There’s no doubt that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman wasn’t expecting the 2018 draft class to contribute as much as it has during the start of this Vikings season.
First-round pick Mike Hughes played 42 percent of the defensive snaps before being lost to injury, and is 10th on the team with 22 tackles and had four kick returns for 107 yards.
Brian O’Neill, the second-rounder out of Pitt, has been a key cog on an injured offensive line, taking 69 percent of the snaps.
Fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes has gotten into a few games at defensive tackle, playing 8.3 percent of the snaps and recording his first pro sack.
And fifth-round tight end Tyler Conklin has been in on 12 percent of the offensive snaps and 31 percent of the special teams plays; he has two receptions for 13 yards.
The lone downside to the draft was fifth-round kicker Daniel Carlson, whose struggles early in the season led him to being cut.
Carlson was picked up by the Raiders and in four games has made three of four field goals and four of four extra points.
But the Vikings have also gotten contributions from undrafted rookies Holton Hill, who has 17 tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles; Mike Boone, who has 11 carries for 47 yards; and Brandon Zylstra, who has one reception for 23 yards and two punt returns and a kickoff return.
Spielman said one of the biggest successes of the season has been the coaches working with young players in key situations.
“It has been great to see our coaching staff and how they’ve developed a lot of the youth on this football team because they have played a significant role when we had so many starters out, but that is part of the NFL,” Spielman said. “I think having the coaching staff we have, they do such a great job making sure we’re prepared not only on game day but developing the talent.
“But coming into this week we have a lot of guys banged up, and I think it’s a great time for us to hopefully get a lot of these guys back on the field as we make this last stretch of the season.”
Spielman said the biggest change the team has seen is developing players from every part of the draft, not just the high picks.
“I think a couple years ago, and I put the onus on myself, that we needed to improve on college free agency,” he said. “With that being a point of emphasis we have had a lot of college free agents come in and contribute. ...We have four guys on our 53 right now that are major contributors — Adam Thielen [who leads the NFL with 78 receptions for 947 yards] was a tryout guy, C.J. Ham [eight receptions for 61 yards] was a tryout guy, Marcus Sherels [12th in the NFL in punt return yardage at 126] was a tryout guy we signed after rookie minicamp. Last week the latest guy starting to follow that trend is [Chad] Beebe [who had three receptions for 21 yards in a win over the Lions]. He came in as a tryout guy during rookie minicamp and stuck out and then was on our practice squad.
“I think it goes hand in hand with identifying the physical traits that we’re looking for, the character traits, but also what a job this coaching staff does in developing these guys and getting them ready to play.”
Race for NFC North
The Vikings have won two of the past three division titles in the NFC North, and Spielman was asked for his feelings about the team’s first half of the season.
“Each season is different, each week is different,” he said. “We go back and analyze why we won games, why we lost games, I know that’s where we’re at right now. We’re 5-3-1 and what matters is how we move forward and how we finish out the season.”
The Vikings will play back-to-back Sunday night games within the division coming off the bye. They are at Chicago Sunday and then face the Packers at home in Week 12. They’ll finish the season with games at Detroit in Week 16 before facing the Bears at home in Week 17.
The Bears and Packers, meanwhile, have two of the easiest schedules remaining in the NFC. The Packers have the easiest opponent winning percentage at 43 percent, while the Bears have the sixth easiest at 47 percent.
“I think it’s a very competitive division,” Spielman said. “I know these next two ballgames when we go to Chicago and then have Green Bay at home, both on Sunday nights, those are two critical games in the division.”
The Vikings’ schedule outside of the division the rest of the way isn’t a cake walk. They’ll travel to New England in Week 13, then to Seattle in Week 14 before facing Miami at home in Week 15. ESPN writer Bill Barnwell said on Monday that “the Vikings, who had their bye this week, have the toughest stretch of their season — and arguably of any team in the league — coming up over the next four weeks.”
Spielman said the team is ready: “I feel confident with a lot of the players we have and the coaching staff, everybody is looking for the challenge ahead of us.”
Mauer the right pick
Former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said that looking back it seems obvious the Twins would have drafted Joe Mauer with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, but that wasn’t clearly the choice then.
“There were some decisions because Mark Teixeira was in that draft, as was Mark Prior,” he said. “Both of those guys were college guys and people anticipated they would come up there a little quicker,” Ryan recalled Monday at Mauer’s retirement news conference. “But when all was said and done, Joe was our selection for a lot of reasons.
“We were looking for a guy that had all the skills that you’d ask for in a player, which he did, and he had all the character off the field that you would look for. That is why we took him.”
The Chicago Cubs ended up taking Prior with the No. 2 pick. Texas took Teixeira at No. 5.
Was there a final reason they chose Mauer?
“You can never find enough catching,” Ryan said. “When you find a catcher that can do what Joe can do, it kind of made the decision a little easier.”
Yes, the Twins shouldn’t have any regrets about choosing Mauer first. He ended his career a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champ and 2009 MVP.
Teixeira hit 409 home runs and was a three-time All-Star in 14 seasons, but Prior was limited to a 42-29 record in five seasons because of injuries.
When asked if Mauer met his expectations, Ryan said there is no doubt.
“I would say that when you take a guy up there you are expecting some kind of career like Joe had, and it turned out pretty good for both of us,” Ryan said.