If the Minnesota Vikings are going to continue to build their roster mainly through the draft, the last two years have provided a blueprint on how to achieve that. Grab talented athletes that fit the schemes and mold them through good coaching.
Last year’s draft didn’t produce a full-time starter in the first round, but the defensive rookies found big roles, from the first round through the final round, that added playmakers and depth. The team was even getting contributions from undrafted rookie safety Anthony Harris.
Here are the defensive contributors from the 2015 draft class:
Round 1, No. 11 overall: CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State
There was a lot of speculation on what the Vikings were going to do with their first pick of the 2015 draft. Their biggest needs were offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback, middle linebacker and safety. There was even speculation going around that general manager Rick Spielman was going to try and trade back in first round in order to gather up more picks later on.
In the end, though, the Vikings ended up selecting Waynes. He was the fastest cornerback in the draft and played with physicality in college that seemed to pair well with the coaching style of Zimmer. The biggest knock against Waynes coming out of college was his hips. He wasn’t very fluid with his hip movements going in and out of breaks and some experts worried that it would lead to him getting beat by receivers who are disciplined route runners.
There was also speculation that Waynes was not a willing tackler, but that never bothered Zimmer much as he shrugged it off and said that he can teach people to tackle.
There were not many disappointments in the Vikings’ 2015 draft class, but it could be argued that Waynes was. First-round picks are often expected to start from Day 1 and make an immediate impact, but that is not what happened in Minnesota.
The Vikings ended up going with Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman as their starting cornerbacks with Captain Munnerlyn filling the role of nickel corner. That allowed Waynes to sit back and learn, without the pressure of playing at a high level immediately.
He originally struggled in the preseason, which likely led to Zimmer’s decision to go with the trusted veteran Newman over the rookie. But as the season rolled on Waynes was asked to fill in for injured players from time to time and he certainly held his own.
Things definitely appear to be pointing in the right direction for Waynes, who finished the regular season with 30 tackles and pass deflections, and also three tackles, two pass deflections and an interception in the playoffs.
Round 2, No. 45 overall: LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA
The Vikings were pretty surprised when Kendricks fell to them in the draft, as they expected that he would have been taken well before they selected him in the second round. After they drafted him, Spielman referred to the rookie as “the most instinctive linebacker in this draft.”
Kendricks filled a need for the Vikings at middle linebacker, a position they have never really felt comfortable with since before E.J. Henderson broke his femur back in 2009. The Vikings front office and coaching staff loved the way that Kendricks played the run, had the ability to drop back into coverage and that he was a very intelligent player. The fact that he was a good friend and former teammate/roommate with 2014 first-round draft pick linebacker Anthony Barr didn’t hurt either.
Still, the starting middle linebacker spot did not belong to Kendricks at the start of the season. It belonged to Gerald Hodges. The rookie’s role at the start of the season was limited to that of a nickel linebacker, where he would come in during passing situations, which in today’s NFL is quite often.
The Vikings would eventually hand the starting role over to Kendrick’s, though, after they traded Hodges following their fourth game of the regular season. Kendricks would then thrive in the role of starting middle linebacker and ended the regular season with four sacks, one pass deflection and team-high 92 tackles. He also added eight tackles and two pass deflections in their one playoff game.
When the Vikings first drafted Kendricks, Zimmer said their plan could be to eventually have him move over and play as the team’s weakside linebacker, in place of an aging Chad Greenway. It is unclear if that is still the plan for the future, but after the rookie season he had Kendricks has definitely thrown his hat in the ring to be in the conversation as the team’s long-term starting middle linebacker.
Round 3, No. 88 overall: DE Danielle Hunter, LSU
The Vikings’ third-round pick may have been their most interesting one of the entire draft. Hunter’s skill set makes him more of a right defensive end and with Everson Griffen coming off of a 2014 season where he signed a long-term contract and recorded 12 sacks, the Vikings were not really in need of a starting right end.
But the rookie’s unique combination of size and athletic ability were too much for the Vikings pass up. Hunter measured 6-foot-5, 252 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine and was still able run a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, which was the fastest of his position group. It is not often that you see a player that size be able to move that quickly, and it is a big reason why the Vikings felt they had to make the selection.
The problem was that the rookie was viewed as a “project.” In the two seasons that he started at LSU he recorded 130 tackles, 21 tackles for losses, 4½ sacks, eight pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Those numbers are really good, for the most part, except for the sacks. One would imagine that a player with his size and speed would be able to record more than 4½ sacks in two years when playing as a defensive end, but for whatever reason he was not able to finish at the quarterback.
That is something the Vikings knew they would have to work at with him, and after playing in the first game of the season Hunter was listed as a healthy scratch in Weeks 2 and 3. But after those games he was in every game and you could see improvements from the young defensive end as the season rolled progressed.
He finished the season second on the team with six sacks, 3½ of which came during a three-game stretch at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings continue to balance Griffen, Hunter and Brian Robison throughout the 2016 season, but there is no question that having them on the field together in passing situations creates a lot of problems for opposing offenses, especially as Hunter continues to develop as a pass rusher.
Round 6, No. 193 overall: DL B.J. Dubose, Louisville
Dubose was a player who injured himself during the NFL Combine and could not compete as much as he would have liked, and that played into his drop come draft day. The Vikings liked how versatile he was along the defensive line as he has the ability to play as either an end or on the inside.
There was not enough room for him on the Vikings’ 53-man roster at the end of the preseason and the team ended up cutting him, but they would later sign him onto their practice squad and promote him to the active roster for their playoff game.
Dubose was listed as active for the team’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks but did not see any action during the game. It’s uncertain what the team will decide to do with Dubose next season, but he will have to compete at a high level during offseason activities if he hopes to make the roster.
Round 7, No. 232 overall: LB Edmond Robinson, Newberry College
Robinson could arguably be the surprise of the Vikings’ 2015 draft class. He played a hybrid linebacker role at a Division II college where he was primarily responsible for dropping back into coverage. He wasn’t often forced to push the passer or shed blockers in run defense, so he was forced to learn almost an entirely new skill set once he was drafted.
Once the preseason was over, there was a lot of speculation about what would happen to Robinson. Would the Vikings keep him on their 53-man roster or cut him and try to sign him to their practice squad? The problem with trying to sign him to the practice squad is that another team could pick him up off waivers and sign him to their active roster, which was a strong possibility since he showed a lot of athleticism and promise in the preseason.
The team ended up signing him to their active roster and while he was only active in nine of their 16 regular-season games, he played an important role for the team late in the season.
Starting strongside linebacker Anthony Barr missed Weeks 14 and 15 with a groin injury. He was a key part of their defense and missing him right when the team was making a run at a division title and playoff spot was a big deal for the defense. It was up to Robinson to fill in for him against the Arizona Cardinals, who had the No. 1 offense in the NFL, and the Chicago Bears. Barr left big shoes to fill and while Robinson did not blow people away with his performance he was able to hold his own and did not make many glaring mistakes.
He could be an important piece for the Vikings moving forward, especially with weakside linebacker Chad Greenway 10 seasons into his career and at the end of his contract. Robinson worked specifically as a strongside linebacker this past season, but the transition to the weak side shouldn’t be too difficult if the coaching staff wishes to move him. But even if he stays on the strong side he should continue to get plenty of work as Barr has yet to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season.