Vikings

These Vikings Rookies Were Prevented From Getting Key Reps in Offseason Practices

Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Mini-camp is over, training camp is on the horizon, and yet we still don’t know as much about the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie class as we should. The thinking going into camp was that this year’s Vikings would be able to dodge some of the obstacles that tripped them up last year. Among the strategies: Use the offseason to prepare rookies for spots they might find themselves in during the regular season.

Unlike in the pandemic-afflicted 2020 offseason, the Vikings have a complete set of OTAs and a full mini-camp at their disposal, and opportunities abounded for new draft picks to compete for starting jobs or key depth roles. But Minnesota chose to slow-play many of its high draft picks, while others limited themselves with injuries and absences.

It all starts with Christian Darrisaw. The Vikings’ first-round pick started practicing with the second team in OTAs, then was beset by a groin pull several weeks later. He ended mini-camp rotating in with the backups. His fellow offensive lineman of the future, Wyatt Davis, didn’t do a lot more. Davis played with the 2s during offseason practices and had his weight knocked by Mike Zimmer in a radio interview the week of mini-camp.

Zimmer claims his rookie linemen are competing for starting roles, but there was no sign of competition this spring. Competition implies a level playing field, but Darrisaw and Davis appeared to be backups until proven otherwise. Some may claim that’s backward thinking when the ones standing in their way are Rashod Hill and Dakota Dozier, both of whom have been given opportunities to start for long stretches on this very team and struggled mightily.

“We do have some preseason games. We’re going to practice against the [Denver] Broncos, so we’ll get to see him against other competition,” Zimmer said of Darrisaw and Davis. “It’s always a big jump when you come into the NFL from college, whether it’s terminology and getting to know teammates, and footwork in the NFL is different, so sometimes that takes a little while like it did with Justin [Jefferson].

“We got a chance to play him when he got a chance to play. You can go through a lot of guys that may not have started the season there, but at some point, you’ve got to get them in there if they’re a talented guy and doing things right. Sometimes it’s a baptism by fire, but you know that they’re going to be better down the road, so they’re competing. Once we get the pads on, they’ll all be competing for that job, and we’ll just see how it all shakes out.”

The last two linemen the Vikings held back both performed better than their predecessors. Brian O’Neill was a huge upgrade over Hill when he took the reins in 2018, and Ezra Cleveland was miles better last year than Dru Samia, who the Vikings opted to play instead of Cleveland when Pat Elflein got hurt. Early indications are the Vikings may again end up stomaching subpar veterans on the offensive line to start the year.

Run down the list of rookies at other positions and you’ll encounter more underwhelming spring performances.

  • Kellen Mond presented the furthest thing from a threat to Kirk Cousins as a quarterback of the future. Instead, he was lucky to get more than a couple of throws during team drills as he watched a battle unfolding between Jake Browning and Nate Stanley for the backup job.
  • Third-round linebacker Chazz Surratt was absent from most of OTAs and held out of mini-camp with an apparent injury — he’s supposed to compete for Eric Wilson‘s old job.
  • Third-round defensive end Patrick Jones II was buried with the third team, oftentimes with fourth-round defensive end Janarius Robinson.
  • Fifth-round receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was mostly invisible, and Zimmer said he talks a little too much trash in a radio interview.
  • Even rookie UDFA kicker Riley Patterson missed several weeks for undisclosed reasons when he was supposed to be competing with Greg Joseph for the starting job.

Only fourth-round defensive back Camryn Bynum seemed to be on a fast track, getting second-team reps at safety.

OTAs and mini-camp are when teams should be tinkering with their rotations, but the Vikings appear intent on letting their rookies earn their stripes the old-fashioned way. That may not be helpful, though, when players like Darrisaw and Davis inevitably take the starting jobs. They could’ve spent the spring getting reps next to their eventual comrades like Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury on the offensive line, but Minnesota may end up having to build that chemistry on the fly if they take baby steps with their first-year players.

There is no need to protect the legacies of Hill and Dozier.

It’s understandable that Zimmer was spooked when he had eight rookies playing on defense during Week 8 against the Green Bay Packers last year. That doesn’t mean that rookies playing is inherently risky. The Vikings should have learned that when they took too long to start Jefferson and O’Neill.

Obviously, rookies can’t control injuries, so players like Surratt will just have to wait to get healthy. But there’s nothing preventing the Vikings from promoting healthy rookies into positions where they may find themselves in the future. Let Darrisaw build chemistry next to Cleveland. Let Davis get accustomed to Bradbury. Give Patrick Jones a chance to back up Danielle Hunter. Give Mond a gosh darn second-team rep.

It’s not illegal for the Vikings to trust these rookies with bigger roles in practice and reel them back in if they can’t handle it.

Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters. 

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