EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings felt they were going to shape the future of their roster with the 10 players they acquired in April’s NFL Draft and Minnesota wasn’t planning on waiting long into the future for contributions.
The Vikings drafted two immediate starters in the first round in left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith. They gave the kicking job to sixth-rounder Blair Walsh right away. Minnesota is expecting production from nearly their entire draft this season. There will be no easing in for the Vikings’ rookies and many of them have shown they’re ready to help in their first season.
“Our rookie class is doing a good job,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “I think the coaches are doing a good job bringing them along and getting them ready for the season. It’s not one of those years where you come into a team as a rookie and you wait your turn. We are asking Josh (Robinson), Harrison, Matt, even Rhett (Ellison) and others to play and play a lot of snaps for us during the regular season, not just the preseason. There’s a lot on their plate and they understand that. It seems like they are relishing this opportunity and that’s what we need. I’ve been pleased with the way they’ve responded.”
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With Rick Spielman being named the team’s general manager in January, Minnesota set out on a path of restructuring its roster and bringing it more in line with the youthful trends of the NFL. Last season, 10 of the 11 draft picks made the roster and all 10 could likely stick this season as well. Combined with the possibility of all nine of this year’s draft picks being on the active roster, 36 percent of the 53-man roster could be comprised of first and second-year draft picks.
Many of last year’s rookies were pressed into action because of injuries, but this year the group is being counted on from the beginning. At least two players, Kalil and Smith have already earned starting jobs. Third-round cornerback Josh Robinson could carve out a potential spot as a nickel cornerback and returner. Fourth-round wide receiver Jarius Wright is also getting a long look as a potential returner. Ellison, a tight end drafted in the fourth round, has been earning playing time in the offense’s two tight-end sets as a powerful blocker with unexpectedly good hands.
Only fourth-round receiver Greg Childs, who was beginning to come on before suffering patellar tendon tears in both knees, won’t be in position to at least make the roster. Childs is on injured reserve, but his career could be in jeopardy.
Among the late-round picks, Blair Walsh has pleased the coaches with his progress as a field goal kicker and his strong leg on kickoffs should provide an advantage to the coverage units, which struggled at times last year. Safety Robert Blanton, drafted in the fifth round, has been slowed by a hamstring strain but will play most of Thursday’s final preseason game to see if he can earn a spot on the roster. In the seventh round, Minnesota added Audie Cole — who has a sack and two interceptions for touchdowns in the preseason — and defensive lineman Trevor Guyton.
“I think they all drafted us to contribute this year,” Kalil said. “Do whatever we can to help the team. What I’m doing right now is just putting in extra time to prepare myself, so when I go into games, I’ve got the best opportunity to play well and succeed.”
Kalil has had all the eyes on him since being drafted at No. 4 and immediately slotted in as the starting left tackle and protector of quarterback Christian Ponder’s blind side. He has surrendered two sacks in three preseason games and noted the recognition and understanding of the schemes just takes time.
Kalil says experience is the biggest thing for him and all of his draft class as they transition to the NFL.
“It’s just getting used to the plays,” Kalil said. “Getting used to the different concepts than college. Kind of getting to a point where, my senior year in college, I knew the offense inside and out and all you had to focus on was playing fast, playing with great technique instead of focusing on the play. So I think it’s a matter of me getting to the point where I’m comfortable enough with the offense that I can play a lot faster and more efficient.”
Smith wasn’t anointed as a starter immediately, even though many expected him to assume the role when he was picked 29th overall. Instead, at the beginning of training camp, he was taking second-team reps while Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford worked as the starting safeties.
It didn’t take long for Smith to establish himself though, showing versatility against the pass and run. He also displayed a physical edge to his game and now the question among the safeties is who will start next to him.
Smith’s physicality is a much-needed infusion among the Vikings’ secondary. He drew a roughing penalty in last week’s preseason game when he left his feet to hit a receiver. His presence in the middle will be noted from opposing offenses though.
“That’s what our identity, that’s what we want to be known for, is a physical, fast defense,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “When the other team looks at the tape, if they see that they come across the middle that they’ll be hit, or if the running back gets into the open field for some reason, or at the line of scrimmage, it’s going to be an all-day, physical ballgame; it wears on an offense. And they’re not so likely to go across the middle and be aggressive if we’re aggressive on defense.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will also be a big beneficiary of Minnesota’s draft class. Playing on special teams is a rookie rite of passage. But Walsh, Robinson and Wright are taking more than the usual responsibilities in coverage units. Walsh has missed two field-goal attempts in the first three games, going 8 for 10 on field goals. Priefer has been pleased with his development after a change in his approach from college. He’s also been the kickoff specialist they had hoped for, with seven touchbacks in the three games and only a 21-yard average return with Walsh putting most kicks deep into the end zone.
Robinson and Wright are both in the mix for the punt and kick return jobs. Robinson, if he can avoid injuries, has shown promise on defense as well. He had a hamstring strain early in camp and is now dealing with a concussion. Wright’s first chance to help the Vikings will be as a returner, but offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is eager to see what he can do Thursday as a receiver.
“He did a fantastic job on special teams the other night,” Musgrave said. “We have a lot of confidence in Jarius too. He’s had a good camp and really has made a good first impression on all of us so just a matter of time before he gets involved with the offense also.”
Could be just a matter of time for all 10 rookies, just what Minnesota was hoping for in April.