Six Young Vikings Who Need More Playing Time For the Rest of 2020
Sitting at 1-5 during their bye week, it's clear that the Vikings aren't going to turn things around and compete for a playoff spot. That means that the final ten games of the 2020 season need to be about evaluating and developing young talent with an eye on the future.
The Vikings are already playing plenty of their young core. Justin Jefferson is having a breakout year at receiver, Jeff Gladney and Cam Dantzler are the team's top two cornerbacks, and Garrett Bradbury is locked in as the starting center. But it's time to embrace the youth movement to an even further degree. Here are six players with varying levels of playing time who need to see additional snaps down the stretch.
Irv Smith Jr.
Through the first four games of the season, Smith had been a complete non-factor in the Vikings' offense with just two catches for 14 yards. Then the Vikings pledged to get him more involved in the offense ahead of the Seahawks game. They weren't kidding. Smith has eight catches for 109 yards over the past two games – including three catches of 23 yards or more – and has looked very impressive while doing it.
Now it's time to unleash him even further as the TE1. The Vikings should be looking to trade Kyle Rudolph and make Smith a full-time player in the offense. There's no reason why he shouldn't be the No. 3 option in the passing game after Adam Thielen and Jefferson.
Ezra Cleveland (at left tackle, preferably)
Cleveland got his first start of the season at right guard against the Falcons and had a predictably up-and-down performance, allowing five pressures and a sack but showing off his athleticism and power during various flashes.
The second-round pick from Boise State needs to remain in the starting lineup for the rest of the year. But ideally, that won't be at guard. The Vikings need to be actively trying to find a trade partner for Riley Reiff, partially so they can clear his salary and get back a draft pick. A Reiff trade would also be important in that it would allow the Vikings to stop messing around with Cleveland at guard and move him back to the position they drafted him at: left tackle. He needs to start getting reps there and developing as the team's LT of the future.
Whether Cleveland moves to left tackle or not, the Vikings should evaluate what they have at the guard position. Dakota Dozier isn't a starting-caliber player and won't be part of this team's long-terms plans. So the Vikings should turn to Udoh, the 2019 sixth-round pick who had a strong training camp and has been working at both tackle and guard. With Cleveland and Brian O'Neill penciled in as the tackles of the future, it's worth seeing what Udoh can do at guard. If Reiff is traded, here's what the O-line should look like for the rest of the year: Cleveland-Udoh-Bradbury-Elflein-O'Neill
Wonnum played a career-high 33 snaps against the Falcons and put up his best performance of the year. Now, with Yannick Ngakoue traded to Baltimore, he's in line for even more playing time. Andre Patterson and the Vikings should prioritize development and upside by starting Wonnum over Jalyn Holmes at defensive end along with Ifeadi Odenigbo.
Lynch made his NFL debut with eight snaps against the Seahawks in Week 5 and managed to record a sack despite minimal playing time. He saw 13 more snaps last weekend against the Falcons. After the bye, the Vikings need to continue gradually increasing his role at the expense of Jaleel Johnson, who has been one of the lowest-graded defensive tackles in the NFL this season. It's fine to keep playing Shamar Stephen at nose tackle, but the three-technique job should be a rotation between Lynch and Armon Watts.
Vikings fans might have forgotten about Dye since he was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury following Week 2. But the rookie linebacker from Oregon is reportedly on track to return against the Packers following the bye, and he should be a key part of an Anthony Barr-less LB corps down the stretch of this season. The Vikings have been leaning on three veterans in Eric Kendricks, Eric Wilson, and Todd Davis. If Dye is healthy, he should start eating into the snaps of Wilson and/or Davis.
Other names to watch: Armon Watts, Harrison Hand, Jordan Brailford, Ryan Connelly, K.J. Osborn, Josh Metellus
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