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Jul. 29—EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings opened training at their facility in Eagan on Wednesday. The players were excited to be back in camp and also enjoyed the fact that fans were allowed back in the stadium.
Here is a first-day look at five topics on the Vikings from the first day at camp.
1. The fans are back
With COVID-19 in full force last summer, fans were not allowed at training camps and a number of teams, including the Vikings, didn't have any fans during games for the entire 2020 season.
Restrictions are still in place, but fans were allowed back at the Vikings training facility as camp opened on Wednesday. The players certainly took notice.
"Last year was a rollercoaster year ... so it was exciting to have them back," Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks agreed.
"I expect the fans to be super loud this year, just obnoxiously loud and help the defense," Kendricks said. "Last year we were missing that link for sure and I'm excited to bring that aspect back to the game."
A lot of younger Vikings fans took part in activities in the main stadium — such as flag football, throwing, kicking and running a 40-yard dash — while the die-hards were watching the players on the practice fields during Wednesday's two-hour workout.
The Skol chant broke out several times during the course of the practice.
"They're anxious to watch some football face to face in person," Cook said. "To have them back and them to be back, it's going to be fun for them."
2. The offensive line
Heading into training camp, the offensive line was one of the biggest questions marks on the team. The line has struggled in recent years and there has been plenty of turnover lately. The Vikings have used a first, second or third round draft choice six times over the past five seasons for an offensive lineman.
Christian Darrisaw, the team's 2021 first round draft choice, did not practice on Wednesday due to a minor injury. He is expected to start at left tackle this season. Wyatt Davis, a guard selected in the third round, is a hopeful starter, but he was on the second team as a guard Wednesday. All eyes will be on the two rookies as camp progresses.
Lower draft choices Dakota Dozier and Oli Udoh split time at first team right guard on Wednesday.
Who will emerge: Look for second-year guard Erza Cleveland to take a big jump this year.
On the hot seat: Center Garrett Bradbury, in his third season, has been shaky as a starter. Improvement is needed from him and having better guards next to him this year could be a boost that he needs.
3. Re-built defensive line
Like much of the defense, the line was in shambles at the end of the 2020 season. Injuries played a big factor and the Vikings made plenty of moves to shore up the line in the offseason.
Perhaps the best news for Vikings fans as camp opened was Danielle Hunter was back in action. The outstanding defensive end, just 25, missed the entire 2020 season with a neck injury. Hunter was moving fluidly as camp opened and his pass-rushing ability is a must for the team to improve an area that was dreadful a season ago. Hunter has 54.5 career sacks in just 78 games.
The Vikings have also brought back Stephen Weatherly to play end opposite of Hunter. Second-year player D.J. Wonnum should also take a positive step this season. Patrick Jones II (second round) and Janarius Robinson (fourth round) are rookie draft choices who could have an impact as the season goes along.
The biggest area of improvement on the entire team might be the defensive tackles. Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson were brought in as free agents and Michael Pierce will play after opting out a year ago.
Who will emerge: He hasn't played a game for the Vikings yet, but Tomlinson could be a 319-pound force in the middle of the line and could be a run-stopping force in the middle.
On the hot seat: Pierce. He also has yet to play for the Vikings. He opted out a year ago due to COVID-19 after signing as a free agent. The 340-pounder takes up a lot of room on the inside. But he has been slowed by a calf injury at the start of camp and did not take part on Wednesday. The Vikings need the big guy on the inside, but he is 28 and hasn't played since the end of the 2019 season. He has to step up and play and prove his worth to the team.
4. New-look secondary
The secondary was also ravaged by injuries a year ago. The Vikings went into the 2020 season very young at cornerback, but they didn't make that mistake this season. The Vikings brought in veteran free agents cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackenzie Alexander and safety Xavier Woods.
There is plenty of competition at cornerback with second-year players Cameron Dantzler, who had a strong rookie season, Jeff Gladney and Harrison Hand, along with third-year player Kris Boyd.
Peterson and Dantzler were the first-team corners on Wednesday with Alexander being the main player in the slot. The Vikings are counting on cornerback to be one of the most improved areas of the team, and after last year's play, it is needed.
Who will emerge: Breeland is a 29-year-old veteran. He got off to a great start at camp on Wednesday as he had an early interception and then knocked down a pass just moments later. He has been consistent in his career with 14 interceptions in seven seasons, including two each in five of those seasons.
On the hot seat: Gladney was a first-round draft choice in 2020 and saw plenty of action as a rookie. But he was inconsistent and now is facing domestic abuse charges. He was the only healthy player who did not practice on Wednesday. His status could be a giant question mark this season and might be one of the reasons the Vikings signed so many veteran cornerbacks.
5. Wide receiver 3
The Vikings have two stellar wide receivers in Adam Thielen and second-year man Justin Jefferson. But the battle for the No. 3 wide receiver could be intense in camp.
Bisi Johnson and Chad Bebe are two veterans that filled the role a year ago, but both are limited. Dede Westbrook was just signed as a free agent by the Vikings. He is coming off an ACL injury in 2020, but he caught 66 passes in both 2018 and '19. Rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette should also get a shot. Smith-Marsette made a stellar diving catch off a deep pass from rookie quarterback Kelly Mond on Wednesday.
Who will emerge: If Westbrook is fully recovered from his ACL injury, he could play a strong role in the offense. He has shown his ability to catch the ball with 66 grabs in two different seasons. He is also reunited with Vikings new wide receiver coach Keenan McCardell. Westbrook was also back returning punts on Wednesday.
On the hot seat: K.J. Osborn. A rookie a year ago, Osborn did not catch a pass during the regular season. He did return punts (3.9 average) and kickoffs (21.6 average) with modest success. But the Vikings have drafted and brought in others who can return kicks. That could make Osborn expendable, although he could land back on the practice squad.
— Guy N. Limbeck, email@example.com
With fans back in the stands this year, several Skol chants have broken out at Vikings practice. pic.twitter.com/UsRSAOv8gw
— Guy N. Limbeck (@PBglimbeck) July 28, 2021
A lot of new defensive backs for Vikings this season, including Mackenzie Alexander (24), who is back for 2nd stint with the team. pic.twitter.com/70P9TsXJdS
— Guy N. Limbeck (@PBglimbeck) July 28, 2021