Finally, the preseason has arrived.
I know what you’re thinking: You can’t wait to see Mike Zimmer’s Vikings in action tonight.
And I know what you will be thinking about a half hour after kickoff: Where’s the remote?
But with a new head coach, a bunch of intriguing newcomers and a handful of positions still far from settled, there are reasons to refrain from changing the channel, at least not until halftime.
Here are the three main things I will be watching tonight:
1. WHO STANDS OUT AT QUARTERBACK? Both Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater will get reps with the first-team offense. Cassel figures to play two or three series. Bridgewater could play a couple of quarters, maybe more. A strong performance could help Cassel get some separation from Bridgewater, who has continually been praised by the coaching staff. But Bridgewater has more to gain potentially. If he plays with poise against the Raiders, the coaching staff could choose to give him even more reps with the first-team offense in camp, making it an even competition from here on out. Christian Ponder will get the leftovers, and he has something to prove to 31 other teams.
2. WHO STEPS UP AT STRONG SAFETY? The addition of noted Zimmer guy Chris Crocker says a lot about the health of the safeties or what Zimmer thinks about his current options there. Or both. The three top contenders to play next to Harrison Smith — Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo — have all missed time in camp due to injuries. Blanton won’t play tonight, and Sanford’s status is up in the air. These preseason games will play a huge role in helping Zimmer pick his second safety, as he wants to see them tackle on the back end. Don’t be surprised if the veteran Crocker is already with the first team tonight, but this competition remains wide open.
3. HOW WILL THE ROOKS FARE OUT THERE? Bridgewater isn’t the only rookie the coaching staff is eager to see. Zimmer could potentially count on a number of his draft picks this year, starting with top pick Anthony Barr, whom Zimmer will use all over the field tonight. Third-round running back Jerick McKinnon gets to run against a defense that is actually trying to tackle him. Fifth-round guard David Yankey has an outside chance to claw his way into the starting mix before Week 1. And seventh-round cornerback Jabari Price will try to carry his strong start to camp into an actual game. The preseason is an opportunity for these rookies to show they’re ready to contribute right away.
Outside of FSN broadcaster Anthony La Panta’s hair, there is nothing in this sports world more seductive than potential.
We see it every year with hope — realistic or not — that a 0-0 team might just take that clean slate and run with it all the way to a championship. It keeps us clinging to games far longer than we should.
The Twins are down 6-1 in the eighth, but there are two men on with one out. A homer here …
The Vikings are down 24-7 in the third quarter, but they just got the ball back and they’re driving. One score here …
And so on.
Where we potential most generously ladled out into our bowls of optimism, though, is with young pro players — the ones who show flashes of brilliance early on or carry reputations for excellence, enticing you to believe they will just keep getting better and better.
We are in the midst, then, of a potentially exciting time in Minnesota sports — and most definitely an exciting time when it comes to potential. The Wild, Wolves, Timberwolves and Twins are in various stages of building, but we cannot recall a time when the four collectively had this many exciting young players or were all best suited to go the route of Clarence Swamptown and “give the keys to the kids” — essentially trusting the youngsters to lead and seeing how far it takes each team. (And yes, that’s a picture of our daughter, Anabel, in this post. She is driving us to work today just to prove how much we believe in keys/kids).
The Wild has a mix of veterans and youth, but the development of that young core was an undeniable reason for the team’s success last season and will determine if and when the team takes more steps forward. And there is more youth on the horizon.
The Wolves are on the verge of trading for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft. They also drafted the super-athletic Zach LaVine, while second-year guys Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad are intriguing. Their best course of action will be giving those guys as much run as possible.
We’ve seen promise from Kyle Gibson and Danny Santana for long stretches this season. Kennys Vargas is intriguing. Oswaldo Arcia is intriguing. And much of the best for the Twins is still, theoretically, still yet to come from the minors.
The Vikings had seven first-round picks in the past three seasons, many of whom look to be blossoming. They very well could hand the QB job to a rookie this season. They will succeed or fail largely on the backs of youth.
It’s a state-wide youth movement. It guarantees nothing in the future, but it sure does seduce us in the present.
The approaching playoffs add a compelling backdrop to Thursday’s game. Minnesota is 1.5 games behind Phoenix in the Western Conference standings. Chicago, winners of three straight, has crawled back in the Eastern Conference race as well.
Kevin Love has said that he’s willing to sign a long-term deal with the Cleveland Cavaaliers, according to reports, and that means a trade involving No. 1 draft choice Andrew Wiggins is in place but can’t be officially announced until August 23.