When the Minnesota Vikings conducted their draft at Winter Park in April, head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman had a hard time containing their joy with their draft class. It’s not unusual for a general manager or a head coach to gush about the young talent they’ve added, but in their second year working together, both admitted that they were much more on the same page when it came to what they were looking for in rookie talent.
In Sunday’s 16-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, it was a coming-out party for much of the Class of 2015. Stefon Diggs had another big day. Eric Kendricks was a beast in the middle of the defense. Fill-in starter Danielle Hunter got his first career sack and caused a fumble. Trae Waynes saw a two series of playing time and did his part. T.J. Clemmings did his part to keep the pass rush of the Chiefs away from Teddy Bridgewater, with Rhett Ellison trying to block Justin Houston on Kansas City’s top passer rusher’s sack.
All and all, it was a pretty solid performance by the Vikings rookie class.
“We stepped up as a group,” Waynes said. “All of us practice hard and compete every day to show that we belong. We still have a way to go to get where we all want to be, but games like this are big for us to show that we can contribute and help the Vikings win.”
Diggs was instrumental in helping the offense get into scoring position. On a day when Adrian Peterson was effectively shut down, Diggs stepped up his game, catching seven passes for a season-high 129 yards.
After making his NFL debut in the Vikings’ last game at Denver two weeks ago, he credited the time he got to work over the last couple of weeks with Teddy Bridgewater as the source of their growing rapport.
“Being out there helps a lot,” Diggs said. “Practicing together, getting a lot of extra reps, things like that. All the little things matter when it comes to a quarterback-receiver relationship.”
The respect that Diggs is earning comes from his work on the practice field, where those asked to guard him have been finding the road difficult to charter. Veteran Captain Munnerlyn said he’s been impressed that he has made such strides for a player so young.
“He’s a special receiver,” Munnerlyn said. “The things that he does in the game he does in practice. He practices like he plays. He works hard in practice. He’s one of the most polished receivers I’ve seen that ever came out of college. I’m glad he dropped into our hands. I feel like we got a steal in the draft. He works hard – great routes and great hands and a great attitude.”
While Diggs and Clemmings were doing their part for the offense, Kendricks, Hunter and Waynes were helping lift up the defense.
Hunter wasn’t expecting to be a starter Sunday, but when Everson Griffen fell ill, Hunter got the call just hours before game time. He had been hoping for this day, but had no expectations until about 9 a.m.
“I didn’t find out until this morning – it was pregame – but I’d been practicing all week to ready for the game,” Hunter said. “(Zimmer) preaches to us about always being ready to be the next man up. I was ready.”
Hunter responded to the challenge with four tackles (the most by any defensive lineman), a half-sack and a forced fumble. The fumble came with less than five minutes remaining in the game and was critical since the Chiefs were down by six points in Vikings territory.
Hunter credited simple fundamentals for the big play.
“I saw it coming and I saw the ball, so I just reached out for the ball,” Hunter said. “He tried to tighten it up at the same time and the ball came out.”
Kendricks was making his second start with the Vikings trading away former starter Gerald Hodges and handed the full-time job to Kendricks. He responded with 10 tackles and a sack.
Kendricks knows that he is still a work in progress, but he is seeing the field better and feeling more comfortable all the time with his role in the defense.
“I feel like I’m seeing a lot more things,” Kendricks said. “The game is starting to slow down for me. I’m starting to read things before it’s happening. I’m starting to key on what the offense is doing and I’m playing a lot more patient.”
Sunday’s win over Kansas City was a team victory in every respect. All three phases of the game provided a needed spark, but it was the rookie class of 2015 that made arguably the biggest impact, which had them all feeling pretty good about themselves and what they can add to the 2015 Vikings.
“A lot of young guys were making plays,” Diggs said. “You can’t ask for nothing more.”