Asked to recall the last time he was part of a Vikings team that leaned on rookies as much as they have in 2019, tight end Kyle Rudolph had to think back to his time as one of the younger players on a team that looked markedly different from how it does now.
“I’d say probably not since ’11, ’12, ’13, those earlier years,” he said. “But this rookie class has been awesome. They’ve come in and really helped our team win football games.”
The 2012 Vikings — a year removed from a 3-13 season — got 3,043 offensive and defensive snaps from their rookies (in addition to a Pro Bowl season from rookie kicker Blair Walsh) as they made a surprising playoff push in Rudolph’s second season under then-coach Leslie Frazier. In 2015, the Vikings played rookies for 3,221 snaps, reaping the benefits of an impressive draft haul on their way to an NFC North title.
Only those draft classes, however, might surpass the 2019 group in terms of immediate impact since Rick Spielman became general manager in 2012. Led by first-round pick Garrett Bradbury — who has a chance to become the first Vikings rookie in that time to play every snap of the season — the Vikings’ 2019 rookies have stepped into significant roles for a team that was counting on them for an offensive boost.
Bradbury, who has played 784 snaps this season, is the only Vikings player not to miss a snap on either offense or defense this season, and he could pass T.J. Clemmings, who played 1,014 snaps in 2015, for the most playing time by a Vikings rookie under coach Mike Zimmer.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. (468 snaps) and wide receiver Bisi Johnson (403) have each been on the field more than 50% of the time on offense. Running back Alexander Mattison (172) has carved out a solid role alongside Dalvin Cook. The Vikings could have three rookies play 500 or more snaps for the first time since 2015, when their draft class included major contributions from Clemmings, Eric Kendricks (762 snaps), Stefon Diggs (654) and Danielle Hunter (392).
“Really, all those guys are pretty smart guys. Mattison is smart, obviously Bradbury and Irv,” Zimmer said. “They’re all pretty smart guys. I think the coaches have done a great job with them, not overloading them as much either, just kind of working them in along as the season goes. Now, they’ve been in there quite a bit. Bradbury makes a lot of really important decisions at the line of scrimmage and has done a really good job. That’s all part of it is being able to handle the load of the intelligence factor as you’re going forward.”
After making Bradbury the 18th pick in the draft, the Vikings wasted little time installing him as their starting center, where he would be tasked with setting protections and working closely with quarterback Kirk Cousins. After a difficult start to the season, in which he allowed a sack and a combined 13 pressures in the Vikings’ first four games, Bradbury hasn’t given up a sack since and has allowed only eight pressures in those eight games, according to Pro Football Focus.
While his former teammates at North Carolina State ended their season last Saturday, Bradbury is working through the final quarter of the Vikings’ regular season knowing there could be a playoff run beyond it.
At this point of the season the mental and physical demands of the NFL reach beyond that of college football, but Bradbury also has made a point to tap the experience of older players who know how to take care of their bodies and handle the grind.
“In college, it’s kind of natural to just cruise in practice, but it’s awesome to see guys like Riley Reiff and Josh Kline [going] full speed, treating practice like a game,” Bradbury said. “It’s good to get good practice habits and work habits, because you know it’s going to translate on Sundays.”
The day after the Vikings’ game in Seattle, Bradbury got a text from Cousins. “I just told him, I think he’s done a really good job for how much we’ve put on him, being a rookie,” Cousins said. “I could go on and on with the other young players. … At this point later in the year, you start to view them not so much as rookies but as another weapon in your offense.”
As rare as it has been for rookies to take on this large a role for a Zimmer-coached team, the Vikings’ top picks in 2019 expected no different.
“Getting to know Alex and Irv, that’s been our expectation since we left our college seasons,” Bradbury said. “We believe in our abilities; we believe in our training, and wherever we were going to go, we were going to go in and impact the team. I think when you have that mind-set, expectation becomes reality, and you’re kind of just doing what you hoped for, what you expected.”