During practices and meetings, Brian Asamoah has steadily raised the expectations of Vikings coaches and teammates.
The 22-year-old Asamoah, a rookie linebacker who was a third-round pick, forced and recovered a fumble with a punch worthy of Charles Tillman in Saturday's victory over the Giants. Asamoah is raising the bar after getting more playing time.
Asamoah requested edge rusher Danielle Hunter's jersey after the game. Hunter penned his signature, handed it over and then told reporters how Asamoah fell short of his expectations on the 12-yard fumble return.
"I was expecting him to go all the way, but he didn't," Hunter said. "I expect a lot of good things — a lot of great things from him in the future."
Asamoah is among a handful of young defenders seeing increased action in the home stretch for the NFC North champion Vikings. With a playoff berth cemented, coach Kevin O'Connell is balancing youth development and health on a veteran-laden roster while also chasing victories for the best possible seed this postseason.
Against the Giants, Asamoah rotated series with starting inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks. He finished with a season-high 39% playing time. Rookie defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo played a season-high 18%. Third-year safety Josh Metellus also replaced starter Harrison Smith for one series.
"All they did was go out and be incredibly productive," O'Connell said Monday. "Those three guys took advantage of their opportunities and provided some great snaps for us in our attempt to help keep some of our other guys fresh."
Need for depth
A dash of youth also helps O'Connell manage health. Hicks (ankle), Kendricks (hip) and Smith (neck) have all been on December injury reports. All three watched parts of Saturday's victory from the sideline: Hicks got 23 snaps off; Kendricks stepped out for 13 snaps; Smith watched 10 snaps.
While preparing to face an in-the-hunt Packers team on Sunday, O'Connell said he will continue to toe the line between talent development and trying to win.
"There's a lot out in front of us as a team," O'Connell said. "We've been able to clinch the division and we know that we'll be a part of the playoffs, but there's a lot to be said for trying to give ourselves an opportunity for the most amount of home games we possibly can, while also making sure we're taking care of our roster."
Rookie growth has been limited by injuries. First-round safety Lewis Cine (leg fractures), second-round cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. (knee), fourth-round cornerback Akayleb Evans (concussions) and sixth-round running back Ty Chandler (thumb) remain on injured reserve. Chandler returned to practice earlier this month. The Vikings have until Wednesday to activate him before his three-week practice window ends.
Guard Ed Ingram, a second-rounder, and Asamoah, the third-round pick, have given coaches more to evaluate. Asamoah credited his growth to learning behind Kendricks and Hicks, who each had a team-leading 10 tackles (solo and assisted) against the Giants.
"We're the best unit when we're out there," Asamoah said. "So we have to go out there and play like it. We did that [Saturday]. I think them boys pulled down 10. That linebacker group is a scary group."
Kendricks said Asamoah has grown past a rookie-like tunnel vision on his assignments.
"As the season has progressed," Kendricks said, "he's kind of thinking bigger picture now and starting to understand what's going on — seeing things besides what's going on at his position. It's refreshing to see, because obviously we know he has great energy running to the ball and causing plays, splash plays. I'm excited to see how good he gets."
Metellus, the 2020 sixth-round pick out of Michigan, has made game-changing plays in two Vikings wins. His game-sealing interception against the Lions on Sept. 25 — his first of two starts this season for Smith — preceded Saturday's blocked Giants punt that led to a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Depth to defensive line
Otomewo, the former Gophers defender drafted in the fifth round, has impressed coaches with effort. During his NFL debut in the Dec. 11 loss in Detroit, Otomewo chased and thwarted a screen. The following week, O'Connell said he showed the play in a team meeting as an example of relentlessness.
More is likely on the horizon for Otomewo. Rotational defensive tackle James Lynch is expected to miss at least Sunday's game in Green Bay. Lynch reaggravated his shoulder injury against the Giants, per O'Connell, two weeks after suffering the injury in Detroit.
"We've felt the last quarter of the season, we need to get [Otomewo] going," defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said last week. "He brings fresh legs. He brings explosion. He's a good listener.
"We want to have everybody playing well. That's part of coaching rookies. They usually don't do a lot for you in September unless they're rare."