The Minnesota Vikings have gotten a lot of production from their 2015 rookie class through six games and that is a trend that seems as though it will only increase. While most of them see action on special teams there are a few rookies on the team have been thrust into starting roles, and for the most part, are playing well.
Second-round pick Eric Kendricks has been named the team’s starting middle linebacker and was just named the defensive rookie of the month for October. Fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings is now the team’s starting right tackle after Phil Loadholt went down with injury. And fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs has become quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s No. 1 target the past few weeks and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Even third-round pick Danielle Hunter and fifth-round pick MyCole Pruitt are able to get on the field a fair amount during the game as rotational players. While neither has a huge role on the team yet, they both appear to be doing the little things right and slowly earning the coaching staff’s trust.
One player, though, that has not had a large role with the team, apart from special teams, is the Vikings first-round pick Trae Waynes. He was thought of as being the top cornerback in this year’s draft but he has really only played a large defensive role during the team’s Week 3 game when Xavier Rhodes left the game with a concussion.
Other than that, Waynes has only seen the field for a combined dozen plays in the ensuing three week. Last week against the Detroit Lions he didn’t play at all, but head coach Mike Zimmer said they were originally planning to get Waynes in the game.
“We planned on playing him some more in that game and it started out bad,” the coach said. “We want to play him; it’s how much we play him depends on the game.
“He keeps learning, so it’s just continually processing the things that are going on.”
The Vikings opponents each week will often determine how much playing time Waynes will get. The coaching staff feels that, even though he has been progressing nicely in practice, that he is just better fit to go up against a certain type of receiver at this point in time.
“He’s still grinding, we’re still working with him, he’s improving and we’ve just got to keep working with him,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “From week to week, we never know which matchup or what’s the best skillsets to get out there and stop what an offense is trying to do to us, so we’re just asking him to keep working the fundamentals of the techniques that we’re doing and he’s been doing a good job of that.”
Another big part of Waynes’ limited playing time is the fact that the Vikings have no need to rush him to the field since the team has two capable starters in Rhodes and Terence Newman. The rookie understands that the two corners in front of him are skilled players, so he doesn’t take any offense when they get more playing time than he does. He’s happy he gets to learn from them.
“Everything,” Waynes said when asked what sort of things Newman, a 13-year veteran, teaches him. “He’s coaching me sometimes more than the coaches and that’s just an extra benefit I have.”
Experts will often say that cornerback is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, position for players to learn when they jump from college to the professional level. In college, Waynes was often asked to just focus on a single receiver and make sure that player did not catch the ball. Now he is asked to do a whole lot more.
“Just because it’s a whole new level and you’re going against guys that are at the top of their game,” Waynes said about what makes the position difficult. “They have experience and cornerback is just a hard position in general.
“I mean, you had good receivers in college but now everybody’s good. So that’s what we did in college and it worked, but I’m not in college anymore.”
Even though the team is getting a lot of playing time from multiple rookies, neither Waynes nor the coaching staff feels any pressure for the rookie to get more playing time. Instead, they are focused on playing the players they feel give them the best chance to win.
“Right now, our biggest thing is we want to give ourselves the best opportunity to win and from week to week, it’s going to be different and guys are going to come to practice, they’re going to compete,” Edwards said. “We’re going to use their different skillsets and the different packages and our biggest thing is to get the best people out there to help us win.”