The Minnesota Vikings have drafted a lot of young talent at linebacker, but a player the New York Giants selected two years ago may end up having the most-immediate impact.
Ryan Connelly isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of players who are likely to earn substantial minutes, let alone a roster spot. So why should you care about a player who lacks elite athleticism and upside, who might not even make the team?
After all, the Vikings have plenty of young linebackers who have a ton of potential. We’re talking Troy Dye, Cameron Smith, and Chazz Surratt here. So why are we talking about Connelly? Because he could make the 53-man. I’m gonna make a case for why you shouldn’t count him out of the running to win the Vikings’ third linebacker spot.
Connelly grew up in Eden Prairie and walked on to the University of Wisconsin football team. He was guaranteed nothing, yet managed to make the squad his freshman and sophomore years. Connelly stepped into a more consistent role his junior year after senior LB Jack Cichy suffered an ACL injury before the start of the 2017 season. He finished the season with 88 tackles, 11 of them for loss. He would go on to earn a spot as a full-time starter for the Badgers in 2018 before declaring for the draft the following year.
Selected 19 picks ahead of Vikings LB Cameron Smith in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, Connelly made a good first impression his rookie year, earning a starting role in James Bettcher’s 3-4 defense. Connelly only played in four regular-season games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury, but he finished with two pass deflections, two interceptions, 26 tackles, and a sack.
The following season wasn’t much better for Connelly. The New York Giants fired head coach Pat Shurmur, who finished 9-23 in two seasons, and GM Dave Gettleman hired Joe Judge to replace him. He gave him full authority to choose his own assistant coaches, and Judge hired Patrick Graham as the new defensive coordinator, which meant Connelly had to learn a new playbook while recovering from a torn ACL.
The Graham hire made Ryan an old player in a new regime. Graham began to install a hybrid defense, implementing different sub-packages from 3-4, 4-3, 2-4, 3-3-5, and 4-2-5 base defenses. While some players may be limited to one scheme, Connelly can function as a 3-4 “Mike” or a 4-3 “Sam” linebacker. So when New York decided to cut Connelly before the season, pundits questioned the decision and wondered if the Giants would be able to sneak him onto the practice squad. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
The Vikings claimed Connelly off waivers on Sept. 6th, 2020, right before the start of the regular season. He suited up for 14 games, and although he rarely saw the field, Connelly was given a whole year to learn Mike Zimmer’s notoriously complex defense. Having to learn a variety of different skills isn’t new for him. After all, he’s already dealt with a coaching change early in his career.
That experience thrust him into a position where he had to learn a completely different playbook and the assignments that come with it. Because of the nature of his upbringing as a walk-on in Wisconsin, Connelly comes with a workmanlike attitude that will undoubtedly help him succeed in a crowded Vikings LB room. He benefits from being in the prime of his career, while having played six years of football in college and as a professional, giving him a good blend of experience and youth.
Connelly also played with new Vikings defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, and that familiarity will help with pre-snap communication, especially in the run game. Zimmer is known for pairing former teammates on defense: Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse, and most recently Patrick Jones and Jaylen Twyman. Most of those players ended up becoming starters or will have a chance to contribute on special teams, which bodes well for Connelly’s playing time.
Ryan Connelly’s biggest competition at training camp will be Cameron Smith and Nick Vigil, who the Vikings signed this offseason. Both fit the mold as thumpers in the run game, and it wouldn’t make sense for the team to keep all three of them, especially when Dye, Surratt, and Smith are all on favorable rookie contracts.
A good place to start would be to beat Vigil, since the Vikings have a tendency to sign depth players like him to one-year deals, only to cut them before the start of the season. From there, Ryan will need to prove that he is more disciplined than Dye and Surratt while consistently diagnosing plays and properly communicating with the rest of the defense.
All it takes is one good training camp. If Ryan is able to prove himself as the most reliable and experienced player out of the bunch, he may end up being one of the more surprising players to earn a spot on the roster. After all, he did it at Wisconsin, so I wouldn’t count out Connelly just yet.