Youth has been served in Minnesota, whether it was part of the plan or not.
With three key defensive starters sitting out last Thursday’s 23-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, three rookie defenders made their first career starts for the Vikings, lining up alongside Eric Kendricks, the every-down middle linebacker.
When the Vikings offense took the field, a pair of rookie starters in wide receiver Stefon Diggs and right tackle T.J. Clemmings trotted out to their usual positions.
Six rookies started that game, the most in the 55-season history of the franchise.
And that’s not including defensive end Danielle Hunter, who came off the bench to record a sack, and tight end MyCole Pruitt, who caught two passes for 32 yards.
“We’re getting a lot from those guys,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I don’t really look at them as rookies. I look at them as football players. … But I think we’ve done a good job of expediting the process of them understanding what we’re trying to get done and [trying not] to overload them, too. That’s another big thing.”
For the second consecutive year, the Vikings are getting major contributions from their rookie class. In 2014, it was draft picks Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon who made an impact right away. Now, late in the 2015 season, the Vikings are relying on a bunch of rookies to help get them into the playoffs.
“We’re hungry. We’re ready to play. And we accept challenges,” Kendricks said.
Kendricks, a second-round draft pick, is tops on the team in tackles and is tied for second among all NFL rookies with four sacks. And Hunter, a third-rounder, has 3 ½ sacks, giving the Vikings the league’s only pair of rookie teammates with at least three apiece.
Diggs, a fifth-round pick, leads the Vikings in receiving yards and first-down catches.
Clemmings, meanwhile, has been given an unfriendly introduction to the pros by NFL defensive ends after the season-ending injury to veteran Phil Loadholt made him an unexpected Week 1 starter. But the fourth-rounder has played all but six snaps so far.
“When I was a rookie, they weren’t even expecting me to make the team,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was a seventh-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2009. “These days, when you’re a rookie, they expect you to come in right away and play. You see that around here, especially with the rookies that we got.”
Slower go for Waynes
One rookie who has not yet snatched a significant role is first-round pick Trae Waynes, who had to wait in line before finally making his first career start in Arizona.
Waynes had gotten on the field on defense in seven previous games, whether it was due to a fellow cornerback getting injured or Zimmer purposefully subbing him in for veteran Terence Newman. But with Newman and Munnerlyn playing well, there was no room for Waynes in the starting lineup.
Injuries at safety prompted Zimmer to move Newman to safety to play next to Anthony Harris, an undrafted rookie who in his NFL debut also would make his first career start. That gave Waynes an opportunity to start at the left cornerback spot.
Waynes couldn’t make the tackle downfield on John Brown as the speedy Cardinals wide receiver ran down the right sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. And he appeared to be out of position on Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd’s 42-yard touchdown. But beyond those two costly breakdowns, Zimmer said he saw some positives.
“I thought he competed well [Thursday],” Zimmer said. “He did some good things.”
Rookie outside linebacker Edmond Robinson, a seventh-round pick, also got his first start Thursday in place of an injured Barr. He made one tackle in 26 snaps. Eight rookies have started at least one game for the Vikings this season.
34 starts among them
This rookie class might not have had the impact of Bridgewater, who started 12 games at quarterback as a rookie, and Barr, who was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before landing on injured reserve.
But their 34 starts, 130 tackles, 54 catches and 7 ½ sacks should not be overlooked as the Vikings look to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday and possibly clinch a playoff spot. Nor should the fact that these rookies are gaining valuable in-game experience for the future.
“The 2015 draft class can’t match the instant impact of the 2014 group, but Rick Spielman and Co. added a group that’s been able to play early,” said Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft analyst for Bleacher Report. “But most importantly this is a group that projects to have four or five starters by the time the 2016 season comes around.”