Dalton Risner was at the neighborhood park in Pradera, Colo,, on Monday, his cleats puncturing the grass as he practiced pass sets while children climbed playground equipment nearby. This had been part of his routine for weeks, for far longer than he expected, while former teammates prepared for the regular season and the call for which Risner had waited never came.
He'd been a free agent for six months, after starting 62 games in his first four seasons with the Denver Broncos. Risner had heard from 16 teams, visited the Vikings' facility in August as part of his tour of prospective employers, responded to fans on social media pining for the team to sign him and posted workout videos he hoped would pique a NFL general manager's interest, but none of it produced the offer he was seeking.
On Monday, his workout was interrupted with the call from his agent he'd been hoping to receive.
"He said, 'Hey, I think a deal's getting done with Minnesota today,'" Risner said. "I had a visit [scheduled] with a team [Tuesday] night that I was going to sign a deal with. Maybe that put pressure on them, I'm not sure. But the Vikings swooped in."
The team's decision to give Risner a one-year deal, worth nearly $4 million with $2.25 million guaranteed, quickly turned weeks of cursory conversations into action that brought the 28-year-old to Minnesota in a rush. Risner's first practice with the Vikings came Wednesday, and he will hastily learn a playbook that differs from the one he used in Denver.
If the pace at which he must prepare for his first Vikings game feels similar to the one T.J. Hockenson used last November after a trade deadline deal, so does the urgency with which the Vikings are addressing their biggest offensive needs during the season.
They followed the Risner move on Wednesday afternoon with a deal for former Rams running back Cam Akers, who worked with coach Kevin O'Connell and offensive coordinator Wes Phillips in Los Angeles. The moves, coming days after the Vikings' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles dropped them to 0-2, represent concerted attempts to help a run game that ranks last in the NFL in both yards and attempts.
O'Connell did not project when Risner might see the field or specify where he could line up, and Risner, who'd played left guard in Denver, did his best to sound flexible on Wednesday. But the fact the Vikings gave him a deal four days after they struggled to handle a skilled defensive front and lost another lineman in Philadelphia, suggests they could be counting on him before too long.
They practiced without center Garrett Bradbury, who remained out with a back injury on Wednesday, and had left tackle Christian Darrisaw for only part of the practice because of an ankle injury that kept him out of the Eagles game. Swing tackle Oli Udoh is on injured reserve with a torn quadriceps tendon, and the Vikings have struggled to open space for running back Alexander Mattison.
"I don't really want to get into the 'Why [we decided to sign Risner] now?' O'Connell said. "We feel good about our depth there. Now, we allow it's hard to have competition in season with the type of reps where we're preparing for an opponent versus look teams, but we will obviously have to make decisions to get the best five guys on the field. What that looks like, I can't tell you right now timelines for that.
"I do know Dalton is very intelligent. He's champing at the bit to get going and got here as fast as he could, but he's still only been here for one walk-through at this point and we're about to start our Wednesday practice to prepare for the Chargers, so a lot to be determined."
On Wednesday, Risner suited up for his first practice in nine months, as a Vikings staffer placed his nameplate above his locker just as the guard was talking with Twin Cities reporters for the first time. He paused to consider the various theories that had been offered to explain his long stay on the free agent market — perhaps a soft market for guards, concerns over his sideline spat with teammate Brett Rypien last December or teams thinking he had a subpar 2022 season — before allowing that the initial contract proposals he received were for less money than he believed he was worth.
"I'm not a guy that thinks I've got to get everything I'm worth, or even half, or even a quarter," Risner said. "Listen, I just wanted to play football, but I wasn't willing to do it for what some of these teams did. Came on a visit [to Minnesota], loved the visit. Where I was at and where the Vikings were at just wasn't matching up. So I think they took some time, and I think some things happened; maybe injuries. It was like, 'OK, we want you to come in now.' [I said,] 'OK, I'm ready to go. Let's rock and roll.'"
Whether his chance to play comes this week or later this year, he's returning with plenty he wants to prove.
"I feel like I'm a really good guard in the NFL," he said. "Me being available when I was shows the exact opposite. As a good teammate and a man of God, I know the way I shouldn't come in here and act, so I'm not going to be that way. If I'm ever given that opportunity, it's going to be a different person that comes out, because there's a lot I want to show the world of football."