Relying heavily on rookies can be a risky proposition for an NFL coach. First-year players tend to go through their ups and downs, as the learning curve for some is steeper than others. Even if they show improvement every week, it is hard to rely on consistency from rookies, a main reason coaches tend to slip those guys into marginal roles and let them figure things out, instead of having them learn on the fly in important positions.
First-year Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is pushing aside that line of thinking and handing major responsibilities to his team's rookies. At spots all across the field, on both sides of the ball, Zimmer has given first-year players the green light to go out there and play. The results haven't always been ideal, but Minnesota is an improving team, thanks in large part to the contributions these young players are making.
It all starts with the team's two first-round picks, linebacker Anthony Barr (No. 9 overall) and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32). Both have moved into the starting lineup and are playing well.
"Anthony Barr has been a really good player," Zimmer said Wednesday on a conference call with Chicago-area reporters. "He rarely makes the same mistake twice, he's very contentious, he's a terrific kid. And he's a big, strong, fast athlete that seems to be getting better all the time."
Bridgewater talked about his own development. "I learned that I don't have to be perfect all the time," the quarterback said. "As a young guy, I tend to try to be in the perfect situation and have the perfect play but I have to understand that no play is going to be perfect, but you just have to continue to fight and work with what you have."
Both players have made immediate impacts for the Vikings. Barr has started all nine games, recording 58 tackles and four sacks, along with a forced fumble he returned for a touchdown in overtime of the team's Week 8 game against Tampa Bay. Bridgewater earned the starting job in Week 4 following injuries to first-stringer Matt Cassel and has completed 60.4 percent of his passes.
An area that Bridgewater has improved upon since entering the league is his ability to read defenses and work through his progressions. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner had Bridgewater study taps of Turner's former pupils – including All-Pros Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers – to reinforce a greater understanding of his scheme's principles. The rookie said the film sessions have helped, and that comfort has translated into improved play on the field.
"I've been constantly reminded to just play football," Bridgewater said of Turner's advice. "He's trying to teach us and show us what to expect playing in this offense. The biggest adjustment he's made with me is allowing me to be quicker, whether that's in the passing game, dropping back in the pocket and just playing faster."
The rookie contributions for the Vikings don't end with the two first-round picks, nor does the ability to play fast. In May, when the team used a third-round selection on 5-foot, 9-inch running back Jerrick McKinnon from Georgia Southern, it was envisioned he'd sit for a few years behind starter Adrian Peterson, one of the NFL's premier players at the position. Instead, because of off-field issues that have kept Peterson sidelined, McKinnon has become part of a two-man rushing attack that has carried the Vikings offense.
McKinnon's gained 446 yards on the ground, which leads all rookies. He has teamed with third-year back Matt Asiata to form a devastating duo in the Minnesota backfield. The two have helped the Vikings run for 119.3 yards per game – 10th in the league – despite having Peterson for only one game this season.
"Matt is the guy who does all the ground work and the dirty work; he's a very physical guy," Bridgewater said. "With Jerrick, he's one of those guys who you never know what you're going to get from him. Whether it's in the run game or the pass game, he has the capability to make a big play and that's been showing throughout the course of the year."
Zimmer, a rookie coach, has shown no hesitation to throw his rookie players right into the fire. With his team on a two-game winning streak and just a game under .500 on the season, he is confident that his young team is only going to continue to improve as the year goes along. That is despite the distractions of losing Peterson and injuries to key players such as Cassel.
"What we've focused on is just continually getting better, focusing on the little things, keep the messages the same as much as we can," Zimmer said. "We're trying to develop a mindset here in our program, how we want to play and how we want to go. Setbacks obviously happen, so I just try to meet everything head on."