On draft weekend, when the final few rounds come around, there isn’t the national spotlight shining on those picks. Long after Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff was taken with the first pick, there were hundreds of players that still needed to be selected.
Two of those late-round picks for the Minnesota Vikings – fifth-round linebacker Kentrell Brothers and seventh-round safety Jayron Kearse – both outshined Goff, dominating the defensive game as the Vikings won their final preseason game 27-25 over the Rams at U.S. Bank Stadium Thursday night.
Both made huge impacts for the Vikings defense. Brothers was chasing plays from sideline to sideline, finishing with eight tackles, including a game-high six solo tackles, with a pass defensed and a tackle for loss. Kearse also had eight tackles (five solo) and had a critical recovery of a fumbled punt in the first half.
For both of them, they knew that while many outsiders view the final preseason game as waste of time, it’s their opportunity to make a strong impact in the hours leading up the final cut-downs for the NFL’s 32 teams.
“I think that’s what the fourth game is really for – getting the young guys out there and showing what we can do,” Kearse said. “The coaches can evaluate us better. In the games where you’re only playing a half, you don’t get to show them that you have what it takes to play all four quarters. We were able to do that and show that we can play at a high level and be consistent for four quarters.”
Brothers was a tackling machine in the SEC at Missouri but fell into the fifth round because he was viewed as being undersized by NFL standards. But, as he did so consistently in college, he made plays at every opportunity when the ball came his way.
He was quick to credit his fellow linebackers who have taken him under their wing and made him feel comfortable in Mike Zimmer’s complicated defense that relies on assignment soundness and accountability.
“The guys who have been around Coach Zimmer’s defense have made it easier for all of us rookies on the defense,” Brothers said. “A.B. (Anthony Barr) and E.K. (Eric Kendricks) have been really helpful and I can’t say enough about the vets like Chad (Greenway) and Audie (Cole) have been willing to help me with, no hesitation, and it has helped me a lot as I try to fit my way in here. We’ve got a lot of communication between us and we work as a group and get the job done.”
The rookie defenders of the 2016 draft class, including Kearse, Brothers and second-round pick Mackensie Alexander, who had seven tackles against the Rams, have been like family since they arrived in Minnesota in May and have grown together as a group.
The camaraderie they have developed over the last four months has brought them close as teammates because, as the new kids on the block, they’ve all felt like they have something to prove.
“From the rookie minicamp on, we’ve had a bond between us,” Kearse said. “We’ve done a lot of things together because we’re all in the same place as rookies looking to make the team. It’s brought us all closer together and I think that has showed on the field.”
Kearse made a big impact both on the defense and special teams. After the Vikings got off to a lethargic start – trailing 7-0 with four minutes remaining in the half – Kearse was on the spot when a Jeff Locke punt hit a blocker for the Rams in the leg and Kearse pounced on the ball, setting up the Vikings’ first points.
While he wasn’t expecting one of his bigger contributions to be on special teams, he was prepared to make plays wherever and whenever he was asked.
“I felt like I had to come out here and make an impact some way, somehow, whether that was on defense or special teams,” Kearse said. “I just gave everything I had and things turned out pretty good.”
While both came into the organization as relative long shots given the depth at the linebacker and safety position coming in, both are hopeful of making the final roster. With the release earlier this week of Antone Exum, Kearse’s spot on the roster seems safe.
For Brothers? That may be another story because it may well come down to either him or Audie Cole for one roster spot when the cuts are made Saturday. Brothers remains hopeful, but said that there’s always a concern for young players trying to crack their way onto a roster.
“Honestly, I don’t think anybody’s spot is safe unless you’ve been here for a while,” Brothers said. “You’ve done everything you can do to solidify your spot, but, as rookies, nothing is promised for us. I’ve come out every day looking to do that and that’s what I did tonight.”
Saturday will be a long day for Brothers, who said he will try to stick to his normal Saturday routine, even though it will be anything but typical.
“It’s going to be a waiting game,” Brothers said. “I’ve done what I can. It’s out of my hands now and all I can do is hope for the best.”
For two players who were taken two days after Goff had a grip, grin and prolonged bro-hug with Commissioner Roger Goodell, both made their case Thursday night that, when the cuts come down tomorrow, they’ll still be members of the Minnesota Vikings.