EAGAN — When we have reached the final quarter of the NFL season, there’s a coaching cliche that gets thrown around regularly about young players: “They aren’t rookies anymore.”
The Minnesota Vikings’ rookie class is among the top in the NFL in first-year impact. Five players — Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith, Alexander Mattison, Bisi Johnson and Austin Cutting — have stepped into significant roles and provided quality and sixth-rounder Armon Watts is starting to see the field.
“Fortunately, our rookie class is very smart,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “I think you can go across the board on each one of those guys. We knew that because we got in front of them, we interviewed them, but there’s so much information that you need to get across to them in a timely fashion for them to contribute.”
They have roles. They have expectations. They are counted on. So they aren’t rookies anymore.
But when does that happen?
“It depends on the person really,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We have some young defensive players that are still rookies and then we have other guys that have advanced. (Armon) Watts, he’s advanced to where he’s been playing a little bit more. Some of them are different like (Kris) Boyd on special teams. He’s probably not a rookie there, but he might be rookie out at the back end. The offensive guys, I don’t really see those guys as rookies anymore.”
Do they see themselves as rookies still? What were their welcome-to-the-NFL moments? How do other players still let them know they are rooks? Well, we asked them…
Garrett Bradbury: “I don’t think it’s something that all the sudden clicks, it’s something you continue to work on. It just comes with experience and reps. You can’t simulate game reps, I don’t care how many practices you have. Game experience is invaluable. I’m still trying to learn every day, that’s why I lean on the older guys I’m playing with.”
Alexander Mattison: “I’d probably say early on because coach KP would always say ‘you’re not a rookie anymore’ and I feel like the first game he’d tell me ‘you can’t have that mentality, you can’t think like a rookie, you can’t think of yourself like a rookie.’ I treated the game as that. I have a role on this team and I treat it as that, not really with the tag that I’m a rookie to it or first year. Just go out there and contribute, try and be special.”
Irv Smith: “During the first game I was like, ‘I’m out here playing the majority of the game, I’m out here making plays in the run game, pass game.’ And my coaches were saying ‘you’re not a rookie anymore, you’re out there so you have to play like you’ve been here before.’ So that’s the mindset I try to have.”
Armon Watts: “Once I realized that they started to trust me more, putting me in the game more and I was being consistent in my play. Now that that’s been happening a lot more you don’t feel like a first-timer, especially once you start making plays. It took awhile. I wasn’t playing the first nine games, I had to come in week in and week out and perfect what I was doing, focus on getting better, not hanging my head, knowing whenever the opportunity came I have to make the most of it.”
Bisi Johnson: “Once you start getting the respect of your coaches and your teammates. When your quarterback gains trust in you, specifically for a receiver and when you feel comfortable out there on the field. I wouldn’t say the first part of my season I was going through — not during games really but during those early practices — I would go out and just not know what the heck I’m doing. But it comes to a point where you’ve studied enough, you’ve played enough where you just have to trust yourself and go out there and play your game. Football hasn’t changed it’s just understanding the plays.”
Bisi Johnson: “The big one for me was walking onto that Green Bay field. Very historic, huge stadium in the middle of nowhere. That was a lot of fun and it was overwhelming at first but then I got in a few plays there and it was like, ‘OK, we’re here, we’re doing it.'”
Austin Cutting: “To be honest it was [Us Bank Stadium]. I hadn’t been there before. It’s a cool atmosphere. I played in Dallas when I was in high school and that was kind of cool because I played there in high school for the playoffs and then the next time I played there was a month or so ago. It was cool. Coming back playing in the NFL. My family was out there for it.”
Armon Watts: “Just being able to get a sack on primetime football, Sunday night against Dallas, that was big for me. That’s a moment I’m never going to forget. I think it was a big turning point for me.”
Irv Smith: “Alabama really prepared me but certain players are just unbelievable. Khalil Mack, Clowney, guys like that.”
Bisi Johnson: “I still have a lot to learn, I’ll tell you that. I understand defenses a lot better than I ever have right now but I still don’t know it. It’s not second nature to me. I know my job well and that allows me to look up at the defense and try to understand coverages and things like that but there’s still so much more to it.”
Garrett Bradbury: “Definitely trying to built off each week. It’s not a finished product in Week 1, that wasn’t the expectation, that wasn’t my hope but the goal is always to be better than you were last week, be better tomorrow than I was today so going out and practicing and going out and playing games with these guys is just trying to put it all together so you’re playing your best football in December and postseason when it matters.”
Alex Mattison: “That comes with being comfortable with the base stuff but I’m learning new things every week. I’m learning more than just my position. Trying to learn the concepts of some plays and read defenses. There’s always more to build on.”
Bisi Johnson: “They give me crap. They give me a hard time on the sidelines, during practice. I have Adam out there all the time. I even told him today, ‘you’re always on me for something.’ That’s basically it, that’s how I know I’m still a rookie. But they respect me and it’s all fun.”
Irv Smith: “They haven’t been too bad on me. I had to decorate the room for Christmas. I have to do little stuff. This Christmas they said they’re going to get on me with the presents so we’ll see how that goes.”
Austin Cutting: “Yeah they do but not in a degrading way. That’s just Britton’s personality, he will be like, ‘whoa, whoa hang on a second,’ just messing with me. We mess with each other all the time and that’s what makes a good unit is everyone being able to get along. I’ve been fortunate to be in a place where there’s people who have almost 20 years combined.”
Armon Watts: “I still have rookie duties, getting breakfast on certain days, little stuff. Our room is close. They tell me what I need to do week in and week out and they are very supportive on and off the field.”
Garrett Bradbury: “Everything. Daily reminders.”