When the Minnesota Vikings preseason kicked off August 10, fans (rightfully) had many questions regarding their favorite team. While some players have stepped up, holes around the starting lineup remain. Depth at certain positions remain in question, especially a year after injuries ravaged a once promising season. When the Vikings face the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night at US Bank Stadium, they will be looking for players young and old to seize remaining roster spots. This is the final dress rehearsal for the team before the regular season kicks off, with starters playing most of the first half. Still, when it comes to Sunday’s game, fans should pay attention to the following storylines than the final score.
Minnesota Vikings Preseason Week Three Primer
First-Team Offensive Line
When the Vikings threw big money at veteran offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, they were hoping that they help the Vikings have more stability in an offensive line that rolled out eight different starting combinations in 2016. Then, on the first day of training camp, Reiff left the field with a back injury. After a poor outing in the first preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, guard Alex Boone hurt his knee enough to miss last week’s game on the road against the Seattle Seahawks. While backup guard/center Nick Easton filled in admirably, the Vikings are hoping that they can get their two highest paid linemen on the field together before the regular season starts.
Rookie center Pat Elflein had a solid showing against the Seahawks, not making any glaring mistakes and holding his own in pass protection. Guard Joe Berger and Remmers looked better on the right side in the second game. They helped rookie running back Dalvin Cook pick up 40 yards on six carries, which is much more efficient than any running game the Vikings had last season. With Boone and Reiff expected back this week, expect offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to mix in a lot of run and play action passes during the first half to get the expensive side of the line up to speed.
Defensive Line Looks for its Final Starter
When the Vikings signed veteran defensive end/outside linebacker Datone Jones from the Green Bay Packers this off-season, they envisioned his athletic ability and physique translating better as a defensive tackle, or a three-technique. Where a nose tackle like Linval Joseph lines up over the center, the three-technique lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard. This position is what makes head coach Mike Zimmer‘s defense hum. When he was the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Zimmer had one of the best in the league with Geno Atkins. Before a botched surgery, he had one in Minnesota with Sharrif Floyd. The team was hoping Jones could take that spot from, reliable but ultimately not ideal incumbent, Shamar Stephen.
But Jones has been quiet this preseason, and another veteran acquisition Will Sutton hasn’t splashed much either. Backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson returns for his fourth season with the team, but even with 14 sacks in three seasons as a rotational pass rusher, he leaves much to be desired against the run.
But then rookie Jaleel Johnson blew up several plays at and behind the line of scrimmage in Minnesota’s game at Seattle. Johnson blew past offensive linemen, almost untouched and drew the attention of Pro Football Focus, who gave him the highest grade of any player in the game with an 88.3. If Johnson can repeat that performance with more splash plays against the 49ers, the team will have to take a long look at not only keeping the Iowa product on the active 53 man roster but starting him.
Other Defensive Line Evaluations
Johnson won’t be the only defensive lineman coaches are evaluating Sunday. Even with the starting ends (Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter) and nose tackle (Linval Joseph) locked in, the team has decisions to make behind them. Undrafted end Tashawn Bower has racked up two sacks and has been praised by coaches all of camp, but he isn’t alone in representing the rookies. Seventh-round draft pick Ifeadi Odenigbo has picked up a sack and provided consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the Vikings first two preseason games.
It doesn’t end there, though. Standing in the way of the two rookies is long-time Viking Brian Robison who returns for his 11th season and is the longest tenured player on the team. Even as his starting role decreased last year due to the emergence of Hunter, Robison still racked up 7.5 sacks and added three forced fumbles. He can also rush from the inside, and he is still a leader in the locker room. The Vikings will have to decide how many defensive linemen they are willing to keep on the 53 man roster and maybe hope that they can sneak Bower or Odenigbo through waivers and onto the practice squad.
The Backup Quarterback Position
If anybody knows the importance of the backup quarterback position, it’s the Vikings. While Sam Bradford played and finished all 15 games he started last season, he still has an injury history, and the team is hoping that veteran Case Keenum or young, inexperienced Taylor Heinicke can seize the job as they have both had their share of ups and downs this preseason.
The problem with this is that Heinicke suffered an undisclosed injury against the Seahawks, and while the team said it wasn’t anything too serious, they still signed former Minnesota Gopher Mitch Leidner to fill in while Heinicke is out. Even if the injury isn’t serious, it is just another setback for a talented young quarterback who could have taken the backup spot last season if not for a Bruce Lee inspired accident. And while Pat Shurmur suggested that the team may keep a third quarterback on the roster to develop, it’s very possible that Heinicke is running out of opportunities to establish himself.
So instead of losing hair over the final score or watching Game of Thrones, fans should tune in and keep these position battles in mind because they will play a large part in shaping the 2017 Vikings.