Vikings are in the hunt but development remains key to their future
Even with a path to the playoffs, the Vikings' eye on raising young players is still at the forefront
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Inside the tiny road team locker room in Chicago, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer snarked about being forced to answer questions about Kirk Cousins’s record on Monday Night Football all week. A video released by the team showed Zimmer giving his quarterback a 2020-appropriate fist bump and congratulating him on his first MNF victory.
Cousins clearing any type of hurdle at this point feels kind of strange. He has Pro Bowls, a playoff win, a contract extension. He’s one of only a handful of players on the roster who the Vikings fully understand his strengths and weaknesses, floor and ceiling and who they can project his performance from year to year. With a six-year sample as a starter, the only question is whether the Vikings can afford his salary cap hit going forward in a league where the cap is going down due to financial impacts stemming from COVID-19.
Monday Night’s game, rather, highlighted the most vital part of the 2020 season for the Vikings’ organization: The growth and development of players who will hold down major roles in the future.
Over the last three games, the Vikings have seen some of their young pieces come together. In victories over Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, players on rookie contracts have begun to drive the team’s success rather than hinder the performance of the established stars, as they often did through the first six weeks.
So how are the Vikings balancing their opportunity to get back in the playoff race with the development needs of valuable merchandise? What role do players take in their own growth? How will the final seven games of this season shape the future? Let’s have a look…
Evaluating through the ups and downs
When the Vikings lost to the Atlanta Falcons to fall to 1-5, the roster looked like a barren wasteland.
Zimmer’s cornerbacks were among the poorest performing in the NFL, the defensive line rarely pressured the opposing quarterback, the offensive line was struggling to protect Cousins and aside from first-round pick Justin Jefferson, the draft class was showing very few flashes of potential.
Through six weeks, first-round pick Jeff Gladney had allowed a 143.8 passer rating into his coverage (fourth worst among starting corners), defensive ends DJ Wonnum and Jalyn Holmes ranked 113th and 111th of 121 edge rushers in pass rush grade and the offensive line allowed Cousins to be pressured on 39.5% of drop backs, fourth highest in the NFL.
The team still decided to move on from Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue in a trade with Baltimore, giving them an opportunity to see more of players like Holmes and Wonnum more. With an eye on evaluation and development, they also elected to start second-round pick Ezra Cleveland at the opposite guard position from where he played during training camp (and stuck with him after some rough moments in his debut against the Falcons).
Through the struggles, Zimmer said the staff was focusing on each player’s upside and aiming to coach them into consistency.
“It’s no different than scouting,” he said. “If you see a player do something really really good once, you can typically see him do it again and again and again. A lot of it is building the confidence of these young players. A lot of it is, ‘Is the technique the same all of the time, or is it this one time and that another time?’ It really comes down to those three things.”
The ups and downs of the first six games are to be expected. Players do not develop in a linear fashion where they get better every single game, so it’s a challenge to avoid basing evaluations on whatever happened most recently. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t want a jury to only base its verdict on the closing arguments.
So the improvement of the last three games does not guarantee that every player will keep improving week in and week out.
The Vikings are well aware of this.
Co-defensive coordinator and player development guru Andre Patterson leans on his past experiences to maintain perspective about how long the journey can be for a player to reach their potential.
“People forget it was a process for Everson Griffen to become a multiple-Pro Bowl player,” Patterson said. “He didn’t walk on the field here and do that. He hadn’t started a game until we got here and he had already been a Viking for four years. Linval Joseph was a good player with the Giants. He developed into a great player here. Danielle Hunter didn’t walk on the field as a rookie and become a multiple-Pro Bowl player. It took him a year-and-a-half to develop to being a starter.”
So they won’t be overreacting to the last three games and declaring every young player a future All-Pro. However, in many areas in which things were going very wrong in the first six games, there has been gains over the last three.
The rookie fourth-rounder Wonnum has 11 pressures, tied for eighth most among edge rushers since Week 8. Holmes ranks in the top 20 in PFF tackling and run defense grade. Gladney’s QB rating against has dropped to 101.8 and he’s given up just 7.4 yards per catch into his coverage, third best among starting corners since Week 8. And Cousins’s pressure rate has dropped to 34% with Cleveland emerging as a clear future piece to the O-line along the way.
“We’re playing better and better,” Zimmer said after the win over the Lions. “I said this to some of the defensive coaches today, ‘We might be doing our best job coaching we’ve done, and we’re still giving up 400 yards a game.’ It’s a work in progress, but I think some of these guys are getting better. As long as we play hard and play with energy, we get in the right spots for the most part, then we’ve got a chance.”
There are other examples. Armon Watts has played much better as a rotational defensive tackle, Hercules Mata’afa has been noticeable in a situational rushing role and Kris Boyd has stepped up since being pushed into a starting rule due to numerous cornerback injuries.
Patterson said the coaching staff is taking particular pride in developing this collection. Last week in the defensive line meeting room, he asked the group to raise their hand if they were a first-round pick. Of course, there are no first-rounders on the D-line so nobody raised their hand. His message: They’ll have to outwork their talent and fight through the ups and downs of development.
“You enjoy being the mad scientist and able to get your hands on these guys and try to get them to improve,” Patterson said. “The difference now is we’re doing it at a lot of different positions and not just one or two or four…That’s what you want to see as a coach. When it’s all said and done, you get a chance to look back and see what kind of players these guys have developed into.”
Mike Zimmer made his name as defensive backs coach but that doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to allow a new approach. Daronte Jones, the Vikings’ new DBs coach, brought his own process in his first year in Minnesota, which includes giving players a sheet each week that gives them the answers to Sunday’s test.
“It kind of has questions that they have to answer as they’re watching film to kind of hone in on certain things to look at,” Jones said. “It may be who are the top receivers, what type of receivers are they – are they possession receivers, are they speed receivers, how do they catch the ball, their alignment in their stance. What are the top formations that you see. What are the top tendencies that you’re getting out of those formations?”
Jones explained that the cheat-sheet technique comes from the college ranks. NCAA teams do the same thing for freshmen who are transitioning from high school to the NFL. The sheet teaches them how to watch film and helps them not feel overwhelmed.
“If they have something in front of them to help guide them as they watch film, then they’re not just watching as a fan or to watch plays but they’re watching with some intent, and understanding there’s a purpose to it and if you hone those things, it kind of allows them to focus on those things,” Jones said.
The Vikings’ DB coach feels that the bizarre circumstances of the 2020 season — including a lack of OTAs, minicamps and preseason — made a “college mindset” more appropriate. The sheet, in his opinion, helped shorten the learning curve, even if it felt very steep at times this year.
Jeff Gladney might be the best evidence of that at the moment.
He came out of college as one of the most experienced rookies entering the NFL but there’s nothing to prepare a first-year corner, even a gifted one, for the talent and complexity of the NFL. Now after nine games, things are starting to click. Gladney is starting to understand how offenses attack and how those things change with the situation.
“I think Jeff is starting to see some of the same concepts over and over,” Jones said. “That’s how this league is. There’s only so many things you can do and I think he’s starting to put a lot of different concepts into certain buckets. We always talk about putting the opponent into buckets whether it’s first or second down or third down. And just pinpointing, hey these are the top three things that we have to know and everything else you can just rely on your moves.”
The difficult curve for corners is being shown around the league in 2020. Per PFF, 15 of the 18 first-year corners who have played regular snaps have allowed at least a 100 passer rating into their coverage. Only two of them haven’t been beaten for a touchdown, while Gladney and Dallas’s Trevon Diggs have allowed five touchdowns each.
That story isn’t unique. The 2019 class got roasted as rookies too. But this year, of 14 regular corners from the ‘19 class, only five have given up a 100 rating into their coverage or greater.
“He’s still learning and has a lot to learn as we all know but I like his attitude and his approach to it,” Jones said of Gladney. “And he’s hungry for information.”
The Vikings hope with Gladney that he can show down the stretch of this season that he can be a major building block going forward — partly because he’s a first-round pick and his ceiling is high but also because their other young corners have hit stumbling blocks with injuries this year. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill are on injured reserve and Cameron Dantzler has been injured twice this year. Though the emergence of Boyd may ultimately be a difference maker down the road.
Gary being Gary
On the offensive side, Gary Kubiak doesn’t develop with buckets, he develops by being Gary Dang Kubiak, a man with rings and a history of coaching up Hall of Famers. He believes that players can connect to the journeys in development of those who come before them.
“I have some great examples,” Kubiak said. “I think that I can go to young men… and say, OK, you know this player – guys usually identify with former players – this is what he went through or this is how his career, this is what it took for him to get going.”
This week even Kirk Cousins talked about watching film of Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco with Kubiak, so his teaching style doesn’t end when a player becomes a veteran.
“I try to show them examples like that, guys they can look at their success and how maybe it wasn’t the greatest start but it was a great finish or guys that had success early and then maybe it didn’t pan out later on,” Kubiak said. “I’m always trying to look for examples that players can relate to.”
Kubiak has some of the players who will define the Vikings’ future. In order to maximize Cousins’s talents, they need Justin Jefferson and Ezra Cleveland to continue to shine. But there’s still a ways to go. Kubiak said even Jefferson still has much to learn, despite taking the league by storm. He wants to see Jefferson be able to move to any position on the field, like, say Andre Johnson.
“I think the biggest thing I would say is the more comfortable I get him, like when he looks at an NFL game plan week to week — I don’t know we have 70 pass plays or whatever — and I start to bounce him around and move him around and see him play different spots, I think that’s the cycle,” Kubiak said. “If you’re going to be a great receiver in this league, you’ve got to move. You can’t stay in one spot. The defenses are too good and people can take you away, so I think as you guys watch him do more things and play different spots, he’s showing you that he’s going to be able to handle that, because all of the great ones that I’ve been around have been able to do that. It’s extremely important.”
With both Jefferson and Cleveland, Kubiak chose to play it slow with them right off the bat. Jefferson didn’t start the first two games and Cleveland didn’t make his way into the lineup until Week 6. He needed them to be ready to handle the uphill battle rather than being overwhelmed. You have to wonder if the Vikings sacrificed a game or two in the name of development.
Kubiak, too, understands that these things take time. Last year rookie center Garrett Bradbury experienced plenty of bumps in the road along the way but in Year 2 he’s made significant gains under his OC.
“The more you play, the more you start to sense little nuances of ways you can try to keep the defense off-balance,” Kubiak said. “Now it’s really on Garrett, and it’s kind of his show. It’s been fun to see him take that command.”
Coaches can do everything in the world to help a player. They can have a useful system. They can use past examples. They can give motivational speeches. But Kirk Cousins said the true key to development is putting it on your own shoulders rather than hoping a coach does it for you.
“You definitely want to take your career into your own hands and be very critical of yourself as a young player or as a veteran player and say, ‘How can I be better?’ and ‘I’m not going to wait for someone to tell me, or come up with a drill to help me,’” Cousins said. “‘I’m going to go do that and really take ownership.’ I think the players that can do that, that can be very self-aware and fix problems before the coaches even have to, I think that helps a player get through mistakes, learn from them and not repeat them, such as they’re able to take that next step as a player.”
Jefferson leads all rookies in receiving yards and ranks No. 2 by PFF among all receivers in overall grade. The LSU star said this week he expected this type of performance from himself and made it his goal to out-perform the four receivers who were drafted ahead of him.
“I’m not trying to have that rookie mindset, not waiting for somebody to lead me in the right direction, just being that mature player, mature rookie,” Jefferson said.
Part of taking ownership of your own development is learning from players who have succeeded. From the first day of camp, Jefferson was like a little brother following around his big brother Adam Thielen. He wanted to know about routes, releases, coverages — how to be great in the NFL, as Thielen is.
When Dalvin Cook arrived in Minnesota, the team put his locker near Teddy Bridgewater, Eric Kendricks and Terence Newman. He quickly discovered those players could guide him in the right direction. And now he’s trying to do the same for younger players.
“We had a lot of older guys on the team [when I arrived],” Cook said. “I've been seeing the growth in all our young players. It's not going to be perfect all the time. We are going to make mistakes. We've let some games slip but you see guys getting better. You see guys attacking the moment, knowing what type of situation they're in, knowing what we're trying to get done as a team and what coach Zimmer's trying to get done. You see guys locking in. It can only go up from here.”
The final piece to the puzzle in terms of players owning their own development is just believing in themselves. It may seem trivial but from the first time organized sports were played until now, confidence has always been a key factor in maximizing talent.
“Week 1, I wasn’t really too sure of the NFL, of how fast it was or anything,” Jefferson said. “Now, I have a couple games under my belt, so I have a feel for the NFL. I know what’s going on. I know the tempo of it and everything. Really, just me going out there and playing my own game, it fits right in.”
The Vikings may very well end up seeing so many players grow quickly enough to get them on a blazing hot streak that results in playoff position. But even if they fall short of a magical second half of the season, the development of young players has the potential to set the organization up for years of relevance, as they had during the first six years of Zimmer in Minnesota. That’s more important than reaching the No. 7 seed this year.
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