The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of a successful 2019 campaign in which Kirk Cousins improved, Mike Zimmer recorded his second double-digit win season in the last three years and the Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in a postseason overtime thriller. Despite the fact that Minnesota took a clear step in the right direction last season, they are entering 2020 with several question marks.

The Vikings parted ways with star wideout Stefon Diggs and also lost three of their top cornerbacks in free agency. Still, they rebounded in the 2020 NFL Draft to select several talented players who could come in and make an immediate impact. First-round pick Justin Jefferson out of LSU looks like a perfect candidate to replace Diggs at wideout, fellow first-round pick Jeff Gladney could be an instant starter at cornerback and the coaching staff could find somewhere for second-round pick Ezra Cleveland to start along the offensive line. While the Vikings have plenty of young talent coming in, they are going to have to compete for playing time, just like everyone else on roster. 

Zimmer’s first goal during this unprecedented offseason will be to evaluate his talent and establish a rough depth chart. This task will be more difficult than usual since there is no preseason due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesota has plenty of talent, but which players will rise above the others before the regular season? Let’s take a look at five of the most intriguing training camp battles for the Vikings.  

1. Cornerback

Candidates: Jeff Gladney, Mike Hughes, Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand, Holton Hill

My colleague Cody Benjamin listed the cornerback as the most important position battle for Minnesota earlier this offseason, and I couldn’t agree more. The Vikings lost Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander all in one offseason, so they will be starting anew at cornerback. First-round pick Jeff Gladney figures to make a nice transition to the slot cornerback role, and former first-rounder Mike Hughes has the wherewithal to man an outside job. The depth, however, is a total unknown. Third-rounder Cameron Dantzler, fifth-rounder Harrison Hand and reserve holdover Holton Hill will be fighting for big roles this summer, especially considering the Vikings’ pass rush took a hit with the loss of Everson Griffen. This is the the key position to watch in training camp for the Vikings. 

2. Wide receiver

Candidates: Justin Jefferson, Tajae Sharpe, Olabisi Johnson, K.J. Osborn

When the Vikings signed Tajae Sharpe this offseason, he said he was excited about the opportunity since there was a starting position open due to the Diggs trade. Unfortunately, that spot appeared to be automatically filled when Minnesota selected Justin Jefferson with the No. 22 overall pick. The former LSU star caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as LSU defeated Clemson in the College Football National Championship game. He also had an incredible performance against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, when he caught 14 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns. All four of his receiving touchdowns came in the first half. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound receiver has the potential to be a premier wideout at the next level, and also ran a 4.43 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine. A longtime NFL offensive coordinator/receivers coach even told told Bucky Brooks of NFL.com that Jefferson was one of the best receivers he’s ever studied. Jefferson is probably the favorite to start opposite of Adam Thielen, but he will have to earn the starting spot in training camp. What happens next on the depth chart, however, is just as intriguing.

Sharpe will have to battle with the likes of Bisi Johnson, possibly Chad Beebe and then K.J. Osborn — who is another talented rookie this coaching staff is excited about. The Buffalo transfer caught 50 passes for 547 yards and five touchdowns during his one season with Miami, and is a dependable hard worker who could have a future in the slot. It’s interesting how the Vikings went from having only four healthy wideouts on roster last year to hosting a legitimate competition at the position. Hopefully this just opens up the passing game even more for Cousins. 

3. Offensive guard

Candidates: Pat Elflein, Dakota Dozier, Dru Samia, Aviante Collins, Ezra Cleveland

While Ezra Cleveland was a successful tackle at Boise State, it’s unlikely the rookie will come in and immediately replace Riley Reiff on the left side. If he impresses enough in training camp, however, he could enter the competition for offensive guard. 

Pat Elflein and Dakota Dozier should be slated as the two starting guards if the season began today since Josh Kline was not re-signed, but that is subject to change before September. Both did not register impressive seasons in 2019, and there is some youth ready to battle with them for playing time. Dru Samia, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, does have a ton of potential, but only played in two games during his rookie season. The former Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year should at least be given a chance to compete, as should former undrafted free agent Aviante Collins — who made one start last year. Again, Elflein and Dozier should be the favorites to win this competition, but don’t count out the wildcard in Cleveland. 

4. Defensive tackle

Candidates: Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, Shamar Stephen, Hercules Mata’afa

The Vikings parted ways with Linval Joseph this offseason, but tried to replace him with former Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who they signed to a three-year deal. Unfortunately for Minnesota, he decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, so the Vikings will host a competition for two of the starting spots along the defensive line. 

Jaleel Johnson started three games last season and recorded a career-high 29 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks, so he should be considered a favorite to start the regular-season opener at nose tackle in place of Pierce. Shamar Stephen is a veteran who started 15 games for the Vikings last season, but Armon Watts is probably the more intriguing option that Zimmer will be paying close attention to. The former sixth-round pick played in just seven games and recorded 13 combined tackles along with 1.5 sacks in his rookie season, but is someone who has intrigued the coaching staff as of late.

“Armon has played really well,” Zimmer said earlier this week, via NFL.com. “He’s done a nice job when he’s been in there. He played a fair amount towards the amount of last year.” 

According to Next Gen Stats, Watts recorded a disruption on just under 10 percent of his 41 pass-rushing snaps from an interior defensive position in 2019, so there’s no doubt he has potential. Former undrafted free agent Hercules Mata’afa is another young guy who should get the chance to push both Stephen and Watts for the starting role, but he will likely play in a reserve role.  

5. Backup quarterback

Candidates: Sean Mannion, Nate Stanley, Jake Browning

Who doesn’t love a good backup quarterback battle? Sean Mannion should again be the favorite to make the 53-man roster, but he didn’t impress in his one start last year. In the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears, Mannion completed 12 of 21 passes for 126 yards and two interceptions as the Vikings lost, 21-19. Minnesota kept undrafted free agent Jake Browning on its practice squad last season, and the former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year could put up more of a fight in training camp this time around. The Vikings also drafted former Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he registered a strong senior season in which he went 10-3 as a starter while throwing for 2,951 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. During this very different offseason, Zimmer may feel more comfortable moving forward with a veteran behind Cousins instead of a younger player, but this could also serve as an opportunity for them to go with a prospect with more potential if they feel like they have seen the best Mannion has to offer. 

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