Last season was a good one by most measures for the Vikings as they finished 10-6 and won a road playoff game, but one of the biggest keys to that success was the performance of a few key rookies, especially on offense.
And now one of the biggest questions for the franchise heading into the draft Thursday is if the Vikings can find similar draft success on the defensive side of the ball.
Looking back to 2019, first-round pick Garrett Bradbury finished the season playing the most snaps of any player on offense with 989 at center, which was 96.6% of the offensive plays.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr., who was taken in the second round at No. 50 overall, played 59.8% of the offensive snaps, which ranked ninth on the team ahead of stars such as Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen.
Even wide receiver Olabisi Johnson, a seventh-rounder selected No. 247 overall, played 52.5% of offensive snaps. That was the second-most snaps of any receiver on the club last season, trailing only Stefon Diggs, who was traded to the Buffalo Bills in the offseason.
Still the fact is that the Vikings are going to need to get just as much production out of the draft this year if they’re going to keep this championship window open.
And a lot of that production will have to be on the defensive side of the ball, where they have lost key players Trae Waynes, Linval Joseph, Stephen Weatherly, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo, Jayron Kearse and most likely Everson Griffen, who is still unsigned.
They have never had turnover on defense like this before under coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman.
Holes to fill
Spielman said in is pre-draft news conference this week that he knows how important this draft is in terms of getting players who can come in and play right away.
“We have prepared just as hard for other drafts as we have for this draft. I know the difference is that a lot of these guys that we’re bringing in are going to have to probably contribute and play for us next year as we fill some holes on our roster,” Spielman said. “The one thing I do know is that the strength of this coaching staff is the development of these young players.”
Not only do the Vikings need to add a number of players who can play next season but they also are going to have to find a way to get those players ready without the benefit of working with them in person at the start of the offseason.
“It’s going to be totally different, even if you go back to the lockout year [which lasted until July of 2011], I don’t know when we’re going to be able to see these rookies or get them on the field or what lies ahead,” Spielman said.
“But I know next week we’ll start our virtual offseason program with our virtual meetings with the coaches and players and then we’ll have a virtual rookie minicamp. But I do know that with the time and energy that the coaches have put into this, as well as the scouts, that they will be able to get a head start at least virtually on learning the playbook and things like that.”
Spielman added that Zimmer already has started putting together the plan for how he will get the new draft picks up to speed when they do come to TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
“Coach Zim has really thought through how we’re going to go about this when we do get the players back in the building with how we’re going to get these guys ready to line up and play,” Spielman said.
“… We have been fortunate to have on the defensive side, where there has been a lot of changes, we have had that group together for almost six years. It’s just a natural evolution of a roster. But I know that knowing this draft board and the depth of this draft, especially at some positions of need, that we feel not only in the first round but throughout the draft that we’ll be able to get guys that come in and contribute right away.”
Yes, this will be a unique and challenging offseason for the Vikings front office and coaching staff, and they must be counting their lucky stars that they have Spielman and Zimmer working together for the seventh consecutive offseason.
There’s no doubt their history together will make a big difference in getting the squad prepared.
Spielman talks U
While this is a big draft for the Vikings, it is also going to be a big one for the Gophers and head coach P.J. Fleck, who should see a number of his players selected.
There seems to be a good chance that safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will be a first-round selection, and Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson and Kamal Martin could also all hear their names called this week.
The fact is that the Gophers are building off the success of last season in huge ways.
As of Wednesday, the Gophers had 13 commitments for the Class of 2021 and 247Sports.com ranked them No. 5 in the nation in recruiting. The only teams ahead of them are Ohio State, North Carolina, Florida and Clemson.
This is uncharted territory for the Gophers. And having a bunch of players drafted can have a huge impact on recruiting going forward, as well.
After the NFL combine in Indianapolis earlier this year, Spielman gave his opinion on what he saw from the University of Minnesota players who performed there.
“They all had phenomenal workouts,” Spielman said. “Carter Coughlin did a great job, you know he had a great Senior Bowl, as well, so I think he’s going to keep rising up the charts here. How he fits in, as a linebacker or potential defensive end or a designated pass rusher, I know teams are figuring that out. But he has had a really, really positive offseason as far as his pre-draft process through the Senior Bowl and at the combine.
“Winfield blew up the combine. He ran fast, he looks good in drills, so anxious to see where he ends up, but another good football player. Kamal Martin did not do anything, I think he is still coming off his knee [injury].
“There are some guys that the Gophers have this year who weren’t at the combine that will get an opportunity to play in the NFL or get an opportunity to get signed and have their opportunity, as well.
“P.J. has done a phenomenal job over there bringing that crew together. They had such a phenomenal season and the big win against Auburn [in the Outback Bowl]. I imagine as we go forward there will be a lot more Gophers that we will have an opportunity to look at as potential prospects.”