EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –They may be leaving their textbooks behind, but the 2016 rookie class will continue their education under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
After selecting eight players through the NFL Draft and adding an additional 10 undrafted free agents, the Vikings will have at least 18 first-year players out of the maximum of 90 auditioning for a spot on the final 53-man active roster. The group arrived at Winter Park Thursday for a three-day rookie minicamp to begin working on their NFL degrees.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said Zimmer and his staff are the best at developing young talent that he's seen in 26 years.
Zimmer embraces the opportunity to coach players at this stage in their careers.
"I love the young players," Zimmer previously told Vikings.com. "The good thing about them is that you can kind of mold them into what you're trying to get them to be. You're trying to get them to understand what it's like to be a professional.
"But it's always great to have the veterans," Zimmer added. "Those guys kind of help when we're not around. We try to teach [the young players] the game of football and how to do things right, and [the veterans] try to teach them the game of life and how to be professional."
The league-wide process, however, delays rookies being mixed with veterans until later in the offseason to allow the first-year players a period to adjust to their new surroundings.
View images of the 8 members of Vikings 2016 NFL Draft Class.
When rookies are allowed to participate with veteran players in practice, experienced players may help with the teaching process – but under Zimmer, they also remain students.
Harrison Smith is entering his fifth NFL season and third in Zimmer's system. Smith said playing for Zimmer proves a constant learning process, with experiences building on one another. As the Vikings look ahead to the 2016 season, they don't entirely let go of 2015.
"We'll probably cover most of [last season's] games while we're here," Smith said about the voluntary offseason program. "But it's really not to say, 'OK, we won that game.' It's to say, 'OK, we won that game, but what could we have done better?' or, 'We lost that game, what could we have done better?' It's really just for learning."
Regarded as one of the league's top safeties, Smith doesn't take his success for granted.
"Everybody is a lot different from years ago," Smith said. "I've learned a lot since I've been here. I'm thankful to be around a lot of good players and coaches, so I couldn't have been luckier or drafted to a better place."
Zimmer invests in his players. He sees every mistake as a teaching opportunity and is always looking for ways to improve and driving his players to do the same.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes said he can learn "a lot more" from Zimmer in 2016.
"He knows a lot about the game and can teach me a lot more," Rhodes said. "I sit there and listen to everything he tells me to do. Especially by being technically sound and being able to stop being aggressive on the receivers last five yards."
Even players like 10-year defensive end Brian Robison continue to learn and develop under Zimmer. In 2015, Robison was often asked to move inside on the line and play a different role than he was used to. Although the adjustment was outside of his comfort zone, Robison trusted Zimmer and his system.
"There was a lot of studying the playbook, that's for sure," Robison said after the season. "There are a lot of things that I had to learn and had to do things a little bit different this year, and even some things that I thought were outside my element but worked out for the team in order to help us win."
On Monday the Vikings announced that the club has agreed to terms with 10 undrafted free agents.
The education is paying off. After finishing 11-5, clinching the NFC North division and making a playoff appearance, the Vikings have a large number of players returning for their third season under Zimmer.
"I think the sky's the limit for our defense," Robison said. "Everybody has to be on board and understand we can't be complacent. We can't be OK with where we're at; we've got to get better every day."
Zimmer's vision has caught fire in the locker room, and it's a mindset he hopes to also instill in this year's rookies. Heading into 2016, the Vikings first-year players will enter a culture of learning.
"It's going to be great," said Mackensie Alexander, after the Vikings drafted him 54th overall. "Coach Zimmer is familiar with the cornerback position, and I am extremely excited about that, really eager to learn from him. I'm just eager to learn and be around him. I am very coachable and excited right now."
Class is now in session for the Vikings rookie class.