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Sunday, August 24, 2014
Three takeaways from the Vikings' win

By Ben Goessling

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's probably wise to use some degree of filter when viewing the Minnesota Vikings' third preseason game as a facsimile of the real thing, given how skeptical coach Mike Zimmer was about the idea of the third game being a dress rehearsal for the regular season. But on a night where the Vikings played their starters well into the third quarter, we can glean a relatively solid impression of where the team is going with a few roster decisions.

We'll have a more complete overview of the Vikings' roster in our latest weekly roster projection on Monday, but for now, here are three takeaways from the Vikings' win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night:

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson appears to have carved out a role for himself as a rotational player on the Vikings' D-line
Tom Johnson appears to have a key role on the defensive line: The former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle wasn't a high-profile pickup when the Vikings signed him this spring, but his explosiveness looked like it could help the Vikings at 3-technique tackle (outside shade on right guard). Through three preseason games, Johnson has shown he'll fit on the Vikings' roster. He's seen regular playing time as an inside pass-rusher in the Vikings' nickel package, and had two half-sacks on Saturday night. He shared a sack with Anthony Barr in the Vikings' first preseason game, and had two quarterback hits against the Chiefs. Johnson played 32 snaps in the game -- two more than Sharrif Floyd -- and appears here to stay as a rotational player on the Vikings' line.

Special teams, not receiver, might cement Adam Thielen's spot: Zimmer is fond of saying, "The more you can do, the more valuable you are," and wide receiver Adam Thielen has taken that to heart in the preseason. He'd earned attention during the Vikings' offseason program and training camp as a receiver, but he's done more to make an impression on special teams in preseason games than he has as a wideout. He had three punt returns for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener, also registering a tackle for a 4-yard loss in that game, and showed great patience on a 75-yard punt return on Saturday. The Vikings haven't gone much deeper than three receivers with their first-team offense -- it's even been hard for Jarius Wright to find a role -- and if the Vikings wind up keeping just five receivers, Thielen's utility might put him in over Rodney Smith, who's also had a solid preseason and still could make the roster, especially if Jerome Simpson is suspended. If it's a decision between those two, however, it's hard to see the Vikings letting Thielen go. "He just keeps fighting and fighting," Zimmer said of Thielen. "He's got a lot of heart, and obviously, I like guys with a lot of heart. He seems to get better and better, and he makes plays. That's important."

Middle linebacker is still up for grabs: The closest competition in the final week could be at safety -- where Robert Blanton and Chris Crocker look like the favorites over a cast of other veterans -- or the third cornerback spot, where Josh Robinson's injuries have left plenty of playing time for Marcus Sherels in a role that's essentially a starting job, given how much time a third cornerback is on the field. But the one we've got our eye on is the battle for the middle linebacker spot, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole continue to battle. Brinkley started the game on Saturday, but he and Cole alternated series throughout the night, to the point where both were still playing into the fourth quarter with the Vikings' reserves. Cole got 33 snaps on Saturday, Brinkley got 27 and both players bring a different skill set; Brinkley is more forceful against the run, while Cole's size and instincts make him a better fit in pass coverage. Of any battle on the roster, this one might go down to the end of camp -- and even beyond, if the Vikings decide to tinker with their lineup during the season.