If the Vikings want to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2013, when they finished 5-10-1 in Leslie Frazier’s final season as head coach before Mike Zimmer took over, they’re going to need some rookies to step up in a big way.
The Vikings usually do great work in the draft to add players who contribute in their rookie season, but when it comes to skill positions their rookies usually provide depth behind established veterans. That gives those skill players time to develop as rookies before taking over a big role.
The only rookies asked to contribute heavily the past few years have been on the offensive line.
In 2019 it was Garrett Bradbury, the rookie center who took the most snaps of any player on offense (97%).
In 2018 it was Brian O’Neill, who started 11 games at right tackle and played 76.1% of snaps.
And in 2017 it was Pat Elflein, who started 14 games at center and appeared in 85.8% of snaps.
When it comes to rookie skill position players drafted of late — such as running back Dalvin Cook, tight end Irv Smith Jr. and cornerback Mike Hughes — those players had established veterans in front of them to make their transition easier.
For Cook it was Latavius Murray. For Smith it was Kyle Rudolph. And for Hughes it was Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
But this season’s rookies, such as receiver Justin Jefferson and cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney, are having to play right away.
And having to learn in a hurry, without preseason games, is tough. Getting used to the speed of the NFL always has been the No. 1 problem for even the best rookies.
“Going 0-2, definitely would like to have a better start in my NFL career than that,” Jefferson said this week after recording a team-high 44 receiving yards against the Colts in Week 2. “We just have some things to fix and have some things that we need to go over to play better and execute better.
“We just have to bounce back and find the energy that this organization has been having for the last couple of years.”
He added that it is hard to play without fans when players are trying to get excited for their first pro games.
“Just not having the fan base, like normal, to be in [U.S. Bank Stadium] and not being as loud as it needs to be, you kind of lose that energy and that urge to go out there and perform like a real game,” Jefferson said. “That’s just something we need to focus on, and we need to find that energy and get this team back to where we need to be.”
Gladney staying focused
Dantzler played 82.1% of snaps against the Packers in Week 1, but a rib injury kept him out against the Colts and might keep him out on Sunday against the Titans.
Gladney stepped in against the Colts and played 82.2% of snaps after playing just 11 against the Packers.
Gladney said he is ready for whatever role the coaches ask of him, but he’s still getting used to the league.
“Really no big surprises, I’m just learning as I go,” the first-round pick out of TCU said. “I have learned a lot of things so far and I’m going to keep picking it up as the season goes.
“Lots of improvement to go, I’d say I’m holding my own right now but as the season goes I’ll learn more and just focusing on technique, since no preseason.
“I’m young, teammates know I’m young, but I’m a pro at the end of the day and those guys are depending on me just like I’m depending on them. I just have to go out there and do my best.”
If this Vikings squad is going to turn the corner on this season, starting against the Titans on Sunday, they’ll need their skilled rookies to develop in a hurry.
Twins relievers ready?
In the Yankees’ three-game sweep of the Twins in the American League wild-card matchup last season, Minnesota relievers gave up 14 runs in 14 innings pitched.
If you want a big reason this 2020 club has a chance to break the Twins’ 16-game postseason losing streak, look to the bullpen where Twins relievers have posted a 3.56 ERA this season, the third-best mark in the American League behind the Athletics (2.53) and Rays (3.50).
That’s the fifth-best ERA by a Twins bullpen since 2000 and the best since 2013. But what sets this club apart is their 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest mark in club history. President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and pitching coach Wes Johnson said that was a real emphasis this season.
Johnson told me earlier this season that the biggest difference with this bullpen is the veteran combo of Tyler Clippard and Sergio Romo.
Romo has thrown 25⅓ postseason innings and pitched in three World Series while Clippard has thrown 12⅔ innings and pitched in the 2015 World Series.
Hopefully that experience mixed with the Twins’ core young relievers of Matt Wisler, Jorge Alcala, Tyler Duffey, Trevor May and Taylor Rogers can give this team enough firepower out of the bullpen to reach the World Series for the first time since 1991.
• Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer on Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, who has the No. 4 passer rating in football. “I think the biggest thing with Tannehill right now is he’s playing with a lot of confidence, he has a running game with him. I feel like he is seeing coverages and getting the ball out quick, understanding where to go with the football right away. He has been really good on the play-actions, he has been extremely accurate and he can also move in the pocket and scramble.”
• Pro Football Focus labeled Gophers offensive tackle Daniel Faalele as one of the top NFL draft prospects in the Big Ten: “Faalele is still far more a projection due to a lack of on-field performance at this point,” they wrote. “The 6-foot-9, 400-pound tackle has been playing football for only a few years, making his 76.5 pass-blocking grade last season very encouraging.”
• 247 Sports ranks the Gophers’ 2021 recruiting class 27th in the nation and seventh in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (No. 2 overall), Michigan (No. 10), Wisconsin (No. 15), Maryland (No. 20), Iowa (No. 21) and Nebraska (No. 22).
• 247 Sports released a list of top players in Minnesota for the Class of 2022 and has Lucas Heyer of Hill-Murray ranked No. 1. Eli King of Caledonia is No. 2 and Chase Carter of Minnehaha Academy is No. 3
• Ex-Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins is working out with Golden State during its team minicamp. The Warriors have the No. 2 pick in the draft. The Wolves draft No. 1.
• The Arizona Cardinals are a big splash in the NFL at 2-0 and head coach Kliff Kingsbury said former Gophers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who has 17 tackles and two pass deflections, is their MVP on defense. “I’ve always kind of prided myself in being multidimensional,” Campbell said last week. “I feel like I can rush, cover and play behind the ball. “