Brian Hall’s final prediction for Vikings 53-man roster

Rookie safety Antone Exum is a sixth-round pick who, if cut, could possibly clear waivers and be a practice squad candidate.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

MANKATO, Minn. — Reality is about to hit for several Minnesota Vikings’ hopefuls.

Minnesota will need to cut from its 75-man roster to the regular-season roster of 53 players by Saturday at 3 p.m. CT.

There could be tweaks in the following days as Minnesota claims or signs players released by other teams, or perhaps trade for, with the regular-season opener set for Sept. 7 at St. Louis. The Vikings also have the chance to bring back 10 players to its practice squad.

Here’s one more projection of who might fill in purple and gold when Minnesota begins the regular season:

Analysis: No change here as this has been the pecking order throughout training camp and the preseason. Cassel emerged as the starter for Week 1, which was the expectation all along. The question is how long he can hold off Bridgewater, the future at the position. Many have speculated about Ponder’s status. He could still be traded. There was a thought the Vikings could go with just two quarterbacks, as well. An outright release is likely not going to be the case. Coach Mike Zimmer has praised Ponder, in particular, lately and here’s to the belief that Zimmer was being sincere. Ponder gives Minnesota an experienced backup who could play, if needed. As we’ve seen around the league, several teams are struggling to find backup quarterbacks.

Analysis: Another spot with no change, but Banyard and Williams at least provided fodder. Peterson is the superstar and still the focal point of the Vikings’ offense. Asiata is a steady backup, who’s a big pounding back and has also shown some athleticism and receiving ability. McKinnon is a small, quick player who can work in space, but has shown more of an aptitude to be a straight-line back than expected.

Banyard led the team in the preseason with 36 carries for 212 yards, a 5.9 yards per carry average. His performance on Thursday (111 yards on 18 carries) might have been the type of game that could get Banyard claimed by another team this weekend if he’s waived by Minnesota.

A lot of speculation has centered around the Vikings not keeping a fullback. We say Felton stays as the lead blocker for Peterson and gives Minnesota the chance to grind out games later in the season when weather might turn. Felton might not be utilized as much as the past two seasons, but he’ll still be a factor for the Vikings.

Analysis: Smith stays, at least for now. Simpson was suspended by the league for his arrest last season and Smith will take his spot on the active roster. Simpson will miss three games, giving Smith some more time to impress. The top four with Simpson are set. Patterson and Jennings will start with Wright and Simpson giving the Vikings a deep group of receivers.

Thielen has put himself in a firm positon to make the roster based on his training camp and preseason, and he also brings the ability to contribute on special teams. Smith came on late and is an intriguing developmental prospect at 6-foot-5. He could show enough for Minnesota to keep six wide receivers even when Simpson returns.

Analysis: Perhaps the most interesting call on offense is the third tight end. Rudolph is set as the starter and appears primed for a breakout year. Ellison is a reliable backup, a standout blocker who plays special teams. The competition, which didn’t really materialize, pits Reisner against Ford. The Vikings released Mike Higgins and Kory Sperry in the first round of cuts after releasing AC Leonard earlier and signing Sperry.

Ford never played in a preseason game as he came back from foot surgery, and he only returned to practice this week. Reisner tied for the team lead with eight catches in the preseason and had a team-high three touchdown receptions. We’ll soon find out how the coaches feel about Ford and his foot. It’s a matter of potential versus production. Ford showed some promise late last year when given the chance, but it was under a different coaching staff. Was his offseason work enough to show the current coaches he should stay? He had the edge going into training camp before the injury.

Analysis: The toughest call could be deciding how many offensive linemen to keep. The starting line of Kalil, Johnson, Sullivan, Fusco and Loadholt returns, intact, for its third straight season together. With such certainty among the starters, maybe Minnesota sticks with just three backups. Typically, the Vikings have gone with nine offensive linemen with one on the practice squad. But maybe the coaches feel good enough about the group to keep eight and leave another roster spot for some of the unsettled positions on the defense.

Berger is a veteran backup who can play both center and guard and is the top option. Yankey won’t force his way into the lineup for Week 1 after missing most of the offseason program, but he has promise. Wentworth is an undrafted rookie who impressed the coaches and he was the top swing tackle option as the preseason came to a close. He has practiced at left and right tackle and could even play guard, if needed. Richardson, another undrafted rookie, has promise and could stay if Minnesota keeps nine linemen. If not, maybe Richardson clears waivers and is an option for the practice squad. Richardson spent a lot of time as the second-team left tackle, but had been practicing with the third team at times in the final week of practice.

Analysis: A lot of new faces in this group, but one that appears to be talented, deep and allows Zimmer to rotate linemen like he wants. Only Robison, Floyd and Evans return from last season. The starters are set with Robison, Joseph, Floyd and Griffen. Wootton, Evans, Johnson are all experienced backups. Crichton and Stephen are promising rookies. Crichton is a third-round draft pick. Stephen showed enough in the preseason that Minnesota likely won’t expose him to waivers and risk the chance of losing the seventh-round draft pick.

Analysis: Keeping seven linebackers is fairly heavy, but there’s so much undetermined still as the preseason closes. Part of the decisions could come down to health. Hodges returned to practice this week from an ankle injury but didn’t play in Thursday’s preseason finale. Mauti (foot) and Watts (leg) were also held out and there isn’t much clarification on the severity of their injuries. The only sure things are Greenway and Barr are set as starters, though Barr is also dealing with an ankle injury.

Zimmer said after Thursday’s game that Brinkley likely has the edge at middle linebacker, but no firm decision has been made. Brinkley and Cole were fighting for the starting spot in the middle in the base defense. Brinkley started in the middle on Thursday and Cole played on the outside. If Cole isn’t a starter, he’s the top backup and has the ability to play each position.

Hodges does appear set to make the team. If Minnesota stays with six linebackers, the decision likely comes down to Mauti or Watts, with health possibly a determining factor. Dean has been a good special teams player for the Vikings for years. Special teams might not be enough to keep him this time around with so much young talent as part of the picture.

Vikings 19, Titans 3

Analysis: Another position in which injuries will play into the decisions. Smith is set as one starter and is a budding star. Zimmer still hasn’t announced a starting partner for Smith, but it’s likely down to Crocker — the experience veteran — or Blanton — the third-year player who received a lot of first-team work. If Crocker isn’t starting, maybe he’s allowed to go into retirement, but here’s to betting Zimmer will want his experience around what is still a young secondary. Special teams is important for the rest of the group. Coleman, Sendejo and Sanford have all been strong special teams players in their career. Sanford is the incumbent starter at safety, but he’s been unable to stay healthy, which could leave him off the roster. Sanford missed the offseason program because of injury and was slow to come around in training camp. Then he suffered another injury and has been held out of recent practices.

Coleman is at least experienced at safety and he’s received a bulk of the second-team work. Sendejo has also been injured but has returned and stayed healthy after returning. Exum is a sixth-round pick, who was penciled in during our earlier projection, but maybe he could clear waivers and be a practice squad candidate. He did play well Thursday in his most extensive action. But Sendejo and Coleman offer a bit more than Exum right now.

Analysis: The starters are set, we can be comfortable in saying that at least. Munnerlyn and Rhodes will start in the base package. Rhodes holds a lot of promise and the coaches are working with him to extract the talent. Munnerlyn is the steady veteran who will make a difference with a young secondary, which was missing Antoine Winfield’s leadership last season. Munnerlyn will slide into the nickel position when Minnesota goes to three cornerbacks. The third cornerback is likely Josh Robinson, who returned to that spot — playing outside when Munnerlyn shifts inside — after he returned from injury.

Sherels is the top punt returner and he shows better than expected at cornerback. He was the third cornerback while Robinson was out with a hamstring injury. Sherels is small, but he’s feisty and competes. Price, a seventh-round draft pick, was the same way early, but he was injured and missed a few weeks. He didn’t play Thursday, but he returned to practice this week and Zimmer mentioned he expects Price to make an impact this season.

Zimmer also spoke highly of Robinson and Prater this week. Robinson started Thursday’s game with Munnerlyn and Rhodes being held out with their position set. Prater was praised for his versatility and physical play and Zimmer even mentioned he could see time at safety. His spot on the final roster appears secure. James was a sixth-round draft pick this year who never stood out with his play. But he could be a practice squad candidate.

Analysis: No changes here. Walsh, Locke and Loeffler all went unchallenged and begin their second season together as the kicker, punter and long snapper, respectively. Loeffler is the veteran of the group and the longest-tenured Vikings’ player. Walsh had three misses in the first two preseason games, but has been sharp in the last two. Locke struggled a bit as a rookie, but came on later in the season and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer expects his punter to show why the team made him a fifth-round draft pick last year.

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