EAGAN, Minn. – In his last season with the Washington Redskins, Kirk Cousins played behind 36 different offensive line combinations. At the end of his first week of training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, the circumstances with this group were far from perfect.
Down three starters on the O-line -- Pat Elflein, who remains on the PUP list, Mike Remmers (ankle) and Nick Easton (undisclosed) -- Minnesota has been forced to mix up its personnel, leaving Cousins without having taken a snap with the team’s projected Week 1 starting center. During the Vikings’ annual night practice inside TCO Stadium on Saturday, Cornelius Edison, the team’s third-string center, was thrust in with the starters.
“It’s tough,” Cousins said. “It’s not ideal. Pat will be back, but it’s good practice for when inevitably something happens during the season and we have to shuffle people around. I guess it’s getting us prepared for that. It isn’t easy to have a new center every other snap, if that’s what happens.”
That constant shuffling makes things difficult as the Vikings’ offense aims to level the field with the defense, a unit that returns 10 of its 11 starters in 2018 and is understandably ahead at this point in camp. These setbacks have allowed Minnesota to test its depth with players such as Edison, Tom Compton, Danny Isidora and Brian O’Neill, all of whom have rotated in with the first-team. While certainly not ideal, what’s happening now is preparing Minnesota for what it could face this season -- conditions all too familiar to Cousins.
“It’s great, the receivers, the O-Line, tight ends, to work with guys who are more down the line because you never know at what point in the season they’ll be up and ready to go,” Cousins said. “Even players who may get released late in camp could be back Week 7 or 8 starting for you because of injuries. Everybody matters. You have to just get them involved.”
Minnesota is five days away from opening preseason action Denver, its first chance to test where the team stands and the areas that need honing in. While still early in the process with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator, elements of the install that once felt foreign are now starting to click.
“As far as learning the concepts we’ve been learning since minicamp and OTAs and going into training camp, it was a lot smoother because ... we have learned the concepts,” Stefon Diggs said. “So now we’re kind of like – you have a subject in class that you’ve been studying for a little while, you’re starting to get it and you’re starting to find the small nuances of it that you want (to make) little tweaks here and there and that kind of thing.”
The good days mixed with the hiccups are to be expected. The first-team offense strung together red-zone periods, but struggled against the reigning No. 1 defense on Saturday. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian scored the only touchdown inside the 20 on a play-action bootleg.
Dalvin Cook was held out from Saturday’s practice while continuing to progress through his rehabilitation from a torn ACL, though he’s expected to see some action in the preseason. In his absence, Latavius Murray handled first-team reps and has shown areas where he can affect the run as the offense works to flush out roles for both players.
Though difficult to fully gauge where things stand this early with notable absences, a handful of performances serve as a litmus test for areas of growth.
Laquon Treadwell's carryover from a strong spring into training camp has been seen in his difficult red-zone catches and a highlight-reel grab over Trae Waynes at the end of last week. Former CFL product Brandon Zylstra's back-to-back receptions on Saturday, including a one-handed sideline toe-drag grab, showcase a position group coming together.
For Cousins and his receivers, the preseason is an opportunity to perfect their on-field chemistry, which isn’t a process that turns off once a rep is over. Perfecting the speed at which things happen, from protections to hand signals and audibles, is a constant work in progress – one the Vikings hope to see take the next step as training camp wages on.
“Timing is an everyday thing,” Diggs said. “We have to work at it consistently. We try to do that each and every day. As far as with the quarterback, we communicate. It’s open conversation that -- you want this done. How do you want it done this way? Or am I having too much speed, should I slow it down or break this way? It’s an ongoing conversation. It’s never really perfect but we’re trying to be as perfect as we can.”