Zach McCloud Is This Year's Mr. Mankato

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Every year when the players finally put on pads and the lights shine on the practice fields at TCO Performance Center, there’s at least one under-the-radar player who makes a big impression at training camp.

The Minnesota Vikings have had several guys who improved over the offseason, including Zach Davidson and Patrick Jones. However, they don’t really exude the spirit of what it means to be Mr. Mankato. To me, the term Mr. Mankato represents a player with no draft pedigree who faces an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster.

No one fits this description better than Zach McCloud. An undrafted free agent out of Miami, McCloud was a fixture of the Hurricanes’ defense. The 24-year-old outside linebacker played a whopping six seasons for the ‘Canes under three different head coaches. In his senior year, McCloud showcased his team-first mentality in college by voluntarily switching from linebacker to defensive end. His teammates named him one of the four team captains during his final year in Coral Gables.

It’s not often that a player spends six years in college, but McCloud’s experience seems to be paying off at training camp. Of all the UDFA linebackers the Vikings added this offseason, McCloud has gotten the most reps with the second-team defense. Furthermore, when attending the annual night practice, I noticed he was ahead of Janarius Robinson during one of the individual drills.

Robinson is currently ahead of McCloud on the team’s first unofficial depth chart, but he hasn’t been overly impressive thus far in camp. His struggles are understandable, considering the Vikings selected him as a developmental prospect in last year’s draft.

Moreover, the Vikings have been drafting many highly athletic linebackers and pass rushers in the past couple of seasons. D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Troy Dye, and Brian Asamoah II can all be described as boom-or-bust prospects. They check all the boxes from a physical standpoint, but they aren’t the most technically skilled players.

McCloud sits on the opposite end of the spectrum. He is a fundamentally sound linebacker who has years of experience playing a variety of different positions. At Miami, McCloud lined up at inside and outside linebacker and defensive end. Additionally, he has experience playing on special teams, which is crucial for players competing for the final roster spots. For a fifth-string linebacker, teams like guys who are not only versatile but can play at a moment’s notice, knowing exactly what their assignment is and how to execute it. McCloud’s track record at Miami proves that he is capable of that.

McCloud has been tied to the Vikings since April. Minnesota brought McCloud in for a top-30 visit during the pre-draft process, and one website even had Minnesota drafting him in the seventh round. After he went undrafted, the Vikings swooped in and signed him, making him the team’s highest-paid UDFA with $250,000 in guaranteed money.

Clearly, the Vikings see a lot of potential in McCloud for several reasons. The first is his pedigree. He was a four-star recruit coming out of Santaluces High School in Lantana, Fla., and the second-best outside linebacker in the state of Florida. He received offers from some big-name programs, including Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Ultimately, he committed to Miami so he could stay closer to home.

The second reason I think the Vikings liked McCloud has to do with Kwesi Adodo-Mensah. The new GM has a penchant for drafting positionless players. Asamoah is a perfect example, given that he’s a linebacker built like a safety. One criticism of McCloud coming into the draft was that he was a “tweener,” but Adofo-Mensah doesn’t seem to mind drafting these types of players. I think he views being a tweener as an asset rather than a detriment.

McCloud fits best as a weak-side linebacker in a 3-4 defense who can come in and stop the run on first and second down. The Vikings have a lot of great pass-rushing linebackers but not as many run-stuffers. In the clip below, McCloud takes a good angle to stop what could have been a 10-yard gain.

If the Vikings keep six outside linebackers, I think McCloud will make the 53-man roster behind Hunter, Smith, Wonnum, Jones, and Robinson. At a minimum, he’ll make the practice squad because of the amount of guaranteed money in his contract.

McCloud offers a lot of versatility, and I think his strengths as a run defender will help fill a weakness the Vikings have as a unit — all of which make him the best candidate for this year’s Mr. Mankato.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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