Sunday slant: Late-round, undrafted intrigues
The NFL draft is full of compelling stories, from the inspirational to the dumbfounding.
Inexplicably, at least two impressively productive pass rushers tested positive (Randy Gregory) or were arrested (Shane Ray) for marijuana possession in the months leading up to their big draft weekend, sending their stock, and therefore their signing bonuses, south to varying degrees. On the other side, several prospects showed during postseason all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine and pro day workouts that they might be more talented than their college film perhaps showed.
The Minnesota Vikings were pragmatic and predictable with their first two picks, taking the best talent available when they selected at two primary positions of need, first at cornerback with Trae Waynes and then at middle linebacker with Eric Kendricks. Maybe those are the only two immediate starters the draft will provide Minnesota in 2015.
But beyond the well-chronicled tales of the top two picks and even beyond the raw athletic talent that third-rounder Danielle Hunter and fourth-rounder T.J. Clemmings provide, there are several third-day and undrafted picks that bear watching in the coming months and into training camp at the end of the July.
Here are four under-the-radar prospects of intrigue, along with a final fifth observation that will be key their development over the next year:
Digging the speed: Stefon Diggs was the 20th of 34 wide receivers chosen in the draft. Normally, fifth-round draft picks make very little impact in their rookie seasons, but with so many analysts believing the Vikings had to have a receiver early in the draft, they waited 146 picks before they made their move when value met their selection.
Truth told, Diggs has little shot to start, but in just one afternoon of practice of Friday it was apparent he has something that can’t be taught: speed. He isn’t blazing in the 40-yard dash like some of the other top receivers, running “only” a 4.46 at the Combine, but his immense short-area quickness stood out immediately at rookie minicamp. Prospects are never compared to low-level players, so projecting a third-day pick to compare to a former first-rounder is dangerous analysis indeed. But Diggs reminded me of two former Vikings.
He has a running and cutting style similar to Percy Harvin, hitting top speed in a hurry and able to set up defenders for failure with a quick shoulder shrug one way while the rest of the body is headed the other way. He doesn’t have the build of Harvin, but unaware of the Harvin impending comparison, Diggs said loved watching Harvin’s physical brand of football. His ability to catch the ball with his back to the defense, then feel the defender and quickly change direction is reminiscent of Greg Jennings. Diggs isn’t as thick as Harvin is and likely won’t catch more than 30 passes this season, but look for Diggs to compete for use in the return game and on occasional end-arounds.
Curious on Pruitt: Last year, former Miami Dolphins tight end Charles Clay was 12th among NFL tight ends with 58 catches, 605 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games played. MyCole Pruitt said he has heard comparisons between his game and Clay’s assets. Clay is 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. Pruitt is broadly packaged at 6-2, 251, and the Vikings believe they can use him as a tight end, H-back or even split out wide.
In many ways, he is an interesting selection. The Vikings have a pretty full tight end stable already, but Pruitt ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the Combine, the best among the 20 tight ends there. Only two of them ran under 4.75.
He is put together a lot differently than the taller Kyle Rudolph, but it gives the Vikings pass-catching insurance if Rudolph’s streak of injury continues. And Pruitt gives Norv Turner a lot of different looks if both of them are on the field at the same time, with the ability to shift Pruitt in the backfield, as an in-line end or out wide. Turner was adamant that Pruitt could be valuable in his offense and we might get the chance to witness that with some of the impressive catches Pruitt made in rookie camp.
Where does Heinicke fit in? With Teddy Bridgewater well-established as the starter and Shaun Hill the veteran backup this year, the Vikings don’t have their third quarterback written in pen on the depth chart. Mike Kafka has limited NFL experience, but Taylor Heinicke is an interesting prospect that wasn’t invited to the Combine. But in his first day with the Vikings, he looked mechanically sound, hitting his back foot and getting rid of the ball quickly.
With a tight spiral and good arm strength, he completed nearly 68 percent of his passes with better than a 3-to-1 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio in the 45 games he started for Old Dominion. He also ran for 1,320 yards and 22 touchdowns. All of those qualities showed up in the first day of rookie camp, but the best news might be this line from the scouting report provided by NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas: “He is an overachiever of sorts, who will put in extra hours in the film room and even sits in the coaches’ meetings.”
Heinicke should provide a serious challenge for that third quarterback spot.
No Harris yet, but … Safety Anthony Harris was sidelined during rookie camp because of surgery to his right shoulder that kept him out of the postseason all-star games, the Combine and pro day workouts.
He was a three-year starter at Virginia who recorded 289 tackles and believes he can do it all at safety, despite his 6-foot, 183-pound frame. Despite all those tackles and only 4.56-second speed in the 40, his best quality is supposed to be his coverage ability with 11 interceptions and 19 passes broken up at Virginia.
He knows the spot opposite Harrison Smith is up for grabs, but he will have to wait at least a few more weeks before he can be anything more than a practice observer. After that, he could join the competition at what appears to be the only spot on defense open for the taking.
Confidence in coaches: With all of the Vikings’ prospects, from Waynes on down to Harris and other undrafted rookies, it’s clear the Vikings drafted for speed – Waynes, Pruitt and Hunter all led their position groups at the Scouting Combine in the 40-yard dash. They aren’t all as polished as Waynes, but last year at this time it became blatantly obvious that the this coaching staff is far more involved in teaching technique than any other witnessed in the last two decades of Vikings football.
With technicians like Zimmer, defensive line coach Andre Patterson and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, those are some of the same coaches that brought out the best in Xavier Rhodes in his second season and Everson Griffen in his fifth season on the team and first as a starter.
If the athleticism of guys like Waynes, Kendricks, Hunter, Pruitt and Harris can be refined quickly, it should be a team on the rise in 2015 and one with a far deeper roster.
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