Whew. Let’s take a deep breath.
The 2017 NFL Draft has officially been in the books for a month, allowing us to finally move forward with the selections made and overanalyze for future months and years.
Before we do that, I think it’d behoove us to take a step back and look at the Vikings 2016 draft class. It’s a class that left us underwhelmed for various reasons, maybe none more than the team’s first-round pick Laquon Treadwell failing to live up to the hype — to put it lightly.
GM Rick Spielman also traded his third-round pick to the Miami Dolphins, which helped stock the front office with ammo in 2017, but left an empty feeling in Vikings fans’ stomachs on day two.
Due to Treadwell’s inability to catapult into the starting lineup, and other early round picks like Mackensie Alexander, Kentrell Brothers and Willie Beavers buried on the depth chart, the Vikings rookie class ranked a putrid 30th in the league in snaps played.
All hope is not lost, however. After losing two handfuls of major contributors in the offseason, the front office has put plenty of their own confidence in these players to now step up and expect their role to advance after a year on special teams, or even riding the pine.
I went pick-by-pick, taking a snapshot look at what the future holds for each 2016 draft pick, and their potential for the 2017 season.
Jayron Kearse, Safety, Seventh Round
78 Defensive Snaps
247 Special Teams Snaps
Kearse was snagged with the Vikings’ last pick and was pegged as a low-risk, high-reward player with his giant 6-foot-4 size and stature for a ball-hawking safety in the back end of Mike Zimmer’s defense. Playing for the Clemson Tigers, Kearse appeared in plenty of big-time games and more importantly went against some of the nation’s premier competition.
Kearse sat behind a cluster of guys vying for one spot opposite of Harrison Smith like Andrew Sendejo, Anthony Harris and Antone Exum. Like all rookies looking to make the team, Kearse got his hands dirty on special teams.
What if I told you the Vikings’ last pick in their 2016 class played almost double the snaps as the next closest guy? Such was the case with Kearse, who saw tons of action of special teams while getting a few starts along the way.
In Week 6, Kearse was flung into action for an ailing Sendejo in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Kearse’s first opportunity to impress did not fare well. I broke down his game the following day here, but Kearse (who had just two tackles) took bad angles in the run game and was fooled by double moves through the air.
The following week in Chicago on Monday Night Football, Kearse once again took a horrible angle against Jordan Howard who was able to easily get past Kearse (the last line of defense) for a huge game changing touchdown.
Anything is possible under defensive back guru Zimmer, but Kearse will drastically need to improve his overall effort in the running game first and foremost before coaches catapult him above his peers once again.
While he isn’t known for game changing plays, the coaching staff has always favored Sendejo because of his ability to limit mistakes while being a sound tackler in the box and open field. With that said, no one on the current roster possesses the natural physical skill set that Kearse has with his long frame and big reach which becomes apparent in deep and jump ball situations.
The front office has clearly tried their best to find a late round diamond to pair next to their super star at safety. With another year under his belt Kearse should take a big step forward now that he understands the speed and nuances of the NFL are no joke, but still seems far from being a capable and consistent safety in a short leashed Zimmer lead unit.
Stephen Weatherly, Defensive End, Seventh Round
1 Defensive Snap
15 Special Team Snaps
Weatherly was drafted out of Vanderbilt, where he flopped from an original hand in the dirt guy to a stand-up linebacker when their defensive coordinator implemented a new 3-4 scheme. Weatherly was a solid outside linebacker however, was always best suited as a more traditional defensive end role. Enough so that coach Andre Patterson wanted to get his hands on him in hopes of developing his enticing long arms and wing span on top of his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.
It has been tough for Weatherly to crack into the roster, thanks to a defensive line that might be the most talented unit of the entire team. Even special teams play hasn’t been easy to come by, as he saw just 15 snaps, losing out to veterans like Audie Cole and more suitable rookies like Brothers and Kearse. Because of that, Weatherly found himself inactive on most game days, and knew his number would only be called unless their was an injury or blowout situation.
Still, when he was on the field his long arms and stature stood out immediately, and you once again were reminded why coach Patterson was banging the table for him on day three.
After watching his college tape and seeing him in person, I for one have been sold on Weatherly from the get go as a high-ceiling guy that could thrive under coach Patterson, who has built a long pedigree in developing superstars on the defensive line.
While he hasn’t done much to date being jammed behind arguably the team’s deepest position at the top, when Weatherly does get the opportunity to see real action i’m expecting good things.
With guys like Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen holding the fort down for the foreseeable future, it will likely take the inevitable Brian Robison departure to see Weatherly take a healthy amount of live game reps. Stay patient with me on Weatherly and keep a close watch on him during training camp and preseason games.
David Morgan II, Tight End, Sixth Round
63 Offensive Snaps
58 Special Teams Snaps
Heading into the draft process Morgan was highly touted by PFF as one of the best blocking tight-ends you could find. Due to this, Morgan quickly received the “blocking tight-end” label, and not much else.
It didn’t take long to realize though Morgan was a focal point and major weapon for his offense, where they used him in nearly every spot imaginable. Morgan received snaps at wing back, in the slot, on the outside as a boundary receiver and other positions, showing off his outstanding versatility. Although he did his damage at a small program against lower-tiered competition, these two major facets to his game made Morgan a very intriguing prospect to watch.
If you were to tell your average Vikings fan that it would be Morgan, not first- and second-round picks Treadwell or Alexander that was the most productive rookie of the class last year, you likely would have had something throw in your face, or your genitals punched.
Alas, here we are and Morgan stood out the most both during training camp and the season where he filled in as the team’s number two tight end. Morgan was one of only two offensive rookies that took more than ten snaps during the season, and while he wasn’t asked to do much, he made few mistakes while learning behind some great veterans.
It was obvious when Morgan was drafted that would likely be the heir apparent to Rhett Ellison and his role as the blocking tight end that gets his hands dirty in the trenches. However, Morgan may take that role to the next level using his pass catching prowess and unique versatility he showcased in San Antonio to be more active inside the offensive gameplan.
We know offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur can dial in on his tight ends, but more specifically Shurmur likes to create those one-on-one mismatches wherever and with whomever he sees fit. I’ll be taking close note to Morgan’s new vastly expanded role in training camp as he tries to fill the big shoes of one of the best blocking tight ends the Vikings have ever had in Ellison.
Kentrell Brothers, Linebacker, Missouri
0 Defensive Snaps
192 Special Teams Snaps
You can tell which ones are the Spielman hashtag #analytics picks and which ones are the old-school Jamal Stephenson selections. Far from a height-weight-speed guy, Brothers still got the job done and then some in the toughest conference in the country. Playing for a school that breeds front seven guys, Brothers thrived in the Missouri Tiger’s defense helping them win the conference in 2013 and 2014 and led the entire SEC with an astounding 152 tackles and 12 tackles for loss in 2015.
It was clear the team felt Chad Greenway earned his starting position on the outside for one more season as he made it public it would likely be his final year with the team, even if it was off his reputation alone and not his actual play which was obviously trailing off. This, along with the signing of Emmanuel Lamur made it tough for Brothers to see any defensive reps in a scheme that featured just a two linebacker nickel package more often than not.
Instead, he did what he could on special teams where he thrived and became not just one of the best on the team, but in the entire NFL as just a rookie according to PFF.
His instant success should come to the surprise of little as Brothers has always had a strong knack and ability to track down and rope up the ball carrier. His final two years at Missouri he tallied up a gaudy 173 tackles and 17 tackles for loss, proving he is as natural of a tackler as they come and far from a raw athlete.
With the departure of Chad Greenway, Cole and likely Lamur, I expect the outside linebacker position to be a damn good one this offseason for the third linebacker spot. With his tackling prowess, it’s hard not to see the coaching staff giving Brothers a crack at the starting rotation however, this leads way to a bigger question which is which of the three spots he would play.
Clearly a more natural inside linebacker the most likely move would be pushing Eric Kendricks outside in the 4-3 base. Regardless of where he plays, in a Vikings defense that has the size and talent up front to soak up blockers and free up space for Brothers to roam and make plays with his natural ability.
Willie Beavers, Offensive Line, Western Michigan
11 Offensive Snaps
0 Special Teams Snaps
Its tough to find many positives to dig up on Beavers, who was one of the biggest head-scratching selections of the entire draft after being considered one heck of a reach in the fourth round. In fact, after an abysmal Senior Bowl performance I witnessed first hand, preceded by his average at best collegiate career, PFF ranked this pick one of the top-five worst of the entire 2016 draft.
I’ll never forget the response I was given from scouting director Stephenson when I asked him what they saw in Beavers to take him so high, he responded with, “He can really dent people with his first punch.”
Beavers did have good strength on tape — I will give him that — which is something that you hope will only get better under the proper strength and conditioning coaches. However, outside of that, Beavers offered little value and even less to work with. This was a Tony Sparano selection and his off-kilter reputation now hangs in the balance of developing Beavers into, at worst, an NFL backup.
After a slew of midseason injuries that left the depth chart decimated, the fan base held a collective deep breath as Beavers was forced into action. The exhale came frustratingly quick, as in his 11 snaps, Beavers allowed numerous pressures earning himself a PFF grade of just 48.6, leaving fans little be hopeful for regarding his future as an NFL lineman.
Regardless of how Beavers’ career unfolds this is a pick that will go down as one of the biggest head scratchers of the Spielman era due to his nearly undraftable grade and college pedigree.
As I mentioned, Beavers was arguably the worst blocker down in Mobile when I was in attendance which somberly matched his college tape. This doesn’t give fans much to hope for looking forward which is a shame as the team is still in desperate need of developing young talent on the offensive line in hopes of still smoothly transitioning out of former long time starters like Matt Kalil, Phil Loadholt, John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco.
I won’t rule Beavers out yet, however; not until I see his progress and development during training camp and preseason, from both strength and technique wise. If Sparano can pull off the biggest magic trick of his career and turn Beavers into a legitimate NFL offensive lineman, his added depth would do wonders for a unit decimated by injuries over the last two seasons.
Mackensie Alexander, Cornerback, Clemson
68 Defensive Snaps
113 Special Teams
It’s easy to forget but Alexander was a first-round cornerback throughout the entire pre-draft process. Thanks to a deep class of peers like William Jackson, Jalen Ramsey, Eli Apple and Vernon Hargreaves, Alexander was pushed down further than where he easily could’ve been selected.
This is why despite being the Vikings being so stocked up on cornerbacks at the time, I was ecstatic to steal him in the middle of round two with pick 54. Even with guys like Rhodes, Waynes, Munnerlyn and Newman on the roster, I’ve always preached that having too many cornerbacks is the best problem to have, especially in a pass-happy league.
Alexander’s slip may have had something to do with his limited numbers and statistics (0 interceptions, 11 pass breakups 2014-15). However, with quarterbacks staying away from his side of the field it was tough to blame him, and easy to look the fact he didn’t allow a touchdown pass in 24 straight games.
One of the most highly touted recruits the Tigers had ever brought in over the past decade (ESPN’s fourth ranked high school recruit in the country) Alexander quickly earned Freshman All-American honors while making a name for himself as a cocky and confident cornerback that was eager to get inside the head of his opponent early and often in games.
Fans were quick to point out how bad Alexander looked in his limited playing time during the regular season. Specifically in the road game in Jacksonville where he was clearly picked on and targeted on the boundary after being called for back-to-back pass interference calls.
Take a step back, though, and remember how solid he looked in the preseason action when he knew he was going to start and had time to mentally prepare against his specific opponents throughout the week. In the preseason Alexander made a number of plays both through the air and in the backfield while stopping the run showcasing his quick reactive skills and natural football IQ.
Yes, players need to be ready at all times to get throw into the fire; however, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to step into action late in a game cold turkey, and play flawless football like Alexander against the Jaguars. Knowing Alexander’s demeanor, I know no one was harder on him than himself after those rough stretches and I fully expect him to learn from his mistakes and only get better this upcoming season.
While he will undoubtedly go through his lumps early on this season, I for one am eager to watch Alexander grow and develop under coach Zimmer. Given his tools as a physical corner in both the run and pass, his work ethic and confident playing demeanor there’s no reason to think Alexander can’t be better than his predecessor Munnerlyn after the proper coaching and game experience.
Do me a favor and don’t get too down on Alexander when he has a bad play or gets called for pass interference in 2017, instead keep in mind the big picture moving forward, and trust the process of this ultra talented cornerback that was highly touted both in high school and coming out of college.
Eventually, if and when Alexander can exceed Munnerlyn’s production while earning a meager rookie salary, this selection will be the pick of the draft for Spielman who will have the breathing room to resign his own core players (Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes and Eric Kendricks to name a few) with the extra cap space Alexander opens up.
Laquon Treadwell, Wide Receiver, Ole Miss
80 Offensive Snaps
47 Special Teams Snaps
It wasn’t long ago Treadwell was the most coveted wideout in the nation as the country’s No. 1 wide receiver recruit. A bona fide five-star recruit that burst on the scene at Ole Miss as a consensus All-American from the get go (top freshman in the SEC in 2013), it couldn’t have been scripted any better until Treadwell’s leg blew up after being dragged down from behind by an Auburn defender, forcing him to miss the rest of the season and face a gruesome rehab over the next year.
He came back stronger than ever though and capped his career with a hat trick of touchdowns against Oklahoma State in his final bowl game. There was still plenty of questions surrounding Treadwell, though, like how his lack of explosion, speed and ability to create separation would fare in the NFL. Those questions were only magnified when he ran a sluggish 4.65 40 time at his pro day.
Still, Spielman and his staff banked on the fact his leg may have not been fully healed yet, and selected Treadwell in the first round in hopes of adding a physical presence to their passing game on both the boundary and inside the red zone.
Wide receivers use to get three full years to fully develop after transitioning into the NFL but in a “win-now” league it seems fanbases and sometimes even coaching staffs are quick to label a player a hero or a zero.
Treadwell was buried behind other veterans like Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson, two players the Vikings front office wanted to get one good look at before deciding what to do with them after their contracts expired in the offseason.
While Treadwell didn’t do anything close to earning those reps away from them, I do think people were too quick to assume Treadwell was flat out bad. Switch the roles, and if Patterson was buried as the No. 4 or 5 wideout, people would be up in arms.
With that said, it was obvious Treadwell was behind the eight-ball coming into the league at just 21 years old. Treadwell showed a difficult time gaining separation in the early going as well as the inability to consistently make the tough catches like he was known for in college.
By the time the dust settled, Treadwell had only three balls thrown his way catching just one of them, which for a first-round selection was one of the worst rookie performances you will find in the history of the game.
I wouldn’t want to be a young wide out in today’s day and age. The demand for instant success is nearly impossible to live up to unless given pristine surroundings like walking into a starting spot, a premier quarterback, and an offense that loves to pass (Michael Thomas says hi).
While he showed us virtually nothing to excite us for his next season, one of the biggest selling points of Treadwell coming out the draft was his age. Treadwell will be just 22 this upcoming season, which is younger than nearly every top wide out in the 2017 class. While the newest class will be going through their rookie lumps, Treadwell will not only have a full year of tutelage under his belt, but will younger than nearly all of them.
With the coaching staff set on using Stefon Diggs as an inside weapon in the slot, Treadwell will get his opportunities to win the outside boundary position opposite of Adam Thielen. But, the signing of troubled wide out Michael Floyd could draw out the obvious sign that Pat Shurmur and Mike Zimmer still think Treadwell is another year away from being counted on. Which, a decade ago would have been the end of the world for a second year 22 year old.
Alas, in a world of instant gratification the boo birds will be out once again on Treadwell who needs to make at least some splash plays downfield or in the red zone to avoid the dreaded “B” word in year two.