Listening to a number of interviews with Vikings players since the beginning of OTAs, there is a sense of confidence as they prepare for the season- and from players you haven’t heard it from so much in the past. There is good reason for their added confidence- achievement- and it could have a positive effect on performance come September.
One of those players is Xavier Rhodes. He was one of the ‘new’ players given the podium with the press recently, and he seemed more comfortable talking in public than I remember in the past. Mike Zimmer mentioned that Rhodes’ Pro Bowl selection last season has helped bolster his confidence going into this off-season. Others have mentioned that Rhodes is a little more vocal on the field too, whereas he had been fairly quiet since coming into the league four years ago.
Rhodes is also probably the next big contract extension the Vikings will do, which could be in the neighborhood of $13 million a year. That’ll help boost confidence too.
Speaking of contracts, Adam Thielen secured his future with a nice contract extension for the one-time UFA walk-on, now making an average of $4.8m a year over the next four years. Certainly that adds to his confidence, but even more so, I suspect, was the season he had last year.
Nothing bolsters confidence better than achievement and success, and Thielen had a break-out year last season, with nearly 1,000 yards receiving, and a very high 75% catch rate - 69 receptions on 92 targets last season- leading to a very efficient 10.5 yards per target - 4th in the league.
All this has done wonders for Thielen’s confidence, and it shows in press conferences and on the field this off-season- from what little I’ve seen- as he battles against a top CB in Xavier Rhodes and others. Rhodes has complimented Thielen on what a route technician he has become, and with a QB like Sam Bradford throwing to him, that is likely to pay dividends for him this year.
Another guy who returns with the confidence that comes from having a breakout year last season is Danielle Hunter. Like both Rhodes and Thielen, I don’t sense over-confidence, but more a sense of some accomplishment that proves to themselves they can make it in this league at a high level- because they’ve had a taste of it and are ready for more.
In the case of Hunter, he was rewarded for his production last year by being elevated to starting left end over Brian Robison. For the 22-year-old, 3rd-round pick entering his third season, and already with 18.5 sacks- that is quite an achievement.
Listening to Hunter’s comments during a recent interview, it’s clear that Hunter also has a lot of confidence in the coaching of Andre Patterson, who has helped Hunter realize some of his immense talent by helping him to refine his technique. Undoubtedly that has added to Hunter’s confidence as well, and may also help him build on his achievements over the past two seasons as he takes on a greater role in the Vikings defensive front.
I wouldn’t call what Laquon Treadwell has shown so far this off-season confidence, but I would call it a pretty big chip on his shoulder after enduring a very disappointing - and frustrating - rookie year. That chip can be a big motivator in the absence of the confidence that comes from achievement. The fact that Treadwell had an very impressive career at Old Miss, but has yet to produce as a pro- largely due to injury- seems a big reason for that chip- and renewed motivation this off-season.
Xavier Rhodes, who has worked against Treadwell a lot this off-season, has noticed a change in Treadwell, and said so in an interview with Paul Allen the other day. Improved route running, making difficult catches, being very engaged, focused compared to last year. Rhodes’ assessment of Treadwell concluded by saying he thinks he’ll have a very good year this season.
It may seem strange to put Mike Zimmer on this list, as long as he’s been coaching in the NFL, but as a head coach he is entering his fourth season. As he has said previously, he spent his first year focused on rebuilding the defense, and installing his scheme. That took a lot of his second year, too. He acknowledged needing to get better at game management, etc. - something he still says.
Last year he began getting more involved on the offensive side of the ball- something he continues to do this year- while continuing to get comfortable with the job of head coach, and not just defensive coordinator. He acknowledges learning a lot about being a head coach the past few years, and his recent comments point to more confidence in himself as a head coach. He mentioned the comparison with Bill Belichick’s (a former defensive coordinator) early years as a head coach - he was fired in Cleveland - before figuring things out and going on to have great success at New England a few years later.
Of course it remains to be seen if Zimmer can have the type of success Belichick has enjoyed, but I’m guessing there is some truth that head coaching, like many other jobs, takes some time to master. Zimmer seems to be turning that corner, getting more comfortable as a head coach, learning on the job, from past mistakes, and from other head coaches.
It is nice to see growing confidence from players (and coaches) as they move from rookies to more established veterans. Xavier Rhodes was asked by Paul Allen when he turned the corner in terms of his confidence, and he told this story:
He was working out in the off-season with some other NFL players (he didn’t say who) a year or so ago, and one of them took him aside and told him he had all the talent, etc., to be successful, but without the confidence, he’d only be an average player or below. For him, the difference was between trying to knock balls down, and making the interception. Rhodes was 5th in the league in interceptions last season.
Having more players move from solid player, to play-maker, will have a big impact for the Vikings this season and further down the road. Knowing the game situation, where they’re at as players, and having the confidence to make plays in key situations - things they practiced a lot in mini-camp- will go a long way in being able to win close games, and deliver at key moments in the course of a game.