Garrett Bradbury has been the Vikings’ primary starter at center the past three years, but it’s not guaranteed he again will have that role to open the season.
Bradbury has had an up and down training camp although he has continued to take all the first-team reps. But first-year coach Kevin O’Connell wants to see more from Bradbury before saying he will be the sure-fire starter Sept. 11 against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I think there’s still competition,’’ O’Connell said Saturday. “We’re still trying to continue to work though these padded practice opportunities.”
After being the No. 18 pick in the 2019 draft, Bradbury started the first 39 games of his NFL career although he had some struggles. He then went on the COVID-19 reserve list for two games last November and was benched for two games following his return in favor of Mason Cole. Due to an injury, Cole moved to right guard in December, and Bradbury did end up starting the final six games at center.
Cole signed a three-year, $15.75 million contract with Pittsburgh last March and Bradbury in May did not have his fifth-year option of $13.202 million picked up for 2023. Bradbury will become a free agent after making $2.25 million in 2022.
O’Connell said Bradbury has looked good in run blocking in camp but didn’t deny he has been overpowered at times in pass protection. Bradbury has had some issues working against nose tackle Harrison Phillips.
“In pass (protection), he’s had some real moments of some strong performances, and then there’s been some other ones where (defensive assistants) Mike Pettine and Ed Donatell and Mike Smith know how to isolate people just like all the great coaches in the league do,’’ O’Connell said. “That’s where we’re challenging him every time (with) ‘technique, technique.’”
O’Connell said there have been times when it appears Bradbury was beaten but that he didn’t get the expected help from other offensive linemen.
“It’s too early to make any kind of assessment and I’m definitely not worried,’’ O’Connell said about Bradbury’s pass protection.
Minnesota doesn’t have much experience at center behind Bradbury. Austin Schlottman, who has been taking most of the second-team snaps, has been primarily a guard in his NFL career, and has started just seven of 42 games.
Chris Reed might be the most viable option as a possible replacement. But Reed, who has started 29 of 62 career games, also has been mostly a guard. He never has started an NFL game at center.
The 6-foot-3 Bradbury put on about 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason to help him battle big linemen, and has said he weighs between 305 and 310 pounds. O’Connell said that has helped Bradbury, and he stressed there should not be a rush to judgment on him.
“I’d really be cautious in making those assessments from play in and play out in training camp,’’ O’Connell said.
Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu returned to practice after sitting out much of the week due to a lower leg injury.
“It feels good to be back out there,” Nwangwu said. “(It was) nothing serious. Just wanted to go day by day and make sure it doesn’t turn into a bigger issue.”
O’Connell expressed optimism about Nwangwu being available for next Sunday’s preseason opener at Las Vegas.
Wide receiver Myron Mitchell sat out practice after his quad tightened up Friday.
O’Connell said it was ligament damage suffered by tight end Irv Smith Jr., who was lost last Monday for about a month with a right thumb injury. O’Connell said Smith, who underwent surgery Tuesday and has been going through walkthroughs, already has shifted from a hard cast into a softer one.
Due to rain in the morning, the Vikings closed practice Saturday to fans. The weather did clear up, and Minnesota was able to practice outside. … Kicker Greg Joseph has made a number of 50-yard kicks in camp, including two from 58. “Every time he takes a swing right now, I’m expecting that ball to go in,’’ O’Connell said.