The Minnesota Vikings 2015 rookie draft class is one that has helped set a strong foundation for the organization. All season long the team depended on these young players to step up and play at a high level and all season long they delivered.
The amazing part of it all is that they weren’t just getting contributions from players selected in the early rounds, as one would expect, but players throughout the draft. The team was even getting contributions from undrafted rookie safety Anthony Harris and liked undrafted rookie quarterback Taylor Heinicke enough to sign him to the 53-man roster as a third quarterback, which is not something you see in the NFL very much anymore.
Head coach Mike Zimmer gave a lot of credit to the Vikings’ scouting department in helping find the right guys. A big part of it is that they do not only focus on bringing in athletically talented players, but smart players who have an ability to learn quickly.
Zimmer has now been part of selecting two draft classes. They have both produced multiple key components for offense and defense, and have set in place a solid foundation for the team to build upon as they try to improve off their 2015 season.
Here are the offensive contributors from the class, with the emphasis on offense in the middle and later rounds of the draft:
Round 4, No. 110 overall: OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh
When the predraft process first began, many people thought of Clemmings as a first-round talent, but then an old foot injury appeared during medical tests at the NFL Combine. This turned a lot of teams away because they didn’t want to pay him the money that came with being a top-tier draft pick just to have him dealing with a lingering foot injury throughout his entire career.
So when the Vikings were able to select him in the fourth round, many experts considered it to be a great pick and a steal. The rookie played the entire season as the Vikings’ starting right tackle and never once appeared to have any troubles with his foot, so it seems as though all that worrying was for not.
When Clemmings first arrived at OTAs and minicamps, the Vikings tried him out at right guard. They already had a starting right tackle in Phil Loadholt but were missing a right guard once they moved Brandon Fusco over to the left side. It did not work out too well, as the team eventually decided to go with Mike Harris as their starting right guard.
The rookie offensive lineman would still get his shot to start as a rookie, however, when Loadholt suffered a torn Achilles during the preseason. That meant the starting right tackle spot then belonged to Clemmings.
The Vikings were probably hoping that Clemmings would take the opportunity and run with it and make him the clear starter going into the 2016 season over Loadholt, who is going to be 30 at the end of January and is coming off two season-ending injuries.
That was not the case, however, as Clemmings was uneven through most of his rookie campaign. He is likely going to have to compete with Loadholt or others this offseason for the starting job and is by no means guaranteed to start in 2016.
The bright side is that 2015 was only Clemmings’ third year playing offensive tackle, as he actually played on the defensive side of the ball his first two years in college, meaning people cannot be too surprised by the struggles he encountered at the professional level. He needs to learn from the 2015 season, and use those experiences to make his game even better moving forward.
Round 5, No. 143 overall: TE MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois
When Pruitt was first drafted, he drew multiple comparisons to Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay. He is an athletic tight end that had the ability to lineup anywhere on the field, but with Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison listed on the depth chart in front of him, there were only so many opportunities for Pruitt to see the field.
The rookie tight end played in all 16 games this past season but was primarily used as a blocker in three-tight end sets. Run blocking was something that Zimmer said Pruitt needed to work on earlier on, but as the season progressed there was a clear improvement in that area.
Pruitt set receiving records during his time at Southern Illinois but didn’t get many opportunities to catch the ball during his rookie season. He finished the regular season with 10 receptions for 89 yards, and he didn’t record his first reception until the sixth game of the season.
This offseason has a lot of implications for what Pruitt’s role will hold in the coming years with both Ellison and fullback Zach Line up for free agency. If the Vikings choose to bring those two players back next season, Pruitt will likely still have a smaller role in the offense, but if the Vikings part ways with either or both of these players, then Pruitt’s role will increase.
Round 5, No. 146 overall: WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland
Diggs was considered to be a very talented player coming out of the draft, but fell to the fifth round because of multiple injuries suffered throughout his college career. He missed six games in 2013 because of a broke fibula in his right leg and then would miss three games the next season because of a lacerated kidney.
The fifth-round draft pick lit it up in training camp and the preseason, as he showcased his talents as both a receiver and a punt returner every day. He made the Vikings’ 53-man roster, but there just did not seem to be any room for him on the field toward the beginning of the season with Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson all in front of him on the depth chart.
Diggs was listed as inactive for the team’s first three games of the season. It was not until Johnson was forced to sit out against the Denver Broncos in Week 4 that Diggs was able to see the field and he never looked back.
The Broncos had the No. 1 defense in the NFL when the Vikings traveled to the Mile High City, but the rookie receiver was still able to record six receptions for 87 yards. He followed that performance with seven receptions for 129 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs, six receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions and six receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown against the Chicago Bears.
By that point in time it was clear that the Vikings needed to keep Diggs in the everyday lineup and Johnson’s role began to diminish until he was eventually listed as a healthy scratch in games towards the end of the season.
Diggs ended the season leading the team in receptions (52) and yards (720). He was also second on the team for receiving touchdowns with four; Rudolph led the team with five.
The rookie receiver’s production tailed off toward the end of the season, but he showed enough throughout the season to head into next season as the team’s No. 1 receiving option. He had a good connection with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and it should only get better as Diggs said he plans to go work out with Bridgewater in Florida sometime this offseason.
Round 6, No. 185 overall: OL Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma
Thompson was the only player of the Vikings’ 2015 draft class to not make the team’s 53-man roster or practice squad at the end of the preseason. The team gave him a chance to compete for the starting right guard position that was available but was eventually beat out by Harris.
Other rookies and veteran linemen ended up beating him out for the backup roles along the offensive line later in training camp and the preseason. He originally looked like a player who could have been a steal in the draft, but just ended up being the only draft pick the Vikings parted ways with.
Round 7, No. 228 overall: OL Austin Shepherd, Alabama
Shepherd was a player in whom the Vikings saw a lot of potential. He has the ability to play both as an offensive tackle and swing inside to play as a guard. The rookie saw the field on multiple occasions in short-yardage situations as the team’s jumbo tight end.
He saw a majority of his playing time come during the Vikings’ playoff game when he would fill in for the injured Ellison in three-tight end formations.
Shepherd likely will be a bubble guy heading into training camp and the preseason next year, but his ability to play multiple positions along the offensive line should help him out as he competes for a roster spot.