As Vikings rookies and quarterbacks begin their first practice of training camp Tuesday (the first full-team practice is Friday), their focus is recapturing the NFC North by becoming a well-rounded team again. Major changes on offense, from the hiring of assistant head coach Gary Kubiak to drafting center Garrett Bradbury in the first round, and tweaks on defense and special teams leave no shortage of intrigue for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The Star Tribune’s Andrew Krammer looks at five issues facing the Vikings.
Is Kirk Cousins comfortable?
A year after signing Cousins to a then-record $84 million guaranteed contract, the Vikings hope he’s more comfortable in Minnesota. It’s his first Vikings season in a familiar playbook crafted by coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Kubiak. The first padded practices of camp will provide glimpses of how Cousins operates an offense similar to what he learned in Washington, one that is supposed to lead to better play in critical situations. He’s expected to be under center and throw off play-action more. Coaches are encouraging him to scramble to buy time and yardage. We’ll see how it comes together against a Vikings defense that is one of the league’s best measuring sticks.
How’s the offensive line?
An overhauled line will feature three new starters in the middle between Bradbury, left guard Pat Elflein and right guard Josh Kline. Elflein’s move from center to guard was made in the hope he’ll have less on his plate and can play faster. Bradbury, touted as a smart rookie, will assume the pre-snap protection duties, allowing Elflein to focus on his defender and block. Kline, 29, is the former Titans free agent who will take over at right guard. Left tackle Riley Reiff also has much to prove after struggling through a foot injury last season. Perhaps the biggest question facing this group is, can they run block? That was a key problem for the Vikings’ 30th-ranked run game last season. Right tackle Brian O’Neill and Elflein have said they bulked up this offseason.
What shape is the secondary taking?
Mike Hughes is expected to be a major contributor. The question is — when? Hughes was unable to practice this spring because of a torn ACL suffered in October. It’s unclear if he’ll be ready for the start of training camp. A promising six games as a rookie showed he’s capable of starting on the outside or at slot corner, where Mackensie Alexander improved in 2018. But Alexander and cornerback Trae Waynes are entering contract years, making Hughes a pivotal long-term piece in the secondary’s outlook. He could step into a starting role upon his return, or ease back given the Vikings’ depth. Xavier Rhodes, the No. 1 cornerback, is also an intriguing player to watch, given his fall last season from the All-Pro form he showed in 2017. Coaches are looking for him to rebound.
What’s new with the defense?
The Vikings are going to try some “out-of-the-box things” on defense, coach Mike Zimmer said this offseason. So what will it look like? The defense took on varied looks this spring; Zimmer said some of those were early scout-team fronts to help Cousins and the offense. The Vikings defense had trouble against play-action at times last season, and maybe a wider front could help. One look that may stick is a five-man defensive front featuring ends Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly as well as an interior of Everson Griffen, Shamar Stephen and Linval Joseph. Zimmer likely has plenty of tricks up his sleeve from coverages to blitzes, so don’t be surprised to see something new in training camp as Zimmer evaluates what to keep.
Can Bailey settle kicking woes?
The Vikings kept status quo at kicker when re-signing Dan Bailey to a one-year deal in March. However, they added a new long snapper, Austin Cutting, to compete with incumbent Kevin McDermott. The Vikings also brought in a kicking coach, ex-Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, to improve their field-goal operation alongside first-year special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. This spring, Kaeding worked closely with punter Matt Wile on holds and with Bailey on kickoffs and field goals. This came after Bailey, who signed in Week 3 last season, missed a career-high seven field-goal attempts (one blocked) for the Vikings. Bailey hopes settling into a routine with Wile, who was also an early-season signing, can bring him back to form as the Vikings’ prolonged search for a long-term kicker continues.