Seven starters from last year’s playoff team will not return to the Vikings in 2020, creating opportunity for rookie newcomers and veteran holdovers alike.
Free-agent departures and releases this offseason included receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Everson Griffen, nose tackle Linval Joseph, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander and right guard Josh Kline. The Vikings added with a 15-rookie draft class, the NFL’s largest in the seven-round era; that group included first rounders in receiver Justin Jefferson and cornerback Jeff Gladney. A failed pursuit for former Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who was traded to San Francisco during draft weekend, led to second-round tackle Ezra Cleveland addressing another priority.
General Manager Rick Spielman said the three remaining roster openings could be filled with undrafted rookies, veterans or “minor trades.” Otherwise, the training camp roster is pretty well set. Here’s how it breaks down after the draft.
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Jake Browning and Nate Stanley.
The Vikings kept two quarterbacks last year on the 53-man roster for the fourth time in the last five years, stashing undrafted passer Browning on the practice squad. All three quarterbacks return in 2020 with the addition of seventh round pick, the ex-Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback. The Vikings re-signed Mannion to a one-year deal; he was the No. 2 behind Cousins last season.
Running back: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah and Tony Brooks-James.
The Vikings maintained status quo in the backfield after finishing sixth in the NFL in rushing. Spielman has made clear the Vikings intend re-sign Cook to a multiyear extension, and the team’s negotiations with star players typically pick up after the draft. Cook is again expected to carry a heavy workload with Mattison running in relief. Boone will be a restricted free agent next spring.
Fullback: C.J. Ham and Jake Bargas.
Ham has become an indispensable part of the Vikings offense because of how much he does for a running game that sets up the passing game. The Vikings recognized this when signing Ham to a four-year, $12 million extension this spring. He’ll likely be the only fullback on the 53-man roster again.
Receiver: Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Bisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe, Chad Beebe, Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis, Alexander Hollins, K.J. Osborn, Dan Chisena, Quartney Davis and Bralon Addison.
Replacing Diggs with Jefferson, national-champion LSU’s most productive receiver, could turn into a seamless swap. There’s a logjam behind Thielen and Jefferson, which should make intense competition for depth. Johnson and Sharpe, the ex-Titans receiver who signed a one-year deal in free agency, lead the rest of an inexperienced group.
Tight end: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon and Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
The Vikings stuck with the versatile pecking order of Rudolph, Smith Jr. and Conklin, adding only undrafted free agent Griffin-Stewart — a blocking specialist — for depth. After seeing more snaps and targets toward the end of his rookie season, Smith Jr. may be expected to take another step forward. Rudolph will have a role, regardless, in the Vikings’ two-tight end formations.
Left tackle: Riley Reiff, Ezra Cleveland and Blake Brandel.
Left guard: Pat Elflein, Aviante Collins and Tyler Higby.
Center: Garrett Bradbury, Brett Jones and Jake Lacina.
Right guard: Dakota Dozier, Dru Samia, Brady Aiello and Kyle Hinton.
Right tackle: Brian O’Neill, Rashod Hill and Oli Udoh.
More than half the Vikings offensive linemen — nine of 16 — are first- or second-year players. Another wave of talent will remake the depth chart with spotlight on left tackle, where Reiff will “hold down the fort,” according to Spielman, until Cleveland proves ready. Could Reiff play guard? The team has considered the move. There’s “wide-open” competition at both guard spots, Spielman said.
Defensive end: Danielle Hunter, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Anthony Zettel, Eddie Yarbrough, D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes and Stacy Keely.
Replacing Griffen and Weatherly was addressed with two moves in signing ex-49ers end Anthony Zettel, a veteran run defender who last had a sack for the Lions in 2017, and fourth-round rookie D.J. Wonnum, a developmental project. Odenigbo, the No. 4 end last year, could step into the starting role after shining as a reserve.
Defensive tackle: Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, James Lynch, Jalyn Holmes and David Moa
The Vikings’ top free-agent dollar went to Pierce, the former Ravens nose tackle, to replace Joseph. Pierce’s three-year, $27 million deal should maintain the wall in front of middle linebacker Eric Kendricks. Lynch, a fourth-round pick, will compete for playing time behind Stephen at three-technique defensive tackle with Johnson, Holmes and Mata’afa.
Weakside linebacker: Eric Wilson, Ben Gedeon, Troy Dye and DeMarquis Gates.
Middle linebacker: Eric Kendricks and Jordan Fehr.
Strongside linebacker: Anthony Barr, Cameron Smith and Blake Lynch.
The fourth-round pick of Dye, a tackling machine out of Oregon, projects to give the Vikings another special teams ace after Kentrell Brothers was not re-signed. Dye could also be a weakside option after this season. Wilson and Gedeon are scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next spring.
Cornerback: Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, Kris Boyd, Holton Hill, Harrison Hand, Nate Meadors, Nevelle Clarke, Marcus Sayles, Mark Fields and Kemon Hall.
Three draft picks — Gladney, Dantzler and Hand — as well as a top undrafted signing in Nevelle Clarke restocked the cupboard at cornerback after every starter left in free agency. Head coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t play rookie cornerbacks very often, and this group is getting coached online for now.
Slot cornerback (nickel): Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney and Nate Meadors.
Experience has generally led to playing time as the Vikings slot defender, but the team expressed confidence in Gladney’s ability to learn that role. Hughes may take the lead as the only experienced slot defender on the roster.
Safety: Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Josh Metellus, Brian Cole and Myles Dorn.
The Vikings tried to trade Harris after using the franchise tag for the first time since 2011. But a worthwhile offer didn’t surface, and Spielman said they’re glad to have the back end of the secondary solidified behind inexperienced corners. Rookies Metellus, Cole and Dorn will compete for reserve roles after Jayron Kearse and Andrew Sendejo were not re-signed.
Kicker: Dan Bailey.
Punter: Britton Colquitt.
Long snapper: Austin Cutting.
Kick returner: Abdullah and Hughes.
Punt returner: Hughes, Beebe and Osborn.
Bailey, Colquitt and Cutting return unchallenged. Osborn, the fifth-round receiver, led the ACC averaging 15.9 yards per punt return during his lone season at the University of Miami. The rookie is expected to compete for the job, where Hughes and Beebe are the most experienced candidates. Abdullah ranked 13th last season with 25 yards per kickoff return.