The Minnesota Vikings open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
How long will Dalvin Cook's holdout last? If he doesn't show up, how will the Vikings adjust the running game?
Cook's planned holdout, which was announced by his camp more than six weeks prior to the scheduled start of training camp, is made complicated by new rules within the CBA. The Vikings running back will be fined $50,000 for every day missed during camp and unlike in previous years, those fines don't just magically disappear if/when a team and player finally work out a new deal. That's a hefty price to pay for someone making $1.3 million on the final year of his rookie contract. More importantly, if Cook doesn't show up for camp at the mandatory reporting date or leaves the team after that date, he won't accrue a year of service toward free agency. That would make him a restricted free agent in 2021, which would gravely impact his future earnings.
Minnesota has just about all of the leverage in this situation so Cook's holdout likely won't last past the first week of training camp. The Vikings typically award contract extensions around the start of camp, so we could see a new deal at the end of the month. If Cook has a prolonged absence, the Vikings could very well turn things over to Alexander Mattison, who was drafted in the third round two years ago as a potential Cook replacement, and then use a combination of Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah. Cook averaged 4.5 yards per rush last season, but the three other running backs averaged 4.9. Mattison, Boone and Abdullah also averaged more yards before contact per rush and more yards after contact per rush.
However, Derrick Henry's four-year, $50 million extension with $25.5 million guaranteed could help Cook's case. Henry's deal stresses the importance of being a versatile running back to earn a big payday. The Vikings know they have a similar type player in Cook. In addition to handling a 250-carry workload, Cook averaged the fifth-most receiving yards per game by any running back last season.
How will the Vikings' defense, which lost five starters, navigate a rebuilding phase?
Some will assume that the Vikings' days of dominating teams on defense is over after so much turnover this offseason. But all those departures could actually prove beneficial. Minnesota's pass defense ranked 15th in 2019 and gave up more than 230 yards per game after ranking third in 2018 and second in 2017. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, against whom quarterbacks had a combined 123.8 passer rating when targeted, was a big part of that. And Trae Waynes frankly wasn't much better (107.9 passer rating allowed). Minnesota's overhaul at the cornerback position is the clean slate this secondary needed. First-rounder Jeff Gladney will compete for a starting job along with Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd and Cameron Dantzler.
The learning curve might be steep, but the future is promising for these young players. The Vikings replaced defensive tackle Linval Joseph with a younger, stronger Michael Pierce and could see an upgrade at three-technique by swapping rookie James Lynch, Jalyn Holmes or Hercules Mata'afa in as starters. Shamar Stephen could be used on a rotational basis. The reviews are high on Ifeadi Odenigbo, who finished third on the Vikings with seven sacks in 2019, as he assumes Everson Griffen's role at defensive end.
Will rookie Justin Jefferson start in the slot?
Jefferson had an LSU record 111 receptions in 2019 and caught 100 of those passes on routes out of the slot. Therefore, it makes sense the Vikings expect to see Jefferson in the slot quite a bit this season, according to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
"I think what [Jefferson] was asked to do last year is very beneficial," Kubiak said. "You turn on the film, he was playing inside, but he was playing inside in like a lot of bunch sets. He was playing in the backfield sometimes. He was moving around a bunch. He runs a lot of choice routes; that's a way of getting your best player the ball in our league. I think he's done some things that give him a good head start moving forward."
That leg up will be critical since the Vikings won't have much time to experiment moving Jefferson around in the preseason. With Adam Thielen assuming a bigger role with Stefon Diggs now in Buffalo, it will be critical for Jefferson to quickly become a reliable target for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Putting him in the slot is the most logical way for that to happen.
What is tight end Irv Smith Jr.'s role in the offense?
Kubiak lauded Smith's upside this offseason and hinted at an expanded role. "I think there's a lot more there, and Irv's going to give it to us, and I've got to make sure that I get him in position to do that," Kubiak said.
Kubiak's offenses rely on strong play from its tight ends, often with that position serving as the de facto No. 3 receiver. Smith exceeded expectations as a rookie and stepped into bigger roles whenever it was required (36 catches, 311 yards and two TDs), especially when Thielen went down with injury for two months. And with Diggs gone, Smith Jr. is primed to take on a bigger role in the passing game, giving the Vikings options for where to play him in order to capitalize on mismatches.
How will Gary Kubiak's system help Cousins take another step forward?
Cousins will be running the same offense he did a year ago, and that's significant for a quarterback who has had a new offensive coordinator nearly every year as a starter. The offense will feature the same play calls, system, motions and formations that made Cousins a top-five QB in completion percentage and passer rating and put him in the top 10 in touchdowns and yards per attempt last season.
Most will argue Cousins' success is tied to the system he's in, which is why making sure the Vikings can execute their run-first plan to set up play-action -- a Cousins' strength -- is paramount. The offense lost a part of its soul when Diggs was traded but the Vikings feel they've found his replacement in Jefferson and they are confident they already have the personnel internally to upgrade the offensive line, particularly at both guard spots.