Last Saturday night, as Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell was reviewing his team’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, he found himself pondering the roster: the wide receiver group, the depth on the interior defensive line, even the running backs. You could almost see the wheels turning, a fluorescent 53 flashing in his mind.
Cut day is coming. Each team must whittle its 90-player roster down to 53 by next Tuesday. There are difficult decisions ahead, so I thought it would be valuable to examine those competing for the final spots.
We’ll begin, however, with the players seemingly locked into spots:
Who would you rather be: The New York Giants or Minnesota Vikings?
Quarterback (3): Kirk Cousins, Nick Mullens, Jaren Hall
Running back (2): Alexander Mattison, Ty Chandler
Fullback (1): C.J. Ham
Wide receiver (4): Justin Jefferson, K.J. Osborn, Jordan Addison, Jalen Nailor
Tight end (3): T.J. Hockenson, Josh Oliver, Johnny Mundt
Offensive line (9): Christian Darrisaw, Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, Ed Ingram, Austin Schlottmann, Vederian Lowe, Oli Udoh, Blake Brandel
Interior defensive line (5): Harrison Phillips, Dean Lowry, Khyiris Tonga, Jonathan Bullard, Jaquelin Roy
Edge (5): Danielle Hunter, Marcus Davenport, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, Luiji Vilain
Inside linebacker (3): Jordan Hicks, Brian Asamoah, Ivan Pace Jr.
Cornerback (5): Byron Murphy Jr., Akayleb Evans, Mekhi Blackmon, Joejuan Williams, Andrew Booth Jr.
Safety (5): Harrison Smith, Cam Bynum, Josh Metellus, Lewis Cine, Jay Ward
Specialists (3): Greg Joseph, Ryan Wright, Andrew DePaola
Pooled together, that’s 48 players who should not have to fret about their futures next week.
Of course, there is always the possibility the Vikings could bring in outside players. They have worked out numerous veteran running backs (Kareem Hunt and Mike Davis, to name a few) and explored cornerback depth (with Ronald Darby, who has since signed with Baltimore). Additionally, players like Cine are navigating injuries, which could propel general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the front office to get creative with how they complete the 53-man.
Speaking of 53, the 48 players above mean there are five spots still up for grabs. By my count, there are 17 players I’m calling “bubble guys.” I’ll outline each of their situations and, in the end, make a prediction:
WR Brandon Powell: If you’ve read this space over the last few weeks, you know the type of impression Powell has made. He arrived in Minnesota with knowledge of O’Connell’s system, and the transition has been seamless. He rarely drops passes. He is a willing blocker. He returns punts. His skill set and reliability give him a great chance of securing a roster spot.
RB Kene Nwangwu: He has not practiced in more than two weeks with an undisclosed injury. Meanwhile, Chandler snatched the backup running back spot in the preseason game at Seattle. That leaves Nwangwu in an interesting position. Even though the Vikings are going to use Ham more than they did in 2022, they will need a No. 3 running back. Nwangwu’s ability to also return kicks adds roster flexibility. Then again, if he is not healthy, it might make sense to fill the spot with an external candidate.
LB: Troy Dye: Last year, Dye participated in 67 percent of the Vikings’ special teams snaps. He clearly impacted games on that side, and for as boring as it may be, O’Connell and his staff still believe special teams success is a key contributor to winning games in the margins. Dye also secured an interception last weekend against the Titans.
WR Jalen Reagor: The Vikings are in line to send a 2024 fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Reagor. Furthermore, he is guaranteed around $2.4 million this season, according to Over The Cap. Are those two factors enough to keep him around? He knows the offense on a deeper level than many of the team’s backup receivers, but the number of players vying for roster spots might complicate his presence on the 53-man.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) August 23, 2023
CB: NaJee Thompson: Pace has gotten heaps of praise for being an impressive undrafted rookie, but Thompson has held his own, too. The Georgia Southern product was an impressive special-teamer, and many NFL teams noticed. Thompson entered the concussion protocol after Saturday night’s game, but if he’s healthy, the Vikings may be compelled to add him to their special teams unit as a gunner.
S Theo Jackson: The Titans selected Jackson in the sixth round of the 2022 draft. Facing a roster crunch, they tried to push him to the practice squad, but the Vikings plucked him away. Vikings coaches have raved about him during training camp, specifically his ability to play in multiple spots. Because Minnesota has so many safeties, he could become the odd man out. But the Vikings will likely massage every route to keep him before making that move.
DL Esezi Otomewo: Would Adofo-Mensah cut a player he drafted in the fifth round of his first draft as general manager? Otomewo played his college ball at Minnesota, and his athletic traits are noticeable. That said, he has yet to really take off. Though the Vikings are likely to play Davenport on the interior, especially on pass-rush downs, another interior defensive lineman makes sense. Otomewo’s youth gives him a shot, but the fact that he entered the concussion protocol this week — which could keep him out of Saturday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals — won’t help.
Edge Andre Carter II: Minnesota guaranteed Carter a hefty amount upon signing him as an undrafted free agent. Carter began training camp on the physically unable-to-perform list. He has since returned but has struggled to make a notable impact. Like Otomewo, his athletic frame makes it easy to project forward. In Carter’s case, he produced in college at Army but will need to add mass to hold up in the NFL. Is the Vikings’ commitment enough to opt against taking the risk of placing him on the practice squad? Or will they roll the dice, needing to plug other holes?
Breaking down the college film of Vikings rookie edge rusher Andre Carter II
DT Ross Blacklock: The Vikings swapped a sixth-round pick with the Houston Texans for Blacklock and a seventh-rounder. In other words, they acquired him for peanuts. Still, Blacklock only played in 11 games last season and got 139 snaps. His role does not appear to have increased this spring, placing him in a precarious position as the team chisels down its roster.
RB DeWayne McBride: McBride was always going to need time to learn the offense — protection responsibilities, the lengthy play calls, even how to read certain runs. For that reason, he fell to the seventh round. The Vikings like his downhill running style, and it’s possible that the bevy of running backs on the market makes it easier for the Vikings to give him to develop on the practice squad.
DT Sheldon Day: Few players performed better on Saturday against the Titans. And because the Vikings have gap-cloggers in Phillips and Tonga, Day’s pass-rush ability could fit if defensive coordinator Brian Flores feels he needs that skill set with players like Davenport already primed to fill in when needed.
WR: Triston Jackson: First things first: Jefferson, Osborn and Jackson are extremely close. And, at least from what we’ve seen in camp, Jackson’s time around the other two has helped elevate his game. He has hauled in numerous acrobatic catches, and the quarterbacks trust him to be in the right spots at the right times. Nailor has more top-end speed, and Powell’s punt-returning potential likely gives him an advantage. But Jackson is a reliable option the Vikings will not want to lose.
DT T.J. Smith: Smith is part of the interior defensive line group seeking one of the final spots. Coaches have raved about his work ethic, and he has at times gotten snaps with the starters during camp. But from a numbers perspective, it feels like an uphill battle for a player who has gotten only 42 career NFL snaps.
LB Troy Reeder: Because Metellus has occupied a quasi-off-ball linebacker spot at times in training camp, it feels fair to ask: How many off-ball linebackers will the Vikings keep? Reeder has experience and familiarity with O’Connell, but Pace’s emergence has limited the overall number of opportunities, and that could affect Reeder.
LB Tanner Vallejo: When William Kwenkeu suffered an injury against Seattle and Asamoah was missing practice due to shoulder pain, the Vikings needed depth. They signed Vallejo, who has played big chunks of special teams snaps for the Cardinals the last three seasons. Minnesota could deploy him in a similar role if it had the space.
TE Nick Muse: A seventh-rounder from Adofo-Mensah’s first draft, Muse has opened eyes during training camp. The issue is, the Vikings’ tight end room is already loaded. At a minimum, they will attempt to keep Muse in the building on the practice squad.
Edge Benton Whitley: The Holy Cross product flashed his pass-rush ability Saturday against the Titans, wiggling his way into small spaces, though he was not able to secure the sack. The Vikings added Whitley to their practice squad last season, and he could return to that spot again in 2023.
Prediction: Powell, Thompson, Dye, Theo Jackson and an external free-agent running back.
(Photo of Brandon Powell: Christopher Mast / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.