Let’s rewind to August.
Two pivotal position battles existed around the time Minnesota entered training camp.
The Vikings were searching for a viable No. 3 wideout, someone who could complement the 1-2 punch of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen – a reason to deploy more three-receiver formations.
Minnesota also needed to determine one of its defensive starters, a pass rusher to align opposite Danielle Hunter, and in theory, prevent teams from double-teaming the Pro Bowl defensive end.
Now fast forward. It’s interesting to see how both pursuits played out during the 2021 season.
K.J. Osborn owned his third-receiver role. The former fifth-round pick played 774 snaps on offense after not playing a single snap as a rookie. He finished third on the team in terms of receiving yards (655) and receiving touchdowns (7) and fourth in catches (50).
Osborn’s snap count increased after Thielen suffered an ankle injury in Week 13 but his production was constant all season – he totaled 12 receptions for 167 yards and one touchdown in the first two games.
Dede Westbrook, who signed in July to challenge Osborn in training camp, didn’t live up to the hype. Westbrook was on the field for 211 of 1,141 offensive snaps and turned 15 targets into 10 catches for 68 yards. The former Jacksonville Jaguar was mostly relegated to work as a punt returner.
Like Osborn did on offense, 2020 fourth-round pick D.J. Wonnum emerged on defense.
The 6-foot-5, 258-pound defensive end played more defensive snaps (952) than everyone except Xavier Woods, Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks. For perspective, Wonnum more than doubled his rookie total (471). And, he produced, though maybe not at the rate Minnesota dreamed.
Wonnum registered eight sacks across 14 starts. He ultimately paced the group in that category.
Everson Griffen, who initially re-signed with the club on Aug. 23 – to help alleviate pass-rush concerns – added five sacks in six starts and played 457 snaps before landing on the non-football illness list.
What else can we learn from the numbers behind Minnesota’s 8-9 finish?
It’s no secret the Vikes’ rookie class didn’t pan out. That’s not to say it can’t improve down the road, just that overall it failed – miserably if we might add – at helping the team compete in 2021.
On the bright side, Minnesota’s first overall selection, Christian “Big Dawg” Darrisaw, started 10 of the team’s final 12 games. He was flagged three times, allowed five sacks and earned a respectable 71.8 grade from Pro Football Focus.
On the not so bright side, Darrisaw played just 653 of the 1,141 offensive snaps (57.2%). To be curt, that’s not good enough for the 23rd pick of the draft – even if the beginning of his season was derailed by minor core muscle surgery that he underwent during training camp.
It gets exponentially worse going down the list.
The team’s first of a bevy of third-round picks, quarterback Kellen Mond, played a miniscule three snaps on a single drive against Green Bay in Week 17. Defunct head coach Mike Zimmer mocked his rookie quarterback after the loss, saying he had no interest in seeing Mond play in a meaningless season finale the next week.
The only reason Mond reached the field to begin with was because backup Sean Mannion, starting in place of Kirk Cousins, who tested positive for COVID-19 two days before kickoff, succumbed to hand cramps in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Chazz Surratt, the second of Minnesota’s four third-round selections, never cracked the rotation on defense and spent his entire rookie season without recording a statistic on special teams.
Former Ohio State offensive lineman Wyatt Davis – a two-time All-American for the Buckeyes – wasn’t among the seven Vikings road graders to see the field. Not what you’d expect from the 86th pick.
Patrick Jones, the powerful edge rusher out of Pittsburgh selected 90th overall – with the choice acquired from Baltimore after Minnesota shipped Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens – played 99 snaps.
Frankly, outside of Darrisaw, three rookies made some type of impact: Camryn Bynum, Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the latter of whom erupted for 103 receiving yards in Week 18.
Bynum played 211 snaps on defense and started several games in place of Smith, who spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The fourth-round pick accumulated 28 tackles, one interception and one sack.
Nwangwu shined after hyperextending his knee in the preseason – which sidelined him for seven games – and led all NFL players with two kick-return touchdowns. He played the fourth-fewest snaps on offense (29) but kept Minnesota alive in close games against Baltimore and San Francisco with 95+-yard returns.
Smith-Marsette played fewer than 10% of the offensive snaps but put on tape what he’s capable of achieving in the season finale, burning the Bears secondary on a deep post route for a 44-yard score.
Want a clear picture of what Zimmer thought of this rookie bunch – and his belief in young players in general? Just look back at Week 2.
None of the Vikings’ 11 draft picks played an offensive or defensive snap against the Arizona Cardinals.
That’s team-building malpractice.
– Two offensive players were on the field for 100% of the snaps this season — guard Ezra Cleveland and tackle Brian O’Neill.
– Woods was Minnesota’s iron man on defense – the only player to be on the field for all 1,208 snaps. Last season, it was safety Anthony Harris, who started 14 games for Philadelphia this year.
– Despite losing Hunter to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8, Minnesota ranked second in the NFL with 51 sacks. Hunter led the Vikes with six sacks in seven games upon his exit, and played 384 snaps in his first season recovered from a herniated disc in his neck.
– Supposed to be a key addition to the heart of Minnesota’s defensive line, Michael Pierce managed to play just 251 snaps in his first season in purple – the lowest snap count of his career. To his credit, Pierce recorded a career-best 3.0 sacks and forced his first fumble, despite missing nine games due to injury or illness. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, also in his first year with the Vikings, played 641 snaps and finished with 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
– Second-year cornerback Harrison Hand played the fewest snaps (2) of any Vikings defender – after starting one game and intercepting a pass as a rookie. The fifth-round pick (169th overall) out of Temple did account for five tackles on special teams and appeared in nine contests.
– Myron Mitchell, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound wide receiver from Alabama-Birmingham, was the only one-snap wonder on the Vikings offense. Mitchell got in for a single play against Chicago in Week 15.
– Thirty-two different players took at least one snap on defense. Twenty-seven players took at least one snap on offense. Last season, those numbers were 35 (defense) and 26 (offense).