Mike Zimmer took over as Minnesota Vikings head coach before the start of the 2014 season, meaning he has had two drafts to select the players he wants and build his team. In both of his first two regular seasons, the rookies he drafted have been able to secure big roles early on and find success.
In 2014, both linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater were drafted in the first round and it was made apparent early on that these two were going to be the cornerstones of the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for Zimmer’s team.
Then there were players such as running back Jerick McKinnon and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen who played key roles throughout their rookie seasons and even worked themselves into the starting lineups because the original starters were forced to miss time.
Zimmer’s second season as the head coach is seeing a lot of the same success from their 2015 draft class, and some of it has even come as a surprise for the head coach.
“I guess (Eric) Kendricks coming in and being able to play three downs, or (Danielle) Hunter,” Zimmer said when asked what has been a pleasant surprise for him this season. “ … When the guys were hurt, (Anthony) Harris and those guys coming in and keeping things together a little bit.”
Kendricks was a second-round pick who started out as solely playing in the nickel formation in passing situations but became the team’s starting middle linebacker when they traded Gerald Hodges to San Francisco. He excelled in the role and ended the regular season with 92 tackles, which led the team.
Hunter began the season being inactive for two of the first three games but has found a lot of success late in the season. He has found his role continuing to increase as the season goes on and is often used as both a left and right defensive end. The rookie has recorded six sacks this season, with 3½ coming in the final four games of the regular season.
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick and is another rookie who has emerged into a key role with the Vikings. He started the season as being a healthy scratch in the team’s first two games of the season, but since then he has emerged as Bridgewater’s No. 1 receiver and finished the regular season leading the team in receptions (52) and receiving yards (720). He was also able to add four touchdowns, which is second on the team to tight end Kyle Rudolph’s five touchdowns.
The Vikings have also had players such as first-round pick Trae Waynes, fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings, fifth-round pick MyCole Pruitt, seventh-round pick Edmond Robinson and undrafted rookie Harris step into big roles when the regular starters were forced to miss time with injuries.
The Vikings never seems to shy away from putting rookies into starting roles early and Zimmer says it is because they focus on drafting intelligent players.
“Most of them are smart,” he said. “They’re good athletes, most of them that we pick, but they’re smart. And the smarter guys usually can play quicker.”
The size of a player and their athletic skills are easy to see when watching tape of them before the draft, but their attitude, intelligence and mindset can often be more difficult to determine. That is why Zimmer and the rest of the coaching staff does their due diligence every offseason when it comes to learning everything they can about the players they are looking to draft.
They want players who can come in, pickup things quickly and contribute right away at a high level. It can be a lot to ask of a player fresh out of college, but so far the team’s system appears to be working.
“It’s everything,” Zimmer said when asked what it is they look at to determine a player’s intelligence. “Grades, we test them, we grade them, we talk to them, talk to the coaches. Our scouts do a really good job with all that, the background work. Then we get them on board, we watch film with them and all that.”
The Vikings are hosting a home playoff game this Sunday for the first time since 2009. It has been a quick turnaround for a team that just went 5-10-1 in 2013 and they appear to be doing it through the draft by bringing in the types of players that Zimmer wants.
The Vikings have 26 players on their 53-man roster who are 25 years or younger and almost all of them play in games every Sunday. This Sunday will be a big test for them, but win or lose this young team will be gaining valuable experience that should continue to pay dividends down the road.