The temptation will be to throw them out on the field right away.
With a rookie head coach and a general manager who is desperate to reverse the fortunes of the franchise after a last-place season, it might prove difficult for the Vikings to remain patient with their two first-round picks, especially if they get off to another poor start in 2014 and the walls of Winter Park reverberate from the calls for change.
“The objective is to get the best players on your board,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “Everybody has a development stage. Some hit it right off the bat. Some take some time. But we feel very strongly that they are part of the foundation of what we are building here.”
Coach Mike Zimmer and Spielman maintain that nothing will be handed to UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, the ninth overall pick in the NFL draft, and that Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the 32nd pick, will have to wait his turn behind a pair of veteran passers. But it’s easy to say that now, here in the middle of May when optimism springs eternal.
Recent history gives no clues as to how they will proceed. The Vikings took five players in the first round between 2012 and 2013. Two of them, left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith, started right away in 2012. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, however, were all eased into action during their rookie seasons in 2013.
Barr will play a key role on defense even if it isn’t as a starter. As for Bridgewater, patience can be fleeting when it comes to quarterbacks, the most scrutinized position in the NFL.
No reason to rush
When Zimmer was in Cincinnati, the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton early in the second round in 2011. Dalton led them to the playoffs in three straight years and earned a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie.
But Zimmer said that situation was different because the Bengals had no choice but to start Dalton right away after trading Carson Palmer to the Raiders. The Vikings re-signed Matt Cassel to be their bridge to Bridgewater, and the team continues to mention 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder as a possible option, too.
“Teddy will play when we feel like he’s ready, if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will be,” Zimmer said. “We always want to have competition.”
Still, Aaron Rodgers waiting for three years to replace Brett Favre in Green Bay is not the norm. Most first-round quarterbacks now toss aside the clipboard at some point during their rookie year. All nine quarterbacks selected in the first round from 2011 to 2013 made at least five starts as rookies, including Ponder. Six of them started for their teams Week 1.
“I can’t even tell you the last time I sat and watched,” Bridgewater said. “But my expectations here are to show that I can compete at a high level and lead this team.”
Bridgewater started both his high school and college careers on the sideline, but it didn’t take him long to make an impact once he got on the field. Bridgewater passed Miami Northwestern High School to the playoffs in his three years as a starter before signing on at Louisville, where he seized the job in the third game of his freshman year by rallying Louisville to a win over rival Kentucky.
Bridgewater will benefit from his first year in an NFL weight room and the quarterbacks room, allowing him to become physically and mentally stronger. Former Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon thinks this is “a great situation” for the 21-year-old, especially because there will be less pressure on him to play right away having been selected late in the first round instead of inside the top 10 picks.
Gannon believes Bridgewater is ahead of the curve mentally, having shown a knack for audibling into the right plays and checking into proper protections in Louisville’s pro-style offense. But Gannon doesn’t think any of the quarterbacks in this draft class are ready to play today, including Bridgewater, whom he feels needs to get bigger and stronger while refining his throwing technique with offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
But while he preached patience with Bridgewater to shield him from getting shellshocked, he also believes the Vikings should try to get him on the field as much as possible in the preseason and trot him out for mop-up duty late in games, even if Cassel is playing well.
“I always say that there’s a fine line between holding a clipboard and how much you really learn compared to being out there when the bullets are flying,” said Gannon, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Having to make quick decisions, that’s really where you learn.”
Barr might play sooner
Like Bridgewater, the Vikings have not yet anointed Barr as a starter. But the hope inside Winter Park and the expectation outside is that Barr will line up on the field for the first defensive snap of 2014. Predicting exactly where he lines up could prove to be more difficult.
“I have this vision on how I want to use this guy and I don’t want to tell Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit,” Zimmer said. “I want to let them try and figure that out at some point.”
Zimmer said he has never coached a player who had a blend of size and speed like Barr, and the Vikings plan to use Barr as a strong-side linebacker in their 4-3 base defense with veteran Chad Greenway filling one of the two other linebacker spots.
Zimmer hinted that Barr’s role could be similar to how the Broncos use outside linebacker Von Miller, the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year who has 35 sacks in 40 career games. Miller is a 4-3 outside linebacker who often lines up as an edge rusher on passing downs and uses his flexibility to bend around offensive tackles and his speed to take down the quarterback. Miller also drops into coverage at times, something Barr will also do.
And while Barr played linebacker for only two years at UCLA, CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler thinks that athleticism makes him worth the risk.
“Barr’s best football is ahead of him and projects as an impact edge rusher, whether he’s standing up as a strong-side linebacker, putting his hand on the ground at defensive end or a hybrid version of both,” Brugler said. “Barr needs to prove he’s more than just a one-trick pony and grasp defensive concepts, but he adapted quickly to the defensive side of the ball.”
Beyond special teams, the impact that the rest of this draft class has on the 2014 Vikings could be more subtle.
Zimmer likes to rotate several defensive linemen to keep them fresh so they can put quarterbacks under duress, but Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton joins a crowded position group that includes Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Corey Wootton. Barr’s presence will factor in as well.
Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon, picked after Crichton in the third round, is an athletic triple-option triggerman turned traditional tailback, so he could face a steep learning curve as he competes for carries behind Adrian Peterson and tries to carve out a third-down role.
Stanford guard David Yankey, a fifth-round pick, could battle for one of the starting guard spots.
The secondary was an area of need after the Vikings ranked 31st in pass defense in 2013, but can any of the three late-round defensive backs help this season?
Regardless, this class will be judged on both the immediate and long-term contributions that Bridgewater and Barr make, specifically Bridgewater. If the Vikings found their franchise quarterback, anything else from the rest of the class would be a bonus.
“Of course,” Spielman said. “You’re always going to be judged by the quarterback ... no matter how many Pro Bowlers and young guys you get.”