There was second-round pick Eric Kendricks making his first start at middle linebacker, and third-rounder Danielle Hunter filling in for Everson Griffen at right defensive end. There was fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings having one of his better pass-protection games at right tackle, standing up to Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston. There was fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs hauling in a key 30-yard pass as one of his seven receptions for 129 yards. And there was first-round pick Trae Waynes, coming out of a meticulous introduction to the NFL and holding up in pass coverage as he traded series at left cornerback with 37-year-old Terence Newman.
All told, the Vikings’ rookies played a combined 250 snaps on Sunday against Kansas City — an average of 35.7 per player, or eight more snaps than the league average last week, according to ESPN Stats and Information. For the season, the Vikings have played their rookies a total of 753 snaps in five games. That’s only the 14th-most of any team in the league, but the Vikings also had an early bye, and their rookie snap counts figure to go up as players like Diggs and possibly Waynes take on bigger roles.
“It’d big for us,” second-year linebacker Anthony Barr said. “You see Stef playing this well on offense, Eric playing well on defense and Trae getting snaps. It’s good to get the young guys experience; put them out there, they have some success, build some confidence and just build a swagger about them.”
In coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings certainly have a leader who’s not afraid to put his young players in key spots. Whether it was starting Barr as a rookie, counting on Teddy Bridgewater to play well after Matt Cassel got injured last season or giving this year’s rookies opportunities to fill starting jobs, Zimmer has been willing to lean on his young players, believing they can be handed major roles early in their careers if they’re prepared properly.
“I think there’s a lot of rookies and young guys that can play in this league and really they’re all different,” Zimmer said. “Some of them are faster than others, but I do think intelligence has a big part in it. Obviously athletic ability has a lot to do with it and (general manager) Rick [Spielman] has done a good job of bringing guys in here that are athletes. We do have a belief in our coaches that we can help athletes become better players. I’m sure everybody believes that, but I do too.”
With one of the league’s youngest rosters, the Vikings are in a spot where they can’t bring an entire draft class along slowly. They’ve gotten solid early returns from this year’s class, and the group doesn’t figure to be going away any time soon.