As the Minnesota Vikings wrapped up their 2019 season with a playoff loss in San Francisco, head coach Mike Zimmer stood at the podium for his end-of-season press conference. There were several questions about the direction of the team, which was pressed up against the salary cap and having several veterans who suffered a drop-off in play.
When asked about the upcoming decisions on whether to keep some of their key veterans on the roster, Zimmer gave a truthful answer.
“At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man’s game…”
Those words proved to be foreshadowing in the opening phase of free agency.
The Vikings said goodbye to many of the veterans that have made Zimmer’s first six seasons in Minnesota a success. Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph were cut. Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander opted not to re-sign and Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo.
Even with the addition of free-agent nose tackle Michael Pierce, the Vikings’ roster still stands as one of the youngest in the league. If the 2020 season starts on time, the Vikings would have an average age of 26, but that’s not counting the influx of youth that will be coming in the draft.
With 12 selections coming later this month, the average age of the Vikings would sink to 25.2 if they took an age-22 player with each pick. That number would have tied the Miami Dolphins for the lowest in the league last season and their 5-11 record doesn’t look encouraging toward what the Vikings’ future looks like in 2020.
However, the game of football has changed in recent years.
An Associated Press study conducted after the 2018 season showed that the average player on an NFL roster had 4.3 years of experience. That number has shrunk significantly from the 2005 season when players averaged 4.8 years of experience.
That same study also showed that there was a spike in players with three years or less experience (from 784 players in 2005 to 852 in 2018) and a drop in players with five or more years of experience (714 in 2005 to 644 in 2018).
Digging deeper, three of the 12 playoff teams from last season ranked in the top five of the youngest average rosters in the NFL. The Vikings tied with the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers with an average age of 25.5, but all made the playoffs despite holding the fourth-youngest rosters in the league. The Kansas City Chiefs also won the Super Bowl with an average age of 25.9, but that number ranked 16th.
The idea to add cheaper and potentially more talented rookies to the roster is an ideal situation for a team pressed up against the salary cap. The downside of this decision lies in the current situation that teams are in due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
With NFL facilities shut down and a completely virtual draft in the works, it’s highly unlikely that OTAs and even minicamp will take place as scheduled. Roger Goodell all but confirmed this saying that minicamp will feature “virtual programs,” as opposed to the regular on-field training.
Technology has improved in the past decade, but the case of potentially having zero on-field reps heading into training camp is rare in the modern era of the NFL. The one precedent could be the 2011 season, where the NFLPA was in the middle of a lockout and didn’t reach an agreement until early August.
That situation bred an interesting rookie class, which had plenty of talent, but mixed results as rookies. Only four rookies made the Pro Bowl roster — A.J. Green, Brandon Browner, Von Miller, Patrick Peterson — but the results seemed more dire at the Vikings’ positions of need heading into this year’s draft including wide receiver, cornerback and offensive line.
Wide receivers were an interesting group that included future Hall of Famers in Green and Julio Jones, but they were the only two to be graded in the top 50 receivers by Pro Football Focus. The rest of the class included a solid rookie campaign from Torrey Smith, but also saw a future contributor like Randall Cobb slump to 25 catches, 375 yards and one touchdown.
Cornerbacks didn’t fare much better as Richard Sherman and Jimmy Smith both graded 12th by PFF, but no other rookie cracked the top 50. Peterson, another future Hall of Famer, didn’t even crack the top 100, but still made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner.
Offensive linemen appeared to be the bleakest of all despite having a solid amount of overall talent. Nine of the first 14 linemen selected are still in the league, but a majority of those players didn’t produce immediate results. Only Tyron Smith ranked in PFF’s top-50 linemen (26th) and Mike Pouncey (75th) and Stefen Wisniewski (83rd) graded out in the top 100.
On top of that, younger teams also seemed to struggle coming out of the extended layoff.
While the Vikings would have easily cleared Tampa Bay’s average age of 25.8, the Buccaneers posted a record of 4-12. Seattle (25.9, 7-9), Cleveland (26.2, 4-12), Carolina (26.3, 6-10) and Jacksonville (26.3, 5-11) all had similar down seasons as they tried to pick up systems on the fly. However, more teams are relying on younger players, so this could average out.
The good news for the Vikings is they already have several young players on the roster, but a lot of their 2020 success will come down to the job by Zimmer. In the past, it’s taken years for Minnesota rookies to see the field, especially at the cornerback position where the Vikings have lost their top three starters from a year ago.
But that hasn’t been a problem in the past as Zimmer has worked with younger rosters and still has found a way to win more than he’s lost. If he’s able to navigate this turnover, the Vikings should be in a good spot and set up for an even brighter future.