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The Minnesota Vikings are one of 12 teams around the NFL to have never ended a season by raising the Vince Lombardi trophy in a sea of confetti.
Since their very first season in 1961, the Minnesota Vikings have been lucky enough to appear in a total of four Super Bowls. Unfortunately, the Vikings were never on the winning end of these games and the franchise is still searching for their very first Super Bowl victory.

Minnesota is actually one of 12 teams around the NFL to have never won a Super Bowl. This group, that accounts for 37.5 percent of the teams in the league, includes the Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers, and Tennessee Titans.

Of this group, The Draft Network’s Brad Kelly believes that Minnesota has the best chance to come out of the upcoming 2019 NFL season with their first-ever Super Bowl victory.

“(Minnesota’s) success will seemingly come down to the play of Kirk Cousins, but he should become more comfortable in his second year with the franchise. Their path to a top seed is more clear than the others, as the NFC North winning Bears seemed destined to regress next season.

With added depth to the offensive line, Minnesota’s roster seemingly has no clear weakness. That could be just enough to finally put them over the top.”

While this is a glowing endorsement of the Vikings heading into 2019, let’s not pretend like the offensive line is automatically fixed because the team added some players during the offseason who could potentially improve the performance of the unit.

As Minnesota has learned in the past (see Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, T.J. Clemmings, etc.), more offensive line depth doesn’t always translate into better offensive line play. So to say that the Vikings have no clear weaknesses going into 2019 seems a bit far fetched.

Still, Minnesota does appear to have as good a shot to win the Super Bowl next season as any of the other teams who have yet to get a win in the big game.

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Does this mean the Vikings are being viewed as a Super Bowl contender in 2019? Not necessarily, but it does indicate that not many would be surprised if Minnesota actually did end next season with a championship.

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EAGAN, Minn. — Irv Smith Jr. has caught his first passes in Vikings Purple.

The 2019 second-round pick participated on Friday in the first walk-through session and practice of the Vikings three-day rookie minicamp.

He made a nice adjustment on a corner route and spent a considerable amount of time in blocking drills, which was perfectly fine with him.

“I’m definitely a versatile tight end,” Smith told the media between the walk-through session and practice. “I feel like I can do all of the things a tight end needs to do well. In-line, be in the backfield, split end, out wide. I feel like I can bring all of those aspects to the team.”

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He later added: “I don’t want to be classified as a receiving tight end. I want to be classified as a complete tight end.”

Smith did plenty at Alabama, moving to different places in formations, making blocks for a potent rush attack and creating big plays through the air.

He finished his three-year career with 58 receptions for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns in 38 games. Of those receptions, 33 gained a first down or scored a touchdown.

In his final campaign with the Crimson Tide, the 6-foot-2, 237-pounder caught 44 receptions for 710 yards (16.1 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns in 15 games. Smith was named to the All-SEC Second Team by coaches last season after 28 of his receptions went for a first down or scored a touchdown and 11 catches gained 20 or more yards.

“I definitely feel like I made improvements each year, from my freshman year to sophomore year to junior year,” Smith said. “I definitely feel like I’m going to make more improvements this year.”

 

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said during his media session that it is good to start working with the rookies, even if it was in a limited capacity.

“You always like to see them with your own eyes,” Zimmer said. “I know we had someone down at the Alabama workout, but I wasn’t there.”

Smith is the youngest player selected in this year’s draft (he’ll turn 21 in August), but he didn’t seem wide-eyed the day after signing his first pro contract.

He can credit the experiences of his father, a first-round pick by the Saints in 1993, and his time at Alabama for helping him ready for this dream-come-true moment.

“Coach [Nick] Saban, his philosophy is not only preparing us for football but for life,” Smith said. “Just coming here now and being here, he definitely prepared us. You know there’s definitely going to be a difference, but I feel like it’s the closest thing to NFL.”

The New Orleans native was asked to compare his emotions between Friday and when he first arrived on campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“Coming in as a freshman in college, you’re moving into a dorm,” Smith said. “I was 17 years old; you have a lot of maturing to do, so I feel like I matured a lot through that process, and my family, my team and my coaches at Alabama helped me prepare for this moment.”

Smith, who was born Aug. 9, 1998 (the day of Minnesota’s first preseason game of the season, a 28-0 victory at New England), said he has a personal reason for why he’s excited to wear the No. 84 donned by 1998 Rookie of the Year (and future Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver) Randy Moss.

“Well, it’s funny because I wore 82 in college, and my dad wore 82 in the league,” Smith said. “He wore 84 in college, so I felt like it would be cool to switch it up a bit.”

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MINNEAPOLIS – Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen has agreed to a four-year contract extension with the Minnesota Vikings, the team announced on Friday afternoon.

The details of Thielen’s new deal were revealed in an Instagram post by Team IFA, the agency that represents the 28-year-old receiver. Thielen is set to make $64 million with the extension on a deal worth up to $73 million with incentives. NFL Network is reporting that Thielen received $35 million in guaranteed money.

The Vikings’ front office continued their tendency of rewarding players with lucrative extensions years before their contracts are up. Thielen, who had two years remaining on the four-year extension he signed in March 2017, had outplayed his current contract — which was set to pay him around $8 million in 2019. He will now be making an average of $16 million per year.

Thielen is one of eight players under contract in Minnesota through the 2022 season, a list that also includes Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Linval Joseph and Xavier Rhodes.

Adam Thielen has plenty to celebrate as the Vikings wide receiver will see his average annual salary double from a scheduled $8 million in 2019 to $16 million. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
Thielen’s rise from an undrafted free agent who joined the Vikings after a rookie tryout in May 2013 has been well documented. The Pro Bowler is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, marking a career-high 1,373 yards (fourth most in franchise history) and 113 receptions (third most in franchise history) and nine receiving touchdowns in 2018.

Last season, the former Division II product became the first player in NFL history to record eight consecutive games with 100-plus receiving yards to start a season.

According to the NFL Players Association public salary-cap report, the Vikings have just over $2 million in cap space. Before Thielen signed his extension, the wide receiver was on the books with an $8.1 million cap hit for 2019. It’s possible that his number remains close to that, even with the extension, but it could be lowered, allowing the Vikings the flexibility to make other offseason moves and pay their draft class later this month.

With Thielen’s new deal expected to keep him in Minnesota through the 2024 season, the Vikings get to retain one of the league’s best receiving duos. Both Thielen and Diggs were the first Minnesota wideouts to both reach 1,000 yards receiving in the same season in 2018 since Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Cris Carter achieved the same feat in 2000.

Diggs signed a five-year extension last offseason. Both Diggs and Thielen can earn $9 million in incentives over the course of their respective contracts.

Despite finances being tight in Minnesota as it pertains to the salary cap, the idea of a contract extension for one of the league’s most productive receivers has been on the table for a while. Blake Baratz, Thielen’s agent, spoke about the situation on Purple Daily on ESPN affiliate SKOR North in February, and remained hopeful that a deal would get done this offseason.

“No one’s being greedy,” Baratz said. “Everyone understands the situation and it’s really in their court. He has a couple of years left on his deal but he’s earned a significant pay raise. Not to mention what he’s done on the field, he might be one of the best people in the entire National Football League and represents the city and the organization and state and, frankly, the entire region unbelievably.”

The extension will make Thielen one of the NFL’s highest-paid receivers, tied with Kansas City Chiefs wideout Sammy Watkins as the sixth highest paid at his position based on average yearly salary.

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All the scouting reports were similar. When the Minnesota Vikings selected Pittsburgh offensive tackle Brian O’Neill with the 62nd overall pick earlier this spring, they knew they were gaining one of the most athletic linemen in the draft whose upside appeared limitless.

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His measureables were off the charts: 98th percentile in the 40-yard dash, 98th percentile in the 3-cone drill, 91st percentile in the 20-yard shuttle run. O’Neill’s 4.82-second 40 time was the fastest among all offensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine. He even tied the time of (an albeit slow) quarterback Jared Goff of the Rams from two years prior.

As the uncertainty surrounding Minnesota’s offensive line mounts throughout the offseason, questions are often raised about the likelihood that the 6-foot-7, 297-pound O’Neill will be ready to take over at right tackle this season if needed.

Everyone from general manager Rick Spielman to coach Mike Zimmer to O’Neill himself has said the same thing: The rookie needs to get stronger if he’s going to play tackle in the NFL. Handling speed off the edge has long been one of O’Neill’s strong suits. Doing it against elite edge rushers will require greater strength.

Just over a month into his tenure as a Viking, O’Neill is starting to notice his body changing as he gets into an NFL strength, conditioning and nutrition program. O’Neill said he hopes to be around 305 pounds by the end of spring workouts. In the coming months, that number may increase.
The Vikings like Brian O’Neill’s athletic ability but believe he has to get stronger to play offensive tackle in the NFL. Jim Mone/AP Photo
It may sound like fun, but adding mass to one’s frame in a short amount of time doesn’t boil down to a quick fix of binging on pizza and chips every night. Putting on healthy weight while learning an NFL playbook is no cakewalk.

The good news for Minnesota? This isn’t O’Neill’s first time having to transform his mind and body to meet the demands of playing tackle. And having to do so quickly.

O’Neill hasn’t played tackle that long. He excelled as a tight end (33 receptions for 614 yards and eight touchdowns) and as a defensive end (45 tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles) as a senior in high school. He was rated the fifth-best tight end prospect from his native Delaware when Pitt recruited him.

O’Neill, who weighed 235 pounds when he started college, redshirted in 2014. He moved to tackle before the 2015 season. An offseason injury to former Panthers tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith left Pitt scrambling to find help for their offensive line. O’Neill, a big, blocking tight end who occasionally went out for a pass, was the perfect candidate to fill the void.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had little doubt that O’Neill could seamlessly make the transition. Less than three years before O’Neill would be drafted in the second round, Narduzzi foreshadowed just how far his ceiling would rise by moving inside.

“We talked about how many first-round draft choice tight ends there were compared to offensive tackles and where he had the ability to be a part of that,” Narduzzi said. “I think that’s something that played into the whole puzzle there.”

But this wasn’t Narduzzi’s decision to make.

“I didn’t tell him he had to move to tackle,” he said. “Just because a guy got hurt doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice everything you’ve worked for and wanted your entire life. I told him to take a day or two to decide, but if you make that move you have to be all in and want to do it.”

Narduzzi’s phone rang the next day. O’Neill was ready to make the switch. Time was of the essence.
Brian O’Neill was 235 pounds when he entered college in 2014 and moved to tackle before the 2015 season at Pitt. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics
‘See food, eat food’

Six weeks stood between O’Neill and the start of training camp ahead of the 2015 season. Once he decided to change positions, he immediately started to work on changing his body.

From late June until early August 2015, O’Neill went from what he called a “skin and bones” 250 pounds to 285 pounds. Doing so required an immense buy-in from O’Neill at the guiding hand of Pitt head strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews.

While working at the University of Cincinnati earlier in his career, Andrews aided Jason Kelce’s transformation from a 230-pound walk-on linebacker to a 280-pound center by the time he left college. Like O’Neill, the Super Bowl champion Kelce ran the fastest 40-yard dash among all offensive linemen at the combine in 2011.

Andrews had about a month-and-a-half to install a system for O’Neill to gain upwards of 35 pounds so he could hold his anchor on the offensive line. In theory, the plan was simple: There was no set number of calories O’Neill had to consume each day nor specific foods he needed to prioritize over others. All that mattered was that the tackle was putting enough in his body to gain weight. If the scale wasn’t moving upwards, he needed to eat more.

“I called it the ‘see food diet,'” Andrews said. “He’s like, ‘I don’t like seafood.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to see food and eat it.'”

Playing the calorie game became a full-time job for O’Neill that summer. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were an important staple in his diet, in which he didn’t allow himself to go more than 30 minutes without eating and often set his alarm for a 3 a.m. middle-of-the-night snack.

“It made for some fun 100-degree camp practices in Pittsburgh when you’re putting that many calories in your body,” O’Neill joked.
Brian O’Neill played tight end and defensive end in high school before going to Pitt. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics
Gaining weight might have been the easiest part of his transition. Keeping that weight on with the demands of training camp was difficult.

“It takes an awful lot of discipline,” Andrews said. “We did daily and weekly weigh-ins. Body weight is an attitude as well. I’d tell him I want to see him up a pound tomorrow, regardless of whether it was water weight or true fat gain, true muscle gain. At that point, I just wanted to see something change on the scale. You’re talking about a 35-pound difference in a six-week period. That’s about a pound a day. Not all good weight, but the main emphasis was to get him to a point where he could anchor down at 285.”

In gaining a large amount of mass, coaches never saw O’Neill lose his athletic edge. Andrews’ plan for the weight room was to put his foot on the pedal and develop as much “absolute strength” as possible. Those six weeks were about helping O’Neill reach the strength needed to play tackle. Refining that strength came later.

“Basically we went into it with nothing to lose,” Andrews said. “Any time you have a young man that is gaining weight, it’s very easy to get them a little bit stronger. … I stressed him to the point where we could check metrics by vertical leap just to make sure we weren’t overtraining the young man.”

To the delight of his coaches, the opposite happened. Possibly the most noteworthy part of his transition can be traced back to one critical measureable.

At 250 pounds, O’Neill reached a 28.5 inch vertical. Some 47 pounds heavier at the combine, he jumped 29.5 inches.

“He is definitely one of the elite guys who you will see test that way,” Andrews said. “With a 40- to 50-pound gain, his performance numbers didn’t change. That’s a testament to what this kid has done, how he’s gone about his recovery and how he’s gone about preparing.”

‘Just touching the surface’

Getting through training camp that season was a major hurdle crossed for O’Neill. Then came his biggest test: putting it all together on the field.

“The first couple of games things were flying fast and you can only prepare for so many different looks,” O’Neill said. “Once you kind of get an eye for everything conceptually in terms of play structure and why we do things it comes quicker.”

O’Neill mastered how to adapt to his new position while managing the changes that came under four different offensive coordinators during his career at Pitt. Going from a pro-set offense to a system that mixed in spread and power concepts provided O’Neill an opportunity to learn a variety of blocking schemes. His athleticism is what makes him such an intriguing addition to the Vikings’ outside zone-blocking scheme predicated on movement and the ability of its linemen to get to the second level.
Putting on healthy weight while learning the playbook is no cakewalk, but Brian O’Neill — the Vikings’ second-round pick — has been here before. Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire
From 2015 to 2017, O’Neill notched 37 starts at tackle. In 817 snaps during his redshirt junior season, he allowed one sack, two QB hits and six hurries. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 98.3 in pass-block efficiency, the third highest among draft-eligible tackles.

As the Vikings work toward wrapping up their spring offseason program, O’Neill is fully immersed in his next transition from a college to professional offensive tackle. The physical difference between the rookie and his right tackle counterparts Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill is understandably noticeable. O’Neill aims to stay on the level of his teammates in terms of the knowledge and skill to play the position.
“At offensive tackle that is the biggest difference, if you don’t do your job the play is over,” he said. “And especially left tackle and even right tackle, protecting the quarterback is the No. 1 priority, at least for an offensive lineman. Being able to do your techniques consistently every time, that’s kind of the biggest difference because you might be able to get away with some stuff at tight end. At least I did when I played. At tackle, you’re out there on an island.”

Whether O’Neill will be ready to step in as a rookie will be determined by how quickly he picks up the playbook and the rate at which his body responds to an intense next few months. Having gone through such an extreme transition three years ago set him up for his current situation. Now it’s time to take the next step.

“I think he’s just touching the surface,” Narduzzi said. “He’s still a tight end playing tackle and his best years are ahead of him, for sure.”