In this, the NFL of the new millennium, college draft picks no longer are afforded a luxury they once enjoyed.
Not long ago, draft picks knew where they'd spend Sunday afternoons during their rookie season — on the sidelines. Game time meant watch-and-learn time for the rookies. The veterans were on the field playing, the first-year players on the bench observing and learning.
The current salary cap structure won't allow rookies to ease their way into the NFL. Few teams can afford to pay more than a handful of high-priced veterans along with their highly touted prospects and still remain under the salary cap. Because of that, teams expect their top prospects to perform practically upon arrival, just a couple of months removed from their college campuses.
"The luxury they used to have with those picks when I played was they weren't expected to play in the first year. It wasn't dictated by cap management," said Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell, who played linebacker for 14 years in Minnesota. "You could have time to develop players. Today, they're around more and there's more minicamps and developmental camps. These players are exposed to an awful lot from the first camp after the draft to the beginning of training camp."
Because of that, the Vikings plan on using at least five 2002 draft picks in their regular-season opener Sunday against the Chicago Bears in Champaign, Ill. The Vikings would be using six, if it weren't for first-round pick Bryant McKinnie's contract holdout.
BRYANT McKINNIE, OT
Just minutes after the draft in April, McKinnie, the seventh pick overall, was anointed by head coach Mike Tice as the automatic starter at left tackle.
"Instant starter," Tice said on draft day. "Now we have another cornerstone. He has a bright future. … He's a player that's going to take care of Daunte Culpepper's backside for a long, long time. From the film I watched, he's a man amongst boys."
He's a man on an island by himself right now. Because of his well-publicized holdout for a large rookie signing bonus, McKinnie has slipped to the bottom of the depth chart.
"We need him here, he needs to be here," said Studwell, who thinks McKinnie's stance with the Vikings isn't personal. "He could've been potentially holding out with anybody that picked him. It's hard to set the market when the market isn't set. … That's all part of doing business, and it's unfortunate because we value him as a player."
RAONALL SMITH, LB
It didn't take long for Smith to impress coaches. In fact, by the second week of training camp Smith had been splitting time with Lemanski Hall as the team's weakside linebacker.
But a shoulder injury has slowed Smith's progress and even kept him out of preseason games. Still, with Hall's eye injury, Smith will likely be the starter Sunday.
"We knew that he was going to take a little time from the standpoint of needing repetition work," Studwell said. "Linebacker is not an easy position to step in and play. He has shown the playmaking potential that we thought he had, and it's unfortunate he's had a couple of injuries that have set him back."
On draft day, the Vikings raved about Smith's explosiveness and speed. So far, Smith hasn't disappointed.
"He's everything we thought he would be as far as his mobility and athleticism," Studwell said. "He showed us some things in a couple of scrimmages and in the one game he played against Buffalo. Unfortunately, some of those situations you need to get experienced in don't happen when you're injured. And sometimes, to be quite honest, players have to learn to play hurt with some injuries."
WILLIE OFFORD, SS
Like Smith (and McKinnie, if he wasn't holding out), Offord will be a starter for the Vikings. At 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, Offord gives the Vikings another strong safety to follow in the footsteps of Robert Griffith, who is now with Cleveland.
Obviously, Offord isn't NFL-tested, but he'll be afforded some latitude since he'll be learning on the job. The Vikings expect big things from Offord, but they also expect mistakes, especially for a rookie playing in a secondary with no returning starters.
"He's big and he can run and he's physical," said Studwell. "It's a little different world for him, though. He's in space more than he was in college. As our strong safety, he's always going to be closer to the box than our free safety."
Offord has made his share of big plays during the preseason in games and scrimmages. Still, the learning curve is steep.
"He's going to have to learn route anticipation better," Studwell said. "He's still trying to learn the new system, and on top of that he has to adjust to game planning week in and week out and the changes they have to adjust to. He's going to be a better player by the end of the year than he is now. He's an achiever, and that's important to him."
Offord will start next to free safety Ronnie Bradford. Corey Chavous and Eric Kelly will be the starting cornerbacks, meaning none of the four starters in the secondary on opening day last season return.
"You'd certainly like to have the luxury of a couple of veterans that have been in the system for a while," Studwell said. "But Ronnie Bradford has been in the league a long time, he knows what it takes to play the position."
BRIAN WILLIAMS, CB
Williams won't be starting, but he could start the season as the team's top nickel back. Even though Chavous and Kelly will start as the team's corners, Williams and Tyrone Carter will see their share of playing time.
Through preseason, Williams could be considered one of the team's top rookie surprises. "He's a very pleasant surprise," Studwell said. "Anybody that's a fourth-round pick is someone that has starting potential. He's a very good college football player who could have been an inside player as well as a corner."
Williams started training camp slow because of a hamstring injury. Playing behind Chavous, Williams has become a true student of the game.
"He understands the game," Studwell said. "He's impressed people with his feel for the game. He's got as good of anticipation as any of our young players. And he's a competitor and a playmaker. All of our [scouts] guys liked him as a player. He doesn't have 4.4 speed; he's not a burner. Then again, I think he plays faster than he is."
ED TA'AMU, G
Ta'amu's best attribute is his size and potential. At 6-2, 335 pounds, the Vikings consider Ta'amu a project. Given the team's track record of producing offensive lineman from the middle rounds, who can argue?
"He's going to take some time," Studwell said. "He has some physical tools that we all look for. He's strong and very powerful. Technically, he's not there yet. It's rare for an offensive lineman to come in the league and start his first year. He's got the tools to work with, but he's a ways away yet."
Ta'amu will play sparingly at right guard, behind David Dixon, a mainstay on the offensive line. Of this year's crop of draft picks making the team, Ta'amu will play the least.
NICK ROGERS, LB
Rogers was a pass rusher at Georgia Tech, but he'll back up middle linebacker Henri Crockett with the Vikings.
"The people that saw him projected him as a [strongside] linebacker or even a 3-4 rush linebacker position," Studwell said. "He's been a nice surprise. He's a better athlete than most anticipated he would be. The game's important to him. With guys like that (in the later rounds), you expect them to contribute on special teams and learn as they go."
Studwell Anticipates Heavy Workload For Draftees
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