As the Vikings kicked off Organized Team Activities last week, it's clear this is a very important season in the franchise's immediate and long-term future. After the large number of players who left this offseason, the Vikings worked to fill them with free-agent signings and the hopeful development of their recent draft picks. But if 2017 is a rough year, it's easy to believe that 2018 could become a rebuilding season.

The Vikings have 14 unrestricted free agents after the season: Sam Bradford, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Datone Jones, Terence Newman, Emmanuel Lamur, Tom Johnson, Joe Berger, Marcus Sherels, Jerick McKinnon, Case Keenum, Shamar Stephen and Kai Forbath — and the injured Teddy Bridgewater.

There's no doubt a number of those players are in the Vikings long-term plans, but the sheer number of veterans that the team will have to make contract decisions on is going to make next offseason a very interesting one for the front office.

And it's because of that uncertainty that General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer have to be hoping the 2017 season is going to be a successful one. And a big part of that is going to be the development of their 11 draft picks from this year and their eight picks from last year.

Spielman talked about what kind of information the front office and the coaching staff can get from the team at this early stage in the offseason.

"Right now we haven't competed against each other except for the rookie minicamp, just to get those guys equated," he said at the start of OTAs. "You can always see the athletic ability and how quickly they're learning, but as we start our Phase 3 of OTA's this week, where the rookies and veterans are all together, we'll get a chance to see the offense and the defense compete against each other.

"So we'll be doing that over the next three weeks and finishing up with a mandatory veteran minicamp, which we're excited about."

Early thoughts on picks

Spielman took some time to breakdown his early impressions of some of the big selections he made in the draft.

Second-round pick Dalvin Cook, who tallied over 2,000 yards from scrimmage during his junior season at Florida State, already has given Spielman the feeling that he could be a dynamic pro running back.

"When you watch him out there in practice, some kids just look different, and he definitely kind of stands out and looks different just from his physical ability, his quickness. You can see he has some very special athletic traits," Spielman said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him as we get down to Mankato for training camp and as he grows and develops into this offense."

Regarding Ohio State offensive lineman Pat Elflein, who ESPN had rated as the top center in the draft and the Vikings were able to nab in the third round, Spielman said that as of now, they are going to keep him at center.

"We've got all of those guys potentially can play center or guard," Spielman said of his offensive linemen. "So I think what the goal is is to maybe put Elflein, we have him playing at center right now, seeing how he develops there and then look at a couple of guys.

"Berger can go to guard, [Nick] Easton can go to guard, so we've got some guys that an play multiple positions. I think the biggest thing we have to do is find our best five and whatever combination that is get them out there and ready to go."

Late-pick value?

As they seemingly have done a lot under Spielman, the Vikings made some moves during the draft to accumulate a number of late picks, with four seventh-rounders and one sixth-rounder. Spielman talked about what he liked from those players.

"It's early to tell yet, I know they're all very athletic," he said. "I know [tight end Bucky] Hodges is a really good athlete, kind of an H-back, a mix-match guy. I know [Stacy] Coley, the receiver from Miami catches the ball very well and catches your attention. Very excited about [Elijah] Lee, the linebacker from Kansas State, as you watch him move around athletically, and especially in coverage and what he has looked like so far athletically in coverage.

"So, I think we end up with four of those seventh-round picks and usually they'll start separating themselves once we get down to Mankato and get in the pads. But looking forward to these next three or four weeks as we close out our offseason and start to get a sense of where these guys are going to line up."

Does Spielman think that Rodney Adams, the fifth-round pick out of South Florida, has a chance to take over as the kick returner?

"I know he's very explosive with the ball in his hands," Spielman said. "He showed that in all of the tapes we watched getting ready for the draft. I know Coley also has the ability, back earlier in his career he was a very good kickoff returner. I think we have a lot of options there to look at guys that are potential returners."

Yes, the NFL is always a win-now league, but there's no doubt that the Vikings are hoping their young players show them that the future is bright this season.

• Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said he and quarterback Sam Bradford are treating Organized Team Activities like Square 1, despite the fact that Thielen caught 65 passes from Bradford last season after Bradford's late arrival. "If you're not on the same page, bad things can happen really quickly," the former Minnesota State Mankato standout said. "That's why we're out here — that's what OTAs are for, to build that trust, build that chemistry and really just get fluid for the season."

• Gregg Rosenthal of recently ranked the Vikings defensive front seven among the five best in the NFL. "The Vikings don't have the marquee names in lights like most of the teams on this list. They do have a balanced and versatile group with few weaknesses," he wrote, singling out Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen.

• Peter King at Sports Illustrated made some early NFL predictions and for the Vikings he wrote of rookie running back Dalvin Cook: "By Halloween, Cook will be a top-five NFL back."

• The Pittsburgh Penguins reached their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final and former Gopher Phil Kessel and Minnesota native Jake Guentzel played phenomenally for them throughout the playoffs. Kessel was third on the team in scoring with 19 points on seven goals and two assists while Guentzel was fourth with nine goals, a team high, and seven assists.

• The Howard Pulley AAU basketball squad was ranked No. 1 in the country at 26-1 heading into Saturday. The team features Tre Jones (Apple Valley), Daniel Otoru (Cretin-Derham Hall), Gabe Kalscheur (DeLaSalle) and Jarvis Thomas (Orono) among other Minnesota prep standouts. D1 Power, which compiles the national rankings, wrote: "Howard Pulley returns to the top spot of the D1 Power 10 after spending the majority of their 2016 season at No. 1. Tre Jones is leading a red-hot squad that doesn't have any notable weaknesses."