Before Thursday, the Vikings had made three first-round draft picks in the past four years.
They were cornerback Trae Waynes, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and cornerback Mike Hughes. Waynes and Hughes reflected coach Mike Zimmer’s cornerback fetish; Treadwell reflected the occasional signature mistake from General Manager Rick Spielman — taking an impressive-looking athlete and hoping his coaching staff could turn him into a pro. (See, also: Cordarrelle Patterson.)
Waynes is a useful player. Hughes is a dynamic athlete who is promising as a corner and a returner. Treadwell will go down as one of Spielman’s worst draft picks.
We now know that the Vikings would have been better off using all three of those picks on offensive linemen. Spielman began righting that wrong on Thursday night, selecting North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury with the 18th pick in the first round of the NFL draft.
The Vikings got lucky on Thursday, and took advantage. A series of silly picks early in the draft left a few attractive offensive linemen for Spielman, and he chose the one he had fixated on for months.
Yes, NFL general managers always say they couldn’t believe the player they wanted was available. In this case, there is truth in that. The Vikings did their homework on Bradbury and believe he is an ideal fit for their new zone-blocking scheme under Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison.
Bradbury was a safe and attractive pick at a position of need who suits the Vikings offense. They could have traded down and hoped that he would be available later, but given their luck at the offensive line position over the last few years, their approach seems prudent.
Their offensive line starters will be Bradbury, Riley Reiff, Brian O’Neill, Pat Elflein and Josh Kline, unless they find a gem on Day 2 of the draft. That might not appear to be a major upgrade over the line that ruined the Vikings’ season last year, but it well could be.
The death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano damaged the Vikings and the line.
What stood out on Thursday night was the way Spielman and Zimmer, in separate news conferences, casually referred to the input of Kubiak and Dennison, coaches who, like Sparano, are widely respected for their expertise and leadership.
Coaching matters, especially on the offensive line, where continuity, toughness and communication are key. Kubiak and Dennison now have more to work with than Kevin Stefanski and He Who Shall Not Be Named did last year.
O’Neill came on strong at the end of the season and looks like a rising player. Elflein is a quality player. Reiff had a poor season while receiving little help and Kline was cut by the Tennessee Titans.
The Vikings won’t field the league’s best offensive line next season, but they don’t need to. They need to field a functional line, one that can give Kirk Cousins a chance and Dalvin Cook a crease.
“The one thing about these guys being together, they know the exact type of guy that they’re looking for, along with Kevin,” Zimmer said of Kubiak and Dennison. “I think this guy will be a really good fit. The scouts — everybody loved this kid.
“The big thing is with these athletic guys, if you can get them moving sideways, and you can get one guy cut out of the gap, in this one-cut downhill run game, that should be really good for Dalvin.”
Zimmer and Spielman reprised their jokes about wanting more cornerbacks. Here’s a better idea: Draft another offensive lineman or two.
While Spielman has taken heat for the play of the offensive line, it’s not like he hasn’t tried to address the problem.
In 2016, injuries destroyed the line, and in 2018 two players signed to bolster the line — Reiff and Mike Remmers — struggled, perhaps because of Sparano’s absence.
Should Spielman have done more to fix the line over the last few years? Yes. Bradbury is a step in the right direction, and Spielman should keep marching down that path.