The Minnesota Vikings will host the Denver Broncos for a series of joint practices later this week ahead of the first preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Many teams across the NFL hold joint practices, and Broncos head coach Vic Fangio spoke about how beneficial they are:
“At a certain point, you start knowing your players and your schemes on either side of the ball,” he said. “It’s just good to go cover somebody different as a defensive back. It’s good to pass block somebody as an offensive lineman, and the pass rush is different against offensive linemen.”
The pads went on last week, and at this point in training camp, teams have most, if not all, of their playbooks installed. More competitions are starting to take shape, and practicing against a different team pushes everything forward.
From offensive line to receiver and linebacker depth, a lot must come to fruition by the end of the summer for the Vikings. The right guard competition is one of them; right now, the Vikings have third-year offensive lineman Oli Udoh and guard Dakota Dozier as the primary competition, with rookie Wyatt Davis lurking in the background.
While Udoh and Dozier both receive first-team snaps in practice, it seems as if the proportion is shifting. In the last two practices (Monday and last Saturday at scrimmage), Udoh has been with the first team in 11-on-11s and red-zone drills, with Dozier rotating in.
The Vikings’ coaching staff seems to be giving Udoh every possible chance to win the right guard spot. Offensive line coach Phil Rauscher had high praise for Udoh, going as far as to compare him to one of the best guards in the NFL. “Just looking at different players who have moved inside,” he said, “Ezra, for example, or when I was in Washington, Brandon Scherff had moved inside – he shares qualities and traits that would make you think he has the potential of being very good.”
When the Broncos come to town, Udoh will be tasked with going up against Shelby Harris, known to Vikings fans for making the offense’s life hell in the last matchup between the two teams. While Harris is arguably not better than Tomlinson, he is an above-average defensive tackle. Seeing how both Udoh and Dozier hold up against him should help Rauscher and Co.
The Vikings’ battle at the third wide receiver spot has been a story all season. The main competitors for the spot are incumbent Chad Beebe, second-year K.J. Osborn, and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette, with UDFA Blake Proehl and injured Dede Westbrook in the background.
Osborn has been the unexpected, emergent favorite. With Justin Jefferson sidelined with his AC joint sprain, Osborn has replaced him and has impressed, making catches versus Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, and Harrison Smith.
Mike Zimmer made some interesting comments about Smith-Marsette in his press conference on Tuesday, stating that he has impressed at wide receiver, but his struggles at special teams inhibit what’s “… part of his job description.”
With Jefferson’s status for the joint practices up in the air, Osborn and Smith-Marsette should see increased playing time with the first and second teams. This bodes well for the Vikings to evaluate their young receivers as they face the Broncos’ tough secondary made up of Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Patrick Surtain II, and Bryce Callahan.
This unit arguably makes up the best secondary in the league, and if that’s not a litmus test, nothing is.
Minnesota also has an ongoing battle at their weak-side linebacker spot alongside Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. After several injuries that caused Parry Nickerson and Blake Lynch to start at linebacker last season, Minnesota retooled their linebacking core with Nick Vigil, Cameron Smith, and Chazz Surratt.
The Vikings have also been dropping second-year pass rusher D.J. Wonnum in coverage and playing a 5-2 defense in which they have three defensive ends in the game.
Even with all of the different combinations at linebacker, Zimmer made it clear that Nick Vigil was ahead of all of the others. Minnesota signed him in the offseason primarily because of his run-stopping abilities, but Vigil has shown potential in coverage during training camp, breaking up a goal-line pass intended to Smith-Marsette.
When the Broncos come to town, the Vikings linebacking crew will be tested. Denver not only has a stable of decent running backs in Melvin Gordon III, Javonte Williams, and Mike Boone, they also have Noah Fant at tight end, who will certainly test Minnesota’s coverage abilities.
With the rest of this week leading into the first preseason game, more camp battles will come closer to being settled. Joint practices will provide the drama and added edge necessary for both teams to get better.