NFL fans are familiar with CFL-to-NFL success stories like Cameron Wake, Doug Flutie and former Viking Warren Moon. The CFL has a pretty good tradition of sending receivers over to the NFL after developing them, though those stories aren’t as well known.
Perhaps the most successful was former New Orleans Saints (and Memphis Mad Dogs) receiver Joe Horn, but more recently we’ve seen Andrew Hawkins transition after a stint on the Montreal Alouettes and Dontrelle Inman move from the Toronto Argonauts to the San Diego Chargers.
Vikings roster hopeful Brandon Zylstra hopes to be the next to transform successfully to the NFL.
The CFL presents significant challenges to any player hoping to move back to American football, but those challenges are unique for wide receivers.
The rules of the game allow receivers to run forward before the snap – something they call the waggle – which gives them a running start. The waggle opens up the game, but also means that cornerbacks rarely have the ability to play press coverage — and when they can are significantly less practiced at it.
It also means that receivers who can get by with their build-up speed in order to be deep threats may not be able to do the same thing once they enter the NFL; quick acceleration is going to mean a lot more for players who want to get open deep.
When asked about the biggest adjustment to account for in his transition, Zylstra said it was the size of the field, 65 yards wide and 110 yards deep — instead of the NFL’s 53.3 by 100.
“It being 13 [more] yards up there, there’s a lot more room for you to play around with,” he said. “You know coming down here with things just a lot tighter, it speeds up the game a lot because as soon as you catch a ball, somebody’s in your face. I’d say that’s one of the major differences that took me a practice or two to get back into again.”
He doesn’t want to make a big deal of those differences, however. “At the same time, it’s the same football game that I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old.
“I mean, route-running is route-running,” he explained. “Up there, you got that waggle and everything, but like I said, this is the game I’ve been playing since I was young, so I don’t think this is too much.”
The Concordia-Moorhead alum likely draws upon experience he had in college, where he led his team in receiving yards as a senior with 692 yards. That doesn’t sound like much, but the team only had 10 games and threw the ball a total of 210 times. In a typical college throwing environment, that amounts to 1,163 yards. On a pass-happy team, that translates to 1,800 yards.
Zylstra has been the subject of unusual praise for a “camp body” – a player that many expect to make the practice squad or, if he’s lucky, the bottom of the receiver depth chart.
Earlier this offseason, John DeFilippo had a lot of praise for Zylstra when asked about him. “Well, he made a heck of a catch on the left sideline today,” DeFilippo said. “That guy continue to impress, he continues to impress. The more that he starts to understand the speed of the NFL game, he’s a big strong guy.
“People are going to have a hard time getting up in his face and pressing him. He has tremendous hands, he’s smart. He’s one of the guys that can line up anywhere. We could put him at any position. We’re very fortunate he’s on our football team.”
Even more noteworthy was head coach Mike Zimmer’s praise in early May. “So far, he has done an unbelievable job out here in our Phase II stuff. Running routes, catching the ball. He looks quick. Smart guy, tough. He is out here today.”
That sort of unqualified praise is rare from Zimmer, especially about a player that doesn’t have much of a track record and has more to prove.
We described Zylstra in our training camp guide as someone who demonstrated excellent ball tracking and a large catch radius but needed to demonstrate a broader route tree and more attention to detail.
That’s something he’ll find with receivers coach Darrell Hazell. Having had success developing Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Hazell has a pedigree of developing with an eye for the little things.
“[Coach Hazell] is all about the details,” said Zylstra, “which I love. I’ve had some success in the past because the receiver coaches I’ve been around have been all about the details — that’s what he’s about too, so I just feel more comfortable.”
It might help that he feels at home. A native of Minnesota, Zylstra was born in Spicer – a town with a population of 1,200 people – and attended high school in the combined New London-Spicer high school, which has 398 enrollees. It’s unsurprising to hear he didn’t get many D-I offers given the size of his high school.
He’s not just a native of the state, either – he grew up a Vikings fan idolizing Randy Moss and Cris Carter. “This is the team I grew up watching,” he said. “This is the team I’ve always been a fan of. For me to come back here it’s been awesome. It’s been a super cool experience.”
While Moss and Carter aren’t in the receiver room with him, he still has a talented group of veterans to help him along in his career. Everyone’s pitched in, including players who have just arrived. When asked which players have been most instrumental in his early experience with the Vikings, he first mentioned Tavarres King, a former New York Giant.
For Zylstra, his approach is tailored to his needs. “I’ve learned a lot from [King]. Diggs and Thielen, Treadwell, those guys … it’s honestly, you just kind of pick what you want from everybody. Kind of see what’s good for you, what works for you.”
For that reason, he declined to mention any specific players he tailors his game to, instead reinforcing the idea that every receiver has their own style and technique, and that he’d rather take specific bits of what has made them successful and incorporate that into his style of play.
Thus far in camp, it seems like he’s made good on his positives while minimizing the negatives. He’s been a favorite target among the rookies, and he’s shown an ability to crack open against both man and zone coverage, with some highlight catches already to his name. He’s even caught some passes over first-round pick Mike Hughes and the hyped undrafted free agent Holton Hill.
With only a few days of training camp in the books, this doesn’t mean much in terms of his ability to make the roster, but it does tell us that Zylstra may be much more than his scouting report.