When Mike Zimmer was hired as the new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings following the 2013 season, he promised to change the culture and part of that would entail bringing in “Zimmer guys.”
As he and General Manager Rick Spielman have become more on the same page as to the style and skill set of athletes that thrive in Zimmer’s defense and, alternately, the offenses of Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur, the bar is being raised.
In the first year of the Zimmer Administration, it was a solid first 100 days. He signed some reasonably priced free agents, headed up by Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn. The draft produced two starters – Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater – and four significant roles players and part-time starters – Jerick McKinnon, Antone Exum, Shamar Stephen and Jabari Price.
At one point or another, all were asked to step in and either take over the battle or contribute. To a large degree, even in limited sample sizes, they succeeded.
It wasn’t as if the draft was Cliff Clavin’s Jeopardy dream board. There were a couple of significant whiffs. The scouts who vouched for Scott Crichton and David Yankey were advised not to make unnecessary eye contact with Zim for an extended period of time. But, overall, it was a success.
In 2015, a year into the team he inherited, Zimmer was ready to step up and let the draft do his talking for him. Both Zimmer and Spielman claimed to be in three-legged-race lockstep with one another. They get each other. It’s all good.
The draft once again proved successful, although it should be noted that when you set a goal of 10 picks, you’re expected to hit on a few.
The first round brought Trae Waynes, who is going to need to overtake Terence Newman sometime soon. The second round brought Eric Kendricks. All he does is make tackles. The third round brought Danielle Hunter. One can only imagine that at least one war room selecting immediately behind the Vikings in the third-round pecking order were a little salty and stunned when they heard Minnesota had pulled the trigger on a high-ceiling player with all the measurables that metricians drool about. The fourth round brought T.J. Clemmings, a second-round prospect who fell to the Vikings. The fifth round brought Stefon Diggs.
By any measure, the Vikings had the ghost of Al Davis blowing on their dice in Vegas. Few drafts hit like that. When your first-round pick is your biggest question mark, you call that draft a success with the potential of getting better. Let it ride! Daddy needs new shoes! Two years in, Zim and Spielman were on a roll.
The problem with two years of adding “your guys” to the roster is that now the existing roster is becoming dominated by guys you brought in, not guys you inherited. Those who had pre-Zim resumes were put on notice. The established stars – the “made guys” to use Mafia parlance – were untouchable. A new coach doesn’t lop the heads of fan favorites until the proper time, when the reasons explain themselves more than words require.
The 2016 draft was interesting in many respects. The Vikings already had a team in place that could win a division – according to many periodicals of note, they had allegedly knocked Green Bay off their Chair of Thrones atop the NFC North in 2015.
The 2016 draft was supposed to put the stamp on that growth and fill in the missing pieces to the Zimmer/Spielman puzzle. However, one year in, that hasn’t happened.
Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell didn’t pan out as hoped as a rookie. Mackensie Alexander didn’t supplant Munnerlyn and was used sparingly. Kentrell Brothers and Jayron Kearse saw time on special teams, but didn’t crack Zim’s defense for more than a cup of coffee. Willie Beavers and Moritz Böhringer were better off not playing.
As the Vikings took a step backward in 2016, some of that blame could be directed at the fact that nobody from the rookie class of 2016 stepped up and made a case for themselves to be difference-makers.
The new rookie draft class is coming in with some hype behind it because you can make a case that there are at least two or three potential starters in the group and two or three more capable of being role players who can make a difference. If that’s true, the Vikings are in line to rebound nicely from a disappointing finish in 2016, but for that to happen, not only does the team need its current crop of rookies to come through as hoped, but the minimal contribution from the 2016 draft class needs to makes its own statement as well because, to date, that class has been missing in action.