Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might never top his 2015 draft class, but this season’s crop of rookies at least could end up giving it a good run.
In 2015, Minnesota had a draft haul that included eventual starting cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round, all-pro linebacker Eric Kendricks in the second, Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter in the third and 1,000-yard receiver wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round.
The Vikings in 2020 hedged their bets on having a productive draft class. They didn’t bring back a number of veterans in order to get younger and address salary-cap issues, making it ever more essential to have a good draft.
They traded Diggs and a seventh-round pick to Buffalo in a deal that landed them three 2020 draft picks and a 2021 selection. That helped get their 2020 draft stash to 15 picks, the most by any team since the NFL went to a seven-round draft in 1994.
With their draft booty, the Vikings started things off by taking wide receiver Justin Jefferson with the No. 22 pick in the first round, which they got in the Diggs trade. Entering Sunday’s finale at Detroit, Jefferson has 79 catches for 1,267 yards and seven touchdowns and has been named to the Pro Bowl.
Other significant gets were cornerback Jeff Gladney with the No. 31 pick in the first round, guard Ezra Cleveland in the second round and cornerback Cameron Dantzler in the third, with all becoming starters. And in the fourth round they got Troy Dye, who has had five starts as the third linebacker, and D.J. Wonnum, who emerged as the third defensive end.
All of this was against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. That resulted in on-field spring drills and preseason games being canceled, something many expected would significantly set back many rookies.
“I think in a year in which many of us quote, unquote analysts or pundits thought it’s going to be hard for any rookie to come in and contribute, the Vikings showed that there was an opportunity for these young guys,’’ said Brock Huard, a former NFL quarterback and Fox analyst who called two Vikings games this season.
Of course, it should be noted that all of these rookie contributions did not translate into a lot of wins for the Vikings, who are 6-9 and assured of their first losing season since they went 7-9 in Mike Zimmer’s first year of 2014. And it also should be noted that several of the rookies wouldn’t have played nearly as much had Minnesota not had a bevy of injuries.
Injuries to cornerbacks Mike Hughes and since-released Holton Hill played a role in Gladney and Dantzler becoming starters and routinely having games in which they were in for every play. Since-released Pat Elflein getting hurt in a practice after Week 1 led to Cleveland eventually becoming the starter at right guard. And injuries to Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr opened up a path for additional playing time for Wonnum and Dye, respectively.
And now all of these snaps the rookies got in 2020 really could pay off in 2021.
“I think that’s probably the biggest thing is they’ve got a really good opportunity to contribute,’’ said Lions interim coach Darrell Bevell, the Vikings offensive coordinator from 2006-10. “Obviously, Jefferson, it’s well documented what he’s done. … All the rookies they have back there, just opportunities to play will only help them and enhance their abilities, learning the game and being able to make the improvements through true live game reps, and I think they’ve got bright futures.’’
It all starts with Jefferson, who caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns as a slot receiver last season for national champion LSU before moving to the outside in the NFL. After four wide receivers were taken ahead of him in the draft, he arrived in Minnesota with a chip on his shoulder, and that has continued to fuel him.
Jefferson has broken Randy Moss’ 1998 rookie team record of 69 receptions and needs just 47 yards against the Lions to top his rookie mark of 1,313 yards. Moss’ yardage figure is third in NFL history behind Houston’s Bill Groman in 1960 and 1,377 by Arizona’s Anquan Boldin 2003.
“I definitely set goals for myself at the beginning of the season,’’ said Jefferson, who said his goals were 60 catches, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. “But to actually reach my goals and reach beyond my goals, I mean that’s something special. I just got to keep going and keep building on my game and get better and better each season.’’
Jefferson didn’t start until Week 3, and then broke loose with seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee. Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton served as the CBS analyst for that game.
“He has really easy hands, good hand-eye coordination and can run and jump and stop and start,’’ Lofton said. “He has everything that you want in a receiver today. … He certainly has the skill set to be one of the top receivers in the league.”
Entering the finale, Jefferson has played 822 snaps (82 percent). But that’s not the most for any rookie on the team.
Gladney has been in for 900 snaps (88.6 percent). He got in for just nine plays in the opener against Green Bay, but since then has started 14 straight games, and played every snap in six of them.
“Gladney, I really liked in college at TCU,’’ Huard said. “He’s one tough sucker. He was thrown into a situation where he had to play a lot this year, but he showed how tough he is. At the minimum, he’s going to be a very good nickel back.’’
The Vikings most often have started Gladney and Dantzler on the outside with Gladney shifting to the slot when they go to a nickel defense. But while Gladney has been extremely durable, Dantzler hasn’t been.
The 6-foot-2, 188-pound Dantzler has missed four games this season due to injury and will sit out a fifth on Sunday because of a hamstring strain.
“I love Dantzler, but he’s so thin,’’ Huard said. “He’s going to have to add some mass to him or he’ll never stay healthy.’’
Co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said the Vikings “need to have him more available” and that putting on weight is “something the strength coaches are going to address in the offseason with’’ Dantzler, fourth on the team with two interceptions. Overall, though, he likes the building blocks Minnesota has at cornerback, a position that often takes more time to learn than some other ones.
“If you go back to Week 1 or the beginning of training camp, those guys have grown a lot,’’ he said Gladney and Dantzler. “They’ve gotten a lot of opportunities. … They’re not anywhere where they need to be yet, and they shouldn’t be. They’re still rookies. But I like their progress.’’
Due to veterans not returning and injuries, plenty of rookies got opportunities on defense. In addition to Gladney, rookie defenders to have logged more than 100 out of 1,016 snaps include Dantzler (601), Wonnum (420), Dye (181) and cornerback Harrison Hand (106), a fifth-round pick. Undrafted rookie linebacker Blake Lynch, who played 72 of his 73 seasonal snaps in Minnesota’s last game at New Orleans, could hit 100 on Sunday.
The Vikings’ youth on that side of the ball has played a role in their meager rankings of No. 28 in the NFL in scoring defense and No. 27 in total defense. But there is still reason for optimism with so many rookies having gained valuable experience.
“I definitely feel the future is going to be bright for us,’’ said Wonnum, tied for third on the team with three sacks. “We have guys getting reps now and getting that feel of the game, so going into the future and the offseason, those guys will be able to get better and take their game to the next level.’’
On offense, the only rookies to have gotten significant playing time have been Jefferson and Cleveland, and they certainly earned it. After Elflein was hurt, the Vikings first turned to Dru Samia at right guard. Samia, though, struggled in four starts, and Cleveland’s play in practice showed he was deserving of being inserted into the lineup.
After moving into the lineup in Week 6, Cleveland has started eight of the past 10 games, having missed two due to an ankle injury, and gotten good reviews. He has logged 541 snaps, fourth on the team among rookies.
Cleveland played left tackle at Boise State before changing his position and his side on the line. He doesn’t deny that it hasn’t been the easiest transition to the NFL due to the pandemic.
“Not having any of the spring drills and stuff was difficult but I think us as a rookie class, we did a good job coming in, us knowing what’s going to happen and take everything in stride,’’ Cleveland said. “Experience is a big thing in terms of playing football. Once I started playing and getting that experience under my belt, it definitely helped me.’’
It remains to be seen what will happen with Cleveland moving forward. He could be moved back to tackle if the Vikings opt to let go of high-salaried left tackle Riley Reiff.
Regardless, Cleveland is a building block for Minnesota’s future. So are Jefferson and the many rookies on defense who got plenty of experience in 2020.
“I think it’s been exceptional,’’ offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said of the rookie class. “Great job by some coaches getting young players ready to play, but, man, the future sure looks bright. … Some of these young guys got a lot of snaps under their belt, which should help them say, ‘Hey I can do this and I belong.’’’
How the draft class might stack up to the one in 2015 remains to be seen. But this class already has produced a Pro Bowler as a rookie, something the one in 2015 didn’t have.