Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer could only chuckle last week when it was pointed out that his defense had seven rookies on the field at once in Green Bay.
The inexperienced squad, however, was able to protect a lead in a 28-22 upset of the Packers.
A handful of first-year players have been bright spots on offense, too. And a good majority of Vikings 2020 draft picks have been contributor's on special teams as well.
With that in mind — and with Minnesota at the midway point of its 2020 season — Vikings beat writer Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage assessed how the Vikings crop of first-year players have done thus far.
Ekstrom recently analyzed how the 10 draft picks who have seen meaningful playing time have fared. Unsurprisingly, Ekstrom's top three rookies so far are Minnesota's top three draft picks.
Ekstrom had first-round wide receiver Justin Jefferson as the Vikings best rookie so far.
No contest, the Vikings top rookie is Justin Jefferson. Turns out the only thing that could slow Jefferson down is a highly successful rushing attack. Dalvin Cook's 478 all-purpose yards in the last two weeks have rendered the passing game needless and slowed Jefferson's production. He is now on pace for only 1,254 yards — a Moss-like rookie campaign if it comes to fruition. Jefferson is the second-rated wide receiver in football, per [analytics website] Pro Football Focus. He is tied for the lead in deep receptions and second in yards per route run out of the slot. There aren't many nitpicks for the 21-year-old. We may have a star on our hands.
Jefferson has 34 catches for a team-high 627 yards and three touchdowns in his first NFL season.
Minnesota's other first-round pick, cornerback Jeff Gladney, was Ekstrom's No. 2 rookie for the Vikings.
It hasn't always been technically pretty, but Jeff Gladney has been the only cornerback who has been able to stay on the field this season. His seven starts are a position-group high after losing the job to Dantzler out of the gate, but head coach Mike Zimmer is finally seeing Gladney mature in his ability to read and react to defenses. Gladney gave up multiple touchdowns against Atlanta and Green Bay, but he played the best game of his pro career against the Lions with a defense-leading 82.2 PFF grade.
Stack him up against other rookie corners and he looks pretty good. Out of eight rookies that have played 50% or more snaps, Gladney ranks second, per Pro Football Focus, behind only fellow first-round pick A.J. Terrell. He also leads all corners in run defense grade with 12 run stops.
Gladney has played a team-high 488 defensive snaps (85.02 percent) among all cornerbacks in 2020.
Ezra Cleveland, a 2020 second-round pick, has started the past three games at right guard. Ekstrom noted the former Boise State standout has made strong strides in recent weeks.
After a rocky first start in a loss to Atlanta, Cleveland's work at guard has coincided with Dalvin Cook's two biggest games of the year as the Vikings have steamrolled the Packers and Lions front sevens.
It's tough to see Cleveland giving up his starting spot now. With Pat Elflein and Dakota Dozier in contract years, Cleveland is the future. The question is: Where? Right guard was probably not the plan entering the offseason, but the Vikings need competent guard play right now more than they need tackle play. Down the road, Cleveland may be asked to reprise his original tackle spot depending on Riley Reiff's future, but at least he's added some positional flexibility to his résumé.
For Ekstrom's full breakdown of Minnesota's 10 rookies who have played in 2020, go here.
Vikings offense among NFL.com's top 2nd-half storylines to watch
Dalvin Cook has been on fire lately, as the Vikings running back has accounted for 56 touches for 478 scrimmage yards (8.54 yards per touch) with six touchdowns in back-to-back wins over the Packers and Lions.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com is among those who want to see if that trend can continue over the next eight weeks, as he recently included the surging Vikings offense among his top storylines to watch in the second half of the season.
The Vikings are 3-5 and have an uphill climb to make a serious run at the playoffs, although I wouldn't rule it out, based on their schedule. Whether they are winning games or not, you have to be dead inside not to enjoy watching Cook run the football.
As my friend Chris Wesseling said on our Around the NFL Week 9 recap pod, it's rare to see a running back's gifts at their peak meet a perfect scheme with the kind of synchronicity that Cook has with Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking approach.
Cook has played only six full games this year. He's topped 199 yards from scrimmage in three of them, with 478 scrimmage yards in the last two games alone against real, live NFL professionals. With Cook as the main course and rookie receiver Justin Jefferson as a delicious side dish, the Vikings are eminently tasty and figure to be a dangerous team down the stretch.
Cook has done it all the past two weeks, beginning with 30 carries for 163 yards and three scores at Lambeau Field. He also added two catches for 63 yards and a score.
He then trounced the Lions with 206 rushing yards and two scores on 22 attempts and added two receptions for 46 yards.
Despite only playing in six-and-a-half games in 2020, Cook leads the NFL with 858 rushing yards and 12 scores.
Under Center with Kirk Cousins
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is back again to team up with legendary sports anchor Mark Rosen to deliver unique content via "Under Center with Kirk Cousins." The series features conversations with current Vikings players, prominent Minnesotans and guests with personal connections to Kirk. Other segments will focus on game reaction with sound from press conferences and the locker room. Cousins and Rosen will also look ahead to the next week's matchup.