2018 NFL Training Camp: Vikings begin work with heavy hearts after Sparano's sudden passing
Vikings' focus shifts to football just days after Sparano's death
EAGAN, Minn. -- They buried a coach, a friend and a good man Friday, but then it was back to work for the Minnesota Vikings Saturday, as tough as that may have been for some players and coaches.
One day after the funeral for offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who passed away suddenly from a heart attack last Sunday, the Vikings took the field for training camp practice No. 1 with their former coach on their minds.
In their new state-of-the-art facility, there were reminders of Sparano throughout.
The scoreboard in their 6,500-seat stadium had a picture of Sparano as memorial tribute and the players and coaches won't forget him.
But the reality is life has to go on for the Vikings. Coach Mike Zimmer, who has dealt with his fair share of heartache after losing his wife suddenly when he was a defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, talked of how his team had to move forward as tough as that may be in a lot of ways, especially for him since he was friends with Sparano for a long time from their days coaching in Dallas.
"It's hard, and for a few days it's going to linger on," Zimmer said. "This is the National Football League. We're going to have to work, get back to work. And these guys understand that. We've had a lot of adversity here over my four years. So we're not immune to that. We've typically done a good job of overcoming those things."
Things like Zimmer missing time because of eye surgery, losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater two years ago to a devastating knee injury in training camp and then losing quarterback Sam Bradford in Week One last season.
Through it all, the Vikings have continued to be a playoff team and went to the NFC Championship Game last year. That takes focus.
Zimmer announced tight ends coach Clancy Barone would move to the offensive line as co-line coach with former assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko. Zimmer wanted to keep continuity and felt keeping the job in-house was the right thing to do, but he also noted how the line played as Sparano lived.
"Our offensive line kind of took his personality over," Zimmer said. "Toughness and physicality. But more important, he was a great person and a great man and a great friend of mine. "
All eyes on Cousins
The focus this year for the Vikings will certainly be on quarterback Kirk Cousins. After all, the Vikings were a team a game away from the Super Bowl, and signed Cousins as a free agent this spring to a three-year, $84-million deal that was fully guaranteed.
That puts him firmly in the crosshairs.
"It's a team game and I've learned that I've played some of my best games and we've lost and I've played some of my worst games and we've won," Cousins said. "So I just never view it as it's only me out there. If I do my part and contribute, that's all I can ask for. And I have to trust the guys around me to do their part."
He says he's the same guy he was in Washington with the Redskins, even if he is a little higher paid than he was there.
"I don't see a whole lot of reason to change," Cousins said. "It's worked for me."
He had success with the Redskins, but he didn't win a playoff game there, not that it was all on him. Even so, if the Vikings are at least in the title game this time around, the finger pointing will almost certainly be aimed at Cousins.
Cook looks healthy
Running back Dalvin Cook took a handoff during Saturday's practice and exploded through the line for a big play. He looked quick, fast, decisive and, quite honestly, like he did before tearing his ACL 10 months ago, ruining his rookie season in the fourth game.
It was an amazing thing to see him run the way he did in the team's first practice, especially since he wasn't wearing a knee brace.
Cook actually says he can be a better version of himself. He sure looked like it was possible in his first work since the injury.
"I know the work I put in, and it's still a process, but I have a long ways to go to Week One," Cook said.
Cook ran for 354 yards, a 4.8 yards-per-rush average, and he caught 11 passes for 90 yards. He was on his way to being in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation before tearing up his knee against the Lions on October 1.
"It was a tough year, but I learned a lot from it and gained a lot from it," he said. "I learned how to fight through adversity. I just felt like I got better from that experience."
The Vikings have no limitations on Cook right now, which is why he jumped right into the team's work Saturday.
D-line depth an issue
The Vikings have one of the best defensive lines in the league, adding Sheldon Richardson from Seattle to play next to Linval Joseph inside at tackle. The ends are Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, both with outstanding edge-rush skills.
The problem is depth. Griffen played 86-percent of the snaps last year, which is way too many for a 30-year-old player.
The Vikings plan to lighten that load, especially since he missed most of the offseason with a knee issue. He was back on the field for the open of camp and looked a little leaner than in years past.
Behind the four, veteran Tommy Robison is a nice fifth lineman, but they need some young players to really step up this season to help fill the rotation. Fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes from Ohio State can play a variety of spots and they also drafted end Ade Aruna in the sixth round, but he is raw and might need a year of seasoning.
Competition at O-line
Rookie second-round tackle Brian O'Neill got some work with the first team Saturday at right tackle and could end up starting there. O'Neill, a former basketball player, who made the transition from tight end to tackle at Pitt, will battle Rashod Hill for the job. Hill started nine games last season, including both playoff games, but O'Neill will make it a nice battle this summer.
The line, which was a big issue two years ago, is much better now. Riley Reiff is set at left tackle, Nick Easton (coming off a season cut short by a broken ankle) is at left guard, Pat Elflein at center and Mike Remmers at right guard.
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