This week, the Vikings begin Organized Team Activities to kickstart the home stretch of the NFL offseason.
Easing into the organization, eight drafted rookies and more undrafted rookies spent the past couple weeks assimilating into the meeting rooms, on-field drills and strength programs. Competition will ramp up starting with the month-long ‘phase three’ of the offseason, which allows full team drills, but no live contact.
So let’s set the stage for some of the rookies with what we knew, what we’ve learned so far and what we’re watching for this summer.
S Jayron Kearse
Hometown: Fort Myers, Fla.
Drafted: 244th, becoming the eighth out of nine Clemson players drafted this year
What we’ve learned
Kearse looks the part of NBA shooting guard playing safety. His wiry frame will fill out in time, though you can immediately see why he was an intriguing player to the Vikings. He had the choice when arriving at Clemson, whether he wanted to play receiver or safety. Kearse, the nephew of former Titans sack master Jevon Kearse and the cousin of ex-NFL cornerback Phillip Buchanon, picked defense.
Three seasons later, including seven interceptions and 11 pass deflections, Kearse declared for the draft early. He waited until the seventh round’s 244th pick, and immediately said he’d use that as motivation.
“My take on where I ended up going, to me personally, was a sign of disrespect. People not respecting my game, not respecting my abilities,” Kearse said on a conference call after he was drafted. “It is definitely going to add another element to my game, put a bigger chip on my shoulder. I am just really ready to go out there and go to work and earn everything that I get. I put my mind to it and know that I have goals and with hard work and dedication I am definitely going to achieve those goals.”
At the age of 14, Kearse was out of football and in the summer of 2008 arrested on a felony charge of robbery with another minor in Fort Myers, Fla., according to WBBH-TV. Kearse called that a “turning point” in his life, in which afterward he rejoined the football team in high school and went without missteps at Clemson.
Eight years later, Kearse realized his dream to be drafted in the same city.
“I believe that’s what has made me who I am today,” Kearse said. “I probably wouldn’t be here if that didn’t happen. It really changed my whole mindset, the way I looked things and the way I carried myself. That was a turning point. Since then, I’ve been motivated to go do great things. Just make my mom proud, make my family proud and also make myself proud. Going on that path, I definitely wouldn’t have been proud of myself.”
The Vikings’ quick turnaround in two seasons under head coach Mike Zimmer has largely been credited to a coaching staff’s ability to take talented players and develop them further. So that was the approach with a pair of seventh-round defenders in Kearse and defensive end Stephen Weatherly, both possessing special physical characteristics while lacking top production in college.
Kearse had six-and-a-half tackles for a loss and six pass deflections as a junior, both career highs. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman noted a lack of consistency and poor showing in Clemson’s Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma in December.
“A lot of times these guys that we are taking that may have technical issues on tape, I want to know if our coaches feel strongly enough if they can get those corrected,” Spielman said. “I can say even with a lot of these later round guys, they have some unique traits to them, but a lot of things that are correctable with coaching.”
What we’re watching for
Angling for position
Kearse joins a safety group with opportunity, but also with a handful of established candidates. Andrew Sendejo, who started 13 games last season, remained with the first-team defense at the start of Vikings OTAs this week. Tenth-year veteran Michael Griffin signed a one-year deal in March and paired with second-year safety Anthony Harris on the second team. Third-year safety Antone Exum Jr. and Kearse composed the third pairing.
Those groups could change throughout OTAs and into training camp. Griffin was brought in to compete with Sendejo and others for a starting job, according to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray.
Kearse may surprise with a chance on defense, though his best shot to make the roster will likely be impressing coaches on special teams. Young defensive backs before him, including Sendejo, Exum and Jabari Price, carved out roles on coverage teams before getting more opportunities. So we’ll keep an eye on Kearse’s involvement with those groups throughout the summer.