Sunday, July 29, 2018

Day 2 Training Camp Notebook: Young defensive backs continue to flash for the Vikings

Vikings training camp continued as the team held their final practice without pads. Daniel House takes you inside day two of his notebook. 

Updated: July 29, 2018, 7:10 p.m.
By: Daniel House

Vikings training camp continued as the team held their final practice without pads. The intensity will reach a new level when they hold their first padded practice of the season on Monday. Until then, it’s hard to evaluate players outside of the passing drills. The highly anticipated OL/DL 1-on-1 drills will be on tap for tomorrow’s afternoon session. However, there were a few key takeaways during the second full squad practice of the season for the Vikings.

Diggs makes highlight reel plays, Cousins rebounds in team drills
During team drills, the first team unit was airing the ball out more during the session. Stefon Diggs was dominating throughout the day and won twice off deep route combinations. In the first instance, he put a beautiful double move on Xaiver Rhodes and had about five yards of separation. Kirk Cousins just missed Diggs’ outstretched arms as he dove for the pass. In the next team session, Cousins redeemed himself by driving a fade into a tight window for Diggs, who was running step-for-step with cornerback Trae Waynes. The ball was thrown with impressive accuracy and zip into the small crease. It was the type of pass every team is looking for from a top-tier quarterback. Diggs is such a fun player to watch in practice. During a red zone drill, Cousins fired a quick slant to Diggs, who scored a short touchdown on Trae Waynes. After the play, he was motioning to the crowd and celebrating with his teammates. He practices with so much energy/intensity with each rep and it rubs off on his teammates.

Vikings running backs working on being diverse
The Vikings’ running backs have spent an extensive amount of time working on catching passes out of the backfield. It feels like there’s been an increased emphasis placed on this. All of the backs look really comfortable in this capacity, including Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Out of the players fighting for the No. 3 running back spot, Mike Boone is far and away the most natural pass catcher.

When it comes to rushing the football, Latavius Murray looks more comfortable than he did at any point in camp last year. It felt like Murray was on an uphill climb to recover from an ankle surgery he had late last offseason. Camp is in the early stages, but he looks more explosive and natural in and out of cuts. If he enters the game and complements Dalvin Cook well, it’s an added bonus to the Vikings’ offensive diversity.

Brian O’Neill shows off his agility
Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill has been working at right tackle early in camp. It’s been exclusively with the second team, but he has rotated with the first team when Rashod Hill missed occasional reps. It’s unclear why Hill has been in and out of practice, but it doesn’t seem serious. O’Neill moves extremely well for a player with his type of frame. The offensive line unit ran a box drill during positional drills and O’Neill breezed through it smoothly. His lateral agility and quickness separate him from many offensive line prospects. He is continuing to add weight to his frame, which will be pivotal to his development.

In the first team unit, guard Tom Compton worked with the second team after spending Saturday’s practice session with the starters at left guard. On Sunday, Danny Isidora was at left guard as the Vikings continue to decide which player earns the job. It’s impossible to evaluate offensive line performance without pads and it will be key to determining who wins the job. With the second unit, Josh Andrews moved to right guard after working at center on Saturday. This meant Cornelius Edison slid back to center – his natural position. Monday will be the best day to start evaluating the offensive line.

Zylstra is carving out a role
At wide receiver, Brandon Zylstra was rotating in with the first team unit in multiple wide receiver sets. When the first team went to 4-WR sets, Zylstra and Tavarres King were rotating into the mix. Zylstra gained extensive separation on a drag during a team drills. He was isolated on linebacker Reshard Cliett and won the battle with ease. Zylstra has versatility, great hands and is working on the first team kickoff coverage unit.  

During the 4-WR portion, there wasn’t much action for Kendall Wright. However, he blended into the slot with the first and second team in other sets. Wright can provide value in the short to intermediate game and made a few notable grabs in those situations. However, it’s unclear where he fits on the depth chart right now. His role will likely be clearer as camp progresses.

Barr working with DL in positional drills
Anthony Barr spent positional drills working with the defensive line group. Perhaps he will be used in more of a rushing capacity this season. With his experience at the linebacker position, it doesn’t hurt to have him learn another position to continue adding versatility within his skill-set. Not only that, but it’s another element the Vikings could add to their defense to create additional pressure. Mike Zimmer has talked at length about rotating players more this season. With Barr’s unique ability, the team has flexibility to use him in different ways, such as in a pass rushing role.

Holton Hill makes a splash play, young defensive backs continue to stand out
The Vikings’ young defensive backs continue to learn and grow with every practice rep. There are moments where you see the flashes of brilliance and potential with players like Holton Hill and Mike Hughes. Hill had a notable pass breakup in a 4-on-4 half field drill. Kirk Cousins went deep to Brandon Zylstra on a fade, who was covered tightly by Hill. He perfectly timed the jump and got his long arm into the passing lane. The first person to congratulate Holton Hill after the play was veteran Xavier Rhodes. Early in camp, Rhodes has been spending so much time mentoring defensive backs like Hill and Mike Hughes. The best teams are those who are led by players and that’s the type of thing you see across position groups on the Vikings’ roster.

Holton Hill has shown he likes to play physical in fundamental drills between the WRs and DBs. He has the length and physicality to redirect routes and get into passing lanes. Hill is also gifted athletically and can break on the ball quickly. He continues to grow technically and is constantly working with the coaches between reps.

In addition, Mike Hughes got into a passing lane on a deep throw toward the sideline to Chad Beebe. Hughes has a knack for making plays -- as I discussed in yesterday’s post -- he shows off his fluidity in and out of breaks and transition quickness. The idea of these two young defensive backs growing together with veteran leadership and coaching, is certainly encouraging. One could argue this is shaping up to be one of the deepest defensive back groups in recent memory for the Vikings.

With all of this depth, Marcus Sherels is one player who could be on the fringe when it comes to making the roster. He picked up the first interception of training camp on a Kyle Sloter quick slant intended for Jeff Badet. Sherels jumped the route and received a big cheer from his teammates. He is a player who always seems to find a way on the roster when odds are stacked against him. If the Vikings still value him in the return game, his experience might be enough to keep him around.

Blake Bell is earning more reps, starring on special teams
Tight end Blake Bell has been working with many of the top special teams units, including on the punt teams. If he can not only provide value as a tight end, but on special teams, he might slide onto the roster. In a team drill, he ran a beautiful corner route on Jack Tocho. He used a little physicality at the stem and quickly burst out of the break to complete a one-handed catch outside the hashes. Bell has been working with the second team unit and could compete for the third tight end spot with a strong training camp.

Antwione Williams is a name to watch at linebacker
In a thin linebacker group, I’m very curious to watch Antwione Williams in padded practices. The former fifth-round pick was cut by Detroit before he had much time to develop. When you watch him on the field, you notice his size, length and range. He also is quite physical and had to refrain from delivering a few big hits in the practice sessions. Williams has been working with the second team units and could carve out a role because of his fit in the defense. He is someone you can tell is itching to get the pads on for practice.

Odenigbo looks bigger, working inside
At defensive tackle, I was watching Ifeadi Odenigbo, who had one notable rep against Mike Remmers. Odenigbo looks like he’s bulked up this offseason and has been playing inside. With a group full of young contributors, he’ll need to have a strong training camp and preseason to stand out. However, he was disruptive last year and uses his hands/power really well as a pass rusher. I’ll keep watching him during the OL/DL drills early this week.

Priefer talks return game, kicking battle
Mike Priefer spoke after the walkthrough and said, as it stands now, Mike Hughes will work as the main kick returner, while Marcus Sherels serves as the punt returner. This of course can change instantly, but the Vikings have always valued Sherels’ contributions. Throughout the preseason, Hughes will likely have a chance to show what he can do in the punt return game, too.

Priefer also said the kicker battle between Kai Forbath and Daniel Carlson was “neck and neck” in the spring. He added that Carlson has impressed everyone on kickoffs, but is working to become more consistent with field goals.
As always, it’s important to keep tabs on the special teams depth chart when cuts roll around and battles get tight. Here’s a look at the kickoff team landscape:

First team kickoff coverage: Mike Hughes, Jayron Kearse, Kentrell Brothers, Ben Gedeon, Brandon Zylstra, Eric Wilson, Stephen Weatherly, C.J. Ham, Anthony Harris and Marcus Sherels

First team kickoff return: Anthony Harris, Ben Gedeon, Jayron Kearse, Kentrell Brothers, Eric Wilson, Brandon Zylstra, Stephen Weatherly, Blake Bell, Laquon Treadwell, C.J. Ham

Returners: Mike Hughes, Marcus Sherels, Cayleb Jones, Jeff Badet

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