It was a beautiful April morning. Wyatt Davis was celebrating his selection in the NFL draft at his home. Surrounded by his friends and family, Davis couldn’t believe that his childhood dream had come true. But then there was a knock at the door.
Davis didn’t know why, but he immediately ran to the bedroom and crawled under his bed. When his phone began to ring, Rick Spielman was on the other line and had a very specific set of instructions.
“You might have five to ten seconds,” Spielman said. “They’re going to take you. You need to concentrate and tell me everything that you notice about them.”
A man dressed in black went into the room. Putting another dip of Red Man into his mouth, he was saying something about drafting more corners before leaving the room. Davis was relieved before speaking into the phone.
“He left,” Davis exclaimed. “They actually le…OH SHIIIIII….”
Spielman couldn’t believe what he heard next. After several minutes of noise reserved for a small crane, there was heavy breathing on the other end.
“I don’t know who you are or what you want,” Spielman said. “If you want more money to spend on corners, I don’t have it. But what I do have is a very particular set of skills. Skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let Wyatt go now, that will be the end of it. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will trade for the entire seventh round in the 2022 NFL Draft.”
“Good luck,” Mike Zimmer said before hanging up.
That was probably the last time that Zimmer and Spielman spoke to each other during their tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. It was also the last time we heard from Wyatt Davis or most of the 2021 draft class.
With Christian Darrisaw and Kene Nwangwu the only rookies to seize a regular role on the team, it would be easy to give up on last year’s draft class. But if the 2020 class showed us anything, it’s that it’s too early to dismiss this crop of rookies.
Let’s go back to April 2020. The Vikings had just made 15 selections in the draft – the most by a single team in the modern era. After the first year, many of these picks were labeled as busts or “pet cats” but made meaningful contributions this past season.
The Vikings selected Ezra Cleveland in the second round of that draft and immediately moved him to guard. While some viewed the decision as puzzling, it seems to have worked out for the Vikings. Cleveland seized the starting role at right guard during his rookie season and was the full-time left guard last season.
Cleveland’s overall Pro Football Focus grade was 30th among offensive guards who played at least 20% of their team’s offensive snaps. His run blocking was also a strength, ranking 21st among that group.
While he also allowed 34 pressures (17th among guards) in pass protection, Cleveland was an adequate member of the offensive line. Considering that the Vikings have struggled in this area, we must view the pick as a success.
The same goes for D.J. Wonnum. The latest in the long line of picks used to find the next Danielle Hunter, Wonnum’s rookie season left a lot to be desired. But last season, he was thrust into the starting lineup after Hunter’s season-ending injury and Everson Griffen’s absence.
The Chicago Bears’ refusal to block Wonnum inflated his sack total, but he showed enough to be a rotational piece. For a team that has been burned by similar prospects, getting another contributor should be a win.
But the most significant turnaround belonged to K.J. Osborn, who struggled as the Vikings’ punt returner in his rookie year. He didn’t see a single snap on offense, leading some to believe Spielman burned another fifth-round pick on a failed specialist.
However, Osborn’s 2021 season put that talk to rest. After showing out in the offseason, Osborn put up 50 catches for 655 yards and seven touchdowns.
With Justin Jefferson and Cameron Dantzler also seizing important roles as rookies, the Vikings could have walked out of that class with five contributors. Any team would count that as a victory, and it could happen with the 2021 class.
The Vikings drafted Kellen Mond as a developmental quarterback, but he didn’t see the field until a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers. Mond could never seize the backup role from Sean Mannion, but he could be more successful under a more quarterback-friendly system led by Kevin O’Connell.
Camryn Bynum also played well in spot duty but never seized regular playing time. With Xavier Woods likely to leave in free agency and the possibility of a Harrison Smith trade looming, Bynum could be elevated to a starting role next season.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette also shined when the Vikings called on him. Few seemed surprised when he recorded 103 yards and a touchdown in the final week of the season. Even Jefferson and Cousins mentioned Smith-Marsette’s play-making ability in practice, which could shine in 2022.
All of these players pale in comparison to what Davis could do. A projected first-round pick in the 2021 draft, Davis slid to the third round. After Davis showed up to camp overweight, Zimmer opted to play Mason Cole and convert tackle Oli Udoh at right guard instead of plugging him in.
After an offseason of working with offensive lineman guru Duke Manyweather, it’s possible Davis could return with a vengeance next season. It’s even more feasible considering the potential for a fresh start.
It’s naive to believe that every player from the 2021 draft class will become a superstar, but it remains a possibility that they’ll become contributors. Even an expanded role for most players could add to the lack of depth the Vikings had last season.
If the Vikings can find another gem or two, a potential rebuild may not be as substantial as most people think.