Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Young Vikings may benefit from extra practices

Photo: Todd Walkingstick
During the final training camp in Mankato, the Vikings' rookies reported two days early. Daniel House discusses why this strategy promotes the development of young players. 

Updated: July 26, 2017, 11:20am

By: Daniel House

Training camp started differently this year, but the change in strategy might be beneficial for the third-tier players on the Vikings' roster. 

During the final training camp in Mankato, the Vikings reported to camp early without veterans to provide their rookies with additional reps. After holding two rookie exclusive practices, the veterans will report to training camp Wednesday. This decision allowed the coaches to instruct players individually within their position groups. A focus on installing concepts and perfecting individual fundamentals will ease the transition for young players on the roster.

According to Football Outsiders, Vikings rookies played just 239 snaps in 2016. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell notched just one catch for 15 yards during his rookie campaign. The team's next selection, Mackensie Alexander, played in just 6% of snaps on defense. One could argue the best production the Vikings received from the 2017 draft class was from Kentrell Brothers. He played in 42% of the team’s special teams snaps and was named one of the top coverage unit performers by Pro Football Focus.

The mission this year: to receive more active production from the rookies. The team selected two potential day one starters with running back Dalvin Cook and center Pat Elflein. In addition, the exit of Chad Greenway opens up a linebacker spot for fourth round draft pick Ben Gedeon to carve out a role. The team will need these rookies to step up and contribute consistently on their respective sides of the ball.

Mike Zimmer said having the rookies report early was important to provide additional reps and instruction.

“I just felt like it was important – we did this in the spring, we had extra practices with the rookies – I just felt like we wanted to try to get them up to speed as quick as we can,” Zimmer said.

During the first two days of practice, the emphasis on fundamentals and learning was evident. The wide receivers worked on explosion out of their breaks, the tight ends focused on run blocking, and the offensive lineman emphasized hand technique/footwork. The additions of wide receivers coach Darrell Hazel, tight ends coach Clancy Barone, and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu have injected more hands-on instruction to the coaching staff.

Hazel has placed an emphasis on more explosion in and out of breaks. He wants the players to win with their first step and explosiveness at the top of their routes. At tight end, Barone has spent the majority of positional work on run blocking and the fundamentals behind it. In addition, Polamalu has run more circuit drills to test lateral agility, balance, vision and ball security.

The idea of teaching concepts and perfecting alignments will allow the rookies to start practicing quickly with the veterans. The team already worked with the young players on the basics before the experienced players took the field.

The additional tape the coaches have on these players will allow them to see which players should receive additional reps when the full squad arrives. It essentially weeds out the rookies and young players that are struggling to pick up concepts at the slower pace. The coaches can now focus on inserting the preferred players into the mix with their veterans to find the best combinations for the 2017 season. The Vikings not only held rookie specific training camp practices, but practiced more during OTAs. Zimmer noted the Vikings had three OTAs, but had practice on the other two days. This allowed the rookies to receive another ten practices they wouldn’t normally receive. It’s clear to see Zimmer wants his rookies to be more involved in 2017.

“With the way the NFL is going now with younger and younger players, I just thought it was important. Hopefully a lot of these guys will be playing,” Zimmer noted.

Whether it’s contributions within their position group or on special teams, the rookies and second-year players will be playing larger roles this season. Laquon Treadwell must emerge in the wide receiver room and Mackensie Alexander will be asked to step up at nickel cornerback. They didn’t report early, but practiced extensively during the extra OTA and mini-camp practices. 

The emphasis on player development will continue throughout camp, but this was a unique opportunity for 38 young players to take advantage of additional reps. How they respond to this instruction will ultimately dictate many of their futures. A lapse in focus during these sessions will be clear if players make frequent fundamental mistakes later in camp. 

However, for players like wide receiver RJ Shelton and cornerback Antone Exum Jr., the additional film might make a huge difference when the Vikings are trimming their roster in late August. No matter what, it's clear to see the Vikings want more production from their young players. 

The extra reps provided an opportunity, but the dog days of camp will ultimately separate the pretenders from the contenders.

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