As the Vikings head into what may be their most pivotal game of the season when they head to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers
, they may well do so with an offensive line that includes two former first-round draft picks – Steve Hutchinson
and Bryant McKinnie
– and a second-rounder in Phil Loadholt
But the team may also be going with two undrafted free agents who have worked their way into the starting lineup – guard Anthony Herrera
and center Jon Cooper
. Both players have come to the Vikings with high expectations for themselves and somewhat more limited expectations from the Vikings.
For Herrera, his big break came in 2007. Coming out of the bye week that season, the coaching staff felt that he could give them a better option than starter Artis Hicks
. The results were immediate. Adrian Peterson
rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns in his first start at Chicago and, less than a month later, A.P. set the all-time NFL record for rushing yards in a game with 296 against San Diego.
Cooper, an undrafted free agent in 2009 despite being a four-year starter at Oklahoma
and Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year as a senior, got his first career start against Dallas last Sunday and hopes, like Herrera, to eventually be able to push himself into the lineup on a permanent basis.
Both players came from humble pro beginnings and Herrera said the line of thinking players like he and Cooper had to take was that nobody was going to take their roster spot away from them.
"Your mindset is that you don't care," Herrera said. "You don't care what anybody says. You don't care what anybody does. You're going to go out and prove that whoever passed up on you, for whatever reasons, were wrong and you're going to make it."
Cooper said his motivation was to make those teams that didn't see pro potential in him during the draft, despite his impressive credentials, learn the error of their ways and let the draft weekend snub bother him.
"You have that confidence and need to be mentally strong," Cooper said. "You realize you got passed up by everybody, but you have to prove to yourself and everyone else that you can do it. If you don't think you can, you won't be able to do it, especially in this league."
Herrera said that even now, years later, he still carries the stigma of being an undrafted free agent like a Scarlet Letter. Even Hall of Famer John Randle, who accomplished as much as any player in his era, still carried those three words in front of his name : "undrafted free agent."
"In this league, if you're an undrafted free agent, you're viewed as that for life," Herrera said. "It is what it is. That's the label they give you. No matter what you do or hard you play, you are always going to be looked at a guy who was a free agent, whereas the high-rounders, they always get second chances, third chances. Free-agent guys don't get that. You've got to work twice as hard."
Herrera got a handful of offers from teams following the draft, but Cooper's experience was insane. Although nobody was willing to use a seventh-round draft pick on him, once the draft ended, 18 different teams called about signing him. He said money wasn't an issue. Getting into a situation where he could thrive was.
"The money difference was so minimal, it became a matter of where would I have the best chance of making the team," Cooper said. "You don't want to go somewhere that you're just going to be a camp body and don't get a shot. The depth chart looked good here. Matt Birk
had just left, Sully (center John Sullivan
) was proving himself as a starter and I had to come in, be a solid backup and work to get playing time. Once I signed with the Vikings, now it was kind of personal, I had to show the other 31 teams and the Vikings that they were wrong for not taking me."
Herrera said he felt much the same way coming out of Tennessee. He didn't take it personally that teams had passed on him. Once he got signed by the Vikings he knew that, with hard work and perseverance, the rewards would come.
"I always knew that I was good enough, but patience is the key," Herrera said. "You've got to just keep plugging and plugging and, when you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. I will always knew the day would come where I would get my opportunity, as long as they gave me a fair chance.
"It's not easy to be patient. You have a locker room of alpha males. Coop came from a top program and was All-Big 12. When you're playing with guys like the veterans on this line, it can be hard being patient, but you just keep doing your business."
While Cooper hopes to enjoy the same kind of success Herrera has experienced, he can learn a thing or two from his veteran teammate. Entering his fourth year as a starter, Herrera still has the same mentality he did as a rookie – your job is never secure in the NFL.
"I'm still not comfortable with my roster spot," Herrera said. "About the time you get comfortable is the time somebody comes and takes it from you. In this kind of workplace we're in, there's always somebody coming for your spot. You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.