Thursday’s preseason finale, in which the Minnesota Vikings host the Tennessee Titans, is all about the final push for roster spots prior to Saturday’s deadline to reach the 53-man limit for the regular-season roster.
Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier has said many of the team’s starters won’t play in Thursday’s game. Here are five things to watch from Minnesota:
1. Five or six receivers
Thursday will mark the last time for those players on the roster “bubble” to make their final impression and some of the most interesting decisions might be at receiver. Frazier hasn’t said whether the Vikings will keep five or six receivers on the final roster. The team had five receivers on the active roster at the end of last season while it made its playoff run behind MVP running back Adrian Peterson.
Greg Jennings likely won’t play Thursday. If Jerome Simpson plays, it would be limited. Young receivers Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson are locks to make the roster, too. Minnesota has four other receivers — Joe Webb, Stephen Burton, Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith — it needs to evaluate. The competition between Webb and Burton, in particular, will be one to watch Thursday, especially if the Vikings stick with five receivers.
2. Wide-open on the offensive line
Minnesota is set on its five starters along the offensive line, returning each starter from last year in left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt. A shakeup among the starters would be very unlikely, at this point.
But there are decisions to be made among the backups with veterans and young players vying to stay on the roster. Among the veterans, Joe Berger is likely to stick because of his ability to play center. Seth Olsen is competing for a backup guard spot and Brandon Keith is trying to return after missing last season.
Rookies Jeff Baca and Travis Bond, two guards who were selected in April’s draft, need to prove their worth and versatility. Baca has also received snaps at center. Bond is a possibility at tackle. DeMarcus Love, a 2011 draft pick, is still around, though he’s suspended for the first four regular-season games. Kevin Murphy has spent training camp and the preseason as the second-team left tackle and Troy Kropog has played right tackle on the third-team line. With three or four possible spots open, at least half of the remaining backups will be on the way out in the final round of cuts.
3. Depth at defensive tackle
Even after making cuts to get to the 75-man roster limit Tuesday, the Vikings still have an abundance of defensive players on the roster and still go three-deep at each position. The defensive tackle position has taken the biggest hit depth-wise because of the knee injuries with Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd and the absence of Christian Ballard.
Williams will be out the rest of the preseason and Frazier said Floyd, rehabbing from knee surgery, won’t play Thursday. Letroy Guion and Fred Evans are locks for the final roster and likely won’t play much Thursday because Minnesota can’t take the risk of the two being injured. Chase Baker, Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud will get plenty of playing time to prove they deserve to stay, especially if the Vikings are looking to keep more defensive tackles around because of the injury situation.
4. Looking at the linebackers
Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Greenway probably won’t play Thursday, and it would be a surprise to see Erin Henderson suit up since he’s been dealing with a heel injury. Frazier said Desmond Bishop will play as Minnesota tries to decide if Bishop or Mitchell will start at weakside linebacker. Mitchell is still listed as the starter on the weakside and he’ll likely play Thursday as well.
Besides choosing a starter, the Vikings also need to decide who will make the final roster. Audie Cole, Larry Dean, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Tyrone McKenzie are still on the roster.
Minnesota kept seven linebackers on the roster last season and currently has nine linebackers to decide from.
5. Returning an effect on secondary
Patterson is expected to be the Vikings’ top kickoff returner. No firm decisions have been made, at least publicly, regarding the punt returner position. The top two candidates, Marcus Sherels and Bobby Felder, also play defensive back and will be part of the depth in the secondary. Sherels is the incumbent. Felder has splashed the last two weeks when given an opportunity.
It’s possible, depending on who wins the return job and what the defensive coaches want, both Sherels and Felder make the final roster. But the best way to ensure a roster spot is to win the punt return job. Sherels and Felder will likely split the duties on Thursday in the final audition, for them and many other players.