The early days of Vikings OTAs have focused on Kirk Cousins and his developing relationship with his receivers. Besides Mike Hughes and Daniel Carlson, not much has been said of the rookies. Their time to shine will come a little later, as training camp and especially preseason games start up.
And it is not just the eight players drafted in April. The Vikings found some fairly high profile names in the pool of undrafted free agents, some who people are giving a good chance to make the 53-man roster. As such, it begs the question: How often have undrafted free agents made the opening roster in their rookie season?
As it turns out, it has happened with only four players:
2014: T Austin Wentworth
Some players who went undrafted started on the practice squad then were elevated later that year. C.J. Ham is the most recent example, having done so in 2016. There are also a number of players who found starting roles with the Vikings after going undrafted, but did not join the team until later on. Andrew Sendejo and Nick Easton, for example, are still on roster and expected to play major roles in 2018. But few have made the roster the year they went undrafted.
Historically, Zimmer and Rick Spielman have favored the late round draft picks over the undrafted free agents. Sixth- and seventh-round picks have consistently made the 53-man roster in their first year, as one would expect. That is, until last season. Bucky Hodges, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Elijah Lee and Jack Tocho, each of whom were drafted last season, were all part of final cuts. The latter three had turns on the practice squad, but never cracked the Vikings’ active roster.
So even though the Vikings’ historic trend is to favor late round picks over undrafted rookies, the recent past indicates perhaps a change. Or it could have simply been a one-year under-performance by drafted prospects.
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Either way, the Vikings’ crop of undrafted free agents have some eyes already. Maple Grove-native Jake Wieneke put up some of the biggest receiving numbers in college football the last four seasons. Hercules Mata’afa, while perhaps without a position, has a history of disruption and endless energy. Holton Hill was thought to be an early day three pick, but questions of attitude and off-field actions dropped him out of the draft entirely. Jeff Badet ran a 4.27 at his Oklahoma pro day.
Now, the odds of the Vikings keeping more than a couple of these guys are slim. 2017 was the first year in Zimmer’s tenure they kept more than one, after all. Based on some reports, Hill has the best chance of the undrafted crop purely because of his physical gifts. Even if he never plays a down on defense, he should have a role on special teams.
It should also be worth noting that none of the three undrafted players the Vikings signed out of camp in the past played significant roles on offense or defense. Wentworth retired after appearing in seven games in 2014. Bower recorded a sack in two games last season. Wilson had the most impact, starring on special teams, though he did not crack the linebacker rotation in 2017.
The point is that expectations of undrafted players should be dampened somewhat. Even Sendejo, arguably the Vikings best undrafted player right now, took years to become a capable starter. Hill and Mata’afa are the most intriguing to watch as the Vikings could very well find places for players with Hill’s athleticism and Mata’afa’s motor. But someone, whether it be a drafted rookie or a veteran of the active roster, will obviously have to make room for them.
So keep an eye out once preseason games start for some of these names. They will have to be undeniable in order to make the roster, most likely shining on special teams. Though it has been rare under Zimmer, undrafted rookies are not locks to face cuts by any means.
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