MINNEAPOLIS — With the many twists, turns and destinations that have been a part of Brandon Zylstra’s football career thus far, one would be justified in thinking that he may have run out of new experiences to be had.
Yet there was the Spicer, Minn., native returning punts in the National Football League last season, as well as making special teams tackles.
“Last year was really my first time playing special teams since high school so it was a big learning experience for me,” said Zylstra, 26, prior to Sunday night’s Minnesota Vikings preseason game versus Seattle. “I'm trying to build off that this year, play loose and not be so robotic.”
As far as catching passes — the trade that made him a star, first at Concordia in Moorhead as a collegian, and then with Edmonton in the Canadian Football League as a professional — he did that just once in his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings. While seeing action in all 16 Vikings games last season, he caught a 23-yard pass from Kirk Cousins in a road win over the New York Jets on Oct. 21.
On Sunday versus the Seahawks, Zylstra's first catch came at a key time. In the second quarter of a 3-3 game, with the Vikings facing a 3rd and 9 at their own 25, Zylstra hauled in a slant pass from backup quarterback Sean Mannion, picking up 10 yards and a first down before going out of bounds.
He caught two more passes before halftime, converting on another 3rd down near the sideline, and converting on a slant pass in the red zone as the Vikings drove to tie the game at the half. In working the sideline successfully, it was easy to confuse Zylstra, who wears number 15, for number 19 Adam Thielen, the Vikings’ other small town Minnesota guy who catches passes. The on-field similarity is not an accident.
“He's someone I've leaned on the past two years. I respect his game so much, the way he gets open, the way he moves his body, his releases,” Zylstra said of Thielen, who hails from Detroit Lakes, Minn., and played college ball at Minnesota State Mankato. “I try to emulate a lot of that and if it fits with me I try to put it on my game.”
In the third quarter it got better, as Zylstra made a move in the end zone to fool Seattle cornerback Jamar Taylor, then caught a Kyle Sloter pass for a touchdown and a 17-13 Minnesota lead. He joked after the game that good things happen when the quarterbacks like you, and it is nice to see passes coming his way.
Just getting on the field was Zylstra’s first and most formidable challenge heading into his second NFL season. A leg injury during organized team activities in early June sidelined Zylstra for much of the summer. While most players spend June and July getting in shape for training camp, Zylstra spent that time trying to get healthy.
“I didn't get to do much to prepare for camp, so I was trying to get acclimated and get back into shape during camp, so that was kind of tough on me,” Zylstra said. “But I'm doing the best I can.”
During the final few days of training camp, the man who coached the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl title just four seasons ago liked what he was seeing from the former Cobber.
“Brandon, coming off an injury, has made up a lot of ground. When you come back from an injury it takes a lot of time,” said Gary Kubiak, the Vikings’ new offensive advisor. “But what I've seen in the last few days is him start to look like himself again. This will be a big two weeks for him. He's going to get a great opportunity with us and obviously he can help us.”
As part of a pass-catching corps already loaded with receivers like Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., Zylstra is looking for a place in the offensive picture. Nights like Sunday, where he caught all five passes thrown his way for 37 yards and the touchdown will most likely help his cause.
“The way this offense works is there are a lot of guys rolling in and out, so I just want to be versatile and play all positions,” he said. “They have me bouncing around quite a bit.”