The Minnesota Vikings' strategy of swinging big on players they believe to have a high ceiling and who could yield a high reward is well-known.
Minnesota selected several of these types of players in last month's NFL draft, backed by the cushion of its stacked roster. After all, the depth provided by the current veterans should take some of the pressure off these first-year players by allowing them the time to come in, learn a brand-new system and explore the capacity of their roles over a season or two.
But even on one of the most complete teams in the NFC, there are still holes to fill, with the likelihood that several members of Minnesota's 2018 draft class will have to contribute earlier than they might have anticipated. With four months until the season starts, some of these rookies might experience a sped-up process in becoming NFL-ready.
"I know we've got a plan in place for these guys," general manager Rick Spielman said after the draft. "You don't know until they get out there. We know that we have some pretty good athletes that are coming in the building. Now it's a matter of seeing how quickly we can get them to develop."
Here's a look at several positions where the Vikings could look to their rookies for early contributions.
Position in question: The right side of the offensive line
How it might play out: There's a chance the Vikings want to keep Mike Remmers at right guard this season, creating an opening at right tackle. If O'Neill is tasked with filling that void, the first thing he'll need to do is put on more mass and get stronger. The former Pitt tackle weighed in at 297 pounds at the combine but is listed at 290 on the Vikings roster. Remmers played right tackle at 310 pounds last season, so regardless of where O'Neill's weight currently sits, he'll need to follow a strict strength-and-conditioning regimen and put on healthy weight (he estimated needing to be in the 300-305 range) in a matter of months. Luckily, that isn't a foreign process for the second-round pick. Ahead of the 2015 season at Pitt, when he was asked to move from tight end to tackle, O'Neill only had a month and a half to learn his new position and added 60 pounds to his frame over time. Making sure he has the play strength to hold his blocks and not get overpowered by a bull rush is a crucial part in determining whether he'll be ready to hold down the right end of the offensive line.
"Obviously with the new quarterback in town, Kirk Cousins, that is a big deal," O'Neill said. "Protecting him is my most important job now. It is a job I take very seriously. Being able to keep guys off the quarterback is something I do well and something I feel very confident in my abilities about."
The second part of this equation deals with right guard. The coaching staff could decide that O'Neill is not ready to start Week 1, which would likely move Remmers back to right tackle. If that's the case, Gossett could be in competition behind Danny Isidora and Tom Compton to fill the guard spot. But it's more likely to expect his early contributions to be as a backup, which has become a pivotal role for the Vikings' O-line given the rash of injuries over the past two seasons. At 6-foot-5, 311 pounds, Gossett has the frame to play guard in the NFL. It's a matter now of working out technique.
Position in question: Nickel corner
Rookies in the mix: Mike Hughes (first-round cornerback)
How it might play out: This is a really challenging position, and it often takes players several seasons to grasp all the responsibilities that come with playing nickel corner. Hughes is as physical as they come in man-to-man coverage, but playing in the slot has its own set of challenges, from understanding run fits to recognizing where the defender help is coming from. The UCF product hasn't played inside all that often, but got some work in the slot at rookie minicamp. Where he lines up when the rookies and veterans come together during OTAs could foreshadow a position battle in training camp. Drafting Hughes points to the notion that Minnesota could want him to eventually take over at nickel after Mackensie Alexander wasn't able to do so on a consistent basis his first two seasons. If Terence Newman transitions to a rotational defensive-back role and Hughes beats Alexander out for the nickel-corner role in camp, the Vikings will have four first-rounders on the field in their secondary in their nickel packages between Hughes, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Harrison Smith.
If Hughes ends up needing more time to develop, he'll still be looked to as a depth option on the outside and could see a percentage of snaps from the slot as a rookie. Another area where he's expected to contribute early is on special teams. Hughes averaged 31.8 yards per kickoff return, which ranked fourth in the FBS in 2017, and had two kickoff-return touchdowns as a junior. He brings an explosive edge to the return game and could push Marcus Sherels, Minnesota's all-time leader in punt-return yardage and punt-return touchdowns, for the job.
Position in question: Defensive-line rotation
How it might play out: After seeing how Philadelphia's eight-man defensive-line rotation helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl, the Vikings made it a priority to land several depth pieces in the draft. Holmes is expected to move inside and supply depth at defensive tackle behind Sheldon Richardson, but he could also be asked to play other positions and carve out a role for himself as a key backup. It's similar with Aruna, who showed off the best part of his skill set when he was used as a 4-3 defensive end tasked with getting to the quarterback.
Both of these players possess the raw, untapped potential the Vikings aim to dig into this offseason, complete with the athletic traits coaches gush over.
"Talking about Holmes and [Aruna], that's how those two guys are supposed to look: tall, long arms, athletic, fast," Mike Zimmer said.
Minnesota is still expecting players like Jaleel Johnson, Stephen Weatherly and Tashawn Bower to contend for significant roles in this rotation, but if Holmes and Aruna make their case with strong performances in camp, they could see early playing time in an important backup role to aid against the run and supply fresh legs in pass-rush situations.
Position in question: Kicker
Rookie in the mix: Daniel Carlson (fifth-round kicker)
How it might play out: The Vikings will have a kicking competition in training camp between Carlson and Kai Forbath. It's hard to imagine Carlson won't be on the 53-man roster after the Vikings traded up to draft him in the fifth round. Forbath re-signed with Minnesota on a one-year deal, but none of his contract has guaranteed money, according to ESPN's roster management system. Carlson's deep accuracy was a draw for the Vikings after he nailed 13 field goals of 50-plus yards during his college career. Forbath was critiqued for his accuracy in 2017, when he made 87 percent of his extra-point attempts, so it's possible the Vikings feel more confident in Carlson's ceiling in the long run.
Other positions to watch
Backup linebacker: With Kentrell Brothers suspended for the first four games of the season and following Emmanuel Lamur's departure in free agency, there's an opportunity for a rookie linebackers to contend for a backup role and contribute on special teams. It's not easy to make the 53-man roster when the Vikings are already deep, but rookies such as seventh-rounder Devante Downs and intriguing undrafted free agent Hercules Mata'afa could contend for a spot.
No. 3 running back: Minnesota is still searching for a change-of-pace back after it let Jerick McKinnon walk in free agency. There's a lot to like about UDFAs Roc Thomas and Mike Boone with their burst and explosiveness. Behind Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray, the Vikings need a running back who can help create explosive plays in limited action.
Creating mismatches in passing game: The Vikings landed tight end Tyler Conklin in the fifth round, and an early projection is that the Central Michigan product could play his way into some crucial passing downs given offensive coordinator John DeFilippo's affinity for using his tight ends to create mismatches. Conklin was used as an H-back and F (move) tight end in college, so there's a chance he be used in a similar role in the Vikings' offense.