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Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
With their largest draft class in the history of the modern seven-round draft, the Minnesota Vikings brought a healthy crop of draftees to Eagan.
Let’s take a snapshot of where each draft pick is at heading into their first game week with the preseason opener on Aug. 9.
C GARRETT BRADBURY (1st Round)
The Vikings’ first-round pick stepped into his starting role in the spring and hasn’t looked back. Mentored by Pat Elflein on his left side, Bradbury has taken every first-team rep throughout camp while impressing quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“I just feel like I’m not talking to someone who’s right out of college,” Cousins said. “I feel like I’m talking to someone who’s about my age, and I think that makes it a little easier, to just be on the same page and work together.”
Minnesota is aiming to get as many reps as possible for the young center. On one hand, he’s been eased into his new role by not having to face bruising nose tackle Linval Joseph, who’s been limited all offseason. But eventually, the Vikings will want to see how Bradbury holds up against the strongest tackles, considering the NFC North is home to some of the league’s best with Akiem Hicks, Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels.
TE IRV SMITH JR. (2nd Round)
Offensive advisor Gary Kubiak said Friday that Irv Smith Jr. is “swimming” trying to learn the new offense because of all the team is trying to teach him. That’s probably more honest than it is alarming, considering all the places the Vikings are lining up Smith in the new offense.
Minnesota has shown more under-center formations and plenty of heavy sets over the past couple weeks, perhaps a throwback to a smashmouth style that can fulfill Mike Zimmer’s desire to run the football more — but also a savvy way to create mismatches with opposing teams’ base defenses. Smith has a unique skillset in the Vikings tight end room and should be able to work in concert with Kyle Rudolph in “12” personnel sets.
“I feel like as a route runner, I can get open against man coverage very well,” Smith said. “And just trying to read the zones and find the sweet spots to get open.”
RB ALEXANDER MATTISON (3rd Round)
With Dalvin Cook getting the night off from the Vikings’ night practice, Alexander Mattison took all the first-team reps. Mattison appears to have usurped Mike Boone on the depth chart and shapes up to be the team’s clear No. 2 back.
“I think Alexander has got physicality to him,” said Zimmer. “He always runs with his pads forward, he seems to always fall forward when he’s going down. He’s the get-the-extra-tough-yard kind of back.”
Mattison’s pass protection is what separates him from the rest of the pack. While he may not have as big a special teams impact as Ameer Abdullah, for instance, Mattison could be a surprising fixture in the Vikings’ offense, especially if they’re nervous to give Cook as big a workload as he’s had in the past. The former Boise State rusher has shown good burst and vision throughout camp.
G DRU SAMIA (4th Round)
Camp hasn’t gone as planned for Dru Samia, who is still waiting for his shot to get reps above the third team.
Samia is likely being held back for a few reasons, one being the veteran status of those above him on the depth chart. Reserve interior linemen Brett Jones, Dakota Dozier and Danny Isidora all have at least two years of NFL experience, and the Vikings often give veterans the better reps early in camp.
Zimmer has also said Samia needs to improve in pass protection. He’ll get a chance to prove himself on a bigger stage in preseason games, which could lead to a promotion. It’s hard to imagine a fourth-round pick being on the roster bubble, though the Vikings once waived fourth-round rookie Willie Beavers after a poor preseason.
“We’ll just have to see how we do in these preseason games,” Zimmer said. “We’re always trying to evaluate him against good people.”
LB CAMERON SMITH (5th Round)
It’s been a fairly non-descript training camp for Cameron Smith, which is to be expected for linebackers — one of the harder positions to evaluate with the naked eye.
“We have moved him around in a couple different positions,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “As a linebacker we definitely need to do that, and he has shown the ability to come out and adjust to that.”
Smith has rotated in with the 2s quite a bit while appearing to have a firm early grasp on diagnosing plays. Hard-hitting Reshard Cliett continues to look impressive after he nearly stole a roster spot in 2018, but if the Vikings keep six linebackers, which they usually do, Smith should be part of the group.
DT ARMON WATTS (6th Round)
Armon Watts is one of seemingly a half dozen defensive tackles making a bid for the roster. And he’s been one of the only candidates to stay healthy.
The list of injured defensive tackles during camp has been extensive. Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Jalyn Holmes and Curtis Cothran have missed time, giving the likes of Watts, Hercules Mata’afa and even Tito Odenigbo better reps.
Zimmer said earlier in camp that Watts has a good grasp of the technique despite his relatively small sample size of games in college. The Vikings have been using Watts at both the 3-technique and nose tackle positions, and their many camp injuries have forced Watts to be versatile. He hasn’t necessarily splashed, but the Vikings frequently have held onto Day 3 rookie draft picks on the defensive line, even if their playing time has been limited in Year 1.
S MARCUS EPPS (6th Round)
After a noteworthy spring where Marcus Epps received direct praise from Zimmer and made a handful of impressive plays, he’s had a bit quieter training camp.
Epps has seen some of his second-team reps go to AAF veteran Derron Smith, who has paired up with Jayron Kearse. Early indications were that Epps could fill into a “big nickel” role like Kearse did last year, but the Vikings are still experimenting to see where their new players fit best.
“We’re kind of moving guys around to their skill set, working them at different positions,” said Edwards. “So right now we’re still in a teaching phase of it, and I think he’s doing a good job of retaining that information.”
T OLI UDOH (6th Round)
Oli Udoh was considered a project when he was drafted out of Elon, and it hasn’t always come easily for the big tackle, but with Aviante Collins going down with a leg injury and team’s lack of depth at the position, there could be a small opening for the sixth-round pick.
“He’s got great size, very, very athletic. Very smart. He’s done a good job,” said Zimmer. “Obviously he’s still working on technique and hand placement and all those things, but I think the coaches have been impressed with him.”
Storm Norton took Collins’ reps with the second team while Udoh has steadily played with the third team. Considering Norton’s greater experience level, not to mention the myriad interior linemen the Vikings may be tempted to keep on the roster as well, Udoh still has a ways to climb to make the team.
CB KRIS BOYD (7th Round)
The Vikings may be forced to trust Kris Boyd in big spots this regular season thanks to Holton Hill’s suspension and Mike Hughes’ indefinite injury timeline, but they brought in some insurance over the weekend in Bene Benwikere, a 27-year-old veteran of seven previous teams.
Nonetheless, Boyd may remain above Benwikere on the depth chart thanks to his impressive camp so far that has caught Zimmer’s eye. The speedy Boyd has consistently played with the second team and may be the team’s first corner off the bench as long as Hill and Hughes are out. His development is also pivotal as Minnesota faces contract decisions on Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes this offseason.
“I’m kind of hard on myself,” said Boyd. “I’m just working on my technique every day and listening to the coach and studying the playbook. I’ve kind of got the playbook. The technique is where I’ve got to get into.”
WR DILLON MITCHELL (7th Round)
After a fast start to OTAs, Dillon Mitchell has struggled to flash at training camp along with the rest of the rookie receivers that Zimmer called out last week. The head coach said the young receivers haven’t been precise enough and rattled off a list of grievances.
“If they don’t know what to do, if they don’t know where to line up, if they run the wrong route or they’re moving their feet when the ball’s snapped, we’ll keep looking for somebody else,” Zimmer said.
It’s unclear which of these flaws applied to Mitchell, but drops have been an issue for the Oregon rookie — as they were in college — though he did hang on to a deep ball from Kyle Sloter at Saturday’s night practice after an impressive adjustment.
With the more experienced receivers taking a clear lead in the pecking order, there may only be room for one rookie, if any, on the roster.
WR BISI JOHNSON (7th Round)
If the Vikings are looking to see who’s taking to coaching and improving throughout the summer, Bisi Johnson has done a 180 from spring practices, where he struggled hanging onto the ball.
Johnson is slighter in stature than many of his counterparts but has caught most passes his way in camp while finding ways to create separation. While he still falls under the umbrella of “young receivers” that Zimmer put on alert, he’s been noticeably better than he was two months ago.
LS AUSTIN CUTTING (7th Round)
The longsnapper battle rages on as Austin Cutting battles Kevin McDermott. As the Vikings have rotated holders and longsnappers during camp, Dan Bailey has kicked at under an 80 percent clip in team drills. But success of the kicker (and punter, for that matter) is only one factor of many that Marwan Maalouf will be evaluating.
“That ball can come different ways, slight angles mean a ton,” he said, “especially for the holder, the kicker. You would be surprised, there is a lot of differences.”