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53 - Man Roster Projection

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Tanishka Mhaskar

September 3rd, 2020

Photo: Getty Images/Stephen Maturen


There are officially seven days till the NFL season kicks off and ten days until the Vikings host the Packers at US Bank Stadium. The Vikings finish up training camp this week and are expected to trim their roster down to 53 by Saturday. Here are my projections for the Vikings’ 53 man roster and twelve man practice squad:


Quarterbacks (3):


  • Kirk Cousins
  • Sean Mannion
  • Nate Stanley (R)

Practice Squad: Jake Browning 


Quarterback is one of the easier positions to project for the Vikings. Kirk Cousins is the well-established starter, and behind him, the Vikings prefer to have a veteran backup. Sean Mannion has had an up and down camp with a few questionable decisions turning to turnovers, but no one has challenged him. The Vikings drafted Nate Stanley from Iowa in the 7th round, and I don’t think they would risk leaving him on the practice squad. Recently, the Vikings have almost always kept three quarterbacks on their roster. On the practice squad, they stash Jake Browning as a guy to keep developing. 


Running Backs (4):


  • Dalvin Cook
  • Alexander Mattison
  • Mike Boone
  • CJ Ham (FB)


Lots of questions prevail for Dalvin Cook regarding his contract extension, but he’s made it clear that he will be available this year. Complementing him, the Vikings have Alexander Mattison who is coming off an impressive rookie campaign, and Mike Boone filling in whenever he’s needed. The Vikings used CJ Ham quite a bit last year, whether that be paving the way for the other running backs or in pass protection or catching the ball out of the backfield. The Pro Bowl player should likely be used in the same way again. 


Wide Receivers (4):


  • Adam Thielen
  • Justin Jefferson (R)
  • Bisi Johnson
  • Alexander Hollins


Practice Squad: Quartney Davis (R)


For the first time in ages, the Vikings seemingly have more than two solid pass catchers fighting for spots on the team. Adam Thielen is old reliable, and his connection with QB Kirk Cousins is “seamless” as he called it at camp. Behind him, the Vikings have first-round draft pick Justin Jefferson, who’s been as advertised, according to Gary Kubiak, and Bisi Johnson who hasn’t handed Jefferson the WR2 job. The surprise for the Vikings, my Mr. Mankato winner, is Alexander Hollins. He’s had his way against Cam Dantzler and Mike Hughes a couple of times, providing for an entertaining battle. While he is not listed here, I project KJ Osborn to make the roster primarily based on his special teams' contribution, though he’s made some nice catches in camp. The Vikings paid a lot of money for Quartney Davis to choose Minnesota over Dallas, and I’d think they roll with five receivers and stash him on the practice squad. 


Tight Ends (3):


  • Kyle Rudolph
  • Irv Smith Jr
  • Tyler Conklin


Practice Squad: Brandon Dillon


The Vikings frequently use two tight end sets and keep three on the roster. This projection stays the same as last year with Dillon ready to go if one of the starting three gets hurt. This will be a big year for Smith Jr’s development, and without Stefon Diggs, he will be held responsible to assume some of those targets.


Offensive Tackle (5):


  • Riley Reiff
  • Brian O’Neill
  • Rashod Hill
  • Oli Udoh
  • Ezra Cleveland (R)


It’s been quite a week for starting left tackle Riley Reiff, whom the team gave an ultimatum: take a pay cut or get cut. Luckily for the Vikings, Reiff did indeed take a pay cut to stay with the team. Now, that’s out the way and Minnesota doesn’t have to play musical chairs around a week before the regular season. Ezra Cleveland, who the Vikings have been working at guard all offseason makes the roster as a tackle, but if injuries get worse, he’ll likely step in as guard. 


Interior Offensive Line (6):


  • Garrett Bradbury
  • Pat Elflein
  • Dakota Dozier
  • Aviante Collins
  • Dru Samia
  • Blake Brandel (R)


Practice squad: Kyle Hinton (R), Jake Lacina (R)


The interior of the offensive line, or more specifically the guards, is the largest weakness on the Vikings roster. Now incumbent Garrett Bradbury will assume the guard spot, looking bigger and stronger than last year. Next to him are Dozier and Elflein who won the spots in camp without looking that hot. Samia was a starting favorite before camp, but the Vikings don’t think he’s ready, so they have been playing him with the second and third-string. Brandel was a bit of a surprise. He got work in with the second team, so the Vikings must like the rookie out of Oregon State. On the practice squad, I stashed Hinton and Lacina, two rookies that have held their own in camp.


Defensive End (4):


  • Danielle Hunter
  • Yannick Ngakoue
  • Ifeadi Odenigbo
  • Jalyn Holmes


Practice squad: Eddie Yarbrough, DJ Wonnum (R)

Injured reserve: Kenny Willekes (R)


The Vikings began my Sunday morning early when news broke about the blockbuster Yannick Ngakoue trade. According to Coach Zimmer, they were looking for another pass rusher to add, and it all came together quickly. Now, behind Ngakoue, the Vikings have Odenigbo who can play interior and edge as well as Holmes who transitioned from three-technique back to his college position at defensive end. This provides some nice depth at a position that was lacking until Sunday morning. Yarbrough and Wonnum continue to develop on the practice squad, and Willekes was seen in a walking boot last Friday after the scrimmage at US Bank Stadium. He was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. 


Interior Defensive Line (4):


  • Shamar Stephen
  • Jaleel Johnson
  • Hercules Mata’afa
  • Armon Watts


Practice squad: James Lynch (R)

Opt-out: Michael Pierce


The Vikings interior isn’t left with any household names since Linval Joseph left and Michael Pierce opted out, but it can get the job done. They moved Stephen to nose tackle and Johnson to threes technique, so those are the starters. Behind them, they have high ceilings of Watts and Mata’afa who could threaten for increased playing time. Odenigbo, who was listed at the defensive end above, will play his fair share inside as well. On the practice squad, they stash Lynch, the rookie from Baylor. 


Linebackers (5):


  • Eric Kendricks
  • Anthony Barr
  • Eric Wilson
  • Troy Dye (R)
  • Hardy Nickerson Jr


Practice squad: Blake Lynch (R)

PUP: Ben Gedeon


Kendricks and Barr have been a household duo from their UCLA days and they continue to produce for Minnesota. Eric Wilson showed flashes of development through his extended role. Dye provides nice depth as a hybrid OLB ANd ILB, and the Vikings, who were actively looking for a fifth linebacker after Ben Gedeon hasn’t received clearance from his concussions last season. 


Cornerback (6):


  • Holton Hill
  • Cameron Dantzler (R)
  • Mike Hughes
  • Jeff Gladney (R)
  • Kris Boyd
  • Nevelle Clarke (R)


Practice squad: Harrison Hand (R), Nate Meadors


The Vikings completely revamped the cornerback position this offseason, letting go of all three incumbent starters in Rhodes, Waynes, and Alexander. The young guys have been making plays throughout camp, but the player who has stood out the most in Cam Dantzler. Adam Thielen said, “27’s going to be really good.” to Mike Zimmer, and it’ll be exciting to see how the young corners do. The Vikings were successful with a rotation last year, and they might look to do something like this again. 


Safety (4):


  • Harrison Smith
  • Anthony Harris
  • Steven Parker
  • Josh Metellus (R)


Practice squad: Dan Chisena (R)


The Vikings still have an elite safety duo, but they lost all their depth this offseason. They drafted Josh Metellus out of Michigan and claimed Steven Parker to bolster their depth. Last week, in a surprising fashion, they moved former Penn State WR Dan Chisena to safety because he can hit well and might be able to contribute to special teams soon. 


Special teams (5):


  • Dan Bailey
  • Austin Cutting
  • Britton Colquitt


KR/PR: Ameer Abdullah and KJ Osborn (R)


The Vikings didn’t have special teams competition in camp for the first time in a while this season. While they have stability with their kicking unit, the Vikings have a new player with returns in the explosive KJ Osborn since former returner Marcus Sherels retired. 



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Interview: Hercules Mata'afa talks about his acclimation to the NFL, the Vikings and more

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Tanishka Mhaskar
August 2nd, 2020
Photo: Vikings.com

Recently, VikingNations had the opportunity to chat with up and coming defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa. We spoke about Mata'afa’s acclimation to the NFL, his injury recovery process and more! Here is a transcript of the interview below:


Question: “What have you been doing during quarantine?”
"I came out here to San Diego, out here training and I just have a gym down here that I’m ready to work out at and going there everyday. I got some good work in.”


Q: “What player were you the closest to on the Vikings?”
“Probably everybody in the DL room. I got along with all of them. Probably Jalyn [Holmes], Jaleel [Johnson] and Armon [Watts] all pretty close.”


Q: “Who’s the most talented player that you have played either with or against throughout your career?”
“I’d probably say Danielle [Hunter] ‘cause he’s just a crazy, athletic freak and he just does things that nobody else can do and you know, it’s very inspiring to watch him and learn from him.”


Q: “What was the most challenging part of transitioning from college to the NFL?”
“Learning a whole new playbook. You get familiarized with one playbook for four years, it’s harder to switch from college language to NFL language -- it’s completely different. The veterans that have been up there, they really help out. That’s what I love about this team. We know all our jobs on the line everyday, but we go out there and we help each other out.”


Q: “As you were a UDFA, how do you think it’s more challenging this year with the situation with the virus?”
“I think it’s tough, there’s going to be so little film, and now that the NFL canceled the preseason, I kind of feel bad for the guys. It’s a very hard spot to be in. It’s very challenging, and you’ve got to be mentally locked in throughout the whole thing. Being undrafted, that means if you want to make this team, you’ve got to make no mistakes or you gotta learn from your mistakes. If you make a mistake one time you can’t make that mistake again, you know what I mean? That’s going to be hard because there’s always a learning curve once you get to the NFL, and a month is just not a long time to really get settled in.”


Q: “On your social media, you posted the picture of you on the weighing scale, which displayed that you were the average size of a defensive tackle. Can you take me through the process of how that was.”
"Me and Coach [Andre] Patterson talk all the time. We talk about our goals and what he wants me to be at. I really take that because I respect Coach Patterson a lot, and I trust him guiding me through the NFL and take all the knowledge I can from the man. Very smart football coach and he knows everything going on on the field. He knows every position, what they’re doing: quarterback, receiver, linemen, offensive side and defensive side, so to be able to exchange work with him, learn from him and take what he gives me is what I did. I range from 280 [lbs] to 287 [lbs]  now. It’s just taking coaching, I guess.”


Q: “Can you describe an experience that you’ve had with Coach [Mike] Zimmer?”
“I think he called on me during defensive meetings, and I had trouble with what type of run it was, and I don’t think it went that well.”


Q: “What was your recovery process like when you got hurt your rookie year?”
“With Coach [An]Dre [Patterson], he said, “Hey, I don’t need you to be in all these meetings and stuff. I need you to get in the training room and attack your injury.” After 2 weeks, I was able to fully bend my knee. It’s not normal for an ACL tear to be able to fully bend your knee. I think that showed them that I'm really serious about being out there.”


Q: “What’s something you hope to accomplish by the end of the year?”
“To fully understand the defense, go out there and have fun. Have no regrets.”


Q; “Who was your favorite player to watch growing up?”
“I was an Eagles fan growing up. You know the one year here that we played them..well, I was a big fan of Trent Cole. I used to love watching his game.”


Q: “What role do you see for yourself on the Vikings?”
“The only goal I have is to contribute to the team as much as I can. It’s all I can ask for. Keep my head down and continue to work and grind.”


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TWO Slot Receivers? How do Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson fit together?

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Tanishka Mhaskar
June 13th, 2020
Photo: Clutch Points

Justin Jefferson was part of one of the most entertaining teams in recent college football history with the 2019 national champion LSU Tigers. He was a walking highlight reel. He was a YAC ‘yards after catch’ monster. He also played 99% of all snaps in the slot. The Vikings are familiar with slot wide receiver killer Adam Thielen. So… a lot of you may be wondering: how will these two players coexist on the field? 

Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak has all the flexibility in the world with what he decides to do with Jefferson and Thielen. What we should see most is Thielen taking on more of the Diggs role. People think that Jefferson has to come in and replace Diggs, but that will not be the case. Instead, Thielen will replace Diggs and Jefferson will replace Thielen 1.0. 

There is an overblown narrative stating that Adam Thielen can only win in the slot: that he can’t succeed outside. This is actually not true. In fact, over his four years as a starter, Thielen has played just 35.1% of his snaps in the slot. This number is extremely skewed by the 2018 campaign where the John DeFilippo offense consisted primarily of three wide receiver sets. 

Thielen can win on the outside. He has won consistently against the likes of Saints corner Marshon Lattimore and Packers corner Jaire Alexander just to name a few. Thielen can be an intermediate - deep threat: Since 2016, he had 61 receptions of 20 or more yards while his counterpart Diggs had 57. 

Thielen can also be a deep threat. He had 13 less receptions than Diggs, but Thielen missed nearly half the season. It is almost inevitable that he beats Diggs in yet another statistic if he doesn’t pull his hamstring. 


To get a glimpse of the offense when both receivers were predominantly healthy, we can sneak a look at 2018. Cousins’ success rate when hitting Thielen deep has been better. He can, and he will, take on the ‘Stefon Diggs role’ this season. 



With that being said, I believe that it would be in the Vikings’ best interest to cater Jefferson to being a slot killer. At LSU, Jefferson caught the ball in stride and in traffic. He had over 700 yards after the catch. He would turn simple fifteen yard gains into forty yard runs after the catch. He was explosive and reliable. Jefferson posted one of the highest catch radiuses in college football.

In the West Coast zone scheme offense that the Vikings run, full of crossers among other intermediate routes, Jefferson’s best interests are served. Some of the best receivers in the NFL play or played predominantly in the slot with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Thomas, Wes Welker and Marques Colston. Jefferson just gives the Vikings a bit more as he can also stretch the field. He’ll be Kirk Cousins’ best friend. 

It may not seem like the most easily integrated pick of all time when you take a deep dive into Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but if Gary Kubiak can cater to both of their needs, this offense might not skip a beat in 2020.

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Irv Smith Jr. is PRIMED to Breakout

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Tanishka Mhaskar
May 15th, 2020
Photo: Vikings.Com

When the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft, many assumed that the team would move on from reliable veteran Kyle Rudolph. Instead, the Vikings extended Kyle Rudolph and shifted the direction of their offense to an increasing use of two tight end sets.


The Vikings utilized two or more tight ends on 56.7 percent of offensive plays, and 28 of 45 touchdowns were scored when there were two or more tight ends on the field. The Vikings top two tight ends, Rudolph and Smith Jr. were utilized in a various amount of ways: blocking and catching. 


With Smith Jr, the Vikings get a dynamic receiving tight end who’s a hybrid, with the build of a wide receiver. Minnesota drafted him in the second round much like they did Rudolph, and it’s another pass-the-torch situation. The Vikings had the luxury of easing Smith Jr. into the NFL as Smith didn’t play more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in his first four games as a rookie. The snaps gradually rose to 60 percent, and then eventually all the way up to 85 percent by Week 16. 


Smith Jr.’s numbers weren’t off the charts: he posted 36 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games. However, when WR Adam Thielen went down, Smith Jr. slowly started becoming a reliable option for QB Kirk Cousins. 


Before the Week 10 matchup at Dallas, Cousins said “It’s slowly becoming Irv Smith” in response to who his favorite target after Stefon Diggs is. Diggs is gone now, and in the midst of COVID-19, it remains unclear how much on-field practice time will be made up. The Viking’ second wide receiver, rookie Justin Jefferson out of LSU, is presumably going to be a day one starter, but will he and Cousins have enough time to have perfect chemistry early on?


That remains to be seen, as reliable Smith Jr should get the call whether it be to line up in the slot, or on the outside as a wide receiver. And reliable he was. Smith Jr caught 36 of his 47 targets, and he was the player that we saw at Alabama, with great hands and consistent ability to get open downfield. 


What was surprising about Smith Jr. was his blocking: he wasn’t rated to be a very good blocker coming out of college, but in a run heavy Minnesota Vikings team, run-blocking is key to staying on the field. PFF rated Smith Jr as the 13th best run-blocking tight end and the 35th best pass blocking tight end out of 66 tight ends. Overall, he was rated the 30th best tight end.

Smith Jr.’s blocking coupled with his explosive, big-play potential should pave the path for him to eventually become the Vikings top tight end. He is certainly ready to go: “I feel like each game, it's definitely a step [forward] for me. As a rookie coming in, I had a lot on my plate at first just trying to come in and learn the offense. But Coach Stefanski and Pariani did an amazing job of getting me ready. Each week I just try to come with the mindset that I can't be stopped, and this offense can't be stopped. I try to have that mindset each day. And each game is more experience for me under my belt."
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Rookie Spotlight: Justin Jefferson

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Tanishka Mhaskar
May 7th, 2020
Photo: Matt Sharpe (@darlingsharpe on Twitter)

Stefon Diggs forced his way out of Minnesota, so the Vikings used the 22nd overall pick to draft LSU wideout Justin Jefferson. The Vikings liked Jefferson so much that they almost traded up in the mid-teens for him. When he fell right past Philadelphia and into the laps of Minnesota, the Vikings didn’t hesitate for even a second to call it in. So, who exactly is Justin Jefferson?


Background: 



Jefferson was a zero star recruit per ESPN, but he landed a scholarship at LSU due to his two older brothers Jordan Jefferson (QB) and Rickey Jefferson (S). Most people saw Jefferson as a walk-on at LSU. He didn’t play his freshman year but he broke out as a sophomore, posting 54 catches for 875 yards. As a junior, he continued his excellence from 2018, racking up 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.


Jefferson’s work ethic does not go unnoticed. He came to LSU as a scrawny, undersized no-named freshman, but he left LSU as one of the top college wide receivers, setting records along the way. LSU director of strength and conditioning Tommy Moffitt said, “I’ve told every scout that I talked to that was the most intriguing thing about him--his mental toughness. I mean tough.”


For Jefferson, his craft was dependent on his weight. He channeled his quiet determination and minded his own business en route to doing everything his coaches said. And doing it all well. Jefferson had one touch for four yards his freshman year, but his focus was in the weight room, where he gained a whole twenty pounds. 

That was when Jefferson started to believe. He started to think bigger, leading to his breakout season. Jefferson thought bigger every day, every month and every year. Post sophomore year, he said, “going into my junior year, I wanted to be the best receiver to come out of the draft. I had that weight on my shoulders the whole season.”


Now, Jefferson believes that he is the best receiver coming out of this draft class. Last week, on The Zach Gelb Show, Jefferson said, “I felt like I was the best receiver in this draft class, and being the fifth receiver off the board, it kind of was a shocker. But also having that on my shoulder going into this next season with Minnesota, I’m definitely excited to show the world what I have.”


Jefferson proved the world wrong once in college. Don’t be surprised if he does it again in the pros. “It’s all mindset,” Moffitt said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of guys that are far more talented than he is and don’t have near the success he had because of the mental part."


Strengths:



Justin Jefferson is arguably the most precise route runner in the draft class. In Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense, route running will be vital to success. He will quickly become the best friend of the quarterback due to a couple of things: catch radius, speed and explosiveness.


Jefferson caught 92.3% of his contested catches in 2019, far by the highest rate in college football. He’s been fortunate to play with Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow and saw the most amount of accurate passes (69%) thrown to him, but now he gets to play with Vikings QB Kirk Cousins who is one of the most accurate in the business.


Jefferson will make an early impact as a possession receiver in the middle of the field. His speed is deceptive. While he doesn’t look awfully fast, he ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash (slightly faster than Diggs) and possesses all the traits to be successful in the NFL. Additionally, Jefferson excels at finding holes in the defense. He’s slippery and explosive. Jefferson manages to get away from the defender and rack up yards after the catch. 


The work ethic that Jefferson brings to the table is prevalent in his run blocking as well. He is willing to initiate contact and doesn’t hesitate to make his presence felt known. The weight and muscle that Jefferson had to gain in college was detrimental to his run blocking abilities. 


Vikings Fit: 



Some might expect Jefferson to come in and replace Stefon Diggs right away. There’s two things wrong with that: Jefferson is good enough to make a name for himself, and both wideouts possess completely different skill sets. 


Jefferson and Diggs are both amazing route runners, but Diggs is more of an explosive, deep threat guy outside the numbers. He’s flashy. Jefferson plays better on the inside than on the outside, and he’ll be a solid over the middle, intermediate route runner in the middle of the field. 

While Jefferson struggles against press man coverage, a skill that Stefon Diggs perfected during his time in Minnesota, he will be a consistent option over the middle of the field. He will be Kirk Cousins' most effective and reliable possession receiver.


It hurts to lose your number one wide receiver, but it’s certainly easier if you’re the Vikings and you have two number one wide receivers. Many forget the records that Adam Thielen was breaking before he got injured. Thielen can be that deep threat that Minnesota lost with Diggs. In fact, Thielen played more snaps on the outside than on the inside last year before going down. 

The Vikings might move Thielen into Diggs’ role and slide Jefferson right into Thielen’s old role. It gives the Vikings and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak a lot of flexibility. If the Vikings cater to Jefferson’s specific skill sets, he’ll be a home-run hitter.


There’s a misconception that Jefferson can only play in the slot. He can play anywhere. Before former offensive coordinator Joe Brady got to LSU, Jefferson was an outside receiver who led his team in receiving yards. He was effective too, averaging over 16 yards per catch.


According to NFL analyst Brian Baldinger, “[Joe] Brady came in and said to him, ‘We’re going to get five [receivers] out every play this year. [Joe] Burrow can read defenses and get the ball out. How about if you go in the slot? You’ll just kill teams in there.’ And that’s exactly what he did.” 

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