The start of the Vikings’ second training camp in Eagan on Tuesday bore little resemblance to the fashion in which the team opened the season a year ago. Soaring expectations gave way to a subdued demeanor at the team’s practice facility, as General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer attempted to deflate the narrative that the arc of 2018 would hold any bearing on what would happen in 2019.
“I don’t know if it’s any different from any other year,” Spielman said. “If you come into a season without a sense of urgency, you’re probably in the wrong business. I think every year, if you talk to 31 other teams going into these opening day news conferences, everyone expects to go out there and win a championship, or else you shouldn’t be in this business. The expectations and the pressure are no different from they are any other year.”
Perceptions aside, the Vikings’ biggest reason for a sense of urgency at the start of 2019 might be the incontrovertible realities of time. Three of their defensive Pro Bowl players — end Everson Griffen, nose tackle Linval Joseph and safety Harrison Smith — are now in their 30s, with cornerback Xavier Rhodes now 29. On offense, left tackle Riley Reiff and quarterback Kirk Cousins are 30, with tight end Kyle Rudolph set to turn 30 this year and wide receiver Adam Thielen turning 29 next month. If the Vikings’ window to win with their largely hand-picked and homegrown collection of talent isn’t closing, it’s unlikely to get any wider.
The Vikings’ 2019 camp, then, is about moving on from the letdown of 2018 and maximizing their offseason adjustments designed to capitalize on a talented roster.
“I know last year was disappointing because of where we felt we were and where we ended up,” Spielman said. “I know we did a lot of things to try and correct those areas that we needed to address in the offseason, and I think we’ve accomplished that so far, but it’s yet to be determined, and a lot of that will be determined and established as we go through this training camp.”
Spielman said he believes Cousins — who’s now playing in a system that has much in common to what he used in Washington — looked more comfortable this offseason than he did last year. The Vikings figure to incorporate more under-center snaps, play-action throws and two tight-end sets in a scheme Gary Kubiak — a longtime coordinator for Cousins’ first NFL coach, Mike Shanahan — helped Kevin Stefanski redesign this offseason.
The Vikings also will lean heavily on a zone running scheme behind athletic linemen such as tackle Brian O’Neill and first-round pick Garrett Bradbury, who will line up in front of Cousins at center.
“He’s a brilliant kid, so that helps a lot,” Zimmer said of Bradbury. “He’s going to have a big load. These times like [Tuesday] will help him get back in the groove of things a little bit. He’s got a very businesslike personality. He wants to be right. He wants to do things the right way. I think he’s got an aggressive nature. He’s going to fit in just fine.”
The adjustments to the offensive line and coaching staff represent the biggest additions the Vikings made in an offseason where their roster flexibility was limited because of a tenuous salary cap situation.
They’ll spend the next six weeks trying to put it all together into an effort that can last longer than last year’s did.
“We’ve moved on from last year,” Zimmer said. “Every year’s a new year, and we go from there. We’ve talked about things that we need to do better in the spring, but now it’s all about moving forward and where we’ve got to go and how we have to approach things to get there.”