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Conversation turned to lost opportunities last month when receiver Adam Thielen talked with Vikings teammates during a virtual Bible study.

What if the coronavirus pandemic had taken their opportunity? What if Thielen hadn’t turned down an internship with Patterson Dental after a successful tryout in the Vikings’ three-day rookie minicamp?

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Thielen considered the dreams put on hold when spring tryouts, the pipeline for the longest of long shots among unsigned rookies, were shut down as NFL facilities remain closed under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Local players from every NCAA division are trying to stay prepared and hopeful as pro teams, including the Vikings, express uncertainty about when practices will resume and whether they’ll have time for a 2020 rookie minicamp. Thielen, an eighth-year NFL star, is a tryout success story, as are fullback C.J. Ham and punt returner Marcus Sherels.

“Obviously, I would not be in the NFL if this happened in my rookie year,” Thielen said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about those things. But the best athletes, they can adapt.”

“It’s kind of tough situation for me. We got the virtual pro day in, but a lot of the feedback that’s come back from teams to me and my agent is that, ‘Well, because he’s a D-III guy, we have to see him in person.”
Jackson Erdmann, St. John's quarterback

Hurdles for prospective players started before rookie minicamps were shelved. Winston DeLattiboudere, a former Gophers defensive end, wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine in February. He, like many, anticipated the Gophers’ March 25 pro day as his chance to show off to NFL scouts. It was canceled.

DeLattiboudere made his own stage. He recruited former Maryland high school teammates who played at Division II programs to record their own “pro day” on cellphone video. DeLattiboudere took notes on combine drills run by top prospects such as Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills, and mimicked them for a video sent to NFL and CFL teams.

“I want to show I can do the exact same drill,” DeLattiboudere said. “Like, I can compete with the big dogs, basically.”

DeLattiboudere, who has an undergraduate degree in criminology and a master’s degree in youth development, wants to eventually become a football coach. But that passion and understanding of the game is best shown to NFL teams in person. For now, outside linebacker drills at a skills development gym in Minneapolis could expand his game and provide the versatility teams covet.

“That’s something I decided to push to make my superpower,” DeLattiboudere said. “Tyler Johnson can catch one-handed behind his back, and with me — I use my brain.”

A brother in the NFL helps

Like Thielen, receiver Shane Zylstra was undrafted out of Minnesota State Mankato. He led Division II football with 1,676 receiving yards in his senior season for the Mavericks, but his phone did not ring with tryout offers after April’s draft.

“I’ve heard they are having rookie minicamps. I’ve heard they aren’t,” Zylstra said. “I think it depends on when everything starts opening up and how big that window is between when it opens up and the preseason.”

One connection has helped. Zylstra’s older brother, Brandon, is a receiver for the Carolina Panthers, providing access to a $1,500 NFL stipend for personal workout equipment during the pandemic. Brandon outfitted a gym at their parents’ home in Spicer, Minn., with “kettlebells, medicine balls, ropes, bands — you name it,” according to Shane.

Minnesota State's Shane Zylstra caught a pass during the NCAA Division II title game last season.
Minnesota State's Shane Zylstra caught a pass during the NCAA Division II title game last season.

AP

Route work on the field is supplemented by brief studies of the Panthers’ playbook. With the two brothers living together again, Shane said he is learning from Brandon’s virtual Panthers meetings as they install a new offense under first-year head coach Matt Rhule.

“I’ve been peeking over his shoulder and learning the different routes and different terminology,” Zylstra said. “Learning a lot about defenses. Prepare myself as much as I can.”

Staying hopeful

St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann threw passes to Shane Zylstra during their personal “pro day,” produced by Minneapolis-based agency Institute For Athletes. Erdmann, who led Division III with 5,040 passing yards and set multiple MIAC records, has the stats to be signed. But he has only verbal commitments for NFL rookie minicamps that aren’t scheduled.

“It’s kind of tough situation for me,” said Erdmann, a former Rosemount standout. “We got the virtual pro day in, but a lot of the feedback that’s come back from teams to me and my agent [IFA] is that, ‘Well, because he’s a D-III guy, we have to see him in person.’ ”

Record-setting St. John's quarterback Jackson Erdmann was the Division III passing leader in 2019.
Record-setting St. John's quarterback Jackson Erdmann was the Division III passing leader in 2019.

Carlos Gonzalez

After a December ankle injury, Erdmann said he’s healthy and training virtually with Ryan Englebert of ETS Sports Performance, where Thielen — also represented by IFA — has an ownership stake.

Early pandemic plans were disrupted when Erdmann’s childhood home flooded because of“people flushing Clorox wipes” in the neighborhood, he said. He was forced to move to Maple Grove with his girlfriend’s brother.

Erdmann expects an opportunity eventually. Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia is among NFL coaches who have said they envision a rookie minicamp before training camp, if time allows, since rookie report dates are typically earlier than veterans. Another option may be expanding weekly workouts to include more unsigned rookies.

“I’ve heard a lot of rumors and talks, so it’s tough to decipher or predict what’s going to happen,” Erdmann said. “I’m just staying hopeful and planning on there being [an opportunity].”