The NFL’s rookie class of 2015 is now in its fourth season — a time when players should be hitting their primes and jostling for second contracts as their rookie deals run out.
And yet, headlines around the NFL this week have largely served to underscore how disappointing the class has been.
The No. 1 overall pick (Jameis Winston) was benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick. The No. 3 pick (Dante Fowler) was traded from the Jaguars to the Rams, following a deal that sent the No. 4 pick (Amari Cooper) from the Raiders to the Cowboys. All told, 11 of the 32 first-round picks from the 2015 draft have been cut or traded by their original teams.
Across the NFC North, the results haven’t been pretty. Injuries have made Bears receiver Kevin White — the No. 7 pick in the draft — one of the group’s biggest disappointments, and the Lions traded guard Laken Tomlinson (the No. 28 pick) to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick a year ago.
The Packers? They’d traded first-rounder Damarious Randall to the Browns last year, and when they moved fourth-rounder Ty Montgomery in a trade deadline deal this week — two days after his decision to bring a kickoff out of the end zone resulted in a fumble that cost Aaron Rodgers a chance to beat the undefeated Rams — they said goodbye to the only remaining player on their roster from the 2015 draft.
While teams around the division, and around the league, discard picks from their 2015 drafts, the Vikings’ 2015 group has helped form the bedrock of their team.
They’ve given five-year contract extensions to three of their 2015 picks: second-rounder Eric Kendricks, third-rounder Danielle Hunter and fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs. Kendricks has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, while Hunter — who had 12.5 sacks two years ago — is tied for second in the league with eight sacks through as many games, and Diggs is on pace for a 100-catch season.
Though it remains to be seen whether the Vikings will try to fit a long-term deal for first-round pick Trae Waynes into their financial future, the 11th overall choice in the 2015 draft has started 32 games in four years, becoming a full-time starter by the 2017 season.
All told, the Vikings’ 2015 class might stand out as the best of the 11 that have played at least one full season in the NFL since Rick Spielman started running the team’s drafts in 2007.
Using Pro Football Reference’s Draft Approximate Value metric — which attempts to quantify how much production a player delivered to the team that drafted him — the Star Tribune found the Vikings’ 2015 draft entered the season tied for second-best in the league, with a 2015 Chiefs class that delivered cornerback Marcus Peters, guard Mitch Morse and a handful of other contributors to the team. Considering Peters is now with the Rams — who picked the third-most productive player in the class in Todd Gurley — the Vikings’ score could surpass the Chiefs’ total in the coming years, and could eclipse the top-ranked Buccaneers if Winston falls out of favor.
While the Vikings’ rookies gave them an immediate boost on their way to their first NFC North championship under Zimmer in 2015, the draft class had delivered four starters by the time the team won the division again in 2017. Since that draft, the Bears have switched coaches, the Packers have a new GM and the Lions have made changes at both of their top spots.
The Vikings’ stability owes plenty to their draft success, at a time where their decisionmakers have worked together longer than any team in the NFC North. And as they begin a stretch of three consecutive games that could determine whether they’ll end the season with a third division crown in four years, they’ll be able to lean on a flourishing group of fourth-year players culled from a draft that produced thistles for much of the league.