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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Smarts, drive and game tape: Inside the Vikings’ decision making with players on the bubble

By Matthew Coller

When it comes to player evaluation of young players, Mike Zimmer is well aware of the things that can be difficult to know right away. But he’s also knows what he’s looking for.

During his time in Minnesota, the Vikings have gone from the 32nd ranked defense to the top of the NFL. Part of the reason is the team’s investment on the defensive side of the ball with draft picks (some of which came before Zimmer), but that’s only a percentage of the equation. Another major factor in the defense’s success has been Zimmer’s emphasis on drafting/signing/keeping players who have the mental capacity to understand and execute what he’s dialing up.

So the Minnesota Vikings get closer to tough roster decisions and the club’s head coach and front office have to make assessments about a handful of players on the 90-man squad that are on the cusp of making the final 53-man roster or earning a gig on the practice squad, Zimmer will be focusing on parts of their makeup that go beyond skill.

At the top of that list: Intelligence.

Across the board, the defense is stacked with Pro Bowlers who are among the highest IQ players at their position — especially spots like safety, linebacker and nickel corner with coach-on-the-field Terence Newman.

Each year at draft time, the Vikings attempt to find a new crop of drafted players and undrafted free agents who can handle the increasingly-complex NFL game. However, the Vikings’ head coach understands the challenge of assessing a player’s mental capacity at the draft or with undrafted rookies they sign as free agents.

“It’s hard,” he said. “We have all the standard tests and we do a lot of things where we get them on the board and ask them questions and try to throw curveballs at them.”

But in the lead up to final cuts, smarts isn’t simply graded on whether a player aced a pre-draft test or memorized plays or explained concepts on a white board, it’s whether he was able to comprehend the information and execute what’s being asked.

“You really don’t know until you get a hold of them and have been with them,” Zimmer said. “Even sometimes with the rookies, you are really not sure because he is trying to learn everything. But once he gets it down for the most part and things happen, you can probably have a better idea.”

When the team gets a player in the building for rookie minicamp, they get their first glimpse of how they apply information learned in meetings to the field. And then throughout Organized Team Activities, minicamp and training camp, the picture becomes clearer. But there is no hard-and-fast rule for determining a player’s smarts, even if he’s been in the facility for months.

“Each guy is a little bit different, but typically you have to be around them for a little while,” Zimmer said. “A lot of it is being able to process on the move. The formation changes or the defense changes and a guy has to go from blocking this guy or blocking that guy. That is what I mean a lot of times by being smart. It takes a little while. We do all the tests before we draft them and all that. Sometimes testing and the draft and going on the field is a different thing.”

Zimmer was asked where intelligence ranks in the decision making process between players on the edge of making the team.

“High,” he said. “We want intelligent players. Obviously, good players, but I think if it comes down to it and one guy is not smart and one guy is, we’ll probably go with the smart guy.”

Another aspect of player evaluation that the Vikings obsess over — for good reason — is whether players truly love game.

It sounds as cliche and cliche gets, but there’s few things more important to success than a player’s commitment and dedication to a sport which only plays 16-19 times per year and spends all the other days practicing and studying.

The Vikings have both hit on a large number of dedicated players who haven’t been high draft picks. One obvious example is receiver Stefon Diggs — who was a fringe-roster player in 2015 when he was drafted in the fifth round and ended up signing a $70 million contract this summer.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins said one of the things he noticed most about Diggs — and much the Vikings’ roster — is the large group of players with a football-obsessed mentality.

“What I most like is that he loves football and loves to come and work, because as a quarterback, it can be miserable if you’re working with someone who really is just out here to get a paycheck and leave,” Cousins said following the announcement of Diggs’ new deal. “He wants to work, he’s excited to practice, he wants to compete, he loves the game, and he’s coachable. That whole part of his personality, is what makes up when I say it’s a great locker room and a great culture, it’s players like that carrying themselves in that way.”

Zimmer said the team does everything it can in the scouting process to figure out which players will end up loving the NFL life. They do interviews, sometimes call former coaches and dig for any type of information they can. But things are just so much different in the pros than in college.

“You think you do but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they love football,” Zimmer said. “They fool you sometimes too, but usually when they get out here it’s grinding, it’s hard and all that then maybe you find out that he doesn’t like it as much as some other guy.”

That’s why the Vikings throw a lot of darts at the board.

This year they might not have thought receiver Chad Beebe had great chance of making the 53-man roster when they signed him to a contract out of Northern Illinois. They saw something they liked and took a shot. Now it appears he will at least make the practice squad and possibly the roster. You may have heard by now that Adam Thielen came in on a tryout and turned himself into a star receiver.

Vice president of player personnel/assistant general manager George Paton told 1500ESPN in 2016 that sometimes long-shot players who the team signs aren’t even given the stamp of approval by their college coaches, but find themselves a better fit for the NFL environment.

“A lot of times these guys aren’t recommended by their college staffs,” Paton said. “Whether they don’t like them or character or they just don’t think they can play. Maybe someone takes a chance on them, they get better coaching or whatever. That’s why our college scouting staff does their due diligence and really grinds.

“A guy might not play well on tape but he runs well or you see a redeeming trait that’s worth bringing him in, even though he may not be a great player.”

Zimmer believes there is a ripple effect involved with building a team around smart, driven people in the locker room. Sometimes it helps those ya-never-know players succeed. Sometimes it pushes high draft picks to reach their potential. When the Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook, for example, there were some concerns about his character. The team — not by mistake — put his locker next to Teddy Bridgewater, Terence Newman and Case Keenum.

“Typically if you got a bunch of good guys in the locker room, these young guys will fall in,” Zimmer said. “We try to do a really good job of bringing the right type of guy in so we don’t have those type of issues. If we have those issues, we try to get rid of them.”

That means if two players are battling for a job, the Vikings will lean toward the one who will positively impact others.

Smarts and drive aren’t everything. In order to find a role on the Vikings’ active roster, players on the outskirts must step up when they get their opportunities in preseason games. For the starters, preseason is just a tune-up, for on-the-edge guys it’s extremely important.

But Zimmer makes it clear that the team’s evaluation is a complete picture. What fans see in 16 quarters of preseason football is only a fraction of the team’s analysis.

“The game tape is probably a little more important,” he said. “The practice tape you see every day, you’re making corrections, you’re talking the guys. But then the game tape is they go out there, their coach isn’t telling them what to do, they’re out there on their own and they’re playing and trying to make plays. I don’t get all caught up in ‘this guy had one good game and he’s had 10 crummy practices,’ that doesn’t really help. You just hope that he continues to get better. If everything is they’re pretty much doing the same then you look at the games and see where that takes them.”

As the Vikings continue to sign players to big contracts and spend to the brink of the cap, there will be an even bigger need to get contributions from players who are under-the-radar finds and long-shot success stories. Part of that process is making the right decisions on the practice squad.

While we might not think too much about the handful of players who make up the scout team, Thielen was once a practice-squader. There are many others who have turned into stars from the practice squad like linebacker James Harrison and running back Arian Foster.

“Sometimes it’s where do we see this guy in a year from now or we just need another tight end because we don’t have enough to practice with,” Zimmer said. “It’s a little bit of both. What you prefer to do is to keep the guys with the high ceilings…but sometimes you only kept four defensive ends. We need to have another one there, so that’s part of it, too. Some of them get poached too.”

By four o’clock next Saturday afternoon, the Vikings will have to make their final roster decisions. Tough calls will have to be made at nearly every position. So when the arguments are made for Player X or Player Y to stick around, you can bet that a lot more is going into the calls than just talent.

The post Smarts, drive and game tape: Inside the Vikings’ decision making with players on the bubble appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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