If you were hoping this weekend’s draft would help the Vikings fill all their needs and settle the depth chart at every position, here’s the obligatory reminder that there’s still a long road between now and the Sept. 8 season opener in Detroit. Despite selecting nine players over the weekend, including three promising first-rounders in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings now must use this spring to continue addressing several priorities.
Here are four key areas of uncertainty to keep an eye on:
1 The hole in the middle
Yes, the Vikings drafted a pair of Penn State linebackers in Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti on Saturday. But Hodges, despite his athleticism and coverage skills, spent his college career as an outside linebacker. And any excitement about Mauti’s awareness and burst has to be tempered by his injury history — three different ACL tears in the past 3½ years. So where will the Vikings find their starting middle linebacker? The door may be open for Erin Henderson to get an extended look, the most intriguing option of any considering the current roster. Don’t write off 2012 seventh-round pick Audie Cole as an option either. But realize that, for now anyway, it seems unlikely the Vikings will go bargain hunting on a veteran castoff shelf that currently includes Brian Urlacher (expensive asking price, turns 35 in May) and Karlos Dansby (reputation as high maintenance).
2 An inside dilemma
Antoine Winfield’s exit has coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Alan Williams searching for a new slot cornerback to excel in their defense. At first glance, it appears Rhodes and Chris Cook are the best bets to start outside. But that doesn’t mean Josh Robinson will immediately be plugged in as the top slot option. Robinson, remember, worked exclusively outside during his rookie year. He hasn’t had much training as an inside corner and currently lacks the feel to be a reliable difference-maker inside. Don’t forget, late last year when Winfield missed time in Weeks 16 and 17 because of a hand injury, the Vikings went with Marcus Sherels over Robinson in the slot.
Frazier and Williams still might give Robinson an extended look inside. But they’re also wide open to other possibilities. Bobby Felder, a 2012 practice squadder, has the coaching staff intrigued. Safety Robert Blanton, a converted corner, is also making a major push for more playing time and could find his quickest opening as the fifth DB in the nickel. Another option could include sliding Cook inside in nickel packages with Robinson coming in as the second outside guy. Let the experimenting begin.
3 Catching on
If Rhodes has a bead on a starting spot at corner and Floyd is expected to ease in as Kevin Williams’ understudy at defensive tackle, setting a realistic learning curve for Patterson is now a top priority. The Vikings need to create a comfortable bridge from the draft to the regular season for their new dynamic receiver, not only adapting their teaching methods to aid Patterson’s growth, but also making certain they’re tweaking the offense to best take advantage of his gifts. Don’t expect the second coming of Randy Moss, who had 69 catches, 1,313 yards and 17 TDs as a rookie 15 years ago. A more realistic statistical bar might be in the range of 40 catches, 600 yards and five scores.
Out of the gates anyway, the Vikings believe Patterson’s bigger contributions might come as a returner. They also understand the need to be creative in getting the ball into his hands.
“It’s a process with all these young receivers,” General Manager Rick Spielman said.
4 Getting the boot?
As of Monday morning, the Vikings have three punters: Chris Kluwe, an eight-year vet; T.J. Conley, signed in January after spending the 2011 season with the Jets; and Jeff Locke, Saturday’s fifth-round pick out of UCLA. And you know what they say. When you have three punters, you really have an intent to get rid of the outspoken guy who has launched 623 regular-season kicks since 2005. Spielman can say all he wants about Locke coming in simply to create competition. But investing a fifth-round pick on the position is an obvious declaration of the team’s direction.
For what it’s worth, after drafting kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round in 2012, the Vikings watched the newcomer kick at rookie minicamp, quickly felt secure and cut Ryan Longwell on May 7.