5 Vikings position battles to watch during preseason
FOX Sports North
The freshly cut grass. The crack of the shoulder pads. The sound of Mike Zimmer yelling. The sights and sounds of football are back – sort of. The Minnesota Vikings begin their four-game preseason schedule Friday night against Teddy Bridgewater and the rival New Orleans Saints on the road. Although preseason football isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing brand on the gridiron (especially in Week 1), there are a few exciting storylines to watch as rookies and backup players battle it out to earn a roster spot with the purple. Which positions should you keep an eye on? Scroll forth:
Third wide receiver
It’s been talked about all offseason. Minnesota boasts the league’s best 1-2 duo at receiver in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, but after that, who will the Vikings turn to? On the Vikings’ first unofficial depth chart released Monday, Beebe was listed as the backup to Thielen at one of the receiver positions, while free-agent signee Jordan Taylor was behind Diggs. It’s really a battle between those two -- former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell might not even make the team and if he does, he’s shown he can’t be trusted with that role. Beebe, a 2018 undrafted free agent, caught all four balls thrown his way last season for 39 yards. Without reading too much into this, it probably bodes well for Beebe’s chances that Minnesota decided to mic him up at a practice earlier this week. Is it Beebe’s job to lose? Other options like the speedy Jeff Badet, Brandon Zylstra and Bisi Johnson will fight for the final two or three spots on the roster.
Backup running back
Latavius Murray -- the “Tay Train” -- headed for a new station in the offseason, so the Vikings need to find a replacement to serve as the change-of-pace back to Dalvin Cook. Meet Alexander Mattison. Selected in third round (No. 102 overall) out of Boise State, Mattison was compared to Murray on draft day by general manager Rick Spielman. As a junior in 2018, Mattison ranked eighth in the nation with 1,415 rushing yards and seventh with 17 touchdowns. He was perhaps the biggest surprise on the unofficial depth chart, listed already as the backup to Cook. Zimmer and co. don’t typically give that treatment to many rookies right off the bat. Competing for the backup gig will be veteran Ameer Abdullah, who joined Minnesota in the middle of last season, and Mike Boone, an undrafted free agent who rushed the ball 11 times for 47 yards as a rookie in 2018.
Depth at quarterback
The Vikings seem comfortable with fifth-year quarterback Sean Mannion backing up the durable Cousins, who hasn’t missed a single game since 2015. But there is some intrigue at the third-string quarterback spot, if the team decides to keep a trio of signal-callers. Kyle Sloter has been with the Vikings since 2017 and has been active for six games, although he hasn’t played a snap yet. In last year’s preseason, Sloter stole the show, throwing for 366 yards and four touchdowns on 41-of-56 passing. Jake Browning, who threw for 12,296 yards over four seasons at Washington, was one of 10 undrafted free agents to sign with Minnesota after the draft. Minnesota really likes Browning, evident by the fact they gave him a guaranteed $125,000 of his $495,000 contract for the 2019 season. Browning is likely a practice squad candidate, but he could push Sloter for a roster spot.
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Minnesota has some big shoes to fill now that Marcus Sherels departed for New Orleans in free agency. Sherels, who starred at the University of Minnesota and played with the Vikings from 2010-18, is Minnesota’s franchise leader in punt returns (231), punt return yards (2,447) and punt return touchdowns (5). Beebe, Abdullah, wide receiver Dillon Mitchell and cornerback Holton Hill have seen reps at punt returner during training camp. Mike Hughes, still recovering from a torn ACL, is also a candidate once he gets healthy. Despite Abdullah playing in just seven games with the Vikings last year, he finished the year as the team’s leading kick returner -- and probably will assume that role this season as well. He was also listed as the starting punt returner on the unofficial depth chart. However, Abdullah has never returned a punt in his four-year NFL career. Beebe ranks top-10 all-time in Northern Illinois history in punt returns (48) and punt return yards (329).
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No one knows what the Vikings’ plans are at long snapper. Kevin McDermott has been the lone long snapper since coming to Minnesota in 2015. The Vikings surprised everyone by drafting Austin Cutting in the seventh round of the 2019 draft, bringing in a player that still had a two-year service commitment with the Air Force Academy. Now that Cutting is cleared to play, the two will battle it out. Cutting’s rookie deal is cheaper than McDermott’s $960,000 cap hit but with the Vikings’ struggles in the kicking game, do they want to take a risk with a rookie long snapper just to save a few bucks?