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Three undrafted rookies buck the odds by making Vikings roster

Minnesota Vikings running back Roc Thomas (32) carries the ball during the third quarter of a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last month. Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn.—The Minnesota Vikings had three undrafted free agents make this team this season, four if you count Brandon Zylstra.

Mike Zimmer is fine if Zylstra is not included.

"We can't count him because I have to pay the (position) coaches $1,000 every year that they get an undrafted free agent, so we are only counting three this year,'' said the Vikings coach.

OK, so throw out Zylstra, a Spicer, Minn., native who went undrafted in 2016 out of Concordia-Moorhead before playing wide receiver in the Canadian Football League the past two years.

That leaves running backs Mike Boone and Roc Thomas and cornerback Holton Hill. It marks the second straight year the Vikings have had three rookie free agents make the team, following last year's haul of defensive end Tashawn Bower, tackle Aviante Collins and linebacker Eric Wilson.

The Vikings have made a concerted effort the past two years to shell out more money for undrafted free agents. Last spring, they guaranteed more than $300,000 for 17 players, although that's not all that much in the scheme of things.

One reason for the change in philosophy is the Vikings have so many big contracts on the books for starters that they don't always have room under the salary cap to pay competitive money for backups. So getting undrafted players on three-year rookie minimum contracts can be effective if talent can be found.

Hill got $75,000 of his contract guaranteed to sign with the Vikings and a $15,000 signing bonus, Thomas had $23,000 guaranteed with a $10,000 bonus and Boone got $7,500 guaranteed and a $7,500 signing bonus. All have rookie minimum base salaries this season of $480,000.

With rookie free agents, the Vikings usually bring players in with something to prove after being passed over in the draft.

"For sure, man,'' said Boone, who played at Cincinnati and led the Vikings in rushing in in the preseason with 195 yards. "Because you didn't get drafted, you kind of already feel like, "Man, I should have been drafted.' Then you come in and got something to prove. That's just the mentality of everybody that comes in undrafted.''

Hill, who played at Texas, said the rookie free agents have a bond because they have bucked the odds.

"It kind of just gives you an extra push,'' Hill said. "We had to just prove ourselves that much more. So we know that every moment, every opportunity counts.''

While Boone was in pretty good shape to make the 53-man roster entering last week's preseason finale at Tennessee, Hill and Thomas were on the roster bubble. Hill helped himself in the game with a 53-yard kickoff return and some solid defensive play.

"I was just blessed that I had the opportunity to show my talents and prove myself,'' Hill said. "I believed in myself all along''

Thomas departed in the second quarter with an ankle injury after carrying four times for 12 yards against the Titans. But his 102 yards receiving and 29 yards rushing in the preseason opener at Denver ended up helping him make the roster.

"I didn't worry about what anybody else was talking about,'' Thomas said of beating the odds after being undrafted out of Jacksonville (Ala.) State. "I'm the one doing it, and at the end of the day doing what I needed to do to stay here.''

Long before Thomas and the other undrafted free agents got to Minnesota, there was plenty of work being done in the Vikings' front office.

"It is really the scouts,'' Zimmer said. "They do a great job of looking for those guys. (General manager) Rick (Spielman) and (assistant general manager) George Paton and all of those guys, they do a fantastic job of narrowing it down.''

At least Zimmer made no mention of having to pay scouts $1,000 for each rookie free agent who made the team.

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