Every off-season, each NFL team attempts to address their needs through free agency, trades, and the draft. For the Minnesota Vikings, over the past several seasons, it is often not the high draft pick or flashy veteran acquisition who makes the greatest impact, but rather an under the radar player who gains an opportunity and exceeds expectations. Last year, it was former undrafted wide receiver Adam Theilen who led the team in receiving yards, not first round rookie Laquon Treadwell. The year before, rookie fifth round pick Stefon Diggs outperformed veteran speedster Mike Wallace. In past seasons, players like Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Sherels, and John Sullivan have gone from late round picks or undrafted free agents with low expectations to valuable contributors to the team. With needs along the offensive and defensive lines, in the secondary, and at linebacker, among others, that are expected to be addressed in the draft, we will be analyzing which players already on the rosters fans should be watching throughout the off-season to fill needs on the team.
Minnesota Vikings Current Roster Sleepers for 2017
Interior Offensive Line
Both fans and analysts agree that the root of the Vikings problems offensively last season was the porous and injury-ridden offensive line. Players who should not have been starting were forced into action, and while players like TJ Clemmings and Brandon Fusco played abysmally all year long, their were three backups who stood out in a positive way when forced into action.
Jeremiah Sirles came to the Vikings in a trade with the then-San Diego Chargers in 2015. With experience in several positions, he seemed like an ideal backup. Last season, Sirles started 12 games, and played in two others. 13 of those games he spent at right tackle, where his play was serviceable but decidedly below average. In week three against the Carolina Panthers, Sirles played most of the game at left guard after an injury to Alex Boone. His play in that game was good enough that he is currently slotted in as the de facto starter at right guard for next season. Although many see him as only a placeholder, his play last season as one of the most consistent Viking’s linemen places him in the conversation to start again next season.
Nick Easton, also brought to the Vikings via trade with the 49ers midway through the 2015 season, is a center by trade. Last season he started five games at center when starter Joe Berger was injured, and then continuing to do so when Berger was again healthy, kicking the veteran to guard. Although Easton is a center and the Vikings biggest need on the line is at guard, Berger’s play at guard last year suggests that if Easton can play better at center than another player does at guard, he could seize a starting job.
Zac Kerin is by far the deepest sleeper of this group to earn a starting role on the offensive line. Signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2014 draft, the position-flexible interior lineman played well in spot duty both when replacing Brandon Fusco due to injury and playing outside at tight end on tackle-eligible running players. In college at Toledo, Kerin did not miss a single start in the final three years of his college career and in 2013, he played on an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the nation.
Since the team has already brought in two starting tackles in free agency and both the left guard and center positions have established starters, most experts are pegging the Vikings to target a right guard in the draft. If one of the three aforementioned players can step in and start at either guard or center, it would allow the team to groom a high pick more slowly, not forcing them into duty as several young players had to last season.
With former first round pick Sharrif Floyd’s status moving forward a mystery, finding a starting defensive tackle to pair with star run-stuffer Linval Joseph has become a priority. Last season, forced to start pass rushing specialist Tom Johnson and the generally uninspiring Shamar Stephen (who has admittedly out-performed the expectations of a seventh round selection), the team will be looking for a new starter at the 3-technique.
Toby Johnson spent most of last season on the practice squad, but his play in the preseason and his devotion to improving his game have made him a favorite among many Vikings fans. The most memorable moment of his career so far was a diving preseason interception on the 325-pound tackle’s 25th birthday. With size and athleticism, Johnson may be able to steal away a starting spot next season.
Datone Jones, a first round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2013, has played all over the front seven of the Packer’s 3-4 defense. Now, in a 4-3 defense that better fits his skill set, the team must decide where to play the former UCLA Bruin. While many are pegging him in as a defensive end, he may be a better fit at defensive tackle, especially if he can put on some weight before the season. With the size and athleticism coaches dream of, Jones may be most able to make an impact from inside.
While it seems likely the Vikings will bring in another defensive tackle, Mike Zimmer’s scheme which rotates defensive lineman almost every play should allow both of the aforementioned players to make a significant impact, even if neither ends up a starter.
After losing three year starter Captain Munnerlyn in free agency, the Vikings must find a new slot corner. While the debate has generally been whether it will be Mackensie Alexander or a rookie, there are several players on the roster who could also make a push to start.
Antone Exum was a corner in college, before being moved to safety by the Vikings. After spending last season on IR, Exum has already expressed interest in competing for the nickel spot. A strong, thick player and a ball hawk, Exum’s biggest weakness has been the mental game. Zimmer has noted on multiple occasions that Exum could be starting in he would play with most consistency. Now, entering his fourth season in what is essentially a make or break year, Exum has a chance to prove his doubters wrong and take on a larger role in the defense.
Jabari Price has managed to stick with the Vikings since being drafted in 2014. He played some spot duty on defense and special teams his rookie season, but after being suspended for a DUI in 2015 and missing every game since his suspension with various injuries, it is remarkable the coaching staff and front office have kept him around. This commitment to a player who most fans have long written off is telling. Price was praised before the draft for his aggressive tackling and speed, traits that are very useful for a nickel corner.
Tre Roberson is not only the biggest sleeper at his position, he is the biggest sleeper on list overall. A quarterback at Illinois State, Roberson transitioned to corner and played better in the preseason than several players who have been playing the position their entire careers. As raw as they come, Roberson was not expected to even last through the first wave of cuts, let alone make the practice squad. After a full year of learning to play corner, fans should be excited to watch Roberson’s development as a player.
With two of the game’s top defensive back coaches in Mike Zimmer and position coach Jerry Gray, there is no doubt whoever ends up playing the slot corner back position will be well prepared.
With the retirement of Chad Greenway, the Vikings have a hole at weak-side linebacker for the first time in over a decade. While former Cincinnati Bengal Emmanuel Lamur is the favorite to battle whatever rookie is brought in, there are three other names to watch.
Edmond Robinson, a favorite of KFAN announcer Paul Allen, is a prototypical coverage linebacker in a modern NFL. Drafted in 2015 out of DII Newberry College, the 6’3″, 245 pound outside linebacker has all the physical traits to succeed in the NFL. He was largely unproductive last season, notching just two tackles all year, but after Zimmer expressed confidence in him, fans cannot afford to ignore him.
Kentrell Brothers, the most productive tackler in college football his senior season, is no athletic specimen. The 6-foot ‘backer fell to the fifth round in last year’s draft due to sub-par athletic ability and size. Brothers proved in college his ability to overcome his athletic shortcomings with great instincts and vision, traits often lost on modern players. A pure football player, Brothers’ best fit is at middle linebacker, which would force current starter Eric Kendricks to slide to the WILL spot. Likely in this scenario, Brothers would leave the field in nickel situations and Kendricks would slide inside to MIKE.
Andrew Sendejo has played safety his entire NFL career. Known as a big hitter who has more success in the box than deep in coverage, Sendejo may be the next in line of Deon Bucannon and Mark Barron to make the transition to linebacker. This move would allow the Vikings the flexibility to remain in their base defense more, as Sendejo’s coverage ability, while lacking for a safety, is fantastic for an outside linebacker. His ability in run support also suggest such a switch would be a positive one. Sendejo could also play linebacker in the base defense, then rotate back to safety in nickel packages. While this suggestion may be outside the box (no pun intended), it may be the next step for the Vikings to continue dominating on defense.
Whether the Vikings want to go a more traditional or modern route at linebacker, there are several players on the roster who may be able to make a greater impact than a rookie early on.
While the Vikings have many needs to fill in the draft, knowing they have flexibility with the players on their roster will allow them to stick to their board and not reach to fill needs as they have in years past. Drafting for need has given the Vikings Laquon Treadwell and Christian Ponder, while drafting the best player available has brought Adrian Peterson and Randy Moss to Minnesota.
Even if the team does draft players to fill the needs mentioned above, do not expect the other players at their respective positions to surrender without a fight. There will be many exciting position battles to watch this summer, and, if past years are any indication, the victor may not be a player anyone expects.