Vikings rookies Mattison, Johnson stand out in NFL debut

There’s not a better way for an NFL rookie to make a first impression than by getting into the end zone in the preseason.

A pair of draft picks did that and then some Friday night in Minnesota’s 34-25 win at New Orleans. It was the unofficial debuts for third round pick and running back Alexander Mattison, and seventh round pick at wide receiver, Olabisi Johnson.

With Dalvin Cook not seeing action against the Saints, Mattison got his first chance to shoulder the load in the Vikings’ run game. He finished the game with nine carries for 30 yards, and got three carries on the first series of the game with the first-team offense.

After Adam Thielen caught a 35-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to get down to the Saints’ 1-yard line, it was Mattison’s turn. Cousins faked a run, and found Mattison open in the flat for an easy touchdown pass. Quite a moment for the rookie that capped an eight-play, 76-yard opening drive.

He took a second before the opening kick to let it sink in that he was playing his first NFL game. He had to be in the moment, though, as he was on special teams for the first kick.

“You know I’ve been working my whole life for this moment so just to be out there and really look around and be like “Wow, I’m here.’ So it was just one of those moments where I was like alright, let’s go,” Mattison said. “You’ve been working at this your whole life, let’s play football. It was an awesome feeling to get out there.”

It was his only catch of the game, and it was one he’ll likely never forget.

While Mattison is solidly in position to grab the No. 2 running back spot behind Cook, Johnson is in a battle for a spot at wide receiver and on special teams. He’s one of two receivers drafted in the seventh round, and he was all over the field in Tuesday’s practice.

Kick return, punt return, gunner, you name it.

Like Mattison, he experienced a moment Friday night he’ll likely never forget. He caught an 18-yard touchdown pass on a play where Sean Mannion was hit as he threw. The 18-yard play gave the Vikings a 14-6 lead at the time

It was one of two catches for Johnson in his debut.

“Definitely celebrated, got my little celebration in, celebrated with the guys on the sideline and then moved onto the next drive.,” Johnson said. “It just rushed through my head, it was a rush of emotions. It felt good for sure, I was in shock actually.”

Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski noted how Mannion gave Johnson a chance to make a play where it was thrown, and Johnson high-pointed the football after making a double move on the defender.

“On Bisi’s touchdown in particular that was really good to see of him planting his feet and going up and getting the football,” Stefanski said.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and the Vikings had a spirited practice full of team drills and situations. Zimmer wanted to get his squad tired as they look ahead to an off day on Wednesday.

In red zone drills, Kirk Cousins hit a wide open Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown. A few plays later, Cousins hit a leaping Adam Thielen on a fade route for a score in the back corner of the end zone.

There were plenty of plays made by the Vikings defense as well. In a team situation, Cousins tried to force a ball to Thielen in double coverage. Jayron Kearse was there for the interception. Marcus Epps jumped a route on a Jake Browning pass and ran it back for a touchdown.

Eric Wilson picked off Sean Mannion during a team drill, returning it for a touchdown. Near the end of practice, Wilson tipped a Browning pass that was intercepted by Epps again.

The most pleasant surprise of practice, surprisingly, came from special teams. Dan Bailey had his first perfect kicking session of Training Camp, with Chad Beebe holding and Austin Cutting snapping on all the kicks. He hit four extra points, and made field goals from 52, 35 and 55 yards.

Beebe has put in extra work in special teams throughout Training Camp. He filled in Tuesday for Matt Wile, who couldn’t perform holding duties because of a cut on his finger suffered at New Orleans before their first extra point attempt Friday.

Bailey said the special teams unit is going to focus on a perfect day Tuesday after a relatively slow start in camp.

“That’s just where we’re at as a unit. We’ve taken longer than we needed to get this thing on track, but today was really positive I think across the board for everybody. We’ve just got to build off that."

New kicker Kaare Vedvik focused on punting and working on kickoffs at Tuesday’s practice. Zimmer hasn’t ruled out that Vedvik could kick in a preseason game, and Bailey isn’t bothered by the team trading for a kicker. It’s how the NFL works, especially when you’re not consistently getting the ball through the uprights.

“That’s just the nature of this league. You’re always competing for a spot whether somebody is here physically or not,” Bailey said. “In my position all you can do is control what you can control.”

The Vikings are off Wednesday before holding their final Training Camp practices open to the public on Thursday and Friday.