Vikings training camp kicks off next week and it's time to start thinking about potential "Mr. Mankato" award winners. Daniel House posts part two of this training camp preview series.
Updated: July 16, 2018, 12:50 p.m.
By: Daniel House
Every year, there's one underrated player who bursts onto the scene and earns the 1500ESPN Mr. Mankato Award. The official odds haven't been released yet, but it doesn't mean we can't start looking at potential candidates. Here is part two of a two-part series analyzing underrated players on the Vikings' roster.
If you missed part one, here is the link.
TE- Tyler Conklin- Central Michigan
Over the past few seasons, the Vikings have been searching for a mismatch tight end to stress all three levels of a defense. They spent a fifth-round pick on Central Michigan product Tyler Conklin in an attempt to add another element to their offense. A former NAIA basketball player, Conklin played just two seasons of college football. Last year, he appeared in just five games after suffering a Jones fracture in his foot. However, a holistic review of his tape shows he has athletic traits, including excellent leaping ability. He also ran a wide variety of different routes and can be flexed out to create favorable matchups. Conklin closed out his collegiate career by tallying 28 catches for 406 yards and five touchdowns. He also grabbed 42 receptions for 560 yards and six touchdowns as a junior.
Perhaps the Vikings could run more two tight end sets with Conklin and Kyle Rudolph on the field at the same time. Conklin has shown he create after the catch and block in-line, which also provides more flexibility in terms of how he can be used. It will be worth seeing how he transitions to the physicality of playing at the next level, but his body control is a trait that can be molded around. I recently wrote a piece on the value Conklin could provide. He is someone who may be heavily involved during training camp and the preseason as the team evaluates his performance.
WR- Brandon Zylstra- CFL- Edmonton
The pride of Spicer, Minn., Brandon Zylstra ripped up the Canadian Football League (CFL), leading the league in receiving. He posted five touchdowns to go along with 100 catches and 1,687 receiving yards in Edmonton last year. He starred at receiver for the Concordia-Moorhead Cobbers, a Division-3 football program in northern Minnesota. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Zylstra is a big target with underrated ability to create after the catch. He can play from the slot or on the outside, offering versatility for offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Zylstra was behind some of the Eskimos’ most explosive passing plays of 20-plus yards last season.
He has reportedly been impressive during OTAs and mini-camp as well, even drawing some praise from offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
“That guy continues to impress,” DeFilippo said. “We’re very fortunate he’s on our football team. People are going to have a hard time getting up in his face and pressing him,” he added. “He has tremendous hands, he’s smart. He’s one of the guys that can line up anywhere. We could put him at any position.”
Zylstra has every chance to claim one of the final roster spots, but he’ll need to show he can contribute on special teams early in his career.
CB- Holton Hill- Texas
Cornerback Holton Hill was a top-50 talent, but slid into undrafted free agency due to reported off-the-field concerns. If the Vikings can keep Hill focused on football and help him mature, the potential is extremely high. Players like Xavier Rhdoes and veteran Terence Newman are leaders who could take Hill under their wings. Hill has versatility because of his length, athleticism and range. This offseason, I wrote about how his skills could fit within the Vikings’ system. He could play in the box, cover on the outside, or even kick out to safety. Probably the best aspect of his game is how he can tackle in space. Hill made numerous physical plays against quick developing routes or runs.
He will need to continue improving his technique and footwork at the next level to become less grabby. He also often gets into passing lanes for breakups, but his ball skills continue to evolve. The ceiling is extremely high for Hill, especially considering he might be in one of the best situations to develop his game to another level. He is one player who could burst onto the scene in training camp/preseason and make a few splash plays.
QB- Kyle Sloter- Northern Colorado via Denver Broncos
Quarterback Kyle Sloter was a late addition to the Vikings’ roster following cuts last August. He put together an excellent preseason campaign, but the Broncos released him with hopes to slide him onto the practice squad. Denver invested resources into Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler, to go along with Paxton Lynch, a 2016 first round draft pick. It was hard for the Broncos to justify cutting one of those players in favor of a converted wide receiver out of Northern Colorado. A year later, the entire quarterback room has been ripped to shreds.
Sloter performed well in Denver, completing 72 percent of his passes (31-for-43) for 413 yards and three touchdowns.
I'm curious to see #Vikings QB Kyle Sloter in training camp. Last preseason, he turned heads in Denver with limited experience at QB (converted WR). He's someone that can develop in the shadows w/ JDF-Stefanski. Arm strength, ability to drive the ball, and accurate on the run. pic.twitter.com/2lZ3GdTReo— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) July 15, 2018
The Vikings quickly snatched Sloter up and coached him throughout last season. Sloter has some of the key traits you look for in developmental quarterbacks. It includes arm strength, an ability to drive the football and accuracy down the field. He has work to do mechanically, but the traits are certainly there.
A converted wide receiver from Northern Colorado, Sloter was still learning the position last year. He was slinging passes almost entirely off instinct and ability. Since I didn’t have the chance to watch Sloter in training camp last year, he will be one of the more fascinating players to see in action. With the arm strength, touch, accuracy and ability to throw on the run, he has a few of the raw traits necessary to become a quarterback of the future. Now, it’s all about putting it together and continuing to develop mechanically. That’s a big if, but Sloter’s development is definitely worth tracking.
During his second season in the league, he could again light up the preseason with a new team.
RB- Roc Thomas- Jacksonville State
The third running back spot is up for grabs and the Vikings have two intriguing candidates who will battle in training camp. Roc Thomas was one of the top running backs in the state of Alabama in high school. He quickly contributed at Auburn, starting two games as a freshman. However, a concussion and elbow injuries caused him to fall down the depth chart during his sophomore season. Thomas decided to transfer to Jacksonville State in hopes of earning more playing time.
Last season, Roc earned the starting job and rushed for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns on 178 carries.
There is no doubting the overall talent and upside associated with Thomas’ skill-set. He runs with excellent burst and above average agility. When he jump cuts in the second level, he is very elusive and tough to bring down. Thomas also isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and grind out yardage after contact. The main area he needs to improve is his overall vision. There are several runs where he will try to force himself into a crease when he has a backside option available. He has intriguing traits to work with and could provide value in the return game.Say hello to Roc Thomas, #Vikings fans. An athletic player with excellent agility and lower body explosion (tested well in broad and vertical jumps). I think he plays way faster than he tested. Capable in the passing game, too. 3rd down change of pace RB. pic.twitter.com/JRjeLgPhev— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) April 30, 2018
RB- Mike Boone- Cincinnati
If you could combine the skill-sets of Mike Boone and Roc Thomas, you’d have an extremely talented No. 2 running back. However, each of them provide interesting strengths and different traits that can be developed. Boone was a name many reporters were discussing during OTAs and mini-camp. I recently noted the similar testing measures between Boone and former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon. On tape, you see a player who runs with balance and keeps his feet moving when facing contact.
Boone creates a plethora of yards after contact, but didn’t show off all the explosiveness you’d expect. Some of this is attributed to nagging injuries, including a foot problem during his final season in Cincy. He still posted more than 650 yards and nine touchdowns in each of his first two seasons in college. When healthy, he has shown what he can do, especially as a receiver and pass blocker. Those are strengths which could elevate him over the top in the race for Minnesota’s No. 3 running back job. The key for Boone will be proving he can stay healthy and contribute when called upon.
DE- Ade Aruna- Tulane
Sixth-round pick Ade Aruna is the definition of a player with testing measurables that jump off the charts. He posted a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical jump, and a 10'8" broad jump. This is an impressive accomplishment with a 6-foot-5, 262-pound frame and 34-inch arms. Aruna has limited experience playing football and came to American from Nigeria to pursue a basketball career (once played against Andrew Wiggins).
During his senior year, a coach convinced him to give football a try because of all of his unique physical tools. It was enough to earn a scholarship to Tulane, where he started 34 games. He posted just 12 career sacks, but added 19 tackles for loss. Aruna was semi-disruptive, but almost entirely won off shear athleticism and gifted ability. He is the perfect prospect for defensive line coach Andre Patterson to develop over the next couple years. With all of the athletic traits, combined with strength and power, Aruna could take another step if he can tighten up his technique. The Vikings may need time to elevate his game, but he is one of the prototype pass rushers the team can invest developmental resources into. During training camp, many eyes will be on Aruna in 1-on-1 drills as he learns on the fly.