LIVE › 12-4 a.m. Sports Center All Night
NEXT › 4 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter
4:05 a.m. SportsCenter AM
5 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter
5:05 a.m. Mike and Mike
6 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter
6:40 a.m. Twin Cities Sports Update - with Dave Harrigan and Kenny Olson
Updated: June 14th, 2012 11:31pm
Vikings counting on last year's draft class: 'We need them in 2012'

Vikings counting on last year's draft class: 'We need them in 2012'

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
Email | Twitter
SportsWire Daily

Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports

Signup!

For many NFL players, no offseason is more important than the one after their rookie seasons.

They're training for football instead of the combine, they're completing an NFL strength and conditioning program for the first time and they're drawing on experience in practice instead of coming in cold from the college game.

That last year's rookies missed out on offseason workouts because of the lockout only heightens that importance -- particularly for rebuilding teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, who are counting on their sophomore class for a major impact.

"Those guys who were drafted a year ago, we need them to kind of come in to their own sooner than their third year," coach Leslie Frazier said this week. "We need them in 2012."

The only player gone from that 2011 draft class is linebacker Ross Homan, a sixth-round pick (200th overall) who had a concussion in camp last year and didn't make the team.

It would be an upset if the other nine don't all make it again this season, and four have the inside track on starting jobs.

Christian Ponder (first round, 12th overall) replaced veteran Donovan McNabb in the sixth game last season and is all but locked in as the starting quarterback.

Kyle Rudolph (second, 43rd) led the tight ends in snaps over last season's final three games and sits atop the depth chart with Visanthe Shiancoe gone.

Christian Ballard (fourth, 106th) started two games as an inside nickel rusher last season and figures as Kevin Williams' top backup at the three-technique.

Brandon Burton (fifth, 139th) is buried at cornerback but will have a chance to carve out a role on special teams while continuing to develop outside.

DeMarcus Love (sixth, 168th) progressed in practice last season and projects as the swing tackle.

Mistral Raymond (sixth, 170th) is the early favorite to start at safety opposite rookie Harrison Smith, thanks in large part to his range and cover ability.

Brandon Fusco (sixth, 172nd) has been working with the first string at right guard and will have every opportunity to hold off veteran Geoff Schwartz in camp.

D'Aundre Reed (seventh, 215th) could get a long look as a nickel rusher, in addition to continuing work in practice as a base end.

Stephen Burton (seventh, 236th) has stood out in OTAs, earning first-team work at flanker while Percy Harvin recovers from shoulder surgery.

The Vikings are counting on this year's incoming rookie class, too, with three players (left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith and place-kicker Blair Walsh) in line to start and all 10 draft picks viewed as immediate contributors.

Only two years ago, the Vikings fielded the third-oldest team in the NFL. Last season, they were around the middle of the pack, with an average player age of 26.43 years.

Even a conservative stab at the 53-man roster (i.e. no surprise cuts of veterans) entering this season's Sept. 9 opener against Jacksonville places the Vikings' average age at 25.81 years -- lower than every NFL team in 2011 except Tampa Bay (25.17), Seattle (25.72), Cincinnati (25.74) and Green Bay (25.74).

"It's kind of been a youth movement, and that's exciting to see," Ponder said. "When we do well, that means we're going to be together for a long time, and that's exciting."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
4901