Don't Count Out the Vikings' 2021 Draft Class Yet

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Fans around the league are starting to set expectations now that the 2022 NFL Draft has come and gone. Fresh faces have arrived, ready to change the fortunes of their franchises. Every fanbase believes that this class will make or break their season.

While there is certainly some merit to this, fans tend to forget about past draft classes this time of year. Much like when Andy receives a brand-new Buzz Lightyear and casts Woody to the side, last year’s draftees have lost their luster.

Many Minnesota Vikings fans are ready to pitch the 2021 draft class after most of it failed to make an impact last year. Outside of first-round tackle Christian Darrisaw, fourth-round return man Kene Nwangwu, and fourth-round safety Cam Bynum, the group showed little to no promise.

Most frustrating was the lack of production from their four third-round selections. None of them started once last year. Kellen Mond saw limited action at quarterback, finding the field for one uninspiring drive in Green Bay and becoming the subject of Mike Zimmer’s ire after the game. Wyatt Davis, who many expected to compete for the starting right guard spot to begin the season, was only active for six games.

Defensive end Patrick Jones II played in nine games, failing to provide many splashes. And linebacker Chazz Surratt was only active for nine games, relegated solely to special teams. He rewarded the team with zero tackles.

As a whole, the 2021 Vikings rookies had a combined 1,082 snaps, 29th in the NFL. Only three of the other nine teams ranking in the bottom 10 of the league missed the playoffs. One of them, the Indianapolis Colts, was in a play-in game in Week 18. Even with the Vikings out of playoff contention in the final week of the season, only four rookies saw 85 combined snaps.

Does this mean that there is no hope in the coming season for the 2021 draft class? Former general manager Rick Spielman may have made a mistake ignoring the upcoming season when making his selections. But history suggests that many of his selections are future-oriented, seeing little playing time as rookies despite their draft status.

This year, the Vikings waited until the sixth round to draft a wide receiver, indicating that the new regime is comfortable that K.J. Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette can complement Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Smith-Marsette only had five catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns in 2021. But he can look at Osborn’s rookie season as a reason for optimism.

Osborn handled punt-return duties as a rookie in 2020, and it was a disaster. He struggled with turnovers and didn’t see the field at all as a wide receiver. As a fifth-round pick, his job was far from safe entering 2021.

Fortunately, he built upon a strong preseason, carrying that promise into the regular season. Osborn no longer returned punts and solidified himself as the team’s third receiver. He finished the year with 50 catches for 655 yards and seven touchdowns, including the game-winner in Carolina.

Osborn isn’t the only Day 3 selection to eventually find himself in the starting lineup under Spielman’s watch. Guard Oli Udoh may have become a punchline in 2021. However, he started 16 games after climbing the roster as a sixth-round selection in 2019. Furthermore, defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (2017) and Stephen Weatherley (2016) took three years to become effective rotational pieces.

But Day 3 selections aren’t expected to be starters as rookies. The Spielman-era Vikings were open to playing late-round picks in their rookie year if they were ready. Second-round pick Brian O’Neill was a former tight end and expected to sit on the bench as a rookie while he put on weight in 2018.

He was thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries elsewhere on the roster, though, and outperformed incumbent starter Rashod Hill immediately. O’Neill started the final 11 games of his rookie season and has held the job ever since. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2021.

The Vikings selected cornerback Mackensie Alexander with the 54th-overall pick in 2016. An outside corner at Clemson, the Vikings moved him inside to be their nickelback. But the position change kept him on the sideline. Minnesota limited him to 67 snaps in 13 games.

Alexander began to rotate into the starting lineup in 2017 with Terence Newman, seeing 324 snaps in 14 games. He finally supplanted the long-time veteran in 2018, playing 564 snaps and finishing the season with a 78.1 grade from Pro Football Focus.

One year before Alexander was drafted, rookie cornerback Trae Waynes had his own struggles getting on the field. The 11th-overall selection in the 2015 draft played mostly on special teams as a rookie and saw only 195 defensive snaps in 15 games. Opponents picked on him early in 2016, but Waynes started getting more snaps as the season wore on.

Waynes would start six of the final eight games of the season. He was a full-time starter by 2017. He graded out with a 70.9 overall defensive grade, helping the Vikings become the top-ranked defense in the league. Waynes’ time on special teams as a rookie also helped him polish his tackling, a weakness coming out of college. From 2016 to 2019, he never finished a season with less than a 74.7 run defense grade from PFF.

So while Minnesota’s 2021 class may not have provided much immediate impact, that doesn’t mean that they will be a collective failure. Fourth-round defensive end Janarius Robinson missed the entire season following a preseason injury after creating training camp buzz. Sixth-round defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman was considered a value selection, but he missed the whole season after being a victim of a shooting before the season started.

Also, consider that a new staff will coach the 2021 class, and they are under a lot less pressure than Zimmer was. With fresh faces on the staff who may be able to better connect with today’s athletes, it would be wise for fans to enter the 2022 season with an open mind. A new coaching staff doesn’t guarantee success. But it could mean that we could see surprises that supplement a 2022 rookie class that will likely field a couple of Day 1 starters.

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