ORIGINAL: Bruce Johnson
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With rookies having now been at training camp for nearly two weeks, we’re starting to get a stronger impression of who could make an impact for the Minnesota Vikings in 2018.
Looking back, you might be surprised to find some decent opinions in previous years’ attempts at ranking the rookies.
In 2015, yours truly ranked Stefon Diggs No. 1 and Danielle Hunter No. 2 out of 10 rookies. Trae Waynes was fourth and Eric Kendricks was fifth. Only MyCole Pruitt at No. 3 turned out to be a whiff.
The 2016 class was generally nondescript, yet Laquon Treadwell and Mackensie Alexander still earned placings in the lower half of the rankings. Having David Morgan at No. 1 might seem laughable, but it’s hard to find another draft pick from that class who’s done their job more consistently. Was Jayron Kearse at No. 2 a little high in retrospect? Yes. But don’t forget he won Mr. Mankato that summer.
A reminder: These rankings are based more so upon performance compared to expectations. For example, a first-round pick might be a better player than a seventh-round pick, but if the seventh-round pick is moving up the depth chart and the first-rounder is plunging down, then the player on the rise gets the higher ranking.
Surprisingly, this year’s rankings actually correlate with draft position quite closely. Here they are:
8. DE Ade Aruna (sixth round)
When the Vikings drafted this Nigerian born pass rusher out of Tulane, they knew they were getting a project. Having only started playing football in high school, Aruna is raw. While he contains many of the physical tools the Vikings are looking for, he’s got a lot of refining to do. At age 24, his upside is lower than an edge rusher like Danielle Hunter, who was taken at age 20. Aruna may be destined for the practice squad.
7. G Colby Gossett (sixth round)
While Gossett may see more meaningful reps because of Minnesota’s injuries on the interior line, he has yet to be trusted above Danny Isidora to get a shot at first-team guard, even during a time of year when the team likes to experiment with new rotations. Plus, head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters that Isidora struggled during his first week.
Gossett may fall into a roster spot if someone above him begins the season on the PUP, but he’s yet to flash in camp and has struggled in 1-on-1 drills.
6. LB Devante Downs (seventh round)
Downs has been full go during training camp after missing most spring activities as he recovered from his knee injury as a college senior. That could keep him in the running for a roster spot, though he’s third on the team’s middle linebacker depth chart and has only gotten sparing looks with the second-team base. Linebackers are difficult to evaluate in training camp, but Downs hasn’t popped as much as veterans Antwione Williams and Reshard Cliett. He’ll need strong preseason performances to earn favor.
5. TE Tyler Conklin (fifth round)
The Central Michigan tight end has not generated the type of hype that last year’s rookie tight end Bucky Hodges did, but he may have a more defined niche in the NFL.
Hodges was an athletic pass-catching threat but struggled with the game’s nuances and got released shortly after cut-down day. Conklin, like counterpart David Morgan, doesn’t have wheels but possesses good hands. He’ll need to improve his blocking to truly imitate Morgan, but if he grows in that area the Vikings could have a formidable “13” personnel unit — assuming he makes the 53-man roster.
4. DT Jalyn Holmes (fourth round)
After overcoming a broken hand in OTAs, Holmes has looked solid in camp, though he’s taken a backseat at times to converted defensive tackle Ifeadi Odenigbo, who has jumped him on the depth chart.
Holmes is a near lock to make this roster with Sheldon Richardson on just a one-year contract. But because of Richardson’s presence, Brian Robison’s inside flexibility and Odenigbo’s emergence, the pressure may be off Holmes to be a Year 1 contributor. Zimmer has rarely relied on young defenders to make immediate impacts, so if Holmes doesn’t contribute much this season it shouldn’t be a red flag.
3. K Daniel Carlson (fifth round)
There might be a scenario where Carlson is the most impactful Vikings rookie this season, but the big-legged Auburn kicker is still locked in a battle with Kai Forbath.
Carlson has outkicked Forbath for much of the offseason — and his strength on kickoffs is noticeable — but a recent head-to-head victory by Forbath in a field goal session has closed the gap. Like Forbath’s last challenger Marshall Koehn, Carlson has the superior leg, but his reliability in games could be a discerning factor.
On paper, though, he’s done enough to win the job.
Priefer and Zimmer have both alluded to deciding on their kicker early in the preseason. If Carlson stays perfect against Denver and Jacksonville, he could be given the job. If Forbath bests him, the competition may continue up to cut day.
2. OT Brian O’Neill (second round)
The former tight end turned tackle was asked to take on a first-team role early on in training camp and held his own with Rashod Hill missing time due to a stomach virus. O’Neill has largely been relegated to second-team work since Hill’s return, but his effort has been adequate against Minnesota’s backup pass rushers. Coaches have also complimented his ability to get to the second level on blocks.
The Vikings have very little help at tackle beyond O’Neill and Aviante Collins, meaning O’Neill’s development this camp is vital.
1. CB Mike Hughes (first round)
The last two first-round picks, Trae Waynes and Laquon Treadwell, have had underwhelming starts to their first training camp. Not so for Hughes, who has passed the eye test despite remaining beyond Terence Newman on the depth chart. Anything else would be surprising, though, considering Newman’s tenure.
Hughes has demonstrated a good backpedal in coverage, requisite acceleration to close ground and break up passes, as well as a knack for gunning and returning on special teams that will make him valuable whether he plays defensive reps or not.
It’s worth being cautious until a real game is played, but Hughes’ first two weeks have been fantastic.
I do think it is wonderful that football can bring people together from different persuasions. We need more of that and less of what divides us.