One of the problems with the Vikings' success in 2009 was that, because the Collective Bargaining Agreement was allowed to expire, the Vikings were hamstrung in free agency. They could only sign a player after losing a player and couldn't sign the new player to a larger contract than the player lost. Because of that chain around their neck and a veteran-laden roster already in place, there wasn't much free-agent movement in the offseason for the Vikings. The focus went from signing veterans to the draft and the Vikings had a draft that looked designed to fill the team's offseason needs.
The Vikings appeared to have a pretty sound game plan in place when they executed their 2010 draft. Given the injuries to cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield in 2009, it made sense to take Chris Cook with their first pick. Needing to replace Chester Taylor in the backfield, the Vikings took Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart with their second pick of the second round. Defensive end Everson Griffen was a player the Vikings had rated as a second-round talent available in the fourth round. When their fifth-round pick came around, the biggest area of need was at guard, where the Vikings grabbed Chris DeGeare of Wake Forest.
As with the first two picks of the draft, guard was listed as a pre-draft need for the Vikings. Veteran swingman Artis Hicks, who had filled in at all four line positions other than center during his career, left to Washington via free agency. DeGeare seemed like a natural selection. However, he was expected to compete simply for a backup role. Instead, an injury to center John Sullivan forced the Vikings to look at potential alternatives. One of those was moving starting right guard Anthony Herrera to center and inserting DeGeare into the first-team offense at right guard.
DeGeare said that, while nobody wants a teammate to get injured, his progress as an NFL player has grown by leaps and bounds as the result of Sullivan's calf injury – which kept him on the sidelines all preseason and pushed the rookie onto the field much more than even he had anticipated.
"When somebody has an injury, somebody else has to come in and pick up those reps that are lost," DeGeare said. "I tried to turn his injury into my advantage. That may sound bad, but I'm just trying to get up to speed and get my experience. I've had a lot more chances to play with the (first team) that I thought I was going to coming in and I'm trying to make the most of it."
Whereas a rookie quarterback like Joe Webb can be in awe of a teammate like Brett Favre, an offensive lineman like DeGeare grew up idolizing guys like teammate Steve Hutchinson. Hutch has been one of the veterans who has served as an early mentor for DeGeare and, given his NFL pedigree, when a future Hall of Famer like Hutchinson talks, a rookie listens.
"I tell you right now, I lean on Steve Hutchinson a lot," DeGeare said. "He gives me a lot of pointers on technique and footwork. Everybody else has helped me too, but Steve has gone out of his way, which I really appreciate it. He's the best in the NFL among guards and having someone like that willing to help you out, it means a lot to me."
The hardest part of building a relationship with Hutchinson is that he is an imposing first meet. At 6-foot-5. 315 pounds, he's imposing enough, but he has the expression of a mob killer. Once you get to know him, Hutchinson is a genuinely nice and articulate person, he is the type who even his teammates couldn't tell if he won the lottery that day or his dog died. He is a stone face and it was a little intimidating to DeGeare, who walked softly around his teammate in their first days together.
"At first, he was really quiet towards me, but I figured out that's just his way," DeGeare said. "After a while, he got to know me and I got to see a different side of him. Once we got talking and he starting taking me under his wing, things changed. He's a great guy, but it took a little time for us to get things going."
Hutchinson said he has always enjoyed helping younger teammates, believing that part of leadership is not only playing at a high level, but leaving the organization better than he found it.
"(DeGeare) is a worker who wants to learn and get better," Hutchinson said. "It's the job of the veteran guys to work with the younger guys to try to get them better. Injuries happen in this game and you never know when you're going to be needed in the starting lineup. He wants to learn and it's something we all do in order to make the team better."
DeGeare said has transition into the pros has been pretty smooth, saying that the initial struggles he had adjusting to his role in the Vikings offense have been remedied as time has has gone by.
"The biggest thing for me was learning the playbook and getting my assignments down for different plays," DeGeare said. "Once I did that, I can play fast now and know what I'm doing without hesitation. You have to tweak things from week to week, but I think I've got a solid base on the playbook and feel better about it."
While DeGeare said he's gaining confidence and is ready for whatever role the coaches decide on for him, he is quick to add that he is a work in progress and that the work has only begun. There are a lot of areas he needs to make big strides in before he's feeling secure about his game.
"The biggest thing I'm still working on is technique," DeGeare said. "I had four years of learning one sort of technique in college and I have to shake that off, what I was used to, and learn the new technique we use here in the matter of a few months. I still need to improve and that's going to be a process that may take a little time. I feel I'm getting better from one week to the next, but it's a big transition and is taking some time."
With questions remaining about the short-term health of Sullivan and the roles that Herrera and DeGeare will play, he said he's ready to take a role on the team. He feels like "one of the guys," but isn't getting too full of himself. If that were to happen, he will be reminded that he is still the new kid in town and that the old dogs don't tolerate pups that bark.
"I feel a lot more comfortable than I did after the draft, but the veterans in this locker room won't let you forget you're a rookie," DeGeare said. "I feel like I'm past some of the hurdles – the OTAs, minicamps, training camp and preseason. It's a progression and it's like I've checked each one off. Now we're at the regular season and there is a different energy. Each step is new, so I don't think I'll think of myself as not being a rookie until I go through things for the second time. Besides, if I ever start acting like I'm not a rookie anymore, we've got enough guys in the locker room that will remind me. Everybody was a rookie at some point and it's my turn to go through it."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
DeGeare improving, learning from Hutch
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