With the final set of cuts due for NFL teams by 3 p.m. Central Saturday, there were many players on the field Saturday night fighting for their jobs. The final preseason game is often a time where young players are forced to step up and prove themselves. In that pressure of the moment there are some players who step up in a big way and others who don’t.
One player who was fighting to earn a roster spot during the game was rookie linebacker Edmond Robinson. He was a seventh-round draft pick from Newberry College, which is a Division II program. He was raw when he first joined the Vikings this offseason, but had good size and good athleticism.
In Thursday’s game, however, he showed how much he has progressed throughout training camp and the preseason. He played in a majority of the game and recorded five tackles – one behind the team leader – and one quarterback hit.
He also appeared to do a solid job rushing the passer on multiple other occasions, forcing the quarterbacks to either rush their throws or move out of the pocket, and was good at holding the edge on several running plays, forcing the running backs back into the middle of the field where his teammates were.
At this point in time, it appears as though Robinson could be on the roster bubble, but would have a chance to be moved onto the practice squad where the coaching staff can continue to develop him if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster. The problem with that strategy is that some other team could see the value and upside that Robinson has and sign him once the Vikings cut him, or just pick him off their practice squad at some point during the regular season.
Another young linebacker fighting for a roster spot is second-year player Brandon Watts. A year ago Watts battled a hamstring injury, but this year he said that it is all healed up and he is ready to go.
On paper, it looked as though he had a good game on Thursday, recording five tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss and one quarterback hit. But there were a couple plays where he was either out of position or failed to make a play when he should have.
One example of that happening was in the first quarter when Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota hit Harry Douglas for a 59-yard touchdown pass. Watts was chasing Douglas downfield after he caught the ball, but ended up getting blocked by a wide receiver, could not get off the block and could not make a play.
Even though Watts did do some good things during the game, head coach Mike Zimmer did not seem too impressed.
“I see mistakes usually,” Zimmer said. “So I saw a couple plays where he needed to do better.”
Along with Watts, there were a couple other second-year players who got ample playing time during the game. Another one that seemed to be in the same boat as Watts in this game was safety Antone Exum.
Exum recorded a team-high six tackles in the game, which is something Zimmer has wanted to see from the second-round safety. However he did make some mistakes during the course of the game that won’t show up in the stats.
One example is when he was covering Titans tight end Chase Coffman on a third-and-4 play in the third quarter. Quarterback Alex Tanny targeted Coffman and Exum tried to jump the route and get an interception.
It didn’t work the way he planned, however, as he was late getting to the ball, missed completely, which then allowed Coffman to run for 19 yards and a first down. Zimmer has said that he is not a fan of his defensive backs trying to gamble and jump routes, and that was an example why.
One second-year player who looked good on paper and in the game was defensive end Scott Crichton.
He lined up as both a defensive end and a defensive tackle during the night and even recorded a sack from the interior of the line. Along with the sack, he also recorded four tackles, one tackle for a loss, one quarterback hit and a pass deflection.
On a night where Zimmer was not too happy with the way many of his players played, he seemed pleased with what he saw from Crichton.
“Scott’s getting better,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that gives you full day’s work. I thought he did some good things tonight and we moved him inside a little bit tonight. We had him outside a little bit tonight, so the more you can do, especially on game day, that helps.”
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Rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs also stood out – sometimes in good ways and other times in bad ways. He started out the game poorly, fumbling the ball away during the Vikings’ first drive of the game, but he was able to come back strong. By the end of the game, he had recorded eight receptions for 85 yards and touchdown.
Although Zimmer was not impressed with his receiver putting the ball on the ground, he did like the way Diggs responded after it.
“He’s a good football player,” Zimmer said. “You can’t put the ball on the ground, obviously, but he’s a good football player. He has a chance to be a really good football player if he continues to stay on track, do the things he’s been doing, work the way he’s been working and understand you have to take care of the ball.”
The final player to highlight when discussing young bubble players fighting for a roster spot is quarterback Taylor Heinicke. The coaching staff is not yet sure if they are going to be willing to keep three quarterbacks on their roster or not, but after the performance Heinicke gave on Thursday, they might have to.
He completed 27 of his 41 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also did a nice job at avoiding the pass rush all night and recorded 21 rushing yards when forced to run.
If the Vikings do decide to cut him, another team will likely pick him up after the last couple performances he has had in the preseason. Even if the Vikings can get him to the practice squad, he likely will not stay there all season long.
Zimmer admitted that he does not know what they will do with Heinicke yet, or at least wasn’t willing to say, but he did say he was impressed with the way he performed on Thursday.
“The thing I saw tonight was he got rocked a few times,” Zimmer said of his rookie quarterback. “Pass protection was poor and he got hammered a few times. He got up and shook it off and went back to work. So that was impressive to me.”
With the final cuts coming quickly, a lot of big decisions are going to have to be made that will affect the lives of multiple players. It is never an easy thing to do, especially with the amount of depth that the Vikings have on their roster this year, and Zimmer admitted he is not completely sure when all the decisions will be made.
“It all depends” he said. “Some we’ll make early and then some of them we’ll wait.”
Plenty of players will be waiting anxiously.