The Minnesota Vikings are one of the youngest teams in football. They also believe they are in the middle of a Super Bowl window thanks to a defensive core in its prime and a franchise quarterback with two elite receivers on offense.
That dichotomy could be viewed as troublesome when a team with sky-high aspirations is in a position to rely on its youth in several pivotal areas.
It hasn’t been too much of a problem, however, for the 2018 Vikings, who are using rookies for the highest percentage of snaps since 2015, when they unleashed draft picks Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs and Danielle Hunter in significant roles.
Many of the opportunities this year have arisen through injuries, Terence Newman’s retirement or Everson Griffen’s suspension — unanticipated circumstances that head coach Mike Zimmer knows, through years of coaching, are almost inevitable in the NFL.
“I think every team goes through that,” he said. “Guys come in and they end up playing. Hopefully we have a lot of depth. We’ve been fortunate we have a lot of depth. We have good players.”
This year’s first-year class has combined for 840 snaps on offense and defense, or 7.2 percent of the team’s total (excluding special teams). That’s a slight increase on last year’s percentage, when the Vikings had Dalvin Cook for four games, Pat Elflein starting most of the year and Ben Gedeon playing in the base defense. It’s a significant hike up from 2016, when the Vikings got next to nothing from their rookie class.
ROOKIE SNAPS SINCE 2014
|ROOKIE SNAPS||PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL|
*Through eight games
Holton Hill was the latest rookie to shine in Sunday night’s game against the New Orleans Saints, filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes. Going against quarterback immortality Drew Brees, Hill turned in the seventh-best performance of the week amongst all NFL corners, per Pro Football Focus, allowing just one reception on three targets.
“I thought he tackled well,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I thought for the most part he handled the times when he had to pass off receivers, he did that well. The times he pressed for the most part were pretty good. He lost a guy one time on a route. But for the first time out, the game didn’t seem too big for him.”
Hill is one of three undrafted rookies to play this year for Minnesota — four if you count former CFLer Brandon Zylstra at wide receiver. Undrafted free agents Mike Boone and Roc Thomas have seen a greater workload at running back with Dalvin Cook missing significant time with a hamstring injury, and Zylstra has begun seeing the field occasionally at wide receiver.
In terms of the Vikings’ actual draft class, it has arguably had a greater impact on the team’s week-to-week plans than many expected.
First-round pick Mike Hughes tore his ACL in Week 6, ending his season early, but he had played 243 snaps at cornerback up to that point and earned a share of the duties in the nickel spot. His Pick 6 against Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 1 aided the Vikings’ win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Hill and Hughes have both been under the tutelage of Newman, who retired before the season after three years in Minnesota and took an assistant coaching spot. He’s made a habit of holding private film sessions with the rookie corners and helping them make adjustments mid-game.
“I know they were in the office early today talking about certain things, talking about another set of eyes,” Zimmer said, referring to a recent meeting between Hill and Newman, “another way to help him decipher a lot of things the offense is doing, trying to work with technique on him.”
Second-rounder Brian O’Neill has now made three consecutive starts at right tackle while Rashod Hill fills in for the injured Riley Reiff. Pro Football Focus has given O’Neill a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 96.8 in that time frame, the league’s 19th-best rating for tackles who’ve appeared each of the last three weeks.
“I just think that the longer he’s been out there and the more reps he’s been able to get, I think he’s just been able to work on his technique and fine tune it to where he can hold up,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said of O’Neill. “I also think there’s a confidence that comes with having been out there before.”
Additionally, fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes has used his versatility to fill in at defensive end, and fifth-round pick Tyler Conklin has integrated as another blocking tight end with David Morgan.
The only rookie bust at this point would be kicker Daniel Carlson, who lost his job after missing three kicks against the Green Bay Packers in Week 2. He’s now kicking for the Oakland Raiders.
There are always risks involved with rookies. Not even the wisest coach can know for certain how they’ll respond to the pressure of a live-speed NFL game.
Halfway through the Vikings season, most of their rookies have been up for the challenge — drafted or undrafted.
“We have good coaches, number one. I think that’s good,” Zimmer said. “I think they’re talented guys. Just because a guy isn’t drafted doesn’t mean he’s not a good football player. Nowadays with only seven rounds, there are a lot of players that are available after the draft that have opportunities to play. We’ve been very fortunate. We work real hard at getting those kind of guys.”