This weekend marks the beginning of the Broncos’ preseason slate, and while it’d be awesome to Fangio steer Denver to an undefeated record, the most important part is staying healthy as the decision makers use the upcoming games to help evaluate the roster.
Today also marks the Broncos’ first practice against the Minnesota Vikings. The joint practices should provide George Paton, Vic Fangio, and the rest of the coaching staff a great opportunity to see how the roster stacks up against an opponent. The exposure to different systems should also be a huge benefit to the young players who are only just beginning to cut their teeth in the NFL.
To get a better idea as to what the Vikings’ practices will do for the Broncos, I reached out to Vikings Corners’ Daniel House.
Broncos are in Minnesota for a big couple of days.— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) August 11, 2021
1:00pm-3:00pm (Denver time): Joint practice with Vikings
1:00pm-3:00pm (Denver time): Joint practice with Vikings
2:00pm: First preseason game vs Vikings
1st and 10
I saw recently that Mike Zimmer said he wasn’t sure how much starters would play in this first preseason game, so I have to ask: what position groups are especially strong this year?
House: The running back and tight end groups stand out while evaluating the Vikings’ depth chart. This is not a surprise when you consider the identity of Minnesota’s team. GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer have built their offense around a strong running game and 12 personnel sets. The running back room is headlined by Dalvin Cook, one of the most versatile and electrifying running backs in the league. His lateral agility and elusiveness in space are remarkable. Any Broncos fans who attends the joint practices will have an opportunity to see how swiftly he can change direction. It is really fun to watch.
Alexander Mattison, a third-round pick in 2019, is a physical back who frequently picks up yards after contact and runs with excellent balance. Minnesota also drafted speedy Iowa State running back Kene Nwangwu in the fourth round of this year’s draft. His freakish athletic traits have been apparent during training camp practices. Nwangwu accelerates around the corner and displays excellent top-end speed. He is a player I’m interested to watch in the preseason. The Vikings could take advantage of his unique athleticism by designing specific packages for him within game scripts. Nwangwu could create mismatches against linebackers due to his quickness and explosiveness.
As for the tight end room, Irv Smith Jr. looks like he is poised for a massive season. One could argue he has been the most impressive player on the field during Vikings training camp. He moves really well in and out of breaks and has made even more progress as a route runner. The Vikings released veteran Kyle Rudolph this offseason, so Smith’s usage is expected to explode. Additionally, tight end Tyler Conklin should see more action. Conklin has been developing behind the scenes in recent years. He is an athletic and physical pass-catcher who can threaten opposing defenses in the red zone. Conklin saw action at the end of last season and displayed yards after contact ability within the intermediate passing game. Also, he has gradually improved as a run blocker, which was one of the big things he had to fix.
Last year, the Vikings’ were in 12 personnel at a 22 percent clip, which ranked No. 11 in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats. It is why Minnesota has consistently targeted and developed tight end talent in recent years. Now, after making that investment, the Smith-Conklin duo is set to make some noise in 2021.
2nd and 8
On a similar note, where do you expect the Vikings’ to seemingly have issues in the preseason?
House: I am very worried about the Vikings’ current safety depth chart. Outside of starters Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods, the entire group is really inexperienced. Camryn Bynum, a fourth-round pick out of California, played cornerback in college but was drafted as a safety. He is still learning the position and needs development time. After him, the Vikings’ next option is Josh Metellus. He is core special teams player and has made a big impact across units. However, Metellus has no playing experience at safety.
During training camp practices I have attended, Mike Zimmer has spent quite a bit of time with the safeties. He is frequently tweaking and teaching technique throughout sessions. Following roster cuts, I think the Vikings will end up hitting the free agent market for a safety. In fact, this week’s joint practices give Minnesota’s personnel staff a chance to evaluate potential options that may be cut by the Broncos.
Joint practices provide both teams with an additional evaluation point for many fringe roster players. Broncos GM George Paton already has a strong knowledge of Minnesota’s roster, so I would expect he will be closely monitoring his former team’s roster cuts.
While watching the joint practices, I am zoning in on the Broncos’ young safeties, wide receivers and backup offensive linemen. I think the Vikings could possibly upgrade those positions after roster cuts. As a result, if any Broncos players grab their attention, they could become post-roster cut targets.
So early signs are Paton is gonna go buck wild when the Vikings submit their cuts, eh?— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) July 27, 2021
3rd and 5
Broncos Country is obviously very familiar with Gary Kubiak’s offense. Are the Vikings still running a variant of it with his son Klint now the offensive coordinator? What ways do you expect the offense to try and test the Fangio defense?
House: Oh yes, the Vikings are still running the Kubiak system! You will see heavy play-action, wide-zone rushing and plenty of bootlegs. Those core concepts are not going anywhere. I’m more interested in the possible wrinkles that Klint Kubiak could add in his first season as offensive coordinator. Minnesota was in far too many long down-and-distance situations last year. This was a result of their heavy early-down rushing tendencies. I’m wondering if Kubiak will make adjustments in that specific area.
Not to mention, I want to see more motion, tight splits and gadget plays in the Vikings’ offense. When you look at the skill players Minnesota has, it needs to do a better job of getting defenses moving horizontally. Those are just a few elements that Kubiak could add if he wants to modernize the core Gary Kubiak system. It would go a long way toward improving Minnesota’s offensive efficiency.
So far, while watching #Vikings camp, these players have stood out to me: K.J. Osborn, Irv Smith Jr., Armon Watts, Oli Udoh, D.J. Wonnum and Nick Vigil.— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) August 4, 2021
4th and 2
Lest people forget, Zimmer’s defense is typically among the stronger units in the NFL. We’ll probably see a stripped down version in the game, but how do you expect him to attack the Broncos’ offense?
House: Mike Zimmer is going to save all of his wrinkles for the regular season. Instead, he will run the core defensive system and evaluate young players. I personally think it is most difficult to assess the play of safeties and linebackers in practice settings. With that in mind, coaches like Zimmer frequently rely upon preseason games for valuable film and evaluation points.
Minnesota must figure out which fringe roster players are worth keeping at those positions. During the preseason, Zimmer must get a good look at linebackers like Cam Smith, Nick Vigil, Chazz Surratt and Troy Dye. Those players have been battling for depth spots during training camp. While making roster decisions, coaches are searching for linebackers with special teams potential. That will certainly play a big role in the roster decisions Minnesota makes.
Not only that, but the Vikings must determine whether any of the young safeties are legitimate backup options. Zimmer will frequently rotate those players and put them in a variety of situations. He also will use the joint practices and game to get a good look at young pass rushers like Janarius Robinson and Patrick Jones. I’m one of the few people who enjoys watching the preseason because I can pair up film observations with my practice takeaways.
Sounds like some starters will probably sit out the Vikings’ first preseason game on Saturday. “There’s some guys that probably don’t need much,” Mike Zimmer said.— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) August 9, 2021
Are there any big trends Broncos’ fans should be aware about before the game? Injuries, surprise players, etc.?
House: There are not many big storylines entering this game. The Vikings will use the joint practices and preseason game to evaluate young players and assess their overall depth. I’m very excited to see players like Oli Udoh, Wyatt Davis, Blake Proehl, KJ Osborn, Nick Vigil, Patrick Jones and Janarius Robinson.
On Denver’s side, I’m intrigued by Javonte Williams, Caden Sterns, Jamar Johnson, Justin Strnad, Netane Muti and Trinity Benson. I like the developmental potential of those players.
Overall, I thought the Broncos had a strong draft and added many talented young players. There is plenty of upside and potential on the back half of Denver’s depth chart. If this team can establish stability at the quarterback position, the roster is positioned well for the future.
Lastly, Broncos fans are very lucky to have George Paton as their new GM. He is one of the smartest people in this business. Paton’s work ethic, attention to detail and player evaluation skills are really impressive. He is a progressive mind and leader who surrounds himself with the best people. More importantly, George is a very genuine person who will make his mark in the local community. The Bowlen family certainly nailed this hire!