There are a few demarcation points that occur during the course of an NFL calendar.
The opening of free agency and the draft are the appetizers. The annual team minicamp, the last time the coaching staff gets a hands-on opportunity to work, sets the stage for the main course of the season that starts with training camp in late July and ends as far as the team can advance in hopes of getting to the Super Bowl in early February.
The Minnesota Vikings are in the final stage of the offseason program and head coach Mike Zimmer, who has faced a challenging offseason in his own right, is taking advantage of these precious final moments before the players leave the facility – not to return until they gather in Mankato for training camp.
Zimmer admits that the process of evaluating talent has become more difficult than it was when he started his coaching career. It’s even more problematic for him because, when it comes down to the final 53-man roster, he’s the last word and those calls are the toughest for him to make.
“Final decisions, yes,” Zimmer said. “I think it is important that the players know that they are being evaluated every day. Maybe not to the point where this guy is going to jump ahead of that guy or vice versa, but that is why we come out here every day.”
While there is something to be said about practices, there really is no replacement for live action. Yet, there is something to be said about making sure players comprehend and execute their assignments.
The minicamp doesn’t necessarily win jobs for players, but it does put positive or negative impressions in the minds of the coaching staff that will be scrutinized over and over between now and the start of training camp.
“We watch some and evaluate – not only just schemes and what we are doing as coaches, but what they are doing as players and how we try to get them to be better,” Zimmer said. “You do not want to be an instant evaluator and say, ‘This is our guy,’ and get the pads on and it’s a totally different deal. But, my opinion every single day, I come out here, I am being evaluated, they are being evaluated, and everybody out here should be evaluated.”
The purpose of the minicamp is to make sure that players are on the same page with the plans they’re putting in place and the schemes they’re implementing.
Teams constantly change from one year to the next, not just in personnel, but in nuances to the primary themes that are critical to learning through repetition and remembering it when bullets are flying and wins and losses matter.
“I think they’re very aware of a lot of the things we’re trying to teach,” Zimmer said. “I think they’re in a good place right now. Sometimes you just get here and run plays, but you’re not learning how to play the game. We’ve progressed to the part now where we’re trying to learn how to play games, trying to learn how to play at the end of games, how to play with the clock, without the clock, with the ball or without the ball because I think that’s going to be important when we come down to starting getting into the real stuff.”