General manager Rick Spielman’s reign at the head of the Vikings’ draft room began in 2012, when he famously selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th pick in the first round. Though that decision was an ultimate failure, Spielman has been largely successful in acquiring college talent. Three of his latest draft picks — Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, and Stefon Diggs — were named to the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) All-Rookie Team on Tuesday morning.
Spielman’s rookie classes have produced eight players on the annual list. Kendricks, Hunter, and Diggs became the first trio to make the team since Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, and Blair Walsh did so in 2012. In 2013, Cordarrelle Patterson was added to the roster as a kick returner. The following year, Teddy Bridgewater was honored for his solid rookie campaign as the Vikings’ starting quarterback.
Before the 2015 season began, ESPN’s Ben Goessling reported that 39 of the team’s 53 players had “seen all of their NFL snaps for the Vikings.” The continuity illustrates Spielman’s reliance on the draft and conservative approach in free agency. If the Vikings are going to build a roster, they’re going to do it from within Winter Park.
Kendricks, a second-round selection (45th-overall) last year, started 11 of 14 games for the Vikings and was the first rookie to lead the team in tackles in over 50 years. He finished the season with 105 total tackles (80 solo), 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and two passes defensed, per the team’s official website. His season ended on a high note in the playoffs, as he was one of the team’s most active defenders against the Seattle Seahawks. Next year, expect Kendricks to play an even bigger role, either in the middle of the defense or as Chad Greenway’s replacement at weak-side linebacker.
Like Kendricks, Hunter should contribute more in 2016. Despite playing in a rotational role behind Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, the third-round draft pick (88th-overall) notched six sacks this season. The coaching staff in Minnesota made the most of Hunter’s exceptional athleticism, unleashing him on passing downs. He was the league’s youngest player in 2015, meaning we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg from Hunter.
And finally, Minnesota’s fifth-round pick, wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Although he was the 146th-overall selection, Diggs finished second among rookies with 720 yards and led the Vikings with 52 receptions. His emergence was even more surprising because he was inactive for the team’s first three games of the season. But when he was active, Diggs exploded, stringing together back-to-back 100-yard performances in Week 6 and Week 7. In Diggs, the Vikings have found a cornerstone on offense, one who’s motivated to improve this offseason.
With an average age of just 26.37 years, the Vikings are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Usually, the league’s most youthful teams aren’t always the most successful, but in Minnesota, Rick Spielman’s found a formula that works.