When the Minnesota Vikings report to their annual training camp in Mankato Thursday, the spotlight will be on a couple of areas, which include the quarterback position and the defense in general.
No doubt, the path the quarterback battle between incumbent Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater will directly determine how smooth a transition it will be for the first-year coaching staff, led by Mike Zimmer.
Add in the fact of the remaking of the defensive unit under the D-minded Zimmer, those two items will occupy the majority of sports pages regarding the Vikings’ preseason in the next couple of months.
But in the Detroit Lakes area, another camp competition will be in the forefront of importance and that’s who will be securing the No. 5 slot in the wide receiving corp.
After surviving the entire 2013 season on the Viking practice squad, a rare feat in itself, Detroit Lakes’ own Adam Thielen will be entering his second training camp as one of the favorites to win the potential No. 5 wide receiver.
Thielen had a spectacular offseason, which started by him signing a future’s contract, which ensured his spot on the Vikings’ roster through OTA’s and minicamps.
He took full advantage of the opportunity, as he became one of the players who stood out during these camps under the watchful eyes of Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Thielen was seen leading drills during the rookie and undrafted players’ camp, while he continued his progression as an NFL wide receiver by polishing up his already solid route running.
The former Laker’s name is popping up on Viking fan message boards as one to watch during training camp, as he battles for a spot on the opening day roster, which would make Thielen the first-ever player to make an NFL roster from DL.
But it’s still a long road for Thielen, as it is for any other undrafted player trying to make the cut of an NFL team.
Unlike last year, Thielen has been able to train the entire time at Winter Park with the Vikings. He has over a year of practicing with established NFL players such as Greg Jennings and tight end Kyle Rudolph, as well as wide receiver coach holdover George Stewart, who was a big supporter of Thielen during last year’s training camp.
But there are several realistic signs entering training camp that Thielen has an inside track of securing his spot on the highly-coveted opening day roster.
The first one, obviously, is that Viking general manager Rick Spielman decided to offer Thielen a future’s contract, after he successfully showed he belonged on the professional stage by earning his spot on the practice squad for the entire year in 2013.
The second true sign which is working in Thielen’s favor is the fact despite this year’s NFL Draft being one of the deepest in wide receiver talent, the Vikings bypassed on the position with all 10 of their picks.
That shows the coaching staff and Spielman are more than comfortable with the depth and talent which was on the team pre-draft.
To be able to survive the transition between the changing of an entire coaching staff, is impressive in itself.
Spielman was quoted as saying during a KFAN broadcast in June that, “Adam kind of really stuck out,” when asked to name someone that’s progressed from last year.
Entering training camp, there will be 11 wide receivers on the roster.
Barring injury, the top four slots are virtually secured, led by veteran Jennings and followed by last year’s rookie sensation Cordarrelle Patterson, with third-year player Jarius Wright and veteran Jerome Simpson holding the three and four slots.
History shows that a Turner-led offense has usually at least held five receivers on the roster, this seems the case this year, as well.
That basically leaves one spot open for seven prospects, including last year practice squad players Thielen and Florida State’s Rodney Smith and first-year Vikings Kain Colter (Northwestern), Josh Cooper (Oklahoma State), Donte Foster (Ohio), Kamar Jorden (Bowling Green) and Erik Lora (Eastern Illinois).
Through OTA’s and minicamps, Thielen and Smith had the advantage and it looks like entering July 24, it’s a two-horse race out of the gates for the final WR spot.
Jorden and Lora have good potential as pass catchers, with Jorden actually resembling Thielen in size and speed.
But unless one or both of them absolutely unleashes in the preseason, the best bet for either is a spot on the practice squad for development.
With Smith, he possesses something no Viking wide receiver has and that’s size. His 6-5, 200-pound frame does make him a desirable red zone target and that’s what helped him get called up last year in the latter half of the season.
What could work against Smith, though, is the acquisition of undrafted tight end A.C. Leonard out of Tennessee State.
Leonard was graded out as a fourth or fifth round draft pick, but trouble off the field slid him right out of the draft.
But his athletic dimensions of 6-2 and 250-pounds and the ability to jump out of his shoes, could give the Vikings a very tasty red zone duo of Rudolph (6-6, 259) and Leonard, thus lessening the need for a big, tall WR target like Smith.
Thielen has plenty of advantages building in his favor, as well.
His size isn’t a detriment since he is 6-2, 195 pounds. He has separated himself from the competition with his crisp, accurate route running and hands which haul in everything, especially his ability to make the acrobatic catches, something he has shown since his days playing on Mollberg Field in DL.
Thielen also has the football intelligence coaches love, he can digest a playbook and be a quarterback’s best friend.
Add in the fact he has the work ethic to succeed and the chance to show it in practice every day has only aided his chances.
Another big factor tilting in Thielen’s direction is his ability to play special teams, which in the end, could be the ultimate factor of him making the team.
Another little nugget to think about, as well, is the potential four-game suspension of Simpson, who has already served a suspension a couple of years ago and now found himself in trouble again last year with a DUI.
If that is the case, it opens up two spots on the wide receiver rotation, that is of course, if the Vikings don’t pick up any other free agents through first-round and final preseason cuts leading up to the opening date of Sept. 7, in St. Louis.
The majority of the attention will be on the quarterback position, but plenty of interest will be brewing in the lakes area of who will snag one of those wide receivers spots.
The hope in the area is it will be No. 19 by the end of preseason.