Christian Darrisaw's journey to get to his first NFL start against the Panthers on Sunday was a long, arduous one. The Vikings' first-round pick missed basically the entire offseason while recovering from a groin injury, then saw his return to action delayed further when he needed a second procedure because his recovery wasn't progressing as anticipated.
He didn't lose faith in the process, developing strong relationships with the Vikings' medical team. Darrisaw focused on taking things day by day — getting healthier, improving with every practice, and remaining confident that his time would come. It wasn't easy, and there were down days where the uncertainty and frustrations of his injury took a toll on him. But Darrisaw kept working to make sure that he would be ready when the moment arrived, and that diligence has allowed him to take advantage of his opportunities now that he's healthy.
"It definitely was difficult on me mentally, but just having a support system around me ... just communicating my problems and what I’m going through [helped]," Darrisaw said. "I had bad days for sure. I didn’t know when I would be able to play again, but I just had to take it a day at a time and not rush things. Because rushing things really won’t equal up to good results. So I just took it a day at a time, and I knew my time was coming, and when it came I was ready."
Darrisaw was eased in a bit, seeing his first NFL action on the field goal unit in Week 4 and playing 28 snaps the following Sunday in a rotation with veteran Rashod Hill. The training wheels came off this week, as he made his first career start against the Panthers and wound up playing a whopping 89 snaps at left tackle. Darrisaw held his own in pass protection, allowing just one pressure on 53 pass-blocking snaps. His 64.8 PFF grade, while only slightly above-average, was the highest of any Vikings offensive lineman, and he was excellent in the run game.
Facing a very potent defensive end duo in Brian Burns and Haason Reddick, Darrisaw didn't look like a rookie who hadn't started a football game in almost a year. He helped create big holes in the running game, anchored well in pass protection, and showed off the athletic traits that caused the Vikings to select him with the No. 23 overall pick back in April.
"He did really well," Mike Zimmer said. "First time out against a good — you know, Burns is a good pass rusher. He did a nice job there. He got beat once, I think, in pass protection. There was one play he was supposed to do something he didn’t do. But other than that, I thought he played very well. He’s very athletic."
The best part about the entire day for Darrisaw might've simply been the fact that his body held up and felt fine for four quarters and overtime.
"I’m a little sore right now, as expected, but nothing major or anything like that," he said. "If we had a game this upcoming week, I would be ready to go and attack that. I don’t feel anything at all from the injury. It’s completely 100 percent healed, and the worst days are behind me. I feel great."
It's worth noting that Darrisaw was far from great in this game, which is understandable when you play 89 snaps and have to pass protect against top-tier DEs. This excellent breakdown from Trench Warfare's Brandon Thorn explains how the Vikings helped Darrisaw and their entire O-line by having Kirk Cousins stay shallow in his dropbacks and get rid of the ball quickly. Cousins' average time to throw of 2.55 seconds was the fourth-fastest in the league in Week 6. Thorn also uses the tape to show that Darrisaw's technique in his pass sets needs to be cleaned up. Burns beat him a handful of times and should've had a sack late in the game, but Cousins was able to escape and scramble for the first down.
However, when Darrisaw did get his hands on pass rushers, he showed impressive strength in his anchor. There were several reps against the Lions where his physicality stood out, and that was the case again this week. And where Darrisaw really shined was as a run blocker, with the Vikings picking up numerous big gains running to his side of the field. This was just start No. 1 after a long layoff for the rookie, so he should only get better as the season goes on. The bye week will give Darrisaw a chance to work with offensive line coach Phil Rauscher on fixing some things he put on tape against the Panthers.
Given the draft capital the Vikings invested in Darrisaw and Hill's status as a career backup, the left tackle job was always going to belong to the rookie once he was healthy enough. Hill's struggles early this season only made that clearer. A new era began this weekend, and the Vikings would love nothing more than to see the 22-year-old develop into a star and hold down their LT spot for the next decade. If Darrisaw pans out, he'll provide a ton of value on a rookie contract and pair with Brian O'Neill to give the Vikings an ultra-athletic tackle duo they can build around long-term.
One thing Darrisaw isn't lacking is confidence. He embraced the challenge of facing players like Burns and Reddick in his first start, and isn't going to back down from anyone over the remainder of his rookie season.
"I’m always up for a challenge," he said. "I feel like that competitive nature in me, I never shy away from anything. It really doesn’t matter who you are, I’m going to be ready.
"I'm definitely very confident in my game. I just gotta go out there and be me. Just don't try to do nothing extra or anything out of the normal. Just go out there and play like yourself, just be the best version of me every play, and I feel like I'll be here for a long time."
Darrisaw has arrived, and he's just getting started.
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