INDIANAPOLIS - For the first time in six years, the Vikings will walk into Lucas Oil Stadium on Wednesday morning for the start of the NFL scouting combine as the reigning NFC North champs. But with the sting of their first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks still lingering, they know there is work left to be done to finish building their talented, young squad into a serious Super Bowl contender.
General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and the rest of the team’s brain trust has relied on the NFL draft to get to this point. With savvy selections and Spielman’s desire to pick 10 new players every year, the Vikings have restocked their roster and now enter the 2016 offseason with only a few glaring needs.
“That’s how we’ve built this football team. I think building through the draft, you can maintain consistency year in and year out,” Spielman said last week. “All those draft picks now we’ve been able to accumulate, and with the coaching staff and how they develop young players, that’s starting to show up on the field.”
Holes on the roster remain, though, starting with an underperforming offensive line. Here is one beat writer’s opinion of the Vikings’ most pressing needs, in order, heading into this week’s scouting combine, with at least one name to remember at each spot.
Need No. 1: Offensive tackle
The Vikings must improve their tackle play on both ends of the line for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to take a bigger step forward in his third season. And both starters, Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, are entering contract years, if the team doesn’t part ways with them sooner. So the Vikings will do their due diligence on all of the offensive tackle prospects this week. Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil and Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley are considered to be the top two. Michigan State’s Jack Conklin (pictured) and Ohio State’s Taylor Decker are also viewed as potential first-rounders heading into the combine.
Need No. 2: Guard
Help is needed at guard, too. Brandon Fusco struggled in 2015 after the Vikings moved him to left guard. Right guard Mike Harris will be a free agent. Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair is an offensive tackle whom many analysts project as the best guard in this class. LSU’s Vadal Alexander, Stanford’s Joshua Garnett and Arizona State’s Christian Westerman are among the other top guards at the combine. But fans should familiarize themselves with later-round prospects, too. The Vikings haven’t picked an interior offensive lineman in the first three rounds since center Ryan Cook in 2006.
Need No. 3: Wide receiver
The Mike Wallace trade didn’t work out in 2015 and the speedy wideout could end up being a salary cap casualty. If that is the case, the Vikings will need to find another starting wideout to pair with 2015 fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs, who surprised as a rookie. It would be a big bonus if that wideout had some size, because they lack a physical perimeter receiver who can make contested catches down the field. Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell and TCU’s Josh Doctson seemingly fit that mold. But the Vikings covet speed and athleticism, too, and Baylor’s Corey Coleman could wow them this week.
Need No. 4: Safety
On to less pressing needs. The Vikings have a keeper in Harrison Smith and a revolving door at the other safety spot. Andrew Sendejo, Robert Blanton, Anthony Harris and Antone Exum all got starts this past season. Sendejo and Blanton are free agents and could be allowed to walk. And while Harris and Exum showed promise in cameos, they remain unknowns. The Vikings could look to find Smith a new partner in free agency. But there are also intriguing options in the draft, including combine participants in Ohio State’s Vonn Bell, Duke’s Jeremy Cash, Boise State’s Darian Thompson and Clemson’s Jayron Kearse.
Need No. 5: Linebacker
The Vikings used high picks the past two years on Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. But reinforcements are needed with four linebackers, most notably longtime starter Chad Greenway, heading toward free agency. If Greenway is not re-signed, Kendricks could be moved to Greenway’s spot on the outside, opening up a hole in the middle. But with the Vikings using their nickel defense with only two linebackers on more than half their snaps, they don’t need to use a first-round pick on a linebacker. So don’t count on the latest dynamic UCLA linebacker, Myles Jack, winding up in purple.
Need No. 6: Defensive line
The defensive line was arguably the Vikings’ biggest strength in each of the past two seasons, and they plan on keeping it that way. They have a quality trio of defensive tackles in Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd and Tom Johnson. But it would be swell to bring in a big nose tackle such as Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler to spell and potentially replace Joseph. The Vikings have spent recent third-round picks on defensive ends Scott Crichton and Danielle Hunter. But Crichton has disappointed and veteran Brian Robison will turn 33 in April, so that position could be a target again.