Vikings' rookies getting it done

Matt Kalil (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)

The difference between 2011 and 2012 can be found partly in the success and contributions of the rookie class.

Five games doesn't make a season, but the Vikings are saying all the right things following a 4-1 start and their most dominant win since pounding Arizona two days short of a year with their 30-7 win over the Tennessee Titans Sunday.

The Vikings' success has been wrapped around the stalwarts of the franchise – Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Christian Ponder and John Sullivan on offense and Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield on defense.

However, the difference between the 2012 Vikings and the 2011 Vikings is due, in large part, to the play of their rookie draft class. Despite getting nothing from their two rookie wide receivers from Arkansas (injured Greg Childs and game-day inactive Jarius Wright), it can't be denied that the Class of 2012 has more than done its job to help the Vikings eclipse their win total of the entire 2011 season in just five games.

The fact that they weren't part of the franchise implosion last year has played into their distance from the malaise of 2011. They came to the Vikings to help improve the team and have picked up on some of the disgust the team had last year but haven't experienced it themselves.

"Some of the guys have talked about it, but they have done so in a way that they've put it behind them, but haven't forgotten how that felt," offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. "We're a different team and none of us rookies were part of that, so, as far as we are concerned, there's nowhere to go but up for the Vikings."

The contributions of the rookie class through the first five games can't be underestimated.

Matt Kalil – The Vikings traded back one spot to allow Cleveland to take Trent Richardson and still land the player they would have taken. The best thing that can be said about Kalil is that, for fans watching the game on TV, you rarely hear his name – the ultimate compliment for an offensive lineman. You also don't hear the name of the right defensive end playing opposite him, which is just as important.

Harrison Smith – His ejection from Sunday's game aside, Smith has been the most physical safety the Vikings have put in the secondary since the days when Robert Griffith was headhunting and bringing up memories of Joey Browner. Darren Sharper was a ball-hawk, but wasn't a big-time hitter. If not for Smith's molar-loosening hit in the end zone on Calvin Johnson, perhaps last week's game with Detroit ends differently. Smith is an impact player who has opposing wide receivers and tight ends looking for where he will be on a play because he brings the wood every time – even if it's with a ref.

Josh Robinson – He has been on the field more than many anticipated and effectively switches out with Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook. In his first game as a pro vs. Jacksonville, he was on the field 48 percent of the time. In the three games that followed, he was on the field two-thirds of the time, including 76 percent of the defensive snaps against Detroit in Week 4. He has shown his toughness, doing a WWE-vintage back body drop on Nate Burleson last week that drew a flag and wrapping up running back Javon Ringer with such strength and violence, it appeared he tore his knee ligaments. Ringer is scheduled for an MRI Monday, but Robinson has quickly gone from being a nickel back type to being a player the Vikings defense is counting on.

Rhett Ellison – Used primarily as a blocker and special teamer early on, Ellison looked like Jim Kleinsasser at high speed Sunday. He caught his first two passes Sunday for 35 yards, including a key 29-yard reception that helped cement the game. When players talk about "putting it on tape," Ellison just gave defensive coordinators something more to consider.

Robert Blanton – The Vikings safety hadn't made much of an impact other than on special teams prior to Sunday, but with Mistral Raymond injured and out and Andrew Sendejo inactive, when Harrison Smith got ejected for laying hands on a referee, not only was Blanton the proverbial "next man up," he was the only man up. From the time Smith got ejected with 11:24 to play in the second quarter, the Vikings were down to two safeties – Jamarca Sanford and Blanton. He was pressed into duty and made a very solid case for himself.

Blair Walsh – Not much more needs to be written that we haven't already composed. He has only missed one field goal in five games and, if he holds to form, will surpass Ryan Longwell's 2011 season total for touchbacks in his sixth game. He has forced teams to return kicks from deep in the end zone out of frustration and has launched nine kickoffs completely out of the end zone before they land. Consistently forcing opponents to drive 80 yards for a retaliation touchdown after a Vikings kickoff has been more valuable than may meet the eye of the casual fan.

To varying degrees, six rookies for the Class of 2012 can lay claim to being significant reasons why the Vikings are 4-1. It would appear that, with a 53-man roster, the 2012 Vikings have 53 role players. They all know what their role is – from Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Jared Allen and Chad Greenway down to guys like Audie Cole and Joe Berger – and, to date they're all playing their roles to near-perfection.

> VU asked RG1, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, what he did when the stadium deal appeared dead in May when he showed up in St. Paul and momentum immediately changed, leading to the Vikings getting a stadium done. What did he say?

"There was tremendous leadership here – both in the public sector and the private sector," Goodell said. "I think they just needed to seize the moment and they did. They needed to say, ‘This is the time, this is when we want to do it' and not allow any other influences from outside. They could control at that point in time and they needed to control it. And they did. My hat's off to them."

Translation? RG1 let the powers that be know that "outside influences" meant Los Angeles. It would appear that the commish brought the hammer with him and, while not making a straight-out threat that the Vikings would leave, left the clear message that, if a stadium deal hadn't been completed when it was, the Vikings would have vaulted to the top of the list for L.A. relocation.

  • What a difference a concussion test might have next week? The Vikings travel to Washington D.C. Sunday to meet the Redskins, and quarterback Robert Griffin III will be the topic of conversation for a different reason than expected. RG3 was injured Sunday, suffering what head coach Mike Shanahan described as a "mild concussion." At a time when the reality of short-term and long-term effects of concussions are being discovered, the term "mild" and "concussion" should be mutually exclusive. You can bet that Griffin will be listed as questionable (that's kind of Shanahan's thing) Sunday, but you can bet the Vikings won't be game planning for backup QB Kirk Cousins. After RG3 tweeted that he will be ready for Sunday, the Vikings are starting their prep for him, not his fellow rookie backup.

  • Break up the Colts! In their third straight home game (they've already had their bye week), the Colts have not only handed the Vikings their only loss, but dropped the Packers to 2-3 and two games behind both the Vikings and Bears in the NFC North with a 30-27 win Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. One of the biggest ovations at the Metrodome Sunday was when that final score was announced to the fans.

  • Thanks to Chris Johnson stinking out the joint yet again (the fourth time in five games), the Vikings run defense is allowing just 3.2 yards a carry and opponents are averaging less than 80 yards a game against them.
  • Who would have thought that, five weeks into the 2012 season, the Vikings, Cardinals, Colts and Rams would all be at .500 or above and the Packers and Saints (who had a combined record of 28-4 last year) would be 3-7 at this point of the season?

  • The boys in Vegas knew what they were doing when they made the Titans a significant underdog against the Vikings. Of their four losses, Tennessee has now lost games by 21, 28, 24 and 23 points. Yikes!

    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.

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