The Minnesota Vikings suffered a heartbreaking loss Thursday night to the Arizona Cardinals, but, in its own way, it showed once again that the Vikings are building a strong nucleus of young talent … very young talent whose best football is very likely ahead of them.
To date, it hasn’t manifested itself against veteran-laden teams like the Broncos, Packers, Seahawks and Cardinals, but the Vikings are like many other developing powerhouse teams of years past – amassing the army that will make them potentially dominant for years.
Believe it or not, the Vikings have 24 players on their roster – almost half the team – making significant contributions to the team as starters, key part-time players and specialists that technically haven’t reached the end of their rookie contracts.
The 2012 draft brought the Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil, who, while not a dominant left tackle, has been a strong bookend when healthy. It also brought the team starting strong safety Harrison Smith, whom the Vikings hope will be part of their organization for the rest of the decade at a minimum (and will likely prove that by signing him long-term contract, perhaps before the end of the season). That draft also yielded CB Josh Robinson, WR Jarius Wright, TE Rhett Ellison, safety Robert Blanton, kicker Blair Walsh and linebacker Audie Cole. In all, eight players from the 2012 draft class are still with the team.
In 2013, the Vikings drafted three players in the first round – DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes and WR Cordarrelle Patterson. Floyd and Rhodes have entrenched themselves as starters and, while Patterson has been a disappointment, he still brings explosion to the return game and alters the way teams approach the Vikings on kickoffs, often squibbing the ball and allowing their defense to start on the 30- or 35-yard line rather than risk a 100-plus yard return. The trade to get back into first round eliminated Day 2 of the draft and the only other player remaining is punter Jeff Locke.
In 2014, the Vikings brought Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater into the organization and it can be argued that both will be the face of the franchise on their respective sides of the ball. Throw in RB Jerick McKinnon, S Antone Exum, DT Shamar Stephen and DE Scott Crichton, and the Vikings have six players that they expect to be significant contributors for the next few years at a minimum.
On Thursday, we saw the Vikings take the field with four starters from the 2015 draft class – Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, T.J. Clemmings and Stefon Diggs – along with Anthony Harris from the post-draft ranks. They are also getting contributions from DE Danielle Hunter and TE MyCole Pruitt.
In the last four years, the Vikings have spread their draft picks from just about every position. It includes one quarterback, one running back, three wide receivers, two tight ends, two offensive linemen, four defensive linemen, three linebackers, three cornerbacks, three safeties and two specialists (their kicker and punter).
When you look at franchises that have enjoyed sustained success over the years, it has been because of consistent drafting and bringing in players that learn the system and become the foundation of the team. Organizations like Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have built themselves from within. Sure, they occasionally get involved with a splashy free agent signing here or there, but, when you look at their roster, it is loaded with draft picks that were selected and developed.
For years, the Vikings were hit-and-miss on player evaluation. They tried for a decade to get a strong defensive line and eventually had to use free agency and a trade to get the job done successfully. But, for the most part, the Vikings have been successful in the last four drafts and, in the process, have built the foundation to augment with selective pieces to potentially make the team dominant sooner than later.
In Bridgewater, they have a potential franchise QB to build around. In Diggs and Wright (who was re-signed early this year), they have a pair of building block receivers. In Kalil and Clemmings, they have their current starting offensive tackles and potentially the long-term answers.
Defensively, Floyd, Barr, Kendricks, Rhodes, Waynes and Smith all have the talent and skill sets to be Pro Bowlers at some point in their careers. That accounts from more than half of the defensive starters and doesn’t take into account veteran leaders like Everson Griffen, Captain Munnerlyn and grizzled vets like Brian Robison, Terence Newman and Chad Greenway.
As things currently stand, the Vikings are being a team viewed as a team on the rise, but not yet ready for prime time. As they continue to grow a nucleus of young talent as its core, this is a Vikings team currently fighting for a playoff spot and potentially making it the first of many trips to the postseason. They’ve got a lot of talent in this band of brothers and, as some of the currently dominant teams are forced to overhaul their teams as their roster gets old, the Vikings see the best days in front of them, not behind them.