During the preseason, the Minnesota Vikings spent much of the time showcasing their rookie class and most analysts came away impressed with what they saw. There were high expectations surrounding top draft picks Laquon Treadwell and Mackensie Alexander, both viewed as budding stars of the future that will be critical component pieces in the years to come.
Yet, when the regular season began it was like the rookie class of 2016 has been in the Witness Protection Program. They’re still around, but almost never seen.
Treadwell has yet to have a reception (or be targeted). Alexander has made his biggest impact on special teams. Willie Beavers was cut and is only on the 53-man roster due to a rash of injuries on the offensive line. Kentrell Brothers has been inactive for all six games. Moritz Böhringer and Stephen Weatherly are on the practice squad. David Morgan has seen time, but has yet to catch a pass.
When it came time for a member of the 2016 rookie class to step into the line of fire, it was the last pick of the draft class – safety Jayron Kearse, the seventh-round pick selected with the 244th overall slot in the draft.
Following an interception on the sixth defensive snap of the game last Sunday at Philadelphia, Andrew Sendejo injured his ankle trying to return the pick for a touchdown.
The Vikings had to turn to the next man up and it was Kearse. He was on the field for 52 plays, the remainder of the game, and recorded six tackles.
It was a long time coming for a Vikings rookie to make an impact on a game and Kearse was ecstatic that was him. He had spent the first five games of the season waiting for his opportunities and he credited his defensive teammates for helping him get up to speed before the call to service was needed.
“They’ve been a great bunch of guys to learn from,” Kearse said. “They know that, if they get hurt at some point like we had Sunday, that the younger guys are going to have to step in and play at a high level. It’s been great to learn from them and they’re willing to help us out and show us where we can do things better.”
There have been varying levels of frustration among the Vikings rookies that none of them have had the chance to clearly define a role for themselves as a lineup regular. They’ve seen dozens of other rookies making an impact around the league, while their bullets have remained in the chamber and unfired.
Kearse doesn’t see it as an indictment of the Class of 2016. Rather, he views it as a chance to learn and get experience on the practice field while learning either the offensive or defensive scheme. Patience is a virtue, but that is hard for young players who have been stars their entire football careers. He understands that a team laden with young veterans and returning the majority of the players that have been with the team longer, rookies are often seen, but not heard from until they’re needed.
“This is the NFL and you’re expected to be ready when your number gets called,” Kearse said. “You’re not going to know everything, but you are expected to be ready and to play at a high level when you get the opportunity. You have to take it as it comes and be ready – whether you end up playing in that game or not.”
The hardest part for many of the rookies has been to accept their minimized role, whether it be as a special teams players, a backup waiting and watching, or a practice-squad player who has a sense of disconnect from his teammates.
Kearse hasn’t let the inactivity on game days get the best of him. He has focused on staying ready for a call that may not come and realizes that his job has been to be prepared for just the kind of circumstance that happened to Sendejo last Sunday.
“Mentally, it’s a little different because in the preseason I wasn’t playing with the starters,” Kearse said. “You know that the expectations are very high and you have to make the most of the opportunities that come your way, because, if you don’t play at a high level, that chance may not come the next time you need someone to step in.”
Sendejo hasn’t practiced the last two days and remains a big question mark for Monday’s game, which could mean Kearse will be asked to make his first career start.
After watching film, he knows he has some improving to do, but all things considered, he is preparing to make an impact and felt he held up his end of the bargain when he got the call against Philadelphia.
“I think I played alright,” Kearse said. “Granted, if Sendejo isn’t back this week, I have to prepare to be out there a lot and helping this defense stay strong. All I can do is go out and practice hard. After that, it will be the coaches’ decision whether or not they put me out there this week next to Harrison. My goal is to go out in practice and Monday night play better than I did last week.”
He has been waiting almost two months to get his opportunity to get meaningful playing time and, if Sendejo can’t go, it would be a realization of a football goal he has had since childhood – starting in the NFL and playing on Monday Night Football.
If it happens, he will be able to mark off two things from his professional bucket list.
“Growing up, Monday Night Football was a big deal,” Kearse said. “After school, you would go home and couldn’t wait for the game to come on. It’s the only game being played at that time and you know the world is watching. I’ve dreamed about playing in one of those games since I was little. It doesn’t get any better than that. If the coaches decide that I’m going to be starting and out there the whole game, it will be a thrill for me because I’ve been dreaming of that moment for a long time.”