There are a few things to watch for, despite what will likely be very little activity for the starters, and here are five players worth keeping an eye on tonight.
1. QB Christian Ponder
Ponder will almost certainly play only a series or two, but we will get to see how he performs against the starting unit of a 49ers’ defense that is line to again be one of the league’s best this season. A full offseason should benefit Ponder greatly, and his overall progress this season in his second year will greatly define the Vikings’ 2012 season. There are certain to be some ups and downs in his first game action this year, so we should be careful not to overreact to Ponder’s mistakes despite the temptation to do so.
2. LB Jasper Brinkley
Brinkley is slated to take over as Minnesota’s starting middle linebacker despite missing all of the 2011 season with a hip injury. A groin injury also limited him during minicamp, creating concern about his ability to stay healthy. Brinkley has to show progress as a pass defender to stay on the field during passing downs, but the more important issue is his health. If can’t avoid injury in this first game or further down the road during the preseason, the Vikings may have to look elsewhere for a middle linebacker, including the free agent market (EJ Henderson?).
3. WR Jarius Wright
The Vikings clearly are looking for wide receivers that can make an impact and Wright, a rookie out Arkansas, should get an opportunity to earn a significant role. Wright may get a chance to return kicks, and if he performs well may be able to take the role into the regular season and allow the team to keep Percy Harvin away from returning kicks and use him more as an offensive weapon. Wright himself is considered somewhat of a Harvin clone, but he has been used as a flanker and slot receiver thus far in training camp and could earn a role as an outside receiver with a strong preseason showing starting Friday night.
4. QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Bethel-Thompson was signed to a futures contract by the Vikings in January after spending 2011 on the practice squad of the Miami Dolphins, and he was actually with the 49ers briefly prior to that before being cut. He should see a lot of action Friday night, perhaps even the majority of the second half, which would give him a chance to continue the fairly positive buzz that has come out of training camp. Bethel-Thompson appears to have the size (6’4″, 230 lbs.) and arm strength (assuming the reports are correct) to possibly develop into an NFL-caliber quarterback, but whether he gets that opportunity with the Vikings is a question. He can at least buy himself a little more training camp time with a good showing in the first preseason game.
5. TE Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph has been one of the Vikings’ training camp standouts to this point, and though we won’t see a lot of him Friday night it will be worth watching the budding chemistry between he and Ponder when the starters are on the field. The team needs someone besides Harvin to emerge as viable passing game weapon, and with fellow tight end John Carlson (knee) currently sidelined Rudolph has the opportunity to continue his positive buzz and take the reigns as the Vikings’ starting tight end.