Here’s the thing: I’m not sure most reasonable people would expect a coach to lean on rookie talent in Mike Zimmer’s situation. Forget your preconceived notions about Zim for a second and hear me out. This isn’t about his defense-first mentality or aversion to the forward pass.
It’s about how people respond to pressure.
Zimmer is heading into his eighth season as head coach, and he’s the longest-tenured coach in the NFL who hasn’t won a championship. But you already knew that. You also know that this is a do-or-die season for him. The Vikings have to make the playoffs, or he’s out. Hell, they probably have to win their first-round matchup.
So who in their right mind can blame him for putting Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis with the second-teamers during OTAs? Is it fun to live in a world where Rashod Hill and Dru Samia start Week 1? No, of course not.
However, they’re veterans who know how to play the position. Darrisaw and Davis have enough talent to get selected in the first and third rounds, respectively, in April’s draft, but they still need to learn how to play the position. False starts and blown coverages won’t do on a team that needs to give Kirk Cousins enough time to find Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen up the seam.
Yes, it’s only June, so we’re overreacting a bit. These guys have time to develop. But even though it’s 80 and sunny out and there are brats to grill and fish to catch, your mind is still on the gridiron. You might be getting spotty reception in Aitken or Nisswa, but damn it, Samia is getting first-team reps!
There are two issues here. One is league-wide, and one is Vikings-specific.
The NFL’s decision to lower the cap from $198.2 million last year to $182.5 million is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Yes, they lost money during the pandemic — every league did. But the lack of fan attendance hurts football less than, say, hockey. The NHL’s TV rights, which they just sold to ESPN and Turner, are worth about $650 million. The NFL is a $10 billion business that has partnerships with every major broadcaster — ESPN, Yahoo, and Amazon. Even without a deadly disease floating around, many fans choose to watch from their favorite couch rather than sit in a cramped seat drinking a $10 Miller Lite.
Reducing the cap for the first time since 2010 had ramifications across the league. Teams had to make hard decisions on players who were integral to their success last year. The Vikings decided to dedicate free-agent money to the defense and use draft capital to fill out the offensive line.
They restructured Anthony Barr’s contract, making him a free agent next year, and brought in Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson to bolster a defense that cratered last year. By contrast, they’re leaning on Darrisaw and Davis to fill out the O-line and asking Irv Smith Jr., 23, to not only replace Kyle Rudolph but be the team’s de facto third receiver.
So why is there so much trepidation around this arrangement?
For starters, the offensive line has been porous for years. Secondly, they need to maximize Jefferson. He’s not a threat to push his way out, a la Stefon Diggs. But the mercurial Diggs spoke a simple truth: The Vikings need to pass more. And to do so, Cousins needs a pocket to throw from.
Secondly, Minnesota tried this method a year ago with their cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes had passed his prime and joined the Indianapolis Colts in free agency, and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander had signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Instead of bringing in a couple of veteran corners to act as a stopgap, they became the first secondary since 1993 to start two rookie corners simultaneously.
Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler took half a season to learn the NFL game. It was a perfectly reasonable amount of time, but the season was over by the time they were ready to go. Was that the only issue that plagued the purple last year? No. Cousins had a 15.9 passer rating in the first two weeks, Jefferson didn’t start until Week 3, and the pass rush was abysmal. But starting two first-year corners in a pass-happy league is a risk they shouldn’t have taken, even though the secondary is Zimmer’s area of expertise.
Logically, the Vikings should be getting Darrisaw and Davis as many first-team reps as possible. They should be lined up against Minnesota’s best defensive players in every drill, trying to keep them at arm’s length while Cousins meticulously goes through his reads. But they’re bound to make rookie mistakes. Maybe punch too soon or don’t set their anchor. Perhaps they misread where the blitz is coming from. Honestly, they’re bound to be overwhelmed. Almost every O-lineman is in his first season.
Defense-first is the Vikings’ strategy to maintain cap-compliance with a $150 million quarterback, $66 million running back, and an overhauled defense. Darrisaw and Davis wouldn’t be the first players to look rusty in June and ready at the end of August. But man, trepidation in the summer could turn into sacks in the fall if these guys aren’t prepared by Week 1.