When the Minnesota Vikings’ roster experienced significant turnover after the 2019 season, Rick Spielman looked to fill as many holes as possible in the draft. With an NFL record 15 draft picks in 2020 and another 11 in 2021, the Vikings have plenty of young talent on the roster.
The only problem is, they don’t use them.
Mike Zimmer’s insistence on playing veteran players over rookies with upside is one of the Vikings’ most significant flaws this year. With his team faltering on both sides of the ball, Zimmer has decided to lean on what he sees as reliable veterans instead of some of the younger players who could help point the way to the future.
But things have trended in the direction of the younger players in recent weeks. With Christian Darrisaw, Kene Nwangwu, and Kenny Willekes getting a chance to hit the field, they’ve made enough of an impact to question why Zimmer hasn’t used these rookies earlier. What could they have done if given an opportunity sooner?
This list of players begins with Darrisaw. Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2021 started the season on the sidelines as he recovered from groin surgery. After the Vikings activated him in Week 4, he received only one special teams snap in a 14-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns. Handling him this way was understandable considering he hadn’t received practice time, but Klint Kubiak vowed to “build him up the right way.”
While Darrisaw learned the ropes, Rashod Hill was getting pushed around by opposing pass rushers. In the two weeks that Darrisaw backed up Hill, the veteran led the NFL with 13 pressures allowed and posted the fourth-worst pass-blocking grade among qualifying tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
After splitting time with Hill in a Week 5 victory over the Detroit Lions, Darrisaw entered the starting lineup in Week 6. In the three games since becoming a starter, Darrisaw allowed only four pressures on 127 pass-blocking snaps and owns the second-highest pass-blocking grade on the team.
Perhaps the fear of throwing Darrisaw in too soon scared off the Vikings from making the change. But Darrisaw was never drafted to be brought along slowly. The Vikings chose him to be the left tackle of the future.
A similar scenario played out with another one of Sunday’s stars, Nwangwu. The fourth-round pick has been the Vikings’ man of mystery after blazing his way through training camp. However, he hyperextended his knee in the first preseason game.
With a 4.32 second time in the 40-yard dash, Nwangwu has the look of a player who can do remarkable things with the ball in his hands. That was validated on Sunday when he had the first kickoff return for a touchdown in nearly five years for Minnesota and picked up a first down on a fake punt.
Such a performance should earn Nwangwu an increased role, but that hasn’t happened yet. After the Vikings drafted Nwangwu for a special teams role, Zimmer would rather have him sit on the sideline while Alexander Mattison slams into the back of his offensive line and Dalvin Cook gets an unsustainable amount of carries.
Another example is the defensive line. Losing Danielle Hunter was a massive blow for Minnesota’s pass rush. But for at least one game, Willekes showed why he was considered a sleeper.
The 2020 seventh-round pick was consistently in the Ravens’ backfield on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Lamar Jackson’s mobility, he could have wound up with multiple sacks. Like Nwangwu, Willekes should earn more snaps. But why wasn’t he used sooner?
It’s a pattern where the Vikings would rather play an aging veteran who knows the system than a younger player who could make a mistake. It’s why Andre Patterson once called Shamar Stephen “the real deal.” It’s why Stephen Weatherly was brought in only to trade him for a seventh-rounder. And it’s why Blake Brandel was sent into the game over Wyatt Davis when Oli Udoh went down with an injury.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Vikings’ handling of Justin Jefferson, who played behind Bisi Johnson before taking the NFL by storm in Week 3.
These young players can provide a boost for the Vikings, but Zimmer has been reluctant to use them in a do-or-die season for the coaching staff and front office. It’s a problem that permeates the team. It seems like until this regime is over, the young players on the roster will be collecting dust on the sideline.