[quote_center]Fans often talk about the Vikings bringing rookies along slowly like it is a habit, but something rang untrue about that to me…[/quote_center]
ZIMMER’S FIRST ROUND HISTORY
Mike Zimmer was the defensive backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys from 1994 to 1999. During that time, his team never drafted a cornerback or safety earlier than the third round.
Zimmer was then promoted to defensive coordinator through the 2006 season. In back-to-back seasons (2002 and 2003), the Cowboys selected first round defensive backs Roy Williams (8th overall) and Terence Newman (5th overall).
Williams not only played in every game of rookie season, but he started every game of the first five seasons of his career. He got some votes for defensive rookie of the year and then played in five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2003 to 2007.
Williams’ career then took a three-year dive, starting with the introduction of the horse collar rule following his own aggressive tackle It also included a reunion with Zimmer in Cincinnati before Williams was out of the league following the 2010 season.
Similarly, Newman started in every game for the Cowboys through his first four years in the league. Newman has played in two Pro Bowls and is now one of the league’s oldest players as he plays in his 14th season with the Minnesota Vikings (still making interceptions, by the way).
In 2005, the Cowboys selected two first round defenders to report to Zimmer as their coordinator — DeMarcus Ware (11th overall) and Marcus Spears (20th overall). Ware started every game of the first four years of his career and went on to be one of the most prolific pass rushers of the modern era.
Preseason injuries partially derailed Spears’ two seasons under Zimmer, but he was still able to earn plenty of rookie praise. The oft-injured Spears was always a well-respected defender, and had a decent nine-year career in the NFL, but was never able to live up to his draft status.
Bobby Carpenter was selected by the Cowboys 18th overall in 2006 and started only one game as a rookie under Zimmer. In fact, he started only 10 games over a seven season span in which he played for four teams.
Following the Bill Parcells retirement, being overlooked for the head coach vacancy, some drama surrounding the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, and the hiring of Wade Phillips, Mike Zimmer was looking for work for the first time since 1994.
In 2007, and now the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons during a lone turmoil-filled season (the “gutless bastard” season), Zimmer was tasked with developing first round defensive end Jamaal Anderson (8th overall). Anderson was immediately installed as the team’s starting right end, but failed to notch a single sack through 15 starts.
After Zimmer left the chaotic Falcons, Anderson failed to ever live up to expectations, even as the Falcons attempted to move him around, and was out in Atlanta before the 2011 season. He notched 15 games with the Colts in 2011, and played in two more with Zimmer in Cincinnati before being released the following offseason. After a few preseason performances in 2013, Anderson never saw an NFL field.
For those keeping track at home, the two biggest draft busts on Zimmer’s NFL resume came in back-to-back seasons…both of which ended with the coach looking for a new job.
In 2008, the Bengals drafted USC linebacker Keith Rivers (9th overall) and Zimmer looked like he was raising another star. That was the case until Hines Ward abruptly ended Rivers’ rookie season with a vicious blindside block that forced the NFL to change its rules. Despite missing the last nine games (after starting the first seven), Rivers received one vote for defensive rookie of the year.
Rivers then went on to have a lackluster career in which he started 26 more games for the Bengals before bouncing around and retiring prior to the 2015 season. That marked three consecutive first round busts that reported directly to Zimmer.
Zimmer had to wait until 2012 to get his hands on another first round defensive back. That player was cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick ,who Cincinnati drafted 17th overall.
Due in part to a knee injury and a concussion, Kirkpatrick played in only five games as a rookie. He started zero. As a sophomore, his second and final year with Zimmer, Kirkpatrick played in 14 games but only started three (four if you count the playoffs). Those starts only came, however, when one of the starting corners (Terence Newman, in fact) went down with injury.
Kirkpatrick has since become a regular starter in Cincinnati.
WELCOME TO MINNESOTA
In 2014, as a rookie head coach of the Vikings, Rick Spielman landed Mike Zimmer two new first round rookies as a house warming present. Those picks were Anthony Barr (9th overall) and Teddy Bridgewater (32nd overall).
Barr was a starter from Day One while Bridgewater did not start the season as under center and had to wait for injuries to get on the field. The Week 3 injury to Matt Cassel meant Bridgewater was forced into action early on, probably earlier than the coaches planned on, and he was the undisputed starting quarterback by Week 5.
In 2015, Zimmer once again got a first round cornerback on his roster when Spielman selected Trae Waynes 11th overall. Waynes was used very little compared to most other first round rookies in franchise history, but he was active for 15 games (inactive once with an ankle injury) and started only once.
Now, this year, Waynes appears to have earned some trust from Zimmer and has started in the three first games of the season. In his past four games, Waynes has intercepted Super Bowl quality quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Cam Newton.
Time will tell if a healthy Xavier Rhodes sends Waynes back to the bench, but there is a decent chance he’s a starter from here on out at the expense of Terence Newman (who just keeps coming up in this history lesson).
TOO LONG TO READ
Here is a quick summary of the above for the skimmers in the audience:
Roy Williams (2002): Instant starter, many years with Zimmer, solid (but shortish) career.
Terence Newman (2003): Instant contributor, many years with Zimmer, long and great career.
Demarcus Ware (2005): Instant starter, spent two years with Zimmer, and had an awesome career.
Marcus Spears (2005): Injuries hampered his career early, spent two years with Zimmer, and had a decent career.
Bobby Carpenter (2006): One year with Zimmer and never amounted to much.
Jamaal Anderson (2007): Instant starter, one year with Zimmer (two more later on with the Bengals), verified draft bust.
Keith Rivers (2008): Instant starter, injuries cut great start to rookie season short, never met expectations.
Dre Kirkpatrick (2012): Eased into action, two years with Zimmer, now a dependable starter.
Anthony Barr (2014): Instant starter, so far looks to have a great career ahead.
Teddy Bridgewater (2014): Started as a rookie only after injury forced it, looked to have a solid career ahead which is now in question due to serious injury.
Trae Waynes (2015): Saw very little action as a rookie, but sophomore season looks encouraging.
FINALLY, I’M MAKING IT TO LAQUON TREADWELL
I set off on this journey of exploring Mike Zimmer’s history with first rounders because I wanted to see if there were any trends. Fans often talk about the Vikings bringing rookies along slowly like it is a habit, but something rang untrue about that to me, considering how many non-first round selections have played heavily for the Vikings in 2014 and 2015.
The only premier selections of the Zimmer era in Minnesota to seemingly struggle to find the field as rookies are Trae Waynes and now Laquon Treadwell. I wasn’t sure if two constituted a trend or just a coincidence.
In the end, individuals have individual stories, and unique situations create unique outcomes. However, the above recanting of Zimmer’s first round history suggests he found enormous success early on in his career with Dallas before overseeing a string of busts. There is no real correlation, it seems, between playing time as a rookie and whether or not that player develops.
Instead, it might seem that Zimmer’s first round reports have fared best when he is allowed to enact his plan for them over the course of many seasons. The other players, ones that he coached on a very limited basis, all seemed to fizzle out at a much higher rate.
Of course, the jury is still out on Minnesota’s first rounders since Zimmer has arrived, but the careers of Barr, Bridgewater, and Waynes currently appear to be on the right track if injuries could somehow be subtracted from the equation.
It is also worth noting that Treadwell is only the second offensive player drafted in the first round to be directly overseen by Zimmer. The already small sample size that is tough to draw conclusions from is even more difficult to analyze considering Zimmer’s lack of experience with offensive players, and because Treadwell is the first first round wide receiver to be drafted by Zimmer’s regime.
Perhaps episode two of this investigation (if there is one) should focus more on Norv Turner’s history with first rounders, as I’m now pretty sold on the whole “Zimmer brings first rounders along slowly” thing as being more of a feeling than it is a fact.
FINALLY, I’VE MADE IT TO LAQUON TREADWELL
The decision to ease first rounders into action may or may not be a preference of Zimmer’s, and if it is, it seems to be one he’s only been able to enact as his organizational say-so has grown over time. However, it is certainly conceivable that this has more to do with the player than it does any sort of policy.
Zimmer himself has recently stated that it is only a matter of time, and practice, before Treadwell hits the field.
“He has to continue to do better in practice,” Zimmer recently said. “He’s working, just biding his time until he gets an opportunity like how (Stefon) Diggs was last year. I still think he’s thinking about the number of steps to take on each route and things like that, being at the right depth.”
That explanation probably says it all. Laquon Treadwell has yet to disprove any of the pre-Draft analysis that made him a first round selection, and he still has many desirable traits that the Vikings are hoping becomes a big part of their future successes.
As with any rookie, however, there are things that need to be learned at the NFL level, and the team has more polished and experienced options to rely on while Treadwell masters the intricacies.
Treadwell won’t even be 22 years old until next summer, and with youth comes room to mature and improve. He still has the potential to be a better option than Jarius Wright or Cordarrelle Patterson or Charles Johnson. Until that light bulb goes on, however, don’t be surprised to see Zimmer and Turner stick to their most prepared and experienced players.
In the end, Treadwell should not already be considered a bust due to the lack of playing time early in his rookie season. We have to wait for him to earn playing time to determine whether or not he was worth his draft position, and until injury forces the team’s hand they might very well be content making us wait.
“It’s just motivation to keep working harder, to keep getting better,” Treadwell said of being a healthy scratch in Week Three.
“I’m taking it a day at a time and continuing to learn,” he continued. “I’m still waiting for my time, that’s the biggest thing. Guys put in their time, and the coaches have a feel for what they can do to help the team. I think that relationship will grow.”
That is the biggest thing, it appears. And if he keeps a positive attitude, employs a rigorous work ethic, and improves in practice then it is a guarantee that we’ll soon enough be able to judge Treadwell for his on-field production instead of his game day status.