School is in session.
Young Vikings — 62 drafted, undrafted and tryout players — basked under the sun of the outdoor Eagan practice fields Friday, the onset of a three-day rookie minicamp. The only thing missing was the piercing bark of head coach Mike Zimmer, who is in more teaching mode than disciplinarian during the earliest parts of the Vikings’ offseason program.
“Really, in a group like this, when you’ve never had these players before, there’s a lot of mistakes,” Zimmer said Friday after the first walkthrough with rookies. “You get to do a lot of correcting — and understanding they’ve never done it before, so you can’t get mad at them. You teach them.”
When the organization’s top draft pick, cornerback Mike Hughes, backpedaled too far during a coverage drill on Friday afternoon, he was corrected in a way veteran teammates know won’t last long. Defensive coordinator George Edwards reset Hughes on the rules of this particular coverage. They ran it again as if there wasn’t a mistake made.
So begins the Vikings’ crafting of their drafted and undrafted players, many of whom are categorized by their own team as athletic projects.
“One of the things we’re always looking for is athletes,” Zimmer said. “Because we can make guys better players, but we typically can’t make them faster or more talented than what they are that way.”
In fairness to Hughes, the Vikings began Friday by teaching him a new position on the field.
Hughes said he didn’t play much slot cornerback at Central Florida, where he starred as an outside defender and returner. Zimmer is trying him there anyway, just as he once did with 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes, who eventually ended up at left cornerback and hasn’t seen the slot much since his rookie days.
Still, Hughes might have a future there.
“It was a little different,” Hughes said. “I got to learn some inside corner. It felt pretty good, getting adjusted to some new techniques. It was a pretty good day.”
Hughes, who had four interceptions and 11 pass deflections last fall, has just scratched the surface of this new role.
“Knowing where your help is, where you have help and fitting in the run — really that’s the main difference,” Hughes said. “For me, it’s not really too hard. I feel like I’m adjusting pretty well.”
That’s what Zimmer, Edwards and Jerry Gray, defensive backs coach, want to judge throughout rookie minicamp and into OTA practices later this month.
“You want to see the things you saw on tape,” Zimmer said. “I want to see the acceleration I saw on tape. I want to see the quickness I saw, the long speed. … And the learning process. Does he continue to make that mistake or does he fix it right away? Those are the kind of things we’re looking for.”
Hughes is only one of 35 drafted and undrafted signees being evaluated this weekend.
Tackle Brian O’Neill, the Vikings’ second-round pick, is also undergoing his NFL crash course. O’Neill is only in his fourth year of playing tackle after moving from tight end at the University of Pittsburgh.
Between morning walkthroughs and afternoon practices, O’Neill said he’s trying to be a quick study after many analysts pegged him a ‘project’ who will need a year to develop.
“There are going to be a lot of things flying at you,” O’Neill said. “Whether it’s the playbook, different guys, different lineups or whatever it is. [I’m just] coming in ready to work.”
This weekend, Zimmer’s message is constant throughout the group of 62, about half of which are tryout players who may only get a pair of free shorts out of the experience. immer is leaving himself open to surprises for the next potential Marcus Sherels or Adam Thielen.
“Last year’s team,” Zimmer said, “we had three rookies that started for us and we had three undrafted players make the team last year. It’s a big weekend for us.”