It’s Starting to Look Like Spielman Nailed the 2020 Draft

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have risen from the dead! Once 1-5 with visions of a complete teardown, they have picked up a pair of wins and found themselves back into the playoff picture. Now two games back of the seventh playoff spot in the NFC, it’s fair to wonder just how they’re doing it and if it’s sustainable.

If the Viking rookies have anything to say, this newfound success is here to stay.

There’s been a lot of heat placed on general manager Rick Spielman for the team’s start to the season. While many have pointed to Kirk Cousins‘ contract and the ill-fated trade for Yannick Ngakoue as a reason to fire him, Spielman has built his reputation on finding players in the draft who can develop into long-term contributors.

As he hoarded late-round draft picks last April, it looked like he was trying to rebuild on the fly. If the Vikings had a preseason, the picks may have paid more immediate dividends, but as they make an improbable playoff push, the class is starting to produce as it did in the win over the Lions.

The most obvious contributor has been Justin Jefferson. He caught 111 passes at LSU, so it should have been clear that he would be ready to produce in the NFL. Not every team saw it this way, of course, as Jefferson was the fifth receiver taken in the draft.

A big reason for Jefferson’s fall was how he collected his receptions with the Tigers. Jefferson played 78% of his snaps in the slot in his final season at LSU and saw 98% of his production come from those snaps. By lining up in the slot, Jefferson rarely saw man coverage and was able to take advantage of the holes in the defense. When forced to line up on the outside in his sophomore season, Jefferson didn’t have the same punch, putting up a mediocre 54-875-6 line while having to deal with physical corners.

Throughout his rookie season, Jefferson has debunked these myths and, on Sunday, he provided several examples of where his game has grown.

In the first quarter against Jeffrey Okudah, Jefferson lined up on the outside. Going up against the top cornerback in this year’s class, Jefferson was met with physicality, but stayed on his route and created separation for a 22-yard gain that set up the first touchdown of the game. This has been a trend this season for Jefferson, who has played 58% of his snaps on the outside with 64% of his yardage coming from those snaps.

In the third quarter, Jefferson continued his myth-busting performance. This time in the slot, Jefferson won at the line of scrimmage against physical coverage from Amani Oruwariye and darted to the sideline for a 35-yard reception.

Later on the drive, the Vikings used Jefferson in the slot again as he defeated tight coverage again to draw a pass interference penalty that led to an Irv Smith Jr. touchdown.

While Jefferson was one of the rookies to make an immediate impact, the Vikings have had to wait on players such as Jeff Gladney and Ezra Cleveland.

Gladney, the Vikings’ second first-round pick, was brought along slowly after offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus. While he has had his share of struggles, he’s also flashed the physicality that made him so appealing. He’s PFF’s top-graded cornerback against the run and ranks 18th among qualifiers in tackling grade.

The TCU product made his impact felt early on in the victory over Detroit. On the opening drive, Gladney made a stop on third down that helped produce a three-and-out and later, made a beautiful stop on a screen pass to Adrian Peterson.

Gladney’s impact in coverage has left something to be desired, but he put together his best game as a professional against the Lions. PFF charted Gladney with 0.58 yards per coverage snap on Sunday, and although he gave up five receptions, he’s in the right position to make plays to keep the impact of what he gives up to a minimum.

For Cleveland, his impact has been felt the past two weeks as a catalyst for the running game. After struggling in his first career start against Atlanta, Cleveland showed improvement against Green Bay by producing one of the highest-graded games by a Vikings guard since 2016.

Just like his fellow classmates, Cleveland also showed out against the Lions. While the Vikings have been able to limit his exposure in pass protection, they’ve been able to do so because of the effect Cleveland has had on the running game. On Dalvin Cook‘s 70-yard touchdown that effectively buried the Lions, Cleveland led the charge, pulling beautifully to the left side and clearing the way for the exclamation point on Cook’s career day.

While Cleveland has been tremendous in the trenches offensively, D.J. Wonnum has been the catalyst for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. When the Vikings threw in the towel on the Ngakoue trade, defensive coordinator Andre Patterson mentioned that Ngakoue wasn’t giving the Vikings what he wanted: pressures.

Patterson has been able to mold Wonnum into what he’s wanted since the day he arrived in Minnesota. On a drive late in the third quarter, Wonnum didn’t get to Matthew Stafford, but it didn’t matter. Going up against Taylor Decker, Wonnum nearly drove the veteran tackle into Stafford’s lap forcing him to get rid of the ball before he wanted to. The play resulted in a nine-yard completion, but Wonnum still had an impact on the play.

On the next play, Wonnum beat Taylor clean and was able to make Stafford leave the pocket and eventually throw the ball away. While the play didn’t result in a sack or turnover, that came later in the drive when Stafford would throw a pick to Eric Kendricks.

Wonnum’s overall game was not received well by PFF as the Vikings’ lowest graded edge defender, but his two pressures came at critical times that helped the Vikings’ defense take control of the game. While Wonnum (10) doesn’t have the same pressure numbers as Ngakoue (16), it’s close enough to the point the Vikings didn’t feel like paying a premium for the latter was necessary.

The top of the class has been great, but it also doesn’t give credit to what Spielman did in other areas of the roster. Cameron Dantzler missed Sunday’s game with a concussion, but he has cracked the starting lineup as a third-round rookie. Even Troy Dye and James Lynch have flashed as the Vikings try to find players that can help in 2020 and beyond.

This also doesn’t include players that have been added in recent years that are beginning to step up. Eric Wilson has five of the Vikings’ eight turnovers on the season and Hercules Mata’afa is making a successful transition from an undersized three-tech to an edge rusher.

When the Vikings embarked on this season, they knew they would have to find players that could jump into roles and contribute quickly. Although it took a while for them to find their groove, the 2020 draft class is starting to produce and could help lead this team to the playoffs.

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