Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
This is such a different Vikings training camp compared to recent years in terms of player positivity and the number of players in the training room. It directly reflects Coach Kevin O’Connell’s emphasis on keeping his players fresh and healthy for the September 11 opener against the Packers.
As we hear of players around the league already being ruled out for the year due to serious training camp injuries, the Vikings have weathered the first two-plus weeks of camp with Irv Smith’s thumb the only serious injury, and it’s hoped he’ll be back for the opener. Of course, the injury risk increases when live tackling occurs as the Vikings open the preseason schedule against the Raiders in Las Vegas on Sunday, followed by two days of joint practices with the 49ers next week before their August 20 preseason game.
I worked in the era of two-a-day practices and four to six preseason games with too many major injuries before the games count. I salute the league and the NFLPA for agreeing to fewer padded practices, more days off, and only three preseason games (still one too many). I don’t see the caliber of play early in the season on the decline because of a more sane approach to training camps. And I give kudos to O’Connell for his thoughtful approach to camp with only 11 padded practices (vs. the allowed 16).
Danielle Hunter certainly agrees. The edge/outside linebacker is one of the Vikings most important players who need to overcome recent injury issues and be available for the entire season to give the team the best chance to be playoff bound and perhaps wrestle the NFC North from Green Bay.
Speaking about O’Connell, Hunter said, “He definitely knows when to turn it off. He gives us a couple of days of going as hard as we can and then he takes care of us. It’s a good balance of when to turn it on and turn it off. It’s been working so far.”
A great example was last Sunday’s half-tempo practice. There was a full house of fans at camp, but the coach followed his plan of having a low-key day working on conditioning drills and situational football, such as a half-speed two-minute drill and end-of-game plays. This came after two days of padded practices and before the Monday night padded practice at TCO Stadium. And then the team had a day off on Tuesday. The O’Connell Vikings should be a fresh and eager team come opening day against their arch-rivals across the border.
Pat P is an ageless wonder:
One of the most impressive Vikings to me thus far in camp is Patrick Peterson. The eight-time Pro Bowler looks quicker than last year when he was the team’s best corner and played well. He had two interceptions in a recent practice, including one while covering superstar Justin Jefferson.
Peterson likes the new defensive scheme under coordinator Ed Donatell that is more zone-heavy as opposed to man-to-man coverage.
“It’s definitely taken a lot of stress off my body,” Peterson said. “The opportunity to see things unfold. Now it’s a change of scenery, playing with a little more depth and playing with vision. It allows guys on the defensive side of the ball to make plays.”
Peterson is a leader and sets a great example for younger players such as talented but inconsistent (in his first two years) fellow corner Cam Dantzler who is holding on so far in his battle with second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. to start opposite Peterson.
Peterson relishes the role of mentor to players such as Dantzler and Booth. Of Dantzler, he said, “Cameron is definitely playing with more swagger and a ton of more confidence. He understands the situation that he’s in, he’s moving a lot more fluid, he’s comfortable in the scheme and I’m proud of the strides he’s making. I give him little nuggets on the game. How to jump routes a little earlier, understanding your responsibility and what technique is called for on a play. I believe that will put him in much better situations.”
Last year it appeared early on that the Vikings had brought in a player on his last legs in Peterson after his prior year in Arizona was not great. Now Pat P (as his teammates call him) looks like he may be headed back to another Pro Bowl as he’s undoubtedly on his way to the Hall of Fame. But that enshrinement date may be later than many NFL observers thought, as Peterson may have a few more years of top-flight play ahead.
“Heading into year 12, doesn’t feel like it’s year 12 which is a good thing,” Peterson said. “Everything’s starting to come together very well. Proud of the guys the way they came back extremely focused, dialed in on their task. I want to keep it rolling. I love the game. I love coming to work every day. I love trying to invest into these young guys for the future, to keep the game in good hands and I feel like that’s my duty.”
Other Training Camp Observations:
1. I see a couple of good things for the Vikings special teams: Kene Nwangwu has returned from his leg injury, and Greg Joseph is kicking great in camp. Nwangwu is one of the league’s best kickoff returners (two TDs last season), and he’s among the group of running backs—led by Dalvin Cook—that O’Connell calls “fantastic.”
Joseph is the only kicker in camp, which confirms the coaches’ faith in him, and he justified that faith by making 8 of 8 field goals, including a 55-yarder in a recent practice and then 7 of 8 in the team’s Monday night practice. O’Connell says his kicker is “in a zone,” and the Vikings need that to continue all season long.
2. O’Connell stays extremely positive about players in his public comments. However, I like that he’s keeping the heat on center Garrett Bradbury by saying there is still competition for the starting center spot with Chris Reed (and perhaps Austin Schlottman). O’Connell praises Bradbury as a run blocker but says he’s challenging him to be better as a pass protector. It will be interesting to watch the center competition play out and if Bradbury can truly elevate his play and keep his starting job before the opener against one of the NFL’s best nose tackles in Kenny Clark.
3. Speaking of the O-line, I found Hunter’s comments informative on last year’s No. 1 pick Christian Darrisaw and his development at left tackle. “I like what I’ve seen from him,” Hunter said. “He took a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2. He’s definitely not the same player as last year, he’s above and beyond based on what we’ve seen in practice. The potential is limitless. He’s going to keep improving as a player.”
4. Vikings fans have to love this quote from O’Connell on Hunter and Za’Darius Smith in saying, “Those guys have had a fantastic camp and Mike Smith (outside linebackers/pass rush specialist coach) has had a lot to do with it.”
Around the NFL Observations:
1.NFC North tidbits: the reports out of Packers camp are that the defense looks great, and the offensive line is in trouble and struggling in camp as they are missing two Pro Bowlers: right tackle Elgton Jenkins who appears likely to start the season on the PUP list and it’s uncertain when left tackle David Bakhtiari will return. That’s music to the ears of Vikings edge rushers Hunter and Smith.
The Bears already thin receiving corps is banged up with No. 2 receiver Byron Pringle a question mark for the regular season opener with a quad injury. Not good news for QB Justin Fields who has a good receiver in Darnell Mooney and apparently not much else, along with working behind a shaky O-line.
And Detroit QB Jared Goff is reportedly having an impressive camp as he works behind a very good offensive line. The Lions are the team featured in HBO’s Hard Knocks this month. Fiery Head Coach Dan Campbell should be quite the hit on the show.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl