The Vikings’ 37-17 victory over the Jets on Sunday provided a great example of how detailed the team’s front office has been in filling their 53-man roster with smart draft picks and signings, from their first-rounders all the way to their rookie free agents.
It’s those kind of signings that have enabled the team to afford contracts to stars such as Kirk Cousins (three years, $84 million), Stefon Diggs (five years, $72 million), Danielle Hunter (five years, $72 million), Xavier Rhodes (five years, $70.1 million) and Harrison Smith (five years, $51.25 million) while maintaining depth when key players are out of the lineup.
Two of the biggest plays on offense against the Jets, on a difficult day to move the ball, came from rookie free agents. Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra and running back Roc Thomas both set up Latavius Murray touchdown runs: Zylstra with a 23-yard reception, the first of his career, in the third quarter and Thomas with a 23-yard run, the longest of his career, in the fourth.
Danny Isidora, the Vikings’ fifth-round pick in 2017, came in for injured guard Tom Compton and played 61 snaps — 88 percent of the offensive plays — in his first action of the season.
Defensive reserves made key contributions as well.
Cornerback Holton Hill, who the Vikings aggressively targeted as a rookie free agent because officials believed he had the talent of an early-round draft pick, replaced an injured Rhodes and grabbed his first career interception off Jets quarterback Sam Darnold in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory.
Hill also played a key roles on special teams, returning two kickoffs for 57 yards.
Safety Jayron Kearse, their seventh-round pick in 2016 (No. 244 overall), showed why the coaching staff has long believed he could be a contributor in certain defensive packages when he contributed four tackles, two for loss, and grabbed his first career sack.
And while players such as Hill, Kearse, Thomas, Isidora and Zylstra aren’t going to grab big headlines all year, the Vikings need them to contribute at every opportunity if they’re going to win and keep a productive roster under the salary cap.
Those five players count for a combined $2.7 million against the Vikings’ $188.5 million salary cap this season, a meager 1.4 percent.
Their contributions against the Jets, plus players such as defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson ($725,000 in salary this season) coming in for Linval Joseph ($8.1 million) and recording a half-sack and four tackles, and David Parry, the lowest-paid player on the team at $407,649, making three stops at defensive tackle are how the Vikings can stay competitive while trying to sign larger free-agent deals when needed.
It shows why General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer have made such a big effort to not only hit on top draft picks but to trade for and acquire a number of players in the late rounds and rookie free agency to fill out the roster.
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck has spent this season pointing out that he knew his team would be young and inexperienced while also saying that his expectations remained high when it comes to performance each week.
That stance led to a lot of optimism when the Gophers jumped out to a 3-0 nonconference record, but the Gophers have battled too many injuries at key positions and now stand at 3-4, 0-4 in the Big Ten.
The Gophers defense, which was the linchpin in their great start, has really struggled lately.
They rank 13th in conference play in scoring defense (43.3 points against per game) and total defense (503.8 yards against per game).
“We’re just inconsistent right now, and we missed 18 tackles [at Nebraska],” Fleck said. “When you miss 18 tackles, that is what happens.”
While Fleck isn’t ready to declare starting true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad (internal midsection injury) out for Friday night’s game against Indiana, redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan might get his first career start.
Against Nebraska, Morgan finished 11-for-16 for 214 yards with an interception and led three second-half touchdown drives.
“[Morgan] had some great opportunities, did some really nice things,” Fleck said. “[He’s] got to continue to grow in a lot of areas as well. But he came in there and competed hard.”
After four consecutive losses, does he worry about getting his team motivated to face the Hoosiers?
“We shouldn’t have to be able to get up and get down and get back up,” he said. “That is just a constant growth, continue to get better.”
• Headline on the Pro Football Focus website: “[Adam] Thielen isn’t just the best WR in Minnesota; he’s the best in the NFL.” The website backed it up with this breakdown of Thielen’s game: “Owning the league’s top receiving grade (90.6) through Week 7, [Thielen] has generated a passer rating of 118.7 and averaged 2.54 yards per route run, which is on pace to better his previous career best of 2.33. He also leads the league in first-down receptions (43) and ranks second in yards after the catch (243).”
• The Saints traded for Giants cornerback Eli Apple on Tuesday to shore up their secondary. Cousins faced Apple twice when they were both in the NFC East in 2016, with the Redskins and Giants each winning once. Cousins completed 43 of 70 passes for 583 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in those games, while Apple recorded five tackles.
• Gophers hockey recruit Ryan Johnson was named the USHL defenseman of the week after tallying a goal and two assists over the weekend for the Sioux Falls Stampede. He is the son of former Hill-Murray, Gophers and NHL star Craig Johnson.
• While a lot of the recent talk around the Wolves has revolved around Jimmy Butler and his trade request, coach Tom Thibodeau is playing his starters fewer minutes. Last year Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins all played more than 35 minutes per game, and Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague each played 33 minutes or more. After Wednesday night’s 112-105 loss in Toronto, only Butler was averaging more than 33 minutes per game this season at 35.2.