Lunchbreak: Cronin Tabs O’Neill as Vikings Best Rookie from 2018 Draft Class

View the best exclusive images shot by team photographers of Vikings coaches during the 2018 season.

The Vikings entered the 2018 season with eight draft picks. After Week 2, that number dipped to seven when kicker Daniel Carlson was released following three missed field goals at Green Bay.

ESPN’s Courtney Cronin said that Minnesota’s rookie production was “average” but pointed to a number of players who “showed promise” throughout the season. She tabbed second-round selection Brian O’Neill as the team’s best rookie and wrote the following about the tackle out of Pittsburgh:

When he arrived in Minnesota for rookie minicamp in May, Brian O’Neill was largely viewed as a project – a high draft pick with limitless athletic upside who would need time to develop before being ready to play in the NFL. The right tackle was barely 300 pounds when he was drafted and underwent an expedited growth process because the Vikings desperately needed him to morph from a fill-in to full-time starter at the position by Week 9. It’s no surprise how well O’Neill's athleticism (he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any offensive lineman at the combine) translated into helping the Vikings get to the second level in the run game. His ability to adapt and recover in the passing game was a work in progress in 2018, but the strides he made in being able to protect Kirk Cousins hold promise that his development in Year 2 will be even better.

Cronin selected fifth-round pick Tyler Conklin as the most-improved rookie and said that the “jury is still out” on cornerback Mike Hughes, who got off to a strong start but tore his ACL in Week 6 against the Cardinals, effectively ending his season.

The former UCF standout never got a chance to showcase the full depth of his talents, but the high praise he received from [Viking Head Coach] Mike Zimmer – something that isn't typically bestowed upon young corners – throughout his shortened season shouldn’t go unnoticed. Hughes didn’t get to settle in at one position because of depth concerns perpetuated by injuries in the secondary, so the jury is still out on where his best fit lies between the nickel and outside corner.

Cronin also evaluated the Vikings rookies who were signed as undrafted free agents.

She highlighted Holton Hill, whom she was said was “widely considered the top UDFA” for his performance when stepping in for an injured Rhodes.

Chad Beebe is another rookie with a promising future despite injuries that limited him after he was elevated off the practice squad and onto the 53-man roster ahead of Week 9. The wide receiver gave the Vikings a different look out of the slot with his ability to burn the linebackers with whom he matched up near the line of scrimmage, and his precision and footwork allowed him to separate from defensive backs and win his routes.

Krammer lists Harrison Smith atop ‘deep’ Vikings secondary

The Vikings depth at secondary was battle-tested a bit when hit by injuries throughout the 2018 season.

Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune took a look at Minnesota’s defensive backs and gave out grades (1-5) in continuation of his series that evaluates each position group. He pointed out that the Vikings weathered “early hiccups and an infusion of young talent for ailing starters.”

According to Krammer’s system, safety Harrison Smith graded the highest at 4.5. He wrote:

A safety disruptive near and far from offenses, Smith was again the Vikings Swiss Army Knife in 2018. Led all defenders with 1,024 snaps [98.6%]. One of five Vikings to play more than 1,000 snaps.

[…]

Integral to the Vikings run defense. Smith started playing more of a linebacker role in Weeks 8-11 when Anthony Barr was injured. Only four safeties had more run stops (18) than Smith; none had fewer missed tackles (one). Coaches rave about Smith’s preparation, vision and closing speed leading to anticipatory plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Just below Smith with a 4.0 grade from Krammer was fellow safety Anthony Harris, who assumed starting duties when Andrew Sendejo was sidelined (and later added to Injured Reserve) with a groin injury. Krammer called 2018 a “breakout season” for the fourth-year safety. He wrote that Harris is “regarded as a film junkie who gets razzed in team meetings for knowing it all.”

So it’s little surprise he’s earned Mike Zimmer’s trust as the starting safety. Rarely caught out of position. Isn’t the most athletically gifted player but makes up for it with everything else.

Krammer next evaluated cornerback Trae Waynes (3.5), cornerback Mackensie Alexander (3.5) and Xavier Rhodes (3.0), who in his sixth NFL season fought through multiple injuries. Krammer said that Rhodes is “still one of the league’s most disruptive man-to-man corners when healthy and concentrated.”

The remaining defensive backs received the following grades: rookie cornerback Holton Hill (3.0), cornerback Mike Hughes through six games before tearing his ACL (2.5), safety Jayron Kearse (2.5), Sendejo (2.0), safety George Iloka (2.0) and cornerback/return specialist Marcus Sherels (2.0).

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