Rick Spielman has earned Vikings fans trusts with the top-loaded roster he constructed over the last few years. He has found stars at all three levels at the defense; top-flight weapons in the fifth round and later; franchise cornerstones at quarterback and running back; and a coach with the brains and personality to get the best out of these players. The only real red mark on Spielman’s record as general manager has been the offensive line. But even in that regard, he has done a reasonably good job of building a competent unit the last two seasons.
The area where Spielman does not get enough credit, however, is his ability to evaluate talent down the roster. And that is not just speaking to getting Adam Thielen off the scrap heap. No, this is about the Stephen Weatherlys. The Jayron Kearses. The Eric Wilsons. Guys who in a perfect world, would only play a handful of snaps a game. But now, with the Vikings’ sudden rash of injuries, they are thrust into major roles. And they are succeeding in those roles.
Sunday’s win especially was a testament to this. Things were not exactly clicking for the Vikings offense, with the strong winds playing a factor. Kirk Cousins was a touch inaccurate for much of the first half, Thielen was the only receiver finding much success and in general, the passing game seemed sloppy. Where things were working, however, was up front. Cousins faced little pressure all game (eight on 43 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus). And there was perhaps no one on the line better than Rashod Hill. Hill has been fairly hit-or-miss as a starter this year, but he was solid Sunday in reserve of Riley Reiff. So as shaky as he can be at times, he is clearly equally as capable of putting on good performances. Keep in mind, Spielman found Hill off the Jaguars practice squad in 2016 after he went undrafted that year.
Sticking with the o-line, Tom Compton, another solid pickup by Spielman this offseason, went down in the first with an injury. Danny Isidora jumped right in and performed admirably in his stead. That is the key in this. Spielman has made the cliche “next man up” mantra possible by finding capable depth pieces. Are all of them starting-caliber 100 percent of the time? No, but for a team with injuries piling up, those players who can capably fill in for stretches may be the difference between Super Bowl and disappointment.
This was even more evident on the defense Sunday. Again without Everson Griffen and short-staffed on the edge, the Vikings continue to not miss a beat up front. Stephen Weatherly, a 2016 seventh-rounder, got consistent push up front in the run and pass game, recorded a tackle for loss and even broke up a pass 15 yards downfield.
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The Vikings lose Anthony Barr for a bit. That’s OK, Eric Wilson can step in. Xavier Rhodes goes down in the fourth with the Vikings already stretched thin at corner. Well, here comes undrafted rookie Holton Hill. The Jets immediately throw at him and he comes up with his first career interception. Next man up, no problem.
There may be no better example of this than Jayron Kearse. Without Mike Hughes and Andrew Sendejo, the Vikings moved Kearse all over the field. Kearse’s stat line peaks for itself: five tackles (tied for team lead), two tackles for loss (most) and a sack. His one blemish was poor coverage that resulted in a long Jets reception. A play later, the Jets scored from the one-yard line. But one bad play in coverage juxtaposed with a dozen really good ones elsewhere? Not an awful day’s work for a guy few expected to contribute so much defensively.
And yet to be mentioned are Aldrick Robinson, Brandon Zylstra and Roc Thomas, all of whom came up with big plays at points on Sunday. Anthony Harris, who intercepted a pass a week ago. David Parry had three tackles. Rookie Jalyn Holmes had a sack. Jaleel Johnson started for Linval Joseph and had half a sack. Overall, Sunday’s game was one for the little guy (figuratively speaking, of course).
If Barr and Rhodes’ injuries end up being long-term issues, Spielman’s finds are going to get even more of a spotlight. Signs point to them just missing a few weeks, nothing too major. But for once, the Vikings do not seem hamstrung by stars getting injured. They have the depth to hold the fort down. And that, as much as anything, may be Spielman’s finest work in Minnesota.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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