The Vikings’ historically large 15-man draft class, and the 12 undrafted free agents the team signed, face a rare challenge — how to remotely participate in an important rookie minicamp.
Online coaching begins in earnest from May 8-10 when the Vikings staff will work with newcomers in a brand-new way.
While the team’s two first-round picks — LSU receiver Justin Jefferson and TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney — might be equipped to immediately contribute, that might not be the case for many of the 27 players added to help reload last year’s playoff roster. Every NFL team is losing practice time, with facilities closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and rosters with more rookies could be affected the most.
“I don’t know when we’re going to be able to see these rookies or when we can get them on the field,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “I do know with the time and energy coaches put into this, as well as the scouts, they’ll be able to get a head start, at least virtually, on learning the playbook and things like that.
“Coach [Mike Zimmer] has already thought through how we’re going to approach this when we do get players back in the building — how we’re going to have to get these guys ready to line up.”
Veterans have been in the Vikings’ online chat rooms since Monday, when NFL teams with returning head coaches began virtual programs. Coaches can log more hours with rookies during the May 8-10 minicamp than the veteran sessions, which are limited to two-hour periods of online classroom and workout instruction.
“It poses some challenges. But with Zoom and with all the technology we have now, it’s pretty much like being in the same room with somebody. It’ll be tough.”
Zimmer kept a similar structure with offense, defense, special teams and all-team meetings.
“He even gave them a lunch break in between,” Spielman said.
Replacing spring practices, when rookies often get reps over known veterans, won’t be easy. Veteran players compare this to the 2011 lockout, but rookies can at least contact coaches this spring unlike during labor negotiations. Further clouding the outlook is the NFL stipulated that no team can return to its facilities unless all teams can return. In the meantime, teams can reportedly provide a player with necessary workout equipment up to $1,500 to follow virtual workouts.
Gladney, drafted 31st overall, faces lofty expectations of starting opposite cornerback Mike Hughes. He said he plans to be resourceful by seeking advice from veteran teammates in addition to the tutelage he receives from the coaching staff.
“It’s going to be a little different,” Gladney said. “Probably reach out to a few vets. Get their input on a few things and try to lean on them and get some of their knowledge, since it’ll be different not being in a room together. Maybe Zoom calls, trying to gain as much as I can before it starts. The workouts and everything will handle themselves.”
Like many rookies, fifth-round receiver K.J. Osborn relied on a training facility — IMG Academy in Miami — before public gyms closed. Now, Osborn said, “I have a box of water I’m using as my weights.”
Sixth-round safety Josh Metellus said he turned to barbells in his garage and a field next to his house.
Seventh-round quarterback Nate Stanley might need to know the playbook better than any rookie. Stanley heard from coordinator Gary Kubiak as early as a few days before the draft, and coaches told him the Hawkeyes offense has similarities to Kubiak’s system that could help the transition.
Stanley, who will compete with Sean Mannion and Jake Browning for a backup job, said he’ll be “diving” into the playbook while awaiting the chance to meet his coaches in person.
“It poses some challenges,” Stanley said. “But with Zoom and with all the technology we have now, it’s pretty much like being in the same room with somebody. It’ll be tough.”
The NFL reportedly designated April 20-May 15 as a “virtual period” for teams to conduct online classroom and workout time with players but left open the possibility of coronavirus restrictions continuing. With all offseason programs still required to be done by June 26, it’s possible rookies might be limited to online learning until training camp.
“It’s not the same as coaches being with them and getting their hands on them out there and working with them on the field,” Spielman said. “But we’ll get accomplished what we need to get accomplished from a classroom standpoint.”