More times than not, when an NFL team has a handful of rookies that are either starters or key contributors, it's a sign of a team with plenty of holes.
Yet, the 11-2 Vikings, despite having just a five-man 2009 draft class, have seen all five step into the lineup and start at least one game this season. Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt have been full-time offensive starters and, due to injuries, defensive backs Jamarca Sanford and Asher Allen, as well as linebacker Jasper Brinkley, have all stepped into the lineup.
The veteran players on the Vikings have been helping the young players along in the event they might be needed at some point during the season. Linebacker Ben Leber said the credit for the NFL readiness of the Vikings' rookie crop is a testament to the work of the entire organization – from the scouts to the coaches to the veteran teammates to the rookies themselves.
"You have to step in when guys go down," Leber said. "It just speaks volumes for the front office to get guys who can play. They've done a good job of evaluating talent and the coaches have done a good job of getting them ready to play. Everything kind of works together as an organization."
Perhaps nobody was thrown into more of a pressure cooker than Brinkley. When defensive captain E.J. Henderson broke his leg against Arizona, the fifth-round rookie was thrust into the spotlight in the middle of the Vikings defense. While he received rave reviews from his teammates, he wasn't as quick to hand out self-congratulatory praise of his effort against Cincinnati.
"You definitely have to be hard on yourself," Brinkley said. "In order to be one of the good players around here, you definitely have to be one of your hardest critics. That's what I am to myself. Each and every week I want to get better."
It is that drive and commitment to the team concept the Vikings have developed that has fueled the fire of the young players. Whether big contributors like Harvin and Loadholt, or players like Brinkley, Allen and Sanford – whose primary contributions came early on special teams – their work ethic has impressed their veteran teammates. Madieu Williams was asked if he was surprised how quickly – and successfully – the rookie class has developed. He said he was impressed since Day One with all of them.
"I'm not too surprised how well they've done," Williams said. "Jamarca and I talked about it during the OTAs. You never know when your number is going to get called, especially in this league. Fortunately for us, they were there whenever their numbers were called. Those guys are students of the game and their football I.Q.s are very high. Athletically, they have the talent, but adjusting to the game, for the most part, they have had a great grasp of that."
The players have all accepted their roles as the new kids on the NFL block and have been willing students from their veteran mentors. Linebacker Chad Greenway said the veteran position players have taken the young players under their wing to help them out, because in a violent game like pro football, injuries are a part of doing business and you need to have a replacement ready to step in on a moment's notice.
"It's just the ‘next man' philosophy," Greenway said. "These guys have stepped up and done a great job when they needed to be there. Even (before starting), Jamarca and Jasper have done a great job on special teams. Percy could be going to the Pro Bowl. He's been unbelievable. You give a lot credit to those guys who brought them here – Rick, Coach Childress and the other guys who were bringing them around. They brought guys in that could help us right now."
At this point of the season, it's been said, there are no rookies. They've been through their first season of the NFL wars since July and have earned their stripes. When the call comes to the bench, it doesn't matter how many years a player has been in the league. It's more a matter of being ready when a coach yells for you to get in the game.
"Our mentality is that, if a guy goes down it doesn't matter who you are – a rookie or 10-year guy – you've got to step in and you've got to perform," Leber said. "When the ball is snapped, everybody is the same experience – everybody is a starter. We expect high standards for everybody out there."
While the rookies feel like they've been around long enough to be viewed the same as their veteran teammates, they will get a reminder from a veteran teammate that they're still wet behind the ears in NFL terms. When asked when he won't feel like a rookie anymore, Brinkley smiled and looked around to make sure none of his veteran teammates were listening.
"I guess when the season's over," Brinkley said with a laugh. "No matter what you do around here, you feel like you might not be a rookie, but they're going to let you know you're still a rookie."
Granted, they are still rookies. But they have helped forge a Vikings team that has been on the verge of big things all season and may not have been on the solid footing they are now without them.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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