The Vikings have all but two starters from their 2021 offense returning this season, and one of those spots will have a new starter only because of an injury: Irv Smith Jr., who was set to be the starting tight end, tore his meniscus in training camp last year, setting up Tyler Conklin to catch 61 passes that got him a free-agent deal from the Jets.
That leaves right guard, where either Jesse Davis, Chris Reed or rookie Ed Ingram will be the Vikings' 18th different player to start at guard since 2016.
"We've got several guys that are very capable of playing that position, so we feel good about that, whoever ends up kind of really solidifying that spot, but right now Jesse's been doing a great job with the ones," offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said last week. "Chris Reed is doing a nice job, and [second-round] Ed Ingram is doing a nice job. There's just some things as a rookie, it's going to take you a minute to get the techniques that we're asking, whereas Jesse's such a veteran he's been in so many systems that he's done a lot of things a lot of different ways. Probably picked it up a little bit faster in the new system."
The Vikings began padded practices on Monday with Davis taking the majority of snaps with the first-team offense. The Vikings held him out of practice last Friday to help him rest a previous injury to his right knee.
Davis, who spent the past five seasons with the Dolphins, said Miami had him on a similar plan in training camp to manage his knee and still get him plenty of work. He played 92.2% of the Dolphins' snaps last season, spending most of the year at right tackle and logging two games at left guard.
"Knowing how my body responded to the first two weeks of camp [last year], my knee would swell up a little bit," Davis said. "It wouldn't be any big issue, but it was like, if we can avoid certain things, let's try to do it. It's great they're working with me and taking care of me. ... We're not here to see who's the toughest guy on the field. We're here to work smart and win games, ultimately."
Davis, 30, is taking time to refine his technique at guard after spending so much time at tackle.
"It's just getting back into the swing of things, especially at guard," he said. "I feel pretty comfortable doing it, because my eye progression's doing pretty well. It's just getting pad level — the normal O-lineman things, hand placements. Those things are going to come. It's just how I'm going to get sharp and how fast I can get there."
The Vikings ran the ball effectively on their first day in pads, where Reed worked at left guard with the second-team offense.
Reed, who got a two-year, $4.5 million contract from the Vikings that included $500,000 guaranteed, started six games for the Colts last year. The Minnesota State Mankato product stepped in at right guard when Davis was out on Friday, and he also worked at center this offseason.
He turned in some of his best work for the Colts when All-Pro Quenton Nelson was out with COVID-19 last December, and whether or not he ends up as a starter for the Vikings, the 30-year-old's versatility could make him the kind of important piece the team largely has missed since Joe Berger retired in 2018.
Reed spent much of his offseason training while chasing his 18-month-old daughter, Brynnley Rae, around the house. In his first camp with the Vikings, he's working to make an impression no matter where he lines up.
"I could have great film last year, but if I'm not practicing well and doing well in camp, it doesn't matter, because this is a different year," Reed said. "It's just all about me getting better and holding up my teammates around me."
The two veterans, and the Vikings' second-round pick, will compete for perhaps the only open job on the offense.
If all goes well, one of them could form a tandem with left guard Ezra Cleveland and bring some stability to a position that's had little of it in recent years.
"That's still very, very fluid with a lot of guys competing on the interior of our offensive line right there," head coach Kevin O'Connell said. "They've all put themselves in a position, and rightly so, to get reps, to truly be evaluated. 'What do guys do well? What's the best five look like that we can put together?' And then how those critical depth pieces — your swing tackle, your backup center, your interior backups — what can they do from a versatility standpoint to help you feel good going into every game that, no matter what happens, you'll be in good shape?"