In the early years of the Mike Zimmer era, his reluctance to play rookies was a recurring storyline. It was especially egregious for late-rounders, but it was even rare for a first-rounder to get meaningful snaps — until last season.
Understandably, an old-school coach like Zimmer wouldn’t want to throw out his young players so soon after entering the NFL. But teams have pushed their young quarterbacks into action in order to capitalize on roster-building opportunities while their signal-caller is still on his rookie deal.
No, the Vikings aren’t going to start Kellen Mond next year. But last season may have been a breakthrough for the Vikings. They started a rookie at left tackle and guard, two key positions. Zimmer also started two rookie corners in Week 1 of last season.
Obviously, lack of depth is why the rooks got so many snaps last year. But had he not felt comfortable starting first-year players, the front office could have brought in veteran stopgaps.
And let’s not forget about Justin Jefferson. He may not have started Week 1, but he established himself as an impact player by Week 3.
It looks like Zimmer is willing to put inexperience aside and start players based on talent in a pinch. Why is that such an important change now? Well, one of the biggest factors in playoff runs is having a healthy balance of rookie (aka affordable) contracts on a team with expensive veterans like Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook and a slew of defensive free agents like Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, and Michael Pierce.
A key difference between the 2021 Vikings and other successful teams is which positions they are paying the most money to. However, in theory, it shouldn’t matter as long as it balances out in the end.
For example, the Kansas City Chiefs managed to win the Super Bowl two years ago with Patrick Mahomes still on a team-friendly rookie contract. The Chiefs had just signed Sammy Watkins to a massive deal as well as Bashaud Breeland (!!) and Tyrann Mathieu, and they traded for Frank Clark. They were also about to extend Tyreek Hill after he became a superstar. This was all within two years of their Super Bowl win.
Thanks to their cap flexibility, K.C. was able to surround their franchise quarterback with expensive players. This is an extreme case considering the career trajectory Mahomes is currently on, but it’s not the only example of a team capitalizing on an impact player who is on his first contract.
From 2012-19, at least one Super Bowl team had a quarterback on a rookie deal — except for 2016. I’m not implying that the Vikings have to start Mond this year, but if they can emulate this strategy in a way that offsets the franchise quarterback’s costs, then it can be replicated.
And I think the front office knows this.
The 2017 Los Angeles Rams are another example of a team building around a QB on a rookie contract to go on a playoff run. Now we all know that Jared Goff is not a world-beater, but they had a good enough team around him that they were one game away from winning it all.
Cousins is better than Goff, and while Zimmer is no McVay, he’s a tenured coach who reached the NFC Championship four years ago. The Vikings haven’t had consistency at offensive coordinator until this year, but they are becoming a more balanced team. Zimmer’s defense is getting older, but they’ve drafted some impact players on that side of the ball recently, and the offense is full of young players who’ve earned a meaningful role.
For comparison, the Rams acquired Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Dante Fowler, and Nickell Robey-Coleman in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Leading up to their near Super Bowl run. McVay took the strategy to the next level. They did what they could to build a dream team through free agency. But they were able to sign so many veterans thanks to a few key players on their team still being affordable.
Cooper Kupp, Marcus Peters, and Goff were all incredibly affordable. They were three of the most important players on the 2018 Rams, and it’s a legitimate way to build a contending team if it’s complemented by good drafting.
This brings us back to the Vikings. They have drafted well both for need and value recently. It’s time for Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., Cam Dantzler, Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, and even Darrisaw to show up and earn a second contract. Thanks to many of them the Vikings have what looks like an elite defense on paper.
Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, Xavier Woods, and Sheldon Richardson are all here thanks to Rob Brzezinski’s savvy cap manipulation — and with a lowered cap to boot. That should do the trick to compensate for the (dare I say, reasonable) Cousins contract and making Danielle Hunter happy.
There are still some dark-horse rookies on the edge and offense who could earn playing time, but most of the starters who are on rookie contracts are already set starters. Most of these guys have proven they are full-blown starters or at least have what it takes to get to the next level this year, and the Vikings appear to be taking full advantage of that.