Football is finally upon us. Friday night, Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer will take opposite sides of the field while their two football teams go head-to-head in some hot and heavy preseason action. Okay, so it might not be hot and heavy, or real football, but it’s still a chance for some of the two teams’ young players to step up and show the world what they’ve got, which is always intriguing. We spoke with Eric Thompson of dailynorseman.com, SB Nation’s Vikings blog, to hear about this year’s Minnesota squad and what to expect from the preseason opener.
Connor Howe: Teddy Bridgewater has reportedly connected on a few impressive deep balls during training camp, which is an obvious reason to be optimistic--but he's yet to prove he can do it in a regular season contest. Are you encouraged by Bridgewater's offseason work, and what are you expecting from him heading into the 2016 season?
Eric Thompson: Bridgewater really did look like a better quarterback in training camp. His deep ball was noticeably improved. Not perfect, but much more accurate than what we have seen during his first two years. It's know it's a cliché but Teddy really does has more zip on his passes. They just sounded different when they hit his receivers' hands. Even the way he carries himself seems different. Bridgewater has that calm and cool "big man on campus" kind of swagger, where you immediately know who's in charge when he steps on the field.
I have been saying all preseason that this team will go as far as Teddy Bridgewater takes them. From what we have seen through the first couple weeks of practice, it looks like he might be able to take them pretty far. I still don't think he's going to put up huge passing numbers but Bridgewater looks poised to take a big step forward in his third season.
CH: Two former Bengals, Andre Smith and Emmanuel Lamur opted to sign with Mike Zimmer and the Vikings over the offseason. Both players are entering crowded position groups at offensive tackle and linebacker; do you think either player will start and what are you expecting from the former Bengals?
ET: Andre Smith should be the Week 1 starting right tackle for the Vikings barring any setbacks. Smith was supposed to battle Phil Loadholt for the starting gig, but Loadholt's sudden retirement on the eve of camp cleared the way. T.J. Clemmings, the second year tackle that was thrust into the starting role when Loadholt tore his achilles in the preseason last year, is still a work in progress. So unless something unforeseen happens, Smith will the the starter on the right side of the line.
Emmanuel Lamur is another story. Lamur's potential and performance varied greatly depending on who I talked to while I was at Vikings Training Camp last week. Lamur definitely looks the part--he's tall, angular, and athletic. Personally I saw some things I liked but I thought his play was just OK. He has been getting lots of snaps with the first team defense, so the coaches seem to be higher on Lamur than I am. He won't start but I think his chances of making the roster are very good.
CH: Another former Bengal, Terence Newman, is still in Minnesota, and he'll be 38 in September. How's he looking heading into the season?
ET: There's an old saying that Father Time is undefeated, and it looks like he might finally be getting the better of Newman this year. Newman had a surprisingly successful 2015 season, earning the starting gig and outperforming even the highest expectations of Vikings fans. This year, he's still the same crafty veteran but looks to have lost a half-step. Newman will still get plenty of snaps this season and is still listed as a starter on the Vikings' first depth chart of camp. But it looks like he's going to cede some of his playing time to younger corners like second-year corner Trae Waynes, who has a quiet rookie season but has looked very good in camp. With Newman declared out for Friday's game, the change might already be happening.
CH: Congratulations to the Vikings for locking up Mike Zimmer to an extension over the offseason! The head coach seems to be a fan favorite in Minnesota, and for good reason. Where do you think the team has improved most in Zimmer's tenure, and what are his biggest strengths as a head coach? I know a lot of Bengal fans wish he could've been promoted to head coach in Cincinnati.
ET: You're never going to believe this, but the defense has already made an enormous amount of progress in Zimmer's relatively short tenure. He has helped sign and draft "his kind" of defensive player and the dividends have been significant. He has already transformed a defense that was toward the bottom of the league into a top 10 unit; I'd be surprised if the Vikings didn't finish 2016 around the top 5.
Outside of his obvious defensive acumen, I don't think there's one specific strength that stands out among Zimmer's head coaching abilities. He just is a head coach. If you created a Head Coach character for a TV show or movie in central casting, chances are you'd end up with someone like Zimmer. He's gruff and no-nonsense but always goes to bat for his players. But I'm sure you guys already know all of this.
On behalf of all Vikings fans, I sincerely thank you for letting your defensive coordinator head to Minnesota. He could run for governor tomorrow and win in a landslide.
CH: As a San Diego resident who has been very plugged into the Chargers' stadium situation and the son of a Minnesotan who has been a Vikings fan all his life, I'm excited to see the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium. Will any of you catch a game there this season?
ET: I have had a couple tours of the new stadium, and it's ridiculous. When I first toured it under construction a year ago, they explained that they could place the old Metrodome in the middle of the new stadium and it wouldn't touch any part of the outside. It's absolutely massive, with all the modern bells and whistles to make it gorgeous as well as functional. I live in St. Paul so I'm sure I'll be going to at least a couple games this season.
Also, can you please explain where your dad went so wrong? We should be writing together! Is that terrible NFL Shop commercial based on your family?!
CH: Every year, a relatively unknown player makes himself known with a fantastic preseason. Who do you think that will be this year for the Vikings and why?
ET: I have one player on each side of the ball, both of them late-round draft picks. Tight end David Morgan was a sixth round pick out of Texas-San Antonio. Morgan was drafted because he was arguably the best blocking tight end in the draft. While he certainly hasn't disappointed in that department, Morgan has showed off some great hands in camp as well. While Ellison is out, Morgan can fill in his jack-of-all-trades hybrid TE/H-Back role that the Vikings like to utilize.
On defense I'll have to go with Jayron Kearse, a seventh round safety out of Clemson. When he takes the field on Friday, you'll notice--his 6'4" frame is impossible to miss in the defensive backfield. But he isn't just a big body--Kearse has had an excellent camp showing fluid movement and solid instincts. It looks like he has earned a spot on the 53-man roster, which could come at the expense of more experienced safeties like Michael Griffin and Antone Exum.
CH: Are there any significant injuries heading into Week 1 of the preseason?
Mike Harris, last year's starting right guard, started the season on the PUP list and it doesn't look like he'll be back anytime soon. Backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke tore a tendon in his leg while helping a friend break into his own house (yes you read that right) so the QB depth chart behind Bridgewater is really dicey. (Shaun Hill and Joel Stave! Wooooo!) Tight end Rhett Ellison is still working his way back from a torn patellar ligament. Those are the big injuries.
But the little ones are starting to pile up too. I already discussed how Newman won't play on Friday. Matt Kalil, Jarius Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, Eric Kendricks, Sharrif Floyd, and Scott Crichton have all been banged up at one time or another in camp.
CH: Who wins on Friday and why?
ET: Who wins? Who cares! It's the preseason! But since you asked, Mike Zimmer is 8-1 in the preseason as a head coach and coming back to Cincinnati is probably pretty important to him. I'll take the Vikings.