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Learning year for Vikings' rookies

MINNEAPOLIS -- Rookies stepped up big time for the Vikings last season. Stefon Diggs led the team in receiving and Eric Kendricks in tackles. Danielle Hunter was second in sacks.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (11) runs during the fourth quarter in a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings won 23-10. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (11) runs during the fourth quarter in a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings won 23-10. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - Rookies stepped up big time for the Vikings last season. Stefon Diggs led the team in receiving and Eric Kendricks in tackles. Danielle Hunter was second in sacks.

This year's rookie class has spent the bulk of the season on the bench.

One big difference between Minnesota's NFC North title team in 2015 and this year's 7-8 squad has been the production of rookies.

Yes, the Vikings entered the season with more depth, making significant contributions from first-year players less essential. But injuries hampered some of the depth, and when rookies had opportunities, too often they faltered.

Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, a first-round draft pick, has just one catch for 15 yards. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a second-round pick, struggled when put on the field.

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The offensive line has been decimated by injuries, but fourth-round draft pick Willie Beavers hasn't been able to fill a gap. And safety Jayron Kearse, a seventh-round pick, started Oct. 31 at Chicago but was yanked during his first series following a defensive mistake.

Comparing the two seasons, rookies in 2015 combined to start 45 games. Heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against Chicago at U.S. Bank Stadium, this year's rookie class has combined for just two starts.

In addition to Kearse's inauspicious start, Treadwell started once, when the Vikings used a three-receiver set Nov. 24 at Detroit, and finished with no receptions.

"It can go either way," Treadwell said of Minnesota's lack of rookie production. "I mean, you see (rookies) playing all over the league, so you never really know. You just got to keep working hard and keep putting in your time and keep waiting on your opportunity. I believe in the near future we will make a lot of plays and help us win ballgames."

Treadwell, taken with the No. 23 pick, got a chance for more playing time Dec. 1 against Dallas, but incorrectly ran a route, leading to an incompletion. He sprained an ankle on a kickoff Dec. 11 at Jacksonville and hasn't played since.

"He's gonna be a good player," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I see too much good qualities out of him - the toughness, the athleticism, the quickness in and out of the breaks. ... I'm not concerned about him at all. ... It's consistency (that he is lacking. That) is really about it."

Alexander was given a chance to play most of the first half Nov. 6 against Detroit at nickel back after Captain Munnerlyn was injured. But Alexander struggled, including allowing a touchdown pass, and he was replaced in the second half by Terence Newman.

Alexander was in for two plays against Jacksonville when Xavier Rhodes was pulled following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and was penalized 22 yards for pass interference on the second. He was placed on injured reserve last week with an abdomen injury.

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"(Alexander's) still got a lot to learn, but at the same time he's definitely getting better," Munnerlyn said. "He just has got to settle down and learn how to just let everything go and play."

The Vikings didn't have a third-round pick last spring, so Beavers was their third selection overall. He was waived before the season started and placed on the practice squad before being signed in late September to the 53-man roster.

"I'm just trying to come out every day and get better," he said.

With injuries decimating the line, Beavers was in for the final eight snaps Nov. 24 against the Lions.

That's quite a contrast to last year when fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings started all 16 games on the offensive line.

Last year, the Vikings also got 11 starts from Kendricks, a second-round pick at linebacker, and nine from Diggs, a fifth-round pick who caught 52 passes for 720 yards.

Cornerback Trae Waynes, a first-round pick, didn't play much in 2015, starting just one game. Though Hunter only made one start, the defensive end selected in the third round was a key player off the bench with six sacks.

The Vikings didn't get much production from anyone out of the draft this season. Linebacker Kentrell Brothers (fifth round) hasn't played a single snap from scrimmage, though he has played well on special teams.

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Tight end David Morgan (sixth round) has one catch for four yards. Wide receiver Moritz Bohringer has spent the season on the practice squad, as planned when he was picked in the sixth round out of a Germany semipro league.

"(Being on the practice squad) is better than not being on a team," Bohringer said. "It's been a really good experience. The game has slowed down a lot."

Defensive end Stephen Weatherly (seventh round) spent most of the season on the practice squad, but was promoted to the active roster late last month and saw special teams duty in one game.

Kearse, Minnesota's final draft selection, look for a while as if he could be a late-round steal. He had an impressive preseason and got the start at Chicago when strong safety Andrew Sendejo was hurt. But Kearse was out of position on Jordan Howard's early 69-yard run for the Bears, and was yanked from the game.

When free safety Harrison Smith missed two games earlier this month, he was replaced by second-year player Anthony Harris, not Kearse. Zimmer said Kearse has played too cautiously after being aggressive in the preseason.

"It just comes from me not wanting to make a mistake and trying to perfect," Kearse said. "I know that I have to step up and change that and go out there and be confident in my game."

Zimmer remains confident Kearse can return to his earlier form. He's hopeful many of his rookies will look much better next year.

"We've had a ton of young guys come in," Zimmer said. "The season doesn't go well, as good as they expect it to go, but then they come back the second year and make a huge jump."

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