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4 intriguing Minnesota Vikings players to watch against the Titans

Preseason football is not about wins and losses, unless you’re the Baltimore Ravens. The Minnesota Vikings, like many teams, keep most of their starters and stars sidelined for exhibition action to head into the regular season as healthy as possible.

That doesn’t mean the games don’t matter. Right now, 90 players are on every NFL roster, but only 53 make the final team, with another 16 invited to the practice squad. This means at least 37 players on the Vikings’ current roster will not be with the team on September 10, when Week 1 of the regular season kicks off.

Whether it’s battling for a better position on the depth chart, a roster spot, or a chance at the practice squad, preseason is all about competition. Knowing jobs are on the line, here are four Vikings players or positional battles to watch closely on Saturday against the Tennessee Titans.

Jaren Hall’s development

Vikings fans have long been clamoring for a developmental QB with the potential to become a future starter. Kellen Mond flamed out quickly in Minnesota, but rookie fifth-round pick Jaren Hall provides a glimmer of hope. Spectators shouldn’t expect to see someone ready to compete for a starting role right away, as Day 3 draft picks are always considered a massive project. That remains true with the first-year-pro out of BYU.

Yet, we’ve seen quarterbacks make an impact in their first seasons before. As Brock Purdy showed last year with the 49ers, your draft position doesn’t matter. All coaches care about is whether you can get the job done.

Nick Mullens may be locked into the top backup role, and Hall likely isn’t at risk of losing a roster spot, but a strong showing could earn the rookie a few snaps with the second-string offense. As Kirk Cousins heads into the final year of his contract, Hall could make GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s job much tougher during the NFL Draft next April with an inspired performance in his next two preseason opportunities.

Backup RB competition?

In an ideal world, the Vikings would have Kene Nwangwu and Ty Chandler competing for RB2 duties. As you know, this place is not perfect. Nwangwu has dealt with injuries, preventing competition from taking shape.

It’s largely left Chandler in a battle with himself, but the Vikings have made it clear they’re considering other options by working out Kareem Hunt and Mike Davis. Undrafted rookie Aaron Dykes was also added to a mix that includes Abram Smith, who was brought in from the XFL to compete with DeWayne McBride. But last week’s showing didn’t provide much optimism for either tailback.

Chandler proved he could help move the chains as a runner and even displayed good hands out of the backfield as a pass-catcher. Check and check. But what about his ability to pass protect? After a mixed effort last week, coaches will be watching Chandler’s reps as a blocker arguably even more closely than they’ll be evaluating his skills with the ball in his hands.

Examining the depth at OL

A sentence that will surprise no one, the Vikings’ offensive line needs to improve. Cousins was hit more than any other QB in the NFL last season, an average of five times per game. The Vikings’ QB has been one of the most durable starters in football, but eventually, luck will run out.

The Vikings know they need to make significant strides with their pass protection. That’s no secret. Usually, teams trying to improve the offensive line make a big change, whether it’s a new offensive line coach, an altered blocking scheme, or signing or drafting new players. The Vikings didn’t do any of that this offseason, but there’s still a reason to believe improvement can come from within.

For the first time in Cousins’ history with the Vikings, he’ll get to play behind the same starting five offensive linemen as the prior season. Continuity is the name of the game when it comes to offensive line play, and that’s what the Vikings are banking on heading into a new year with a young group of starters drafted in the top two rounds.

Chances are, we won’t see most of the starting offensive line on Saturday, much like last week, but if Ed Ingram plays again, all eyeballs will be on No. 67. But even behind Ingram, it would be refreshing to see another lineman step up, giving the coaching staff confidence in their depth should an injury occur during the season. Not to mention, better protection up front would only make the job easier for Mullens and Hall, giving other players a chance to shine.

Assessing Ivan Pace’s readiness

The overlooked elephant in the room is No. 40. Now that Eric Kendricks has landed in San Diego, this was supposed to be second-year-pro Brian Asamoah’s moment of glory. Injuries have slowed his progress, but that’s only given undrafted rookie linebacker Ivan Pace a bigger opportunity to show NFL talent evaluators why they were wrong to be overly critical about his 5-foot-11 frame.

So far, so good for Pace. He held up well against Seattle, leading to more practice time with the first-team defense heading into the battle against Tennessee. Yet, if we do see Pace go toe-to-toe with other starters against the Titans, he’s arguably one of the most important players to watch on defense.

Coach Kevin O’Connell already indicated that Pace isn’t fighting for a roster spot anymore. He’s angling for a chance at being an immediate contributor. If Pace can show continued progress against Tennessee, keeping him off the active roster and out of the lineup on gamedays will be nearly impossible.

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