Last year, it wasn’t so much that the Minnesota Vikings couldn’t stretch the field with their receiving corps. Rather, quarterback Sam Bradford didn’t have much time to let the downfield routes development.
This year, the Vikings are hoping things will be different.
They have invested in new offensive linemen, grabbing starting tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency and drafting two more linemen that could start. They have invested in the running game with free agent Latavius Murray and second-round pick Dalvin Cook.
And they have invested at receiver, signing Michael Floyd and drafting two in the middle to late rounds.
Coaches hope the protection will be better, the opposing defense will be kept guessing more about what is coming and the foundation among the receivers is already there. Despite missing Adam Thielen, who had a wrap around his left knee, on Wednesday, the offense hit on several big plays downfield.
Early in the session, Bradford hit Stefon Diggs for a 70-yard pass over Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo, who were tight in coverage but not good enough to stop Diggs from making the over-the-shoulder grab.
“It’s been nice, spending a lot of time with him,” Diggs said of Bradford. “Especially since we didn’t have an offseason last year, so going into this offseason, definitely plan on taking full advantage of it.”
Bradford joined the team in early September via trade after Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury. As it turned out, Bradford ended up with the highest completion percentage in NFL history and the fewest yards per completion in the league last year. That’s why the search for more explosive plays has been in force this offseason, and why developing an offseason rapport has been important.
“Just being where you’re supposed to be. I try to do my job to the best of my ability,” Diggs said of developing chemistry with Bradford. “He throws a hell of a ball, often and early.”
Later in Wednesday’s session, Bradford found Diggs deep again. Once again, the coverage looked good with Terence Newman trailing closely, but Bradford trusted Diggs to make the contested reception. He did, for about a 60-yard gain.
“He’s obviously extremely quick. We can play him in a lot of different places,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of Diggs. “He showed up today in the red zone a little bit. I mentioned this last year, but at the time I was coaching the tight ends and Kyle Rudolph had an outstanding spring and summer because he was healthy and he was able to kind of lay the foundation for the fall. So that’s what you’re hoping for, guys get out here and get their reps. There’s a chemistry that needs to be built. When the receivers can work a great deal with the quarterbacks, certainly that helps.”
Diggs once again referenced his multiple injuries in 2016 that kept him from playing in three games and kept him out of numerous other practices. He continues to blame himself for those injuries.
“Muscles should be preventable if you take care of your body. If you break something or something like that, that’s something you can’t prevent. But I should be able to take good control of that other stuff,” Diggs said on Wednesday.
“Stay healthy. That’s all that matters. I got hurt real early. I had pulled my groin in the Giants game; I had strained it the week before. Stuff like that is on me, staying healthy, staying where I need to be so I can be at tip-top shape come game time.”
If Diggs can stay healthy, Thielen can get back healthy (his injury appears mild), Laquon Treadwell can continue to progress as it appears he has this offseason, and Floyd can get his life and career back on track, the Vikings should have a much-improved receiving corps.
And if Wednesday’s practice was any indication, the deep shots will be there for the taking.
- In addition to Diggs’ big plays downfield, first-year WR Cayleb Jones made a deep-ball play over Anthony Harris for a 70-yard play from backup QB Case Keenum. Jones has looked good in the practices that have been open to the media.
- CB Xavier Rhodes wasn’t at practice, but it wasn’t because of injury or anything to do with his contract. In his absence, Newman played right cornerback with the first-team offense, Waynes stayed on his usual left side and Mackensie Alexander got the nickel reps.
- DT Sharrif Floyd (knee/quad), WR Stacy Coley (unknown), Thielen (knee), Murray (ankle), LB Emmanuel Lamur (unknown) and LB Shaan Washington (foot) were all at practice but not participating.
- Floyd had a leaping catch in the back of the end zone on a pass from Keenum during 7-on-7 red zone work.
- Nick Easton was the starting center, Joe Berger got most of the work at right guard, Alex Boone at left guard and Reiff and Remmers were at tackle with the starting offense. Jeremiah Sirles got some work at guard, too.
- Danielle Hunter continued to get most of the starting time at left defensive end over veteran Brian Robison, and on occasion Hunter and Everson Griffen switched sides.
- Edmond Robinson continued to get the weakside linebacker role in the base defense with Lamur not practicing, but rookie Elijah Lee also got some work there.