Rookie class found lot of learning in 2014

From two star starters to seldom-used mid-rounders to mainly special teams contributors, the Vikings’ rookie draft picks found various roles and plenty to learn in 2014.

The 2014 rookie class has its first season in the NFL coming to an end soon. This was the first draft class for first-year head coach Mike Zimmer, and it will be expected to help mold future draft classes into the types of players that he wants playing for the Minnesota Vikings.

There were 10 players drafted by the Vikings in May, and all but one of them made the 53-man roster – Kendall James, a sixth round pick was the only one to not make the team. Then there were undrafted rookie free agents who ended up on the Vikings’ 53-man roster as well. Safety Ahmad Dixon from Baylor, and offensive lineman Austin Wentworth from Fresno State, who has gotten playing time on special teams, and on offense as a jumbo tight end in goal-line situations.

Of course, this class is known for its two first-round draft picks in Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater, but there have been a lot of the other players that made an impact on offense, defense and special teams. Zimmer knows this, and believes that he has put into place a group of rookies that can be the building blocks for his team in years to come, from Barr and Bridgewater to RB Jerick McKinnon, DT Shamar Stephen, S Antone Exum and CB Jabari Price – who have found rotational roles – to DE Scott Chrichton and G David Yankey and LB Brandon Watts – who have been used sparingly or not at all (Yankey).

“As far as this draft class, I’ve been extremely excited from the contributions from Bridgewater, Barr, McKinnon; yesterday we got Crichton involved a little bit more,” Zimmer said after the Vikings’ game against Washington in Week 9. “Exum and Price have been involved quite a bit in the special teams, and were kind of learning on the job. I think this is a good nucleus to build from, and the thing I like about maybe even more so is the good kids. We’re trying to implement the kind of program that we want here, the kind of people that we want. The way they handle their business in the weight room, the meeting rooms, out on the field – we’re trying to implement all those things – and I just feel like when you continually get guys and kind of teach them the right way, at least the way we believe we are doing things, it will continue to build from there.”

Being a defensive-minded head coach, it is no surprise that seven of his 10 draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball. For most, this season has been filled with positives, but for others there was disappointment. No matter how this season went, a majority of them are planning on working hard this offseason so they can see the field even more next year.

Anthony Barr – LB, UCLA, first round

Barr was Zimmer’s first ever draft pick as a head coach, and he seems to embody what Zimmer wants in a player. He is a smart player who has the versatility to play multiple positions.

Since Week 1 Barr had been one of the starters on the defensive side of the ball. He ended up having to miss the last three games because of an injury, but before his injury he was leading the team in tackles, and had won defensive rookie of the week multiple times. He was also one of the players in the running for defensive rookie of the year.

This season, he recorded 99 total tackles, four sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and a fumble returned for a touchdown. That touchdown was the highlight of his season as it was returned for the game-winning touchdown in over time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Teddy Bridgewater – QB, Louisville, first round

The Vikings passed over Bridgewater with their first pick of the draft, but then traded back into the first round to take him with the No. 32 pick. After battling in training camp and the preseason, he lost the starting job to Matt Cassel but was forced to come in Week 3 when Cassel left the game with a broken foot.

Bridgewater had his first start of the year in the next game against the Atlanta Falcons, when he threw for 317 yards and ran for a touchdown. He was injured late in that game with a sprained ankle and was forced to sit out Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers.

Once he came back, he struggled for a couple games, failing to throw for over 200 yards against the Lions and the Bills, but then things seemingly started to click for the rookie as he has thrown at least one touchdown in nine straight games, and has been named offensive rookie of the week on multiple occasions.

So far this season he has a 64.2 completion percentage, and has thrown for 2, 710 yards, 14 total touchdowns – ran for one against Atlanta – and 11 interceptions. With one game left to play Bridgewater has the chance to be the first Vikings quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a given season since 2009 when Brett Favre did it, and the second since 2004 when Daunte Culpepper performed the feat.

Scott Crichton – DE, Oregon State, third round

Where Bridgewater and Barr both had successful seasons that they can be proud of, Crichton has not. Being a third-round draft pick, a lot of people were expecting him to play, but he has not been able to see the field very often.

He has been inactive for eight games this season, and during those opportunities he has only recorded two tackles and three quarterback hurries. Even though he has not seen the field much, he is ready to work hard and prove that he deserves to see the field more often.

“I was expecting to play,” Crichton said. “I just got to do more; I got to work harder, do everything right, and I got to get better in the offseason.

“There were a lot of ups and downs, but mainly ups. I mean, for a rookie, I think it’s typical for a rookie, but I just wish I could have done more on defense. But it is what it is, just got to learn from it. A big learning step, and I just can’t wait until next year.”

One thing that has hurt him is that he is part of one of the deepest positions – defensive end – on the Vikings team. But with players like Brain Robison starting to enter into the twilight of their careers, Crichton could have the perfect opportunity to make an impact for the team in the coming years.

Jerick McKinnon – RB, Georgia Southern, third round

McKinnon was one of the biggest surprises of the 2014 season, especially the first half of the season. He is an athletic player, but he played quarterback in a triple-option offense at a smaller school in college. Plus, he is a smaller player, so it was hard to see what his role in an NFL offense would be.

There was thought that he might be more of a third-down or change-of-pace back to Adrian Peterson, but with Peterson having to miss time because of legal matters, it was up to Matt Asiata and McKinnon to take over the workload.

Asiata was the initial starter, but McKinnon soon started to show how talented he was – rushing for over 100 yards against the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills. He was then named the starter, and during his time on the field even garnished an offensive rookie of the week award.

McKinnon played in 11 games this season and started six of them, but in the end he injured his back and was placed on injured reserve at Week 13 of the season.

David Yankey – OL, Stanford, fifth round

Yankey is another player that many people thought could push for a starting position at the beginning of the season, but has not yet lived up to the hype. It was also surprising to see that he was continuously left out of the starting lineup when the offensive line has been decimated with injuries this season.

Zimmer noted that he is just not strong enough yet and needs to get stronger before seeing the field. Yankey also admitted that he needs to continue on individual techniques because every little mistake makes a difference in the pros, when in college he could get away with the mistakes.

“Probably just technique with football,” Yankey said when asked what he needs to improve. “Just how to – you always talk about you want to keep getting better every day – it’s just so many little technical things are different in the pros as opposed to college where it really does make all the difference.”

Even though he has not gotten a chance to see the field he is still thankful for the opportunity to play in the NFL and says that this season has been a great learning experience for him.

Many people were surprised when the Vikings were able to take him in the fifth round, as he was projected to go in the second or third round of the draft. And even though the season has not gone as he might have expected, he is not letting it upset him and is planning on going home this offseason and continuing to work.

“I’ll be working out back in Georgia in the Atlanta area,” he said. “And just like I said, continuing to get better, and get to a level where I can hopefully get a chance.”

Antone Exum Jr. – S, Virginia Tech, sixth round

Exum has been active in every game this season except Week 9 against the Washington Redskins. This season he has seen most of his playing time come on special teams, but has seen the field on the defensive side of the ball a couple times when both Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo were out with injuries.

He has been one of the special teams’ primary players this season, recording seven tackles, including a two-tackle game against the New York Jets. He believes he has done well during his rookie season and cannot wait to keep it going.

“I think (my rookie season) went well,” Exum said. “Did some things well and also had areas that I was able to learn from, and just looking forward to next year being able to put it all together full circle.”

One of the hardest things for a rookie coming in is to learn a new system and understand all of the concepts in that system. For players like Exum, who are expected to play both special teams and defense, it can be more difficult because there are two systems for them to learn instead of one.

“Just different techniques, and schemes about special teams. And then also just getting more of a grasp on our scheme and what we do on defense as well. So that’s something I try to bring into the spring and into training camp and improve there so I can try to get on the field.”

Shamar Stephen – DT, UConn, seventh round

Being a seventh-round draft pick, not many people were thinking he would be able to make an impact right away, and that he might take a few years to develop. But he has been one of the few rookies to play in every game this season, and has even started three games in replacing Sharrif Floyd when he was out with injury.

He has not been much of a rusher this season, as he only has seven quarterback hurries and no sacks, but he has been solid against the run, recording 49 tackles. Even though he does not have the flashy numbers like a lot of players do, he is one of those players who is already doing the right thing and has even been called the Big Fundamental from some people.

Brandon Watts – LB, Georgia Tech, seventh round

Watts has had a disappointing season, to say the least. He was out for a majority of the year with hamstring injuries and didn’t make his debut until Week 15 against the Detroit Lions, and even then he it was just on special teams.

The next week against the Miami Dolphins saw him once again playing on special teams, but he got the chance to play on defense when Chad Greenway went down with an injury. That opportunity didn’t last long, however, as he was only on the field for six plays before he suffered another hamstring injury and had to leave the game.

He was able to record one tackle during his time on the field, but he has to be upset with his durability.

Jabari Price – CB, North Carolina, seventh round

Like Exum, Price has been primarily used on special teams, but has been able to see the field on defense multiple times, as he has become the fourth cornerback behind Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson.

His best game on defense came in Week 1 when he recorded four tackles against the St. Louis Rams. Since then he was only able to record two more tackles, and they both came Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints.

Even though he has not made a big impact on defense, he has been able to make one on special teams, recording seven total tackles, including a two-tackle game against the Buffalo Bills. Even though he has found some success, Price said that there has been a big learning curve for him coming into the NFL.

“A huge learning curve,” he said. “Definitely figured out some strengths and weaknesses I need to take into the offseason to work on, especially playing the nickel and the outside corner position, so there are a lot of things I found out about myself. But by far the biggest learning experience of my life. I got to take that with me into this offseason and correct every detail that I came up short on this year.”

One thing that he says he needs to continue to work on is his fundamentals, and learning what to expect when he sees different things. These are all things that he will continue to learn as he gets more experience on the field and in the film room.

He was also surprised to learn that you don’t have to be really fast or really strong to be successful in this league – although being either of those doesn’t hurt.

“The thing I learned the most, alignment-assignment football,” Price said. “Its not going to come down to who’s got the fastest 40, and I’ve seen some of the slowest corners have the most success on the outside this year, and I’ve seen it this year with my own naked eyes. So I mean its alignment-assignment football and knowing what I’m going to get before I get it and just lining up, and just being ready as far as – my 40 and my bench press, nothing like that is going to help me – just alignment-assignment football for the most part.”

This offseason, Price says that he is planning on working hard and only taking a little bit of time off, if any at all. He knows that it will not be long before the team is meeting up again for training camp, and he wants to be at his best when that time comes.

“I got to work,” he said. “I know a lot of people plan on taking a break, but I don’t plan on taking that much of a break because I know we’ll be back in April. There are some things this year that I want to work on personally and come back and improve myself on and show this staff and my teammates that they can trust me as far as when we are out there on the field together.”

The 2014 rookie class is filled with a lot of different types of player. There are stars and there are role players, there are outgoing personalities and there are players who are more reserved. The rookies are all close to one another, and all cannot wait to come back next year and further prove that they deserve more.

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