill in 2018, is the third right tackle to average at least $17 million per season on a new contract this summer, joining the Panthers' Taylor Moton and the Saints' Ryan Ramczyk, who tops the market earning up to $19.2 million per season.