Don’t count the Vikings’ 2021 draft class yet
League fans are starting to set expectations now that the 2022 NFL Draft has passed. New faces have arrived, ready to change the fortunes of their franchises. Every fanbase thinks this class will make or break their season.
While there’s certainly some merit to this, fans tend to forget past draft courses at this time of year. Much like when Andy gets a brand new Buzz Lightyear and throws Woody aside, last year’s rookies lost their shine.
Many Minnesota Vikings fans are ready to kick off the 2021 draft class after most of them failed to make an impact last year. Outside the first-round tackle Christian Darrisawreturn to the fourth round Kene Nwangwuand fourth-round safety Cam Bynum, the group showed little to no promise.
Most frustrating was the lack of production from their four third-round selections. None of them started once last year. Kellen Mond saw limited action at quarterback, finding the ground for a dull practice in Green Bay and being the subject of Mike Zimmer’s anger after the game. Wyatt Daviswho many expected to compete for the starting right guard position to start the season, has only been active for six games.
defensive end patrick jones He played nine games, failing to provide many splashes. And linebacker Chazz Surratt was only active for nine games, relegated to special teams only. He rewarded the team with zero tackles.
Overall, the 2021 Vikings rookies have made 1,082 combined snaps, 29th in the NFL. Only three of the other nine teams ranked in the league’s bottom 10 missed the playoffs. One of them, the Indianapolis Colts, was in a qualifying game in Week 18. Even though the Vikings weren’t in playoff contention in the final week of the season, only four recruits saw 85 shots combined.
Does that mean there is no hope in the upcoming season for the 2021 draft class? Former general manager Rick Spielman may have made a mistake in ignoring the upcoming season when making his selections. But history suggests many of his picks are looking to the future, seeing little playing time as rookies despite their draft status.
This year, the Vikings waited until the sixth round to draft a wide receiver, indicating the new regime is comfortable that KJ Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette can complete Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Smith-Marsette had just five catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns in 2021. But he can look to Osborn’s rookie season as cause for optimism.
Osborn handled punt return duties as a rookie in 2020, and it was a disaster. He struggled with turnovers and didn’t see the field as a wide receiver at all. As a fifth-round pick, his job was far from secure in 2021.
Fortunately, he built on a strong preseason, carrying that promise into the regular season. Osborn returned no more punts and solidified himself as the team’s third receiver. He finished the year with 50 catches for 655 yards and seven touchdowns, including the game-winning Carolina.
Osborn isn’t the only Day 3 selection to eventually end up in the starting lineup under Spielman’s watch. Guard Oli Udo may have become a punchline in 2021. However, he started 16 games after climbing the roster as a sixth-round selection in 2019. Plus, the defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (2017) and Stephen Weatherley (2016) took three years to become effective rotational pieces.
But Day 3 picks shouldn’t be newbies as rookies. The Spielman-era Vikings were ready to play late-round picks in their rookie year if they were up for it. Second-round pick Brian O’Neill was a former tight end and expected to sit on the bench as a rookie as he gained weight in 2018.
However, he was pushed into the starting lineup due to injuries elsewhere on the roster and outplayed the incumbent. Rashod Hill immediately. O’Neill started the last 11 games of his rookie season and has held the position ever since. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2021.
The Vikings selected the cornerback Alexander Mackensie with the 54th overall pick in 2016. An outside corner at Clemson, the Vikings moved him inside to be their nickelback. But the job change kept him out. Minnesota limited him to 67 snaps in 13 games.
Alexander started shooting in the starting lineup in 2017 with Terence Newman, seeing 324 snaps in 14 games. He eventually supplanted the longtime veteran in 2018, playing 564 snaps and finishing the season with a Pro Football Focus rating of 78.1.
A year before the draft of Alexandre, rookie cornerback Trae Waynes had his own difficulties entering the field. The 11th overall selection in the 2015 draft played mostly on special teams as a rookie and saw just 195 defensive snaps in 15 games. Opponents picked him up in early 2016, but Waynes started getting more snaps as the season progressed.
Waynes would start six of the final eight games of the season. He was a full-time starter in 2017. He had an overall defensive rating of 70.9, helping the Vikings become the top-ranked defense in the league. Waynes time on special teams as a rookie also helped him polish his tackle, a weakness coming out of college. From 2016 to 2019, he never finished a season with less than a 74.7 PFF defense rating.
So while Minnesota’s Class of 2021 may not have had much immediate impact, that doesn’t mean it will be a collective failure. Fourth round defensive end Janarius Robinson missed the entire season with a preseason injury after creating training camp buzz. Sixth round defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman was considered a valuable selection, but he missed the entire season after being the victim of a shootout before the start of the season.
Also consider that new staff will be coaching the 2021 class, and they’re under far less pressure than Zimmer. With new faces on the staff who may be able to better connect with today’s athletes, it would be wise for fans to enter the 2022 season with an open mind. A new coaching staff does not guarantee success. But that could mean we could see some surprises that round out a rookie class of 2022 that will likely field a few Day 1 starters.