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Vikings mailbag: What's the plan at guard? Expectations for Jefferson and Gladney

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions for this week’s Vikings mailbag, via social media or e-mail. The team ended its virtual offseason program this week, sending players away from the digital classroom with tentative plans for training camp in late July. Let’s get started:

From @KiddCann: What the heck are we going to do about our guard situation? The position was terrible last year and it looks to have gotten worse.

AK: Josh Kline, who refused a pay cut in March and was cut, is still a free agent. As are veteran guards Larry Warford, Ronald Leary and Mike Person. Only a handful of NFL offensive lines are truly settled at this point and the Vikings are not among them. If a game were played tomorrow, the guards project to be Pat Elflein and Dakota Dozier; the duo started three games (Bears, Eagles and Broncos) together last season. But the Vikings also have three open roster spots and could fill them with veteran help once facilities reopen for practices. Behind Elflein and Dozier, the Vikings coaching staff has expressed optimism about second-year guard Dru Samia after he was essentially redshirted as a rookie. Aviante Collins, the fourth-year lineman, can also play every position and shouldn’t be overlooked after injuries have stunted his career so far.

From @Ornelas_Edward: What do you expect the defensive line rotation to look like this season?

AK: Perhaps not as robust this time around, at least at defensive end where journeyman Anthony Zettel and rookie D.J. Wonnum have been the replacements for Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly. The Vikings have high expectations for Ifeadi Odenigbo, who may earn a starting role in his fourth NFL season; said co-coordinator Andre Patterson: “I’m excited about Ifeadi to continue to improve as a player. He made great strides last year, and he’s a tremendously hard worker. I know he’s busting his tail right now … as a matter of fact, I have to talk to him about not over-training.” But inexperience mostly trails star end Danielle Hunter, even if the group includes DE/DT Jalyn Holmes. The middle could provide a broader mix. Defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Shamar Stephen are flanked by Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa and rookie James Lynch.

From @SnakeEyez1997: Better No. 2 receiver opening day: Justin Jefferson or Tajae Sharpe?

AK: Justin Jefferson. The Vikings’ first-round pick is expected to be a Week 1 starter after he was the receptions leader in an historic LSU offense. Jefferson should have multiple roles based on what Vikings coaches view as a solid foundation thanks to his college coaching. Said coordinator Gary Kubiak: “What he was asked to do last year was very beneficial. 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.”

As Kubiak said, Jefferson made his mark as LSU’s slot receiver. That’s where the Vikings envision playing him “quite a bit,” according to Kubiak, but he’ll also run routes from the outside, especially if paired with Adam Thielen in the common two-tight end formations. Veteran Tajae Sharpe, the former Titans receiver who signed a one-year deal in March, provides reliable depth and a potential No. 3 receiver. He’s a smooth route runner. But Jefferson is a stud athlete and is expected to arrive ready to be the Vikings’ present and future.

From @weinstock_jake: If I told you only one of Dalvin Cook and Anthony Harris would receive an extension this offseason, which one would you bet on? What terms would you predict?

AK: Dalvin Cook, in this hypothetical scenario where one must be chosen. If only because Cook is the spearhead to how head coach Mike Zimmer wants his offense to attack. Zimmer is also a few months removed from saying, “if you put up the positions most important on defense, it’s probably not going to be safety.” That’s without context that the Vikings have clearly valued Harrison Smith and, with an $11.4 million franchise tag, eventually stuck by Anthony Harris after initially trying to trade him to Cleveland. That doesn’t mean the Vikings will make Cook a higher-paid running back than Christian McCaffery ($16 million/year), but it’s possible to get his average annual salary among those top backs (No. 2 is Ezekiel Elliott at $15 million) with fine print tying much of the guarantees to Cook’s health. The Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling went further into Cook’s negotiations in this Access Vikings podcast. 

From @bigbadragz: What’s the plan behind both starting safeties? Are we rolling with the two rookies?

AK: The Vikings’ turnover behind Smith and Harris might be overlooked with the focus on new cornerbacks. But after Jayron Kearse and Andrew Sendejo signed elsewhere in free agency, the Vikings will be relying on youth in sixth-round pick Josh Metellus and seventh-round pick Brian Cole II. Fifth-round corner Harrison Hand has some traits to possibly play safety, according to director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson. The Vikings front office had inquired about signing at least two veteran safeties in Jeff Heath and Will Parks, according to league sources, but they signed elsewhere.

From @JoelStegman: Do you think that the Vikings’ perfect plan for cornerback is one where Hughes, Hill, and Dantzler are the outside corners with Gladney in the slot? Or do they hope someone else is their slot guy?

AK: Not many rookies start in the nickel role under Mike Zimmer, with Mike Hughes in 2018 being an exception; Mackensie Alexander was inactive in the opener due to injury. One of the Vikings’ first moves under Zimmer was to sign veteran slot defender Captain Munnerlyn in 2014. Then Terence Newman held the position down until Alexander proved ready. If Hughes is healthy, I’d guess he’ll get the first say as the most experienced corner (just 20 starts into his NFL career). First-round pick Jeff Gladney moved inside and followed star receivers for TCU’s defense, which attracted the Vikings. He’ll probably play often, but at this point it’s easier to project Hughes moving inside with some duo out of Holton Hill, Gladney and third-round pick Cameron Dantzler defending the outside in nickel.

Vikings among NFL teams closing offices Friday to recognize Juneteenth

The Vikings are among the growing wave of teams choosing to close headquarters Friday to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday.

Called Juneteenth, June 19 is celebrated as the end of slavery in the United States, acknowledging the day in 1865 when Texas became the final state to receive word that slaves had been freed.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week the league would close its offices. Teams like the Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers have followed. The Vikings recently sent educational resources about Juneteenth to employees and will consider keeping June 19 a company holiday moving forward.

“This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday, June 19th as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed,” Goodell said in a statement last week. “It is a day to reflect on our past, but more importantly, consider how each one of us can continue to show up and band together to work toward a better future.”

It is not a federal holiday, but Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980, and nearly every state recognizes the day in some fashion except for North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii. Many Minnesota-based companies have also moved to establish Juneteenth as an official holiday, including Target Corp., Best Buy and U.S. Bank.

The NFL’s announcement came after a pledge of $250 million over 10 years to “combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”

The Vikings responded with a $5 million pledge from the Wilf ownership to social justice work across the country. The team’s social justice committee also announced a $125,000 endowment for a scholarship in George Floyd’s name. Coaches and players have also helped lead team-wide talks about racial injustice and police brutality. 

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