EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings kick off their preseason schedule Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, and while some maintain the mindset that "it's only preseason," these three warmup games can be crucial in deciding some of the final spots on the 53-man roster.
These games will also be a dress rehearsal for the Vikings' Week 1 showdown with the Green Bay Packers, which could be vital in giving either team an early edge for the division title.
While there's not much debate surrounding starting quarterback, running back and top two wide receivers, there's still plenty to decide on the defensive side — a unit that finished with the third-worst overall defense a year ago.
As the Vikings look to make the final roster adjustments ahead of their Sept. 11 season opener against the Packers, here's a list of 11 players or position battles to monitor throughout the preseason:
First-round pick Lewis Cine seems like the obvious choice to man the spot opposite All-Pro Harrison Smith, however, when the team released its first unofficial depth chart earlier this week, Cam Bynum was penciled in as the starter. This may be more of a formality for now until the rookie gets a few more snaps, but Bynum had some flashes last season, including his first career interception against former MVP Lamar Jackson. Regardless of who gets the nod to start the regular season, they'll have one of the best safeties in the league to learn from.
"I'm really trying to learn what Harry does and how he does it," said Cine. "He has a whole lot of experience, and (he's been) a real productive player for the Minnesota Vikings. Just learning under him is going to be good for me."
While future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Peterson seems to be a lock on one side, the other side could be stiff competition between Cam Dantzler, Sr. and rookie Andrew Booth, Jr. Dantzler has the experience, entering his third season with the team, but Booth was viewed by many to be one of the top corners in the NFL Draft. Dantzler has had a solid camp thus far, and seems to have the upper hand entering Sunday's game against the Raiders, but it's worth keeping an eye on if Booth continues to develop. Former Packers cornerback Chandon Sullivan is expected to cover the slot, so the outside corner opposite Peterson might be the best chance Dantzler or Booth will have to see the field.
Former All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks will have a new face lining up alongside him this season in veteran Jordan Hicks. Hicks joined the Vikings this offseason after spending the past three years with the Arizona Cardinals. Kendricks and Hicks are expected to be the starting interior linebackers as the defense transforms to a 3-4 base.
"It's special because you don't always get that opportunity to play next to somebody who sees things the way you do, thinks the way you do and has played football as such a high level for that long, so it's been great," said Hicks of playing with Kendricks. "Part of the reason I came here was for that opportunity — to play next to (Kendricks)."
Offensive line has been an area of concern for the Vikings for better part of a decade, and this year is no different. While it seems Minnesota is set at three of the five positions on the line — Christian Darrisaw, left tackle; Ezra Cleveland, left guard; Brian O'Neill, right tackle — right guard is still up for grabs. Oli Udo took majority of the snaps last season at right guard, but throughout camp, veteran Jesse Davis and rookie Ed Ingram have been spending the most time with the first-team offensive group. Davis was signed in the offseason after spending the past five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, while Ingram was a second-round selection out of LSU. The two have been splitting reps in camp lately, so it will be interesting to see how they're used in preseason games.
"Ed has earned the right to get some reps with those guys, Jesse's done a really nice job as well, so that health competition is what's going to make our O-line the best possible group that I'm looking for for this season," said Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell.
When Garrett Bradbury was selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the goal was for him to be the Vikings' center for the next decade, allowing the front office to focus their attention — and resources — on other areas of need. Three years in, that hasn't been the path of trajectory for the N.C. State product. He's currently in battle with Chris Reed, Austin Schlottmann and Josh Sokol. Earlier this year, the Vikings declined Bradbury's fifth-year option, so this could be his last chance to make an impact in Minnesota.
Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are no doubt the top two receivers for the team, but K.J. Osborn has been turning heads in camp as he attempts to take another step this season. It seems he's safely secured the No. 3 receiver position, but it's worth watching to see what sort of progress he's made, especially considering the Vikings will be looking for long-term options to perhaps take over for Thielen, who turns 32 later this month.
"I think the difference from Year 1 to Year 2 is confidence," said Osborn. "Knowing that I can play in this league, I can be a great player. Just getting out here and proving it."
Much to the chagrin of some Vikings fans, the starting quarterback position is locked with Kirk Cousins returning under center. His backup, however, still has to be decided. Veteran Sean Mannion and second-year quarterback Kellen Mond have been battling throughout camp for the No. 2 spot. Last season, the Vikings brought in Mannion to back up Cousins to allow Mond more time to develop with the practice squad, but this year, Mond might not get the luxury of being able to spend another year on the team's practice squad. After the team announced Cousins tested positive for COVID-19, Mannion and Mond will each have a prime opportunity this Sunday to make their case to be the team's backup on Sundays.
"We're just going to let these guys go out there and compete, and evaluate each play as it comes," said Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips.
Second-year receiver Imir Smith-Marsette is penciled in as the starting punt returner in the team's first unofficial depth chart, but this will be an open competition with rookie receiver Jalen Nailor. K.J Osborn has also taken some reps in training camp. All three candidates have plenty of speed, but their decision-making — and ability to track punts — will be likely be the difference.
There are high hopes for Irv Smith Jr. this season coming off a season-ending injury a year ago, but depth is a bit of a concern. Johnny Mundt joined the team in the offseason after five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams — Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell's former team — while Minnesota-native Ben Ellefson returns after appearing in five games for the Vikings in 2021. Zach Davidson, a fifth-round pick in last year's NFL Draft, has been garnering some attention as a pass-catcher throughout camp while rookie Nick Muse is a bit of an unknown. Smith recently had thumb surgery, so the preseason will be a good chance to see what else the Vikings have at the tight end position.
"You come into camp with some good numbers for a reason, just in case" said O'Connell. "Not really knowing where Irv or Johnny would be coming off of their injuries from last year, so we have some depth there, and we have some guys we really want to see kind of handle the different roles. ... From Johnny all the way down, we're going to ask those guys to fill that void that Irv had already created."
Duluth-native C.J. Ham has been a fan favorite and integral part of the Vikings' offense and special teams over the past few seasons, but that was under Mike Zimmer and his run-first offensive approach. New head coach Kevin O'Connell's offensive scheme could play a major factor in what type of role he'll have with the team, or even whether or not Ham is a member of the Vikings when they host Green Bay on Sept. 11. O'Connell was an offensive coordinator for a Los Angeles Rams team that rarely used a fullback over the past few years, and given Ham's cap hit, which is the second-highest of any fullback in the NFL this season, makes for an intriguing storyline leading up the the regular season.
GREG "THE LEG?" JOSEPH
The Vikings went to camp without any competition for returning kicker Greg Joseph, but their confidence in the 28-year-old appears warranted. Now, given the Vikings' woeful history at the position, it'll take a lot more than a solid camp to alleviate all concerns, but Joseph has been hitting from lengths that have been, at the very least, promising. Connecting on a 60-yard game-winner in a situational drill during Thursday’s practice is just the latest example.
PHOTOS: Minnesota Vikings training camp | Aug. 2, 2022
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