On Day 4 of the Pro Football Focus training camp tour, analyst John Kosko traveled to Mankato, Minn., to take in Minnesota Vikings camp.
MANKATO, Minn. – 2016 will be the Minnesota Vikings’ first season since 2010 with a target on their backs as they look to defend their NFC North division crown. They’ll have fierce competition with the Green Bay Packers presumably improving with the return of WR Jordy Nelson, and the upgrades the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions have made this offseason. The Vikings kick off their first preseason game at Cincinnati on Aug. 12, and will have a different look along the O-line, but remain largely unchanged on defense from a year ago.
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Can Laquon Treadwell elevate Teddy Bridgewater, offense to new heights?
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was expected to take a sophomore leap in 2015 after impressing as a rookie in the second half of 2014. Injuries to the offensive line and a receiving group that underwhelmed held Bridgewater back as he regressed slightly from his rookie campaign. GM Rick Spielman addressed the O-line depth this offseason by bringing in LG Alex Boone (49ers) and RT Andre Smith (Bengals), and selected WR Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss) in the first round of the 2016 draft. Easily the player that can make the biggest impact is Treadwell, with the ability to give Teddy confidence in the passing game.
Currently, Treadwell is taking the majority of the training-camp reps with the second-team unit behind Charles Johnson. Johnson struggled in 2015 with injuries and never improved after a surprisingly-productive 2014. Treadwell had some issues on the second day of camp as he dropped a handful of passes in drills, one-on-ones, and skeleton. He’s still learning the offense, but was blanketed in coverage for most of the day, including one pass that was intercepted when thrown his way when the cornerback basically ran the route for Treadwell.
Despite the early struggles, the PFF analysis team expects Treadwell to improve throughout camp and emerge as the starter opposite Stefon Diggs. While we weren’t overly impressed with Treadwell coming out of college, we still saw him as a late-first/early-second-round prospect. Treadwell impresses with short routes—especially slants—and producing yards after the catch and after contact. He struggles to separate from defensive backs on intermediate and deep routes—evident in camp thus far.
While Treadwell graded well at Ole Miss, his speed and inability to separate could hold him back this year. Expect Stefon Diggs to continue to be the No. 1 WR for at least the first half of the season. Diggs was impressive as a rookie, but had a shaky second half of the season, which can be attributed to defenses not being threatened by anyone else on the roster. With defenses respecting Treadwell early in the season, Diggs should see some good production. Treadwell will likely become the No. 1 guy eventually—it just might not happen this year.
How will new offensive line pieces fit together?
With the addition of Smith and Boone, the Vikings also get C John Sullivan back healthy for 2016. Sullivan has graded very well the past four seasons he has played, and all indications are that he’ll earn back his starting spot over Joe Berger, PFF’s second-highest-graded center of 2015. On day one of camp, Sullivan ran first-team reps over Berger, but on day two, Berger ran all first-team snaps. The coaches have spoken highly of Sullivan, praising his communication skills, while not giving the same type of praise for Berger.
At the right tackle spot, Andre Smith and T.J. Clemmings will have a competition as the coaches had the same rotation that they employed with the centers—Smith the day-one starter, then Clemmings the day-two starter. Neither graded well last year, ranking 63rd (Clemmings) and 64th (Smith) at the position in terms of overall grade in 2015. Smith has shown he can play well in the past, but four years is a long time in the NFL, and Clemmings struggled as a rookie when he wasn’t expected to see the field much. We expect Smith to emerge as the starter, but this battle will be closely watched.
Can Trae Waynes emerge as starting CB, live up to first-round status?
Trae Waynes was the first cornerback taken in the 2015 draft, but only played 215 snaps last season. He didn’t grade well in college, and PFF had a second-day grade on Waynes, so when the Vikings picked him 11th overall, it seemed like a stretch. This isn’t to say that Waynes can’t be a good cornerback in the league, but there is a lot of risk involved when selecting projects in the first round. In preseason and throughout the 2015 season, he still showed the same struggles he had in college, which are covering underneath routes—mainly outs, digs, and comebacks.
So, how did Waynes look on day two of camp after an offseason with an NFL program? Largely the same, as he struggled to cover quicker WRs on deep outs, crossing routes, and deep comebacks. He was tested deep, but that has always been an elite trait of his, and he covered those posts and go-routes well. If the Vikings want to make the leap from division champs to conference champs, first-round picks like Waynes will need to make big improvements and become impactful players. Any player can have one bad day at camp, but when it’s on top of the same issues he’s had in the past, it becomes concerning that his development will take longer than hoped.
Other camp notes:
– Moritz Böhringer, known as “MoBo,” has a steep learning curve, but didn’t look out of place on the practice field. He impressed with his size, speed, and movement skills, but did drop a couple of passes in drills. Böhringer will have a shot to make the team, as the depth in the receiving corps isn't overly impressive.
– Bridgewater's deep ball looked really good on Saturday. He threw two 40+ yard passes that were perfectly placed to lead his receiver in stride. Despite throwing an interception early in practice, the Vikings' signal caller looked good in his third training camp.
– No changes to defensive depth chart so far. The Vikings had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season, and head coach Mike Zimmer isn’t changing that unit just yet. There will be competition with the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith, but other than that, no major battles have become apparent.