When it comes to the timing of getting rookies prepared for their first chance at NFL action, no offseason could be more difficult than this one. It’s now become even more precarious for the Vikings following Justin Jefferson’s listing on the organization’s Covid list. More on him to come.
Mike Zimmer has faced plenty of challenges since coming aboard in 2014. From AP to a temporary stadium, and having the seemingly future of the team tear 2 ligament in his knee during a walk-through, he certainly hasn’t had it easy. That said, the Vikings gigantic 2020 draft class, and more recently, Zimmer’s extension, could be the Wilf’s way of saying that they believe he’ll be better developing a pretty new squad the second time around. Is it possible? Yes, but these circumstances are different.
All of this is very speculative of course. It’s tough to tell what any rookie will do upon hitting the field for the first time. These 5 rookies specifically need to come through very early:
-The tenure of Mike Zimmer has seen mediocre at best offensive line play. What had been a strength in the first half of this millennium has been a constant liability since 2011 if we’re being honest. Granted, a big part of this stems from the lack of quality at the college level, but Cleveland was a 1st round grade for a lot of people. The athleticism he showed in college could make him a starter at tackle, or even guard, though that seems precarious given the bizarre offseason. Nonetheless, Cleveland has the athletic tools, but him and the rest of the ‘Minnesota Moving Crew’ will face difficult opponents all year long. It’s imperative that he thrive in pass blocking, especially on drop back plays where the defense knows what’s coming. Otherwise, expect similar results from this group as per the last two seasons.
Yes, Jeff Gladney was the first round pick. However, as we’ve seen in Zimmer’s units, they function best when they have a shutdown corner on the outside. Gladney was drafted to dominate the slot. Dantzler however, has all the tools to be a good outside player. Frankly, I don’t think Mike Hughes played the way you’d hope a first round pick should his first two years. Holton Hill, however, I do believe is a good player who needs to make smart decisions, on and off the field. Dantzler was my 2nd rated corner in the entire draft, only behind Jeff Okudah, who of course is a member of division rival Detroit. My justification: watch the tape of his games against LSU and Alabama. He was lights out, and Zimmer needs that guy to do that on Sundays.
It’s confounding how little interior pressure the Vikings defense would not generate at times last year. Sure, there was a lack of talent, but with offensive lines putting much focus on Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, that should’ve been a point of focus for the coaching staff. In the playoffs, the defense showed how much better it can be in passing situations as it generates said pressure. This will be critical during a season where young corners are learning the ropes. Lynch had some games for Baylor where he took over the line of scrimmage. I’m not fully convinced on Big 12 players most of the time, but this is someone who looked as one playing with a chip on his shoulder. The Vikings front 7 needs a player like that, displaying a little bit of a mean-streak, and someone who is good in run-defense, a category where the defense struggled, most notably against Seattle and San Francisco.
Hoping JJ gets on the field quickly, but safely. It’s no secret that Jefferson was drafted as the replacement to Stefon Diggs. I don’t agree, and still don’t agree with trading away an elite player in their prime, but I understand the financial ramifications were critical to the Vikings future, and now appear to be even more so with a salary cap drop looming large. Jefferson doesn’t play with blazing speed on tape. But he isn’t afraid of contact, and catches just about anything thrown his way. His performance in Austin last season was one of the best I’ve watched from any receiver at the college level. Creating separation while also hauling in contested throws need to be his hallmarks if Jefferson is going to match Diggs’ high performance and production levels.
Vikings fans saw Wonnum’s build and scouting report, and many responded with thoughts of, “The next Danielle Hunter?” Similar body-type, similar lackluster college production, Wonnum is clearly someone that Andre Patterson had to have been raving about during the pre-draft process. His development could be crucial the pass rush, particularly if Zimmer decides he wants Danielle Hunter playing some 3rd-down snaps on the interior. The project here will require fine-tuning of techniques, and lots of film study.