Each year, thousands of Minnesota Vikings fan journey to Minnesota State University – Mankato just to catch a glimpse of their favorite team. The new season brings a feeling of hope and faith in our Viking gods. No, I don’t mean Thor and Loki, I mean Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chad Greenway, and Harrison Smith. Everybody will have their eyes on them, but there are others who deserve our attention as well. These following five players may go unnoticed to the casual Vikings fan, but there is no way that we, the truest of the true, will let these guys slip by without checking them out first. Here’s a look at a few lesser known players who could impact the 2014 season.
Adam Thielen WR Minnesota State – Mankato
Thielen was a hot name last summer during camp. The only non-rookie in this group, the 6’3” 201 lb receiver stood out in a crowded wide receiver group full of fresh faces and budding talent. Names like Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Joe Webb all stood between him and a roster spot, and deservedly so. All of those players had an established role (Jennings, Simpson) or were recent draft picks (Patterson, Wright, Childs, and Webb). With only six roster spots available, it was going to be tough for an undrafted Thielen to make the final roster. He wound up cut and then resigned to the practice squad along with fellow promising WR Rodney Smith.
With Childs and Webb no longer on the roster, there should be an open spot for Thielen if he continues to shine like he has throughout this offseason. He faces more competition in Smith, FA signee Josh Cooper and undrafted rookie Kain Colter. The coaching staff has taken a shine to him and he is a hard worker willing to do what it takes. Maybe it’s his Minnesota upbringing, he went to high school in Detroit Lakes, or his place of higher learning, but this local has “Minnesota Viking” written all over him.
Look for him to make the final roster as the team’s sixth wide receiver and see time on special teams. There isn’t anything Thielen can’t do, even if there isn’t anything he’s really great at. Think of former Viking Chris Walsh when you think of Thielen.
Antone Exum S Virginia Tech
Exum played all over the field in college. He started games at safety, cornerback and even a game at LB. After doing some more research, I discovered that he started 15 games in college at free safety before moving to corner so his move back to safety shouldn’t be as tough on him as I previously thought. He’s a willing tackler, can press if needed and is willing to go get the ball. If it weren’t for his torn ACL in January 2013, some believe he could have been a first round pick. If Exum can show that he’s fully recovered from that injury, he could wind up playing a big role this season for the Vikings.
Look for him to start out camp buried on the depth chart, simply because he’s a rookie and is learning a new position in the NFL. Once he gets the defense down and shows some explosive ability he will see his playing time rise. Those things are easier said than done in the NFL though. We’ve all seen countless players with “potential” never pan out. Let’s hope Exum isn’t one of those players. Let’s hope he follows in the footsteps of former Vikings safety Robert Griffith, another undrafted safety who went on to multiple pro bowls with the team.
Jerick McKinnon RB Georgia Southern
McKinnon isn’t exactly unnoticed by true Vikings fans. We all know that he was our second third-round pick. We all know that he was a jack-of-all-trades at Georgia Southern, playing QB, RB, WR, and CB, right? We all know he put up 32 reps in the bench press and ran a 4.41 40 yard dash at the combine. We all know that the guy is an athlete pure and simple. We know that he was considered a reach in the third round, but GM Rick Spielman couldn’t resist his athletic ability and willingness to do it all. We all know that he will sit behind Adrian Peterson and work with Matt Asiata to give Peterson a break now and then.
What we don’t know is exactly where he will fit in Norv Turner’s offense. I look for McKinnon to be molded into a third down role with the team to start with. He’ll be asked to learn to block and catch out of the backfield. Despite having only 10 catches in college, it is said that he has natural hands. He could be a great fit in Turner’s offense, he has the ability to play the Darren Sproles role well, giving the stud RB a breather and making a couple big plays. While I like Asiata, I like his bruising, always falling forward style, he isn’t as exciting to watch as I expect McKinnon to be.
A.C. Leonard TE Tennessee State
A.C. Leonard is an undrafted rookie and is considered by some one of the best undrafted players this season. What does that mean? Well, it means he could have been an early third day pick, but slid for some reason or another and ultimately went undrafted. That reason? His blocking, he isn’t very big and hasn’t shown much maturity. In today’s NFL, those are called “red flags” and most GMs don’t like to invest much into players with too many red flags.
Spielman took a chance on him after the draft because Norv Turner likes to use tight ends in his offense and has had success with undrafted tight ends in the past (Antonio Gates). Leonard ran a 4.5 40 yard dash which is blazing fast for a player who is 6’2” 252. He has shown he can move in space and has excellent acceleration in and out of his routes and the soft hands to go with it.
Leonard will have to show that he wants to play football. He won’t be given a starting role, or even a roster spot, due to his athletic ability, he will have to earn it. How he responds to this fact of life will determine whether or not he’ll be looking for work next month. Players like him usually only get one chance to show who they are. He could be worth a roster spot if some of the WR candidates struggle or if a guy like Chase Ford or Rhett Ellison completely falls off the map. I’m expecting him to wind up on the practice squad this season, but the “potential” is there to do much more.
Antonio Richardson OT Tennessee
Another undrafted player who was considered a 2nd round talent by many, Richardson fell due to bad knees and issues with his work ethic. He is naturally strong at 6’6” 336 and has enough athleticism and length for him to excel as a left tackle in the NFL, although he’s probably best suited on the right side. He can be inconsistent with his technique and effort, making it hard to tell which player you’re going to get on any given play. He is another one of those “potential” players who has the tools to be great, but doesn’t necessarily feel he has to work hard to prove it.
If OL coach Jeff Davidson can get Richardson’s head on straight, the Vikings could have a very good backup swing tackle for the next few years. He would be a good fill in for either Matt Khalil or Phil Loadholt should either of them have an injury or performance issues on the field. I expect him to make the final roster as I don’t suspect he will make it through waivers for the Vikings to put him on their practice squad.
Guys like Rodney Smith, Shaun Prater, and Mike Mauti could also make an impact this season and get some playing time after their hard work during training camp. None of them are rookies and may be a bit more well known than most of the others listed above. They’re all up for some playing time and have that certain ability that makes them stand out above the others. The problem with these guys is, there are deficiencies in other aspects of the game that these guys need to make up for.
I didn’t include quarterbacks because, everybody knows who they are and the quarterbacks impact every single play in which they are a part of, and everybody is writing about them.
What do you think? Do these guys have the potential to help this team win or is there another player who you think could help out more?
Let me know in the comments below.