As head coach Kevin O’Connell said after the game, the starters received significant reps in joint practices with the 49ers leading up to the game. “80-plus plays you know, a little over 48 hours ago for our ones against another team’s ones,” he said. “I knew, kind of planned long ago that we would kind of handle this week like this, our game reps took place at our facility this week in that competitive environment that we were able to bring in.”
The most notable – and frightening – point of the game was when Andrew Booth went down with a non-contact injury, which turned out to be his ankle. After the game, O’Connell clarified that the injury isn’t serious and that Booth happened to reaggravate an already existing injury.
In terms of player performance, we saw a few things clarified for the Vikings that affects the upcoming roster cutdown on Aug. 23 and should inform their decision-making when they cut down to 53 on Aug. 30.
What we learned about the Vikings in their joint practices with the 49ers
T.Y. McGill, defensive line
It’s difficult to find a bigger winner of the night than T.Y. McGill. He was already putting together a strong training camp and followed with a great performance against the Raiders in Week 1 of the preseason. But against the 49ers, he was everywhere. As O’Connell said after the game, “He wrecked multiple plays tonight, had the sack and a half.” On top of that, McGill registered four quarterback hits and another tackle for loss.
“It’s the plays that don’t register on the stat sheet,” O’Connell emphasized. “When you see him just explode through the line, forces the back to bounce and then you see the rest of those guys running down those plays. That’s all because of the impact those guys are having up front. I think he’s had a really good camp, he’s flashed in both games now.”
McGill’s production and fundamental traits – including an incredible get-off burst and short-area quickness, rare for a player of his size – are all reasons the Vikings might see a player too good to keep off the roster.
Akayleb Evans, cornerback
While it’s not typically the case that defensive backs with high tackle totals are doing a good job, Evans was great at keeping throws short and in front of him while also contributing in run and screen defense and finished as the game’s leading tackler for a good reason. Evans didn’t give up much over the top and did a great job forcing a fumble at the goal line that almost turned the game around after the two-minute mark.
”He’s such a talented player for us to continue to just wrap our arms around and try to develop on a daily basis,” said O’Connell. “We want to get him a lot of reps, there’s a reason he was out there. I’m sure there will be a lot for him to correct fundamentally or with his eyes, or just situationally understanding how we can tighten up in some spots, but I thought he was a willing tackler.”
Patrick Jones II, edge rusher
Jones finished the game with just half a sack, but his performance extended beyond that. Aside from generating pressure and pushing the quarterback into other defenders, Jones consistently set the edge and closed down on running backs, forcing losses for the offense. His pressure performance wasn’t bad either, contributing a pair of quarterback hurries in addition to his presence in the run game.
At the moment, he looks like the most capable backup edge defender and could play a bigger role than D.J. Wonnum does this year with the defense. Depth will remain a concern at that position, but Jones performing better than expected here does help relieve some of that pressure.
Blake Brandel, offensive line
It wasn’t great for the second-team linemen out there, and the only one slated to compete for a starting job, Ed Ingram, had an up-and-down day, giving up a sack but also bulldozing in a run for a touchdown. The more consistent game was had by Blake Brandel, who is likely to be the primary backup at tackle. Not only was he one of the few consistent run blockers, he only gave up one pressure all night.
Jonathan Bullard, defensive line
McGill and Jones weren’t the only parts of the second-team defensive front that excelled. Bullard, who only played nine snaps, was impactful in those few reps – while recording no pressures and one tackle. His ability to force backs to bounce their reads created tackle opportunities for Evans, Jones, McGill and others in the run game and his ability to occupy blockers on twists and stunts freed up other pass-rushers. His pass-rush upside has always been intriguing, but his performance this week against the run really stood out.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, wide receiver
With four catches on four targets, Smith-Marsette’s emergence as a receiving threat looks to be a real boon for the Vikings. It was once again a scenario where a number of receivers had their moments, but Smith-Marsette was perhaps the clearest winner and would have led the team in receiving yardage had it not been for a missed block by Trishton Jackson on a screen.
Smith-Marsette has shown a capability for running routes with the right timing and depth all while retaining his immense speed advantage over most defenders, making him deadly on deep balls as well as short passes. His consistency in this area is well worth investing more time and energy in.
Kellen Mond, quarterback
Kellen Mond’s first drive ended in an interception and so did his last. It would be one thing if either of Mond’s interceptions were impressive plays from opposing defenders, closing down on a pass from 20 yards out, but it’s quite another thing that they were both directly to their respective defenders – one that could have been a pick-six with a slightly better return and the other that iced the game down 10 points with 2:38 remaining. Mond finished with a passer rating of 21.3 and threw for 4.1 yards per passing attempt.
O’Connell was about as frank as he’s ever been in assessing Mond’s performance. “He’s moving the team on that first drive of the night, we get into a third down there in their half of the 50, chance at maybe getting some points, and the pocket kind of collapses on him,” he said. “That’s playing in the NFL. Can you be compact? Can you find a way to get that ball thrown to the open receiver without your arm getting tipped?
“I’ll go back and see kind of what happened, protection-wise,” he added, “but ultimately, I just think that’s playing in this league. We’re in kind of that fringe field goal range, can we secure points, can we be safe with that ball? And then the last interception, I think he just lost track of where that post safety was and tried to press to make that play that we were trying to make all night.”
Things don’t look great when it comes to finding a backup for Kirk Cousins. “You would love to have come out of tonight feeling like, ‘Shoot, they both moved the team and scored a lot of points, and we’ve got a heck of a hard discussion and conversation ahead as a staff and as an organization.’,” said O’Connell.
“Although we didn’t do that, I still think there’s some real teachable moments, and then some real moments where we’re able to evaluate and really look at where we are at that position, as we re-stack everything to go into this week, to see how we need to allow those guys to compete.”
It was bleak. Sean Mannion was the better of the two quarterbacks but that doesn’t feel like saying much. Instead, the Vikings might do better looking outside of their roster for this season’s backup.
Janarius Robinson, edge rusher
2021 fourth-round pick Janarius Robinson wasn’t absent from the box score – he registered half a sack and three tackles – but he was even more of a liability than he was an asset. He got bowled over in the run game more than once, missed opportunities to make plays, incurred penalties and even had problems on special teams. While it’s not clear that players like Luiji Vilain – who had an impressive fumble recovery and some other plays besides – or Zach McCloud are obvious replacements for a spot as the fifth edge rusher, it certainly remains a concern on the roster.
Zach Davidson, tight end
Perhaps the biggest faller of the night outside of the quarterback room was Zach Davidson. Like Robinson, Davidson had high-value errors in all three phases of his play. He missed blocks on special teams that led to mistakes on the kickoff return, he found himself stymied as a blocker, and dropped a critical pass late in the game while wide open, closing down a comeback opportunity for the Vikings.
Davidson’s profile as a tight end has been as a raw athlete needing technical development. Nowhere was that more obvious than tonight, where his athleticism gave him opportunities to make plays but his lack of refinement didn’t allow him to follow through. The Vikings are still expecting Irv Smith Jr. to be back by the time the season starts and it looks like they’ll need him to.
Oli Udoh, offensive line
There were a number of mistakes made by the Vikings offensive line throughout the night, especially in the run game, but the mistakes that came in pass protection largely came from Oli Udoh.
Udoh has converted back to tackle after playing guard last year, a clearly uncomfortable role for him. While he has looked better at tackle, it’s not enough of an improvement to be confident in his ability to step in during a game situation and hold down his side of the line in an emergency. Udoh allowed at least four pressures on just 25 pass-blocking snaps and though he wasn’t helped out by the penchant both quarterbacks had for holding on to the ball, he clearly needed to do more to help the team feel confident in what he can do.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, returner
The Vikings clearly see all-world potential in Smith-Marsette, and they clearly want to unleash that potential in as many ways as possible. As one of the best special teamers in the Big Ten over the past several years, it makes sense that they think they can get a lot out of him in that area. But he’s been a liability as a returner both receiving punts and kickoffs. He’s dropped returns of both types throughout practices and in the game.
Dropping a kickoff isn’t as bad because it generally turns into a touchback, but dropping punts – or fumbling them – is a good deal worse. Smith-Marsette definitely has value to add to the roster but the Vikings are trying to force him into something he can’t do. It’s time to explore other options.
(Top photo of T.Y. McGill: Matt Krohn / USA Today)