A year ago, it seemed apparent. Then-rookie Harrison Smith was aggressive and hard-hitting, even in training camp.
He laid a hit on Percy Harvin that had those teammates at the time jawing at each other. Jamarca Sanford, one of Harvin's best friends on the team, even sided with Smith, his defensive backfield mate, and the two would later be the starting safeties.
The process wasn't immediate for the Vikings to incorporate Smith into the starting lineup, just as it appears is the case now with three new first-round draft picks as their prizes in the draft.
Smith wasn't in the starting lineup at the outset of the preseason last year, waiting until the second preseason game before he made a start. He performed well enough there to earn another opportunity, and after his performance in the third preseason outing, his path was set to become a 16-game starter in the regular season.
Even then, however, the Vikings were more willing to make starters of Smith, drafted No. 29 overall, and Matt Kalil, taken No. 4 overall, in part because of their lack of a decisive starting competition. This year, with a deeper roster, the coaching staff is in no hurry to get any of the three first-round picks – DT Sharrif Floyd (No. 25 overall), CB Xavier Rhodes (25th) or WR Cordarrelle Patterson (29th) – into the starting lineup. Yet, their emergence there seems almost inevitable in the near future.
"There was a time that you could (go slow with rookies). That would be almost a luxury today," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Our depth is young. It is not like we have a ton of veterans at other positions. So you almost have to play young guys."
Still, there are no immediate plans to make starters out of any of their three first-rounders in the second preseason game. Last year, with an offensive line in need of a quick fix at left tackle, Kalil was the sensible and obvious answer. This year, the Vikings feel better about their depth in front of Floyd (veteran Kevin Williams) and Patterson (veterans Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson), and to a lesser degree Rhodes at cornerback.
"(Cornerback play) is key to our success on defense," Frazier said. "We have A.J. Jefferson, who will compete for a position, but A.J. has limited starting experience as well, but that is across the board in our secondary with the exception of Chris (Cook), who has been up and down for different reasons in his career. So it is not like we can turn to some senior player in our secondary and say, ‘Until Xavier is ready, or until Chris can say he is a consistent guy over 16 games, you are going to play. Or until Josh (Robinson) is ready you are going to take over.' We don't have that type of experience at the cornerback position especially."
That's why Rhodes, despite missing practices and the preseason opener last week with a hamstring injury, was back at left cornerback this week with the first-team nickel defense, with 2012 third-round pick Josh Robinson sliding inside to play the slot receiver. Robinson is expected to be the starter at left cornerback in the base defense for Friday's game, but eventually Rhodes could push him for that position.
Patterson also appears on the verge of earning a starting position. He has been one of the most consistent play-making receivers at camp this year. On Wednesday, he had an 80-yard touchdown during seven-on-seven drills after he got enough separation on Jefferson to make an impressive catch. Patterson was also their most productive receiver in the preseason opener, catching a team-leading four passes for 54 yards. He was targeted a team-leading eight times, too, and played the most snaps (27) of any Vikings receiver.
Still, there is no short-term vision of moving him into the starting role, at least "not at this point," according to Frazier.
"We'll see how he continues to progress but that's not the plan. This week now, fatigue, number of plays in a series, that could change things, injury could change things, but we're not going in saying, ‘You're going to work with the first unit on this drive or the first unit on the third drive,' but we'll see how it goes," Frazier said.
The head coach still believes his starting receivers – Simpson and Jennings – deserve to be working with the first-team offense.
Fortunately for Patterson, the first-team offense is expected to play into the second quarter of Friday's preseason game. Last week, they played only two snaps before the entire offensive line and starting quarterback Christian Ponder were pulled.
Floyd is expected to play most of the season behind decorated veteran defensive tackle Williams, but Floyd could still see 20 snaps a game in a rotational role.
Rhodes may be worked into a starting role quicker than any of his fellow first-rounders. After missing the opener with injury, he is expected to receive extensive opportunities in the next couple games.
"We are going to throw things at him and that is why it is good that he is healthy now. There are going to be some growing pains – that is just the way it is in our league, at that position especially," Frazier said. "Not only with him, but with Josh as well. We have to keep giving them a lot of other looks and situations, while letting them respond, react, grow and learn. But we have to expose them to a lot because when we line up in September, nobody is going to feel sorry for the fact that this is the first time starting at their positions."
Frazier indicated there is no set philosophy he has on whether or not first-round draft picks should be handed starting jobs. Much of that depends on their ability and the other options – especially of the proven veteran variety – that are available.
"It is just a matter of us getting those young guys up to speed to play at an NFL level and play well," he said. "But if you had your druthers you would rather have them be able to grow into the position, but that is not always the case."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings taking it slow with rookies
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