For a football fan, it’s the best time of the year. Training camps across the NFL have begun.
No, the true games haven’t started yet. During my visit to Vikings Training Camp, the players weren’t even fully padded yet. But even with the understanding that the players were only in helmets and shorts, that familiar feeling of excitement was blooming in my stomach as I found my spot to watch practice.
Training camp is much like the NFL Draft in the sense that for a fan, there’s every reason to be optimistic. Day by day, your team is theoretically getting better as Week One approaches. Repetition and competition work hand-in-hand to improve each unit. The integration of social media has only raised the thrill brought on by training camp, with play-by-play tweets and clips of highlight catches hitting every fan’s feed on an almost daily basis. For those that were craving more NFL action the second after the Super Bowl confetti dropped, the fact that this isn’t “real football” doesn’t matter. The wait is almost over. Football is just around the corner.
Even from as far away as Ames Crossing Road, TCO Performance Center is an intimidating spectacle. With all of the empty space surrounding the practice facility, I couldn’t help but think of The Sultan’s Palace in the Disney movie Aladdin. The vast parking lot surrounding it is a far cry from the sands of Agrabah, of course, but the description “sports palace” stuck with me as my Lyft brought me to the shuttle lot.
That same sentiment remained as I passed through the check-in point. Similar to a college campus during recruiting season, everything around me felt meticulously manicured and sterile. As I climbed a set of stairs while heading to the practice field, I discovered a bed of artificial turf in the lounge area near the gift shop. The atmosphere was completely different from the scene I remembered from Mankato.
I don’t mean to sound as if training camp in Mankato was a dirty, roughneck experience. But even in my first year attending camp, I felt almost immediately comfortable there, like I was visiting a familiar relative. TCO Performance Center, in contrast, was so clean and corporate that it felt more like visiting a work acquaintance’s house for the first time for a dinner party, and I walked into the dining room wondering if I should have taken my shoes off.
I won’t dwell on this point, as this is the future of Vikings Training Camp whether I like it or not. But for those attending camp for the first time hopeful that it’ll have some resemblance to Mankato, I would temper those expectations. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s most certainly different. It’s possible that, like moving into a new house, it’ll feel more like home over time, but I suspect it’s going to take a few seasons.
Who Stood Out?
From where I was sitting, the offense was far more visible than the defense for the majority of the afternoon, so take that bias into account.
1) Dalvin Cook: My biggest takeaway from Saturday practices, by far, was how incredible our second round pick from 2017 looked. I remember being impressed by his obvious athleticism last year in Mankato, and as I watched him go through drills, he looked so sharp that I began to ask myself if my fan bias was clouding my judgment. Did he actually look this good, or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?
Not five minutes after I began wondering this, however, this tweet came across my feed:
It was unreal how good Dalvin Cook looked in drills Saturday. Explosive. He says he's quicker and faster now after the ACL surgery. If you didn't see him, you wouldn't believe it. But it looks to be true.
— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) July 29, 2018
And then this one:
Big takeaway from Vikings: RB Dalvin Cook looked awesome. And even though they weren't in pads, the entire staff sees it. Also, he wasn't wearing a brace.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) July 29, 2018
It wasn’t purple-colored glasses. Dalvin Cook knocked his rehab out of the park. Until we see him respond to some contact, it’s too early to say for sure if he’s fully back to form, but what I saw on Saturday was about as good of an indication as I could have hoped for.
2) Stefon Diggs:
Stefon Diggs is dominating in training camp just like elite players are expected to do.
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) July 29, 2018
It’s true. Stefon Diggs absolutely looked the part, and when you’re an elite wide receiver in the NFL, nobody questions if you want to wear your shorts halfway up your thighs.
It’s hard for me to say if it was by preference or design, but Cousins targeted Diggs frequently throughout the day. Cousins has a reputation for both spreading the ball around and favoring his tight ends. His enthusiasm for throwing to Kyle Rudolph was documented not long ago.
My reckless training camp hot take, however, is that Diggs will finish the 2018 season with the most targets in the Vikings’ receiving corps, even if he misses up to two games during that time. The chemistry feels very real.
3) Mike Boone: From the “Unproven Camp Body” file, it’s hard not to like what you see in Mike Boone from an athletic standpoint. From the eye test alone, if you weren’t aware of his unspectacular college career at Cincinnati, you’d be stunned that he went undrafted. He appeared extremely agile and showcased his speed in drills, looking almost like a diet version of Dalvin Cook.
His pre-draft profile from NFL.com makes it easy to understand how he’d look promising in shirt and shorts. Preseason action will likely expose some of the weaknesses listed in that evaluation, particularly when it comes to running with that same impressive velocity when there are full-speed defenders around him, but regardless, I’m interested to see if the Vikings have unearthed some additional value in the Undrafted Free Agent market.
At a time where flashy-looking reps can be viewed as a sign of promise and obvious blunders can be dismissed as “just practice”, it’s hard to say from the eyes of a fan what exactly we can glean from a weekend at training camp in terms of the success of a season.
I will say this, though: I was never concerned about sustaining success with our defense. My most pressing reservations were with the team’s offensive unit that featured a new quarterback and coordinator. The talent is all there. It’ll be up to John DeFillipo to fashion the battle plan and it’ll be on Kirk Cousins to execute it.
So far, they’re off to a good start.