Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Five Intriguing Position Battles to Monitor vs. Buffalo

Photo: Rant Sports

The Vikings closed training camp and will travel to Buffalo on Thursday for their first preseason game of the 2017 season. Daniel House has five position groups you should monitor as the Vikings kick off the season. 

Updated: August 9, 2017, 1:25 p.m.

By: Daniel House

The Vikings closed training camp and will travel to Buffalo on Thursday for their first preseason game of the 2017 season. It will be an opportunity to evaluate young players in live action for the first time. There are several position groups with competitions that will reach another level during live action. After seeing these players in practices, there are a few areas you should closely monitor as the Vikings take the field.

The Defensive Line Rotation
Perhaps the most enticing battle during the preseason will take place on the Vikings’ defensive line. The team has so much talent at the interior and edge spots. How the coaches trim this position group will shape the entire roster. Thursday night will be the first time we can evaluate these players against another opponent.

The fourth defensive end spot is up for grabs between defensive ends Stephen Weatherly, Tashawn Bower, and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Weatherly has developed more of his length and athleticism by improving his pass rushing moves. However, he’ll need to be consistent in the preseason with Bower and Odenigbo clicking at his heels. In the early stages of camp, Bower made noise with his athleticism and quickness as a pass rusher. He was starting to be more precise with his pass rushing angles as camp evolved, too. Out of the three, Ifeadi Odenigbo probably made the most noise. He was squaring up against third-tier players for most of camp, but stood out after he moved up the depth chart. He is a power rusher with a developed long arm jab, push pull, and bull rush. Odenigbo is a playmaker and could make a few splash plays in the preseason.

The battle inside also poses an interesting storyline. Outside of Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, the other three defensive tackle spots are up for grabs. The Vikings signed Datone Jones in free agency and Shamar Stephen had an impressive camp. Jones wasn’t a big standout, but the preseason will provide more clarity up front. Could Jones be released in favor of a young player like Will Sutton? It certainly will be dependent upon the exhibition games. At this point, Jones and Stephen appear poised to claim a roster spot, along with fourth round draft pick Jaleel Johnson. It means a player like Will Sutton will need to have a strong preseason in order to edge a veteran like Datone Jones.

Cook makes his NFL debut, the wide receiver battle heats up
Rookie running back Dalvin Cook will make his NFL debut Thursday night on his 22nd birthday. Cook was one of the most impressive players on the field during training camp. He displayed how dynamic he can be out of the backfield. Whether it’s running out of the shotgun or pass catching, Cook gets to the edge and shows his above average lateral agility and vision. His cutbacks are so smooth when he gets a small crease. When Cook makes his debut against the Bills, fans will quickly see the talent he brings to the running back room.

In addition, it will be the first opportunity to see wide receivers Cayleb Jones, Isaac Fruechte, Stacy Coley, and Rodney Adams in game action. Adams struggled to get separation during certain portions of practice, while Coley progressed throughout camp. Cayleb Jones made frequent splash plays, showing his vertical playmaking ability. He'll need carve out a role on special teams, which is a strength for Isaac Fruechte. Nonetheless, Jones has more upside as a receiver than Fruechte. The way all of these players perform on special teams, along with their offensive contributions will dictate who snatches the final wide receiver spot while Michael Floyd serves his suspension. 

The Backup Quarterback Spot
Early in camp, quarterback Taylor Heinicke showed improved arm strength and accuracy when throwing to the sideline. As camp progressed, Heinicke was less consistent and accurate throwing up the field. On the other hand, veteran Case Keenum flashed in the red zone, dominating drills inside the 20-yard-line. Keenum performed well when he was asked to throw with more touch and less arm strength. It was particularly noticeable when he threw the ball deep down the field. The backup quarterback spot has narrowed and Mike Zimmer said Tuesday that the next two preseason games will be critical to evaluate who is in the lead. Both Heinicke and Keenum will see extended action Thursday night and it will be worth watching how they handle different fronts and reads that are thrown their way in Buffalo.

The Weakside Linebacker Rotation
The starting weakside linebacker position in the base 4-3 defense will be settled in the preseason. Thursday will be the first time we can evaluate linebackers in live action. It is much easier to evaluate this positon in games because there is live contact. Linebackers Edmond Robinson and Emmanuel Lamur have been rotating throughout training camp, but neither of them made too much noise. Robinson had a few run stops and an interception, but Lamur was rather quiet. Mike Zimmer has been rotating rookie Ben Gedeon into the weakside spot, too. Gedeon is a very tough and physical player that can be the enforcer of this defense. Despite limited contact, he was making run stops throughout camp and might have an opportunity to work his way into the lineup. Zimmer said the coaches will be frequently rotating players on both sides of the ball. Gedeon certainly will see plenty of snaps in the preseason to prove he is worthy of a starting role. Thursday night will be his first opportunity. 

The Kicker and Punter Battle
Leaving training camp, the two areas with the least clarity among positional battles are kicker and punter. Kickers Marshall Koehn and Kai Forbath were both inconsistent in kicking drills, missing from a variety of makeable distances. Forbath probably has the edge, but it’s still very close. In this game, they’ll both be forced to kick under pressure within game situations. The same is the case for the punters on the roster. Punter Taylor Symmank has a bigger leg, but not nearly as much hangtime on his punts. Veteran Ryan Quigley has the hangtime, but not nearly as much distance. The preseason will be a time to see how these specialists handle in-game situations, rather than manufactured practice scenarios.

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