Vikings’ rookies stepping up and leading the way
By Brian MurphySt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- The Class of 2014 has been called to order. Nicknames are assigned. Duties sworn. The Minnesota Vikings' future is very much present. Five months ago, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick...
By Brian Murphy
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - The Class of 2014 has been called to order. Nicknames are assigned. Duties sworn. The Minnesota Vikings’ future is very much present.
Five months ago, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon were draft prospects uncertain about their destiny with question marks hanging over their potential.
Five weeks into this NFL season, the outside linebacker, quarterback and running back have emerged as respective playmakers for the Vikings, three rookies in pivotal positions tasked with leading a radically changing team.
“Teddy Two Gloves” ascended to starting quarterback when Matt Cassel broke his foot in Week 3, and he secured his reputation as an unflappable alpha male in the huddle with a precise, 317-yard breakout performance in Sunday’s 41-28 victory over Atlanta.
McKinnon, aka “Jet,” salvaged a running game that was a wreck after Adrian Peterson’s banishment, producing a dynamic 135-yard performance against the Falcons.
And “A.B.” leads all rookie defenders with two sacks, including a third-down soul-crusher against Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Barr continues to showcase the versatility that convinced Minnesota to select him ninth overall in the draft despite starting his college career at UCLA as a fullback. He is savoring the moment as the Vikings (2-2) prepare to face the Green Bay Packers (2-2) on Thursday night at Lambeau Field in an early marquee NFC North game.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s an addictive feeling, really,” Barr said. “I think a lot of players (when they) leave the game, that’s what they miss. I’m just going to cherish it as much as possible.
“Teddy was playing great and I saw him go down. You never know when that might be your last play, so really embrace the moment and live in it.”
A sprained ankle chased Bridgewater late in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. There was no indication the 32nd and final first-round draft pick would not start against the Packers in the Vikings’ only nationally televised prime-time game this season.
“We know how big this game is,” Bridgewater said. “We are going to ride the wave that we’re riding right now and try our best to go out and play great football Thursday.”
Barr, Bridgewater and McKinnon (third round, 96th overall) are the shining lights of Minnesota’s 10-man draft class.
No other team boasts three rookies who statistically rank among the top 10 of their respective positions.
Bridgewater’s 467 passing yards trail fellow rookies Blake Bortles (476) of Jacksonville and Derek Carr (734) of Oakland. Bortles has two starts and Carr four compared to Bridgewater’s 1-plus games.
Barr is fourth in tackles (23), while McKinnon’s productive day against the Falcons leaves him with 142 yards, trailing Baltimore’s Lorenzo Taliaferro (149 yards) and Cleveland’s Terrence West (204) - both of whom have 34 more combined carries.
“It wasn’t like I thought I wouldn’t get 135 (yards); I just wasn’t sure how they would use me or play me,” said McKinnon. “I’m just trying to stay humble, be coachable. There’s going to be some times you get things you’re not prepared for or things just come up. You’ve got to be able to adapt and adjust.”
He remains an unfinished product. McKinnon played quarterback, running back and defensive back at Georgia Southern. The speedy and shifty back plays off the power running of Matt Asiata to at least give Minnesota options out of a backfield once dominated by Peterson.
Among the Vikings’ other draft picks, defensive end Scott Crichton (third round, 72nd), safety Antone Exum (sixth round, 162nd), defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (seventh round, 220th) and cornerback Jabari Price (225th) have played sparingly.
Guard David Yankey, a fifth-round pick out of Stanford, was deactivated the first four weeks.
Barr was a projected starter, but Bridgewater and McKinnon have been forced into high-profile roles sooner than expected - even if coach Mike Zimmer does not see it that way.
“Honestly, I look at football players. I don’t look at how old they are,” Zimmer said this week. “I know we’ve got a lot of young guys, but I just look at players - when they’re out there and how they perform. The three guys you mentioned have been performing well. I don’t think it’s unusual anywhere in the league for young guys to come in and have to play. Actually, that’s a good thing.”
However this Vikings season plays out, Bridgewater in particular is gaining invaluable experience commanding offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme each week with limited sideline grooming.
This is his team, his town and his time, following the recent trend among young quarterbacks.
In 2012, rookies Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck became Week 1 starters who respectively led Washington, Seattle and Indianapolis to the playoffs.
“I’ll tell you, it’s a huge challenge,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You’ve got to appreciate the job Norv Turner’s doing with Teddy Bridgewater. I think it’s more challenging in this climate. You don’t have as much time with your players as you did in the past. And the expectations, some would say, is even higher for these young guys coming out of college.”
It took Aaron Rodgers four years to emerge from Brett Favre’s shadow and assume control of the Packers’ offense after the team drafted him 23rd overall in 2005.
Rodgers, a three-time Pro Bowl player and the most valuable player in Super Bowl XLV, said he was not ready coming out of college to make an impact like those quarterbacks that come into the league after him.
“You look at the guys who have been starting the last few years, they’re a lot more prepared,” Rodgers said. “I think the coaching at the high school level, the college level, and the exposure they’re able to get makes them more prepared.
“The schemes that are run in college, the freedom to read and do more at the line of scrimmage, obviously we’ve seen some guys step in and play really well their first and second years.”
Turner, whose forte is developing quarterbacks, was Bridgewater’s biggest advocate as the Vikings scouted him before the draft. He dismissed reports about Bridgewater’s shaky predraft workouts and focused in on his poise and leadership.
The Vikings are banking on those qualities to lead the franchise through a rocky transition from a predominantly rushing offense to a versatile passing game so necessary in the NFC North arms race.
Turner, whose 30-year NFL coaching career includes 15 as a head coach, knows as well as anyone how fickle this league can be week to week.
He also realizes this team was not torn apart by the criminal indictment that chased Peterson from the locker room, the broken foot that ended Cassel’s season or the latest traffic stop that led to wide receiver Jerome Simpson’s dismissal.
“These guys have done a great job,” Turner said Tuesday. “You look at the last 15 days, I’ve been in situations where guys didn’t handle it that well. This is a mature group. We’ve got great leadership, and they’re helping the young guys.”
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