Here are a handful of observations from the Vikings’ fifth Organized team Activity session (out of 10) from Wednesday, the second open to reporters this spring.
Right tackle Brian O’Neill returned to the starting lineup this week after missing the start of OTAs due to an undisclosed injury. The Vikings now have its starting offensive line intact (you can knock on wood if you like) for practices without pads, which for offensive linemen focus more on fundamentals and carrying out the new playbook while communicating with new right guard Josh Kline. The importance of such can’t be overstated for a Vikings offensive line that struggled mightily with defensive line twists last season.
Swing tackle Rashod Hill returned to right tackle with the second-team offense, matched with right guard Danny Isidora, center Brett Jones, left guard Dakota Dozier and left tackle Aviante Collins. Rookies Dru Samia and Oli Udoh remained with the third-team offense.
With David Morgan still out and Kyle Rudolph missing a day, young tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin gain praise. Morgan has been sidelined this spring due to an undisclosed injury. He observed from the sideline on Wednesday, helping direct Smith Jr. during portions of team drills. Rudolph was in Ohio taking part in charity events associated with the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, for which he was a nominee.
Without the top two tight ends, the young guys impressed. Look, it’s May. Players practice in shorts and without pads; it’s a glorified passing league at times. So, impressive days by receivers (free of press coverage) can be overstated this time of year. With that pump of the brakes, the Vikings’ second-round pick Smith Jr. and the second-year Conklin drew praise from coaches and teammates during and after the practice.
“I thought Tyler Conklin looked really impressive, just routes on air in the red zone,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Our defense did a really good job today of covering routes in the red zone, so it didn’t really give us an opportunity for them to shine.”
Smith Jr. lined up all over the field, from split out wide to in line next to the tackle. It’s an early sign of what is likely to come for the promising rookie. Smith Jr. showed off his 4.6-second speed by beating cornerback Trae Waynes down the sideline in red-zone drills, but the ball was short. Waynes later deflected passes intended for both Smith Jr. and Conklin.
“I would’ve loved to have thrown a better ball there so he could’ve come down with that one,” Cousins said.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks set the pace as the most animated defender on the field Wednesday. Kendricks’ energy, especially for May, is good for a defense trying to bring along young contributors from its 12-man draft class. He was fired up and animated after defensive stops in team drills. He then backed it up with a diving interception off Cousins, who was trying to find receiver Adam Thielen on a shallow route to his left. Kendricks leaped to his feet and ran into the end zone, trailed by celebrating teammates.
The QB pecking order went Cousins-Sean Mannion-Jake Browning, with Kyle Sloter not getting much if any 11-on-11 work on Wednesday. Browning, the undrafted free agent from Washington, commanded the third-team offense. Mannion, the former Rams backup, led the No. 2 spot behind Cousins. Don’t read too much into it at this point, but it’s noteworthy the Vikings are getting longer looks at Browning as competition is open for the backup job and for a possible No. 3 developmental player. Mannion capped his red-zone work with a strike to receiver Jordan Taylor in the end zone over cornerback Holton Hill. Browning had a couple impressive throws, including a deep, arching ball to receiver Dillon Mitchell over a trio of trailing defenders.
Safety Jayron Kearse has become a matchup option for coaches. The fourth-year safety said this month he studied the slot position this offseason after playing last year “off of instincts.” But Kearse wasn’t exactly lining up as a slot corner on Wednesday. During red-zone drills, Kearse rotated into the box of the Vikings’ 4-3 base defense where he can work as a run defender and a 6-foot-4-inch coverage option to match against tight ends.
“Jayron has played underneath for us a lot in the last couple years in different packages that we’ve used,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Being able to make that communication and transition from week to week has been a benefit for us because he matches up against tight ends underneath real good for us. He’s embraced that role for we just look for him to continue to develop.”
Nose tackle Linval Joseph continued to sit out team drills after undergoing a surgery to his upper body this offseason. Jaleel Johnson remained in Joseph’s nose tackle spot with the first-team defense alongside Shamar Stephen. Cornerback Mike Hughes (knee) rehabbed off to the side of practice with a hefty brace on his surgically-repaired left knee. Defensive end Tashawn Bower remains sidelined following offseason ankle surgery. Linebacker Reshard Cliett (undisclosed) was present but did not practice. Rookie long snapper Austin Cutting was absent on the day of his Air Force Academy graduation. Second-year linebacker Devante Downs was also absent for the voluntary practice.
Receiver Stefon Diggs was present, caught a touchdown in red-zone drills from Cousins and discussed his absence from two OTAs last week as well as the Vikings’ new offense.
Kicker Dan Bailey converted all six field goals during an 11-on-11 team session. Bailey did so Wednesday morning after talking with head coach Mike Zimmer about Nate Kaeding, the Vikings’ new part-time kicking coach this summer. “He felt like it was good to have somebody there to be able to talk to certain things with and look at the real specific part of that position,” Zimmer said after practice. “Then he made all the field goals today.”
Receivers Jordan Taylor, Chad Beebe and Laquon Treadwell took first-team reps alongside or for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. A fairly open race at receiver continued behind the Vikings’ star duo as those three were among reserves mixing in with the first-team offense. Taylor is one to watch. The 6-foot-5-inch target and former Bronco is a veteran of the Gary Kubiak-influenced system in which the Vikings are installing, giving him a “head start,” as coordinator Kevin Stefanski said, that is so far translating onto the field.
If one drill is any indication, Vikings defensive ends could drop into coverage more this season. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter rotated into a half-field passing drill with defensive backs and linebackers, taking the field one at a time to drop into coverage while quarterbacks backpedaled alone and threw to receivers. Zimmer has said the Vikings will “make a few changes” defensively, and perhaps one of those alterations is an increase in zone drops by defensive linemen.