EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Late in the hours of the first day of the NFL Draft in April, the Minnesota Vikings made the biggest splash, adding on a third first-round pick after acquiring defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes earlier.
Minnesota couldn’t pass on the opportunity to jump back in the first round and nab Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, sending four picks to the New England Patriots. The Vikings were the newsmakers in April, adding three first-rounders to a team that went 10-6 and made the playoffs last year.
Floyd (the No. 23 overall selection), Rhodes (No. 25) and Patterson (No. 29) will be important pieces to Minnesota’s future, and the moves in April were about more than just seven games into the rookie seasons for each. But nearly halfway through their first year in the NFL, the three haven’t made a big impact as the Vikings’ season has deteriorated.
Seven of the 32 first-rounders from April’s draft haven’t started a game this season. Arizona’s Jonathan Cooper was hurt before the regular season began and is out for the year, while Floyd and Patterson are two of the others. Rhodes has started one game, though he’s played the most of Minnesota’s three first-rounders as the team’s third cornerback. The Vikings are getting some of the least production out of first-round picks in the entire league.
The biggest impact has been Patterson in the return game. Patterson leads the NFL with a 39.1-yard kickoff return average this season and has two touchdowns on returns, the most in the league.
On Sunday he set the NFL record with a 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and has looked every bit the talented and explosive returner Minnesota thought it was drafting to replace Percy Harvin. Harvin’s kick-return average (35.9 yards per return) last season would have led the league if he had enough returns to qualify and Patterson hasn’t missed a beat in replacing Harvin on special teams.
One of three receivers drafted in the first round, Patterson hasn’t had the same impact on offense. He’s shown glimpses of his potential on offense as well, but has been stuck behind Jerome Simpson this season and has 13 catches for 133 yards. Tavon Austin, picked No. 8 by the St. Louis Rams, has 31 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins, pick No. 27 by the Houston Texans has 28 catches for 416 yards and two touchdowns.
Patterson was considered raw coming out of college, but the Vikings’ coaches say the issue hasn’t been picking up the offense. Instead, it’s been a curious use of Patterson, which led coach Leslie Frazier earlier this season to say the team needed to “rectify” the lack of snaps for Patterson on offense.
Patterson has seen more snaps on offense lately, but the usage is still curious. Last week he had 15 snaps, which trailed Greg Jennings (38 snaps), Simpson (32), Jarius Wright (26) and even Joe Webb (16). Most of Patterson’s catches have been on quick screen plays.
“With Cordarrelle, it’s just a matter of our getting him out there, but part of it is Jerome Simpson has been having an outstanding first half of the season,” Frazier said last week. “Those guys play identical positions so it makes it a little bit tougher. But we’re doing some things that we think may help us in that regard. Cordarrelle is a big play guy. We have a lot of high hopes for him and we want to keep trying to find different ways to get him the football and get him on the field as well. He has not done anything to disappoint.”
Green Bay’s Datone Jones, the defensive end out of UCLA taken one pick after Rhodes, has made the smallest impact among the first-rounders who have been healthy this season. Jones has one tackle. Yet, Floyd’s five tackles rank as the second-fewest.
Floyd has had the toughest road to production of Minnesota’s first-rounders, stuck behind veteran Kevin Williams. Floyd also dealt with a knee injury early in the season. In seven games, he has 1.5 sacks. Meanwhile, the two defensive tackles selected ahead of him — New York Jets’ Sheldon Richardson and Carolina Panthers’ Star Lotulelei — instantly became starters and have produced along very good defensive lines, helping to reshape their respective defenses.
“That first game, I’m sure he would admit this, it was tough for him, just the speed of the game and then he had been injured in training camp,” Frazier said of Floyd. “He missed some time and that affected him. He’s gotten better. The game has slowed down for him. He’s beginning to get more penetration for us and getting closer to being exactly what we all hoped for. He’s doing a very good job of separating from blocks. He’s doing a lot of things better than he did two or three weeks ago. That’s encouraging because that means he’ll just keep getting better in November, December he’s going to be even better. He’s making progress.”
Rhodes has been on the field for Minnesota, but the growing pains are evident. He has 20 tackles this season and two passes defensed, without an interception. Of the seven defensive backs taken in the first round, only Dee Milliner — taken No. 9 by the New York Jets — has fewer tackles and fewer passes defensed.
Rhodes was drafted to be another tall, physical cornerback in the Vikings’ defense pairing with Cook. But none of Minnesota’s cornerbacks have been particularly effective and the Vikings rank 29t in the league in pass defense. Rhodes has struggled to adjust to what he’s allowed to do physically at the line of scrimmage in jamming receivers and has been beaten by more experienced receivers.
“For where he is in his career, I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Frazier said. “Definitely some plays he could do better on but for where he is as a rookie and what we’re asking him to do, there are going to be some moments that aren’t going to be great. But I also see a guy who is really coming and is going to be a very, very good corner for us. He’s gaining some valuable experience that in the long term will help our football team. But there are going to be some moments that are going to be a little bit tough at times.”
It’s been tough for all of Minnesota’s first-round picks this season. The Vikings made the splash in April but haven’t seen the results this fall. With Sunday’s game at Dallas marking the halfway point in Minnesota’s season, Floyd, Rhodes, Patterson and the Vikings hope for more promise in the second half.