The Vikings will have 11 padded practices, five below the league maximum of 16, during Kevin O'Connell's first training camp, as the new head coach continues to recalibrate the Vikings' schedule with the hope of keeping players fresher for a 17-game regular season. The team will not go more than four days without a day off during camp.
The approach, which builds on what O'Connell did in the team's offseason program, represents a departure from the way the Vikings ran camps in eight years under Mike Zimmer. But it comes with a tradeoff: O'Connell's staff still needs to teach new schemes — including a shift to a 3-4 defense — to a roster that will spend less time in pads than it has in recent training camps.
If the coach aims to field both a healthy and high-performing team for his first NFL regular-season game against the Packers on Sept. 11, he'll do it by emphasizing quality over quantity.
"You guys will hear me say this phrase a couple of times: 'When we're going, we gotta go,'" O'Connell said Tuesday, when the full team reported to camp. "We've done our due diligence through the whole month of the volume of work we put in, but when we put those pads on, it's just not that many opportunities to prepare your team and for our individual players, individual phases of offense, defense and special teams to feel prepared. There's no other way than to go full-compete, good on good."
The Vikings kept much of their on-field work under restraint during organized team activities and minicamp, shortening practices and asking linemen to work at reduced speeds to limit the physical toll on those players while skill position players could work at higher capacities without as many issues.
Three of the Vikings' most important defensive players — Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks — are entering their 12th, 11th and eighth NFL seasons, respectively. Their two most important pass rushers (Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith) played a combined seven regular-season games last season. Free-agent addition Jordan Hicks is in his eighth year; defensive linemen Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson are in Years 5 and 6.
For those players, there's perhaps as much to be gained in study sessions as in on-field work as the Vikings try to rebuild a defense that was ranked near the bottom of the league the past two seasons.
For others like safety Lewis Cine and cornerback Andrew Booth, camp is a crucible in which to learn the Vikings' systems and prove themselves ready to start as rookies. And for first-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, the challenge is avoiding the temptation NFL teams might already have to overemphasize what they see during a small set of padded practices when making final roster decisions.
"You come in with a belief about what you think somebody is," Adofo-Mensah said. "And every new data point you get is some new information. How do you change your prior belief based on that new information that you got? How much was that new information? How different was that new information from your prior belief? Those are all kinds of things you gotta kind of factor in.
"Thankfully, I've had experience in the NFL doing this at other organizations and feel good about the process we have in place. There's a lot of chance to have a recency bias and things like that, to be overconfident or over-hopeful and again we have a lot of processes in place like that."
For it all to work, the Vikings need to make the most of the plans Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell put together. "And a lot of that," Harrison Smith said, "is on the players.
"Kevin's told us kind of how he wants to see things go, and that's up to us to lock in in those moments and not goof off and stuff like that. I think we have a good group of guys that'll do that. Over the length of such a long season and into the playoffs, there's a lot of reps that add up, so it makes a lot of sense to not beat ourselves up too much."
Key dates for Vikings training camp
Wednesday: First full team practice
Saturday: First practice open to fans
Monday: First padded practice
Aug. 8: Night practice at TCO Stadium
Aug. 14: Preseason opener at Las Vegas, 3:25 p.m.
Aug. 17-18: Joint practices with the 49ers
Aug. 20: Only home preseason game, vs. San Francisco, 6 p.m.