Vikings youth infusion likely to continue

The Vikings’ have had the vast majority of their draft classes make the final roster and this year will be more of the same.

When the Vikings open training camp in two months, there will be a lot of rookies looking for jobs. If history has taught us anything, veteran bubble guys had best be on point every day of OTAs, minicamp and training camp because the odds may be stacked against them.

The reality of the annual draft, and cattle call of undrafted free agents, is that a coaching staff always seems to fall in love with the new guys – the unformed clay that they believe they can mold into their own image. One needs look no further than wide receiver Charles Johnson to see that point manifest itself.

Johnson was claimed off Cleveland’s practice squad, and because Norv Turner saw something he liked in Johnson when he was on the shelf in Cleveland, it opened the door to him checker-jumping other players to win a roster spot.

That isn’t unusual, especially when a new coaching staff is getting its NFL legs. Between the new coaching staff and General Manager Rick Spielman’s belief in his drafting system, the Vikings roster has been a revolving door of new players coming in and taking jobs that were previously held by veteran starters and backups.

In 2011, the first year Leslie Frazier was the head coach, the team had 10 draft picks. Nine of them made the team, whether on the 53-man roster or the practice squad. Four years later, only two of them – Kyle Rudolph and Brandon Fusco – remain with the team. The other seven were given their opportunity but didn’t do enough to earn the confidence of the organization. But nine of the 10 got that initial chance.

In 2012, the Vikings had 10 draft picks. Of those, nine made the team – including some key players like Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson, Jarius Wright, Robert Blanton and Blair Walsh. Eight of the 10 members of the draft class of 2012 are still on the roster despite a coaching change and a shift in coaching philosophy on both sides of the ball. If not for a devastating career-ending injury to wide receiver Greg Childs during training camp that year, it may well have been nine 2012 draft picks still be on the roster.

In 2013, the Vikings had nine picks and seven of them made the roster, including a trio of first-round picks (Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson) and role players Gerald Hodges, Jeff Locke and Michael Mauti.

A paradigm shift happened last year with the hiring of defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer and veteran offensive mind Norv Turner. In the first year of the Zimmer regime, the Vikings had 10 draft picks. All but one of them (sixth-round cornerback Kendall James) are still on the roster and they are being viewed as the backbone of the future – a group that includes QB Teddy Bridgewater, linebacker Anthony Barr and projected potential future starters in RB Jerick McKinnon, DE Scott Crichton, G David Yankey, DT Shamar Stephen and S Antone Exum.

At the conclusion of this month’s draft, Spielman said that this year’s draft was worlds apart from the 2014 draft. Last year, he knew what type of players Zimmer and Turner liked to fill out the roster with “their guys.” A year later, Spielman said, they’ve had the experience of seeing how their systems equate to young talent that is perceived as a good fit for what they do.

Once again, the Vikings ended up with 10 draft picks and there is a likelihood that nine or even all 10 players will make the final 53-man roster. It isn’t because the Vikings were so woefully deficient in the composition of their roster; it’s a simple matter of economics and infatuation. Rookie contracts are the lifeblood of any organization, providing the bodies that don’t take up a lot of salary cap space and can be immediate contributors to augment the big-salary players that eat up a significant amount of the annual cap. Add to that the natural tendency for general managers and coaches to inflate the value of rookies as far as their fit in the Vikings scheme and you have the recipe for roster turnover.

The Vikings aren’t unusual in that regard. Almost every team in the league witnesses a significant amount of turnover from one year to the next. It’s the nature of the business. Longtime faces of the franchise like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were allowed to walk via free agency because the Vikings had less expensive options in house to replace them.

To a lot of Vikings fans, other than cornerback Trae Waynes and perhaps linebacker Eric Kendricks, the other eight rookies from the Class of 2015 are little more than names on a list. They’ve heard their positives – from Danielle Hunter’s athleticism to T.J. Clemmings’ potential to be the steal of the draft – but for the most part casual fans have seen far less of these players than the Vikings war room did before they selected them.

A piece of advice to Vikings fans: Get to know who these players are because there is a very good chance that when the Vikings compile their 53-man roster and assemble their practice squad, the majority of them will end up on the team in some fashion. It happens every year, much less in a system that is still relatively new to the franchise and coaches looking to stock the roster with players that fit their vision of offense and defense.

If you’re a veteran who was on the roster prior to Zimmer and Turner, be advised that there is a new wave of players coming into the organization with one goal in mind – taking a spot on the roster. They say NFL stands for “Not For Long” for a reason. For now, the rookies taken on Day 3 of the draft are relative unknowns to Vikings players and fans. That will all change by Labor Day weekend and, when the final numbers are tallied, most of them will still be around.

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