It’s partially true and partially an extreme cop-out to say we can’t evaluate how teams perform in the NFL draft until a few years down the road.
What’s true is that we don’t know how college players in their early 20s will look and perform in their mid-20s after having time to develop, grow and learn in an NFL system. We don’t know about injuries. We don’t know about untapped potential.
But I also think it is more than fair to evaluate a couple of things in the short-term: Did a team appear to get good value based on the consensus about players — as shaky as that might be — going into the draft? And did a team seem to have a good approach to the draft based on its needs and the status relative to the rest of the league?
On these two points, the Vikings are wide open to criticism for this year’s draft. My gut instinct was that neither their value nor approach were good.
Some data bears that out. Arif Hasan at Zone Coverage has a nice chart of where the Vikings landed in terms of return on investment as it pertains to the consensus of where players were valued vs. where they were drafted, and the Vikings finished 23rd of 32 teams.
Specifically, as it concerns the offensive line: The Vikings better hope they are right and Pro Football Focus is wrong.
The Vikings eschewed a safe pick at No. 30 overall — an offensive guard to perhaps plug in and start right away in place of the retired Joe Berger. They went instead with cornerback Mike Hughes and then chose tackle Brian O’Neill No. 62 overall. They didn’t take another swing at an offensive lineman until the sixth round with guard Colby Gossett, another project.
PFF had this to say about O’Neill, whom they ranked the No. 91 overall prospect: “O’Neill is a terrific athlete for the position and possesses some of the best mirroring ability in the entire class. His punch and play strength are lacking at the moment though, and it’s concerning how poorly he performed Senior Bowl week. While there, he won only 27 percent of his reps in 1-on-1 practice.”
The Vikings received better value for Gossett, deemed PFF’s No. 137 prospect out of Appalachian State, but neither player is a plug-and-play prospect. Both likely need time to grow and develop. PFF, by the way, graded the Vikings’ overall draft as “below average.”
So the Vikings might not have added an immediately useful offensive lineman. Last year, their offensive line was very much improved from where it was in 2016, when it heavily contributed to ruining their season. Free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers had a big hand in that, as did rookie center Pat Elflein and guard Nick Easton.
Here’s the thing, though: Remmers was by far the Vikings highest-graded tackle last season, finishing with a PFF grade of 69.6. Reiff was at 48.6 and backup Rashod Hill was at 43.6. Remmers was shifted to guard in the playoffs while Hill started at tackle to compensate for Easton’s injury. It was pretty much a disaster against the Eagles, with the Vikings allowing pressures on 24 of Case Keenum’s 50 dropbacks (48 percent). That was after a regular season in which Keenum was pressured on 39.3 percent of his dropbacks, the third most of any NFL QB.
Overall, the Vikings improved their pass blocking efficiency in the regular season from 23rd in 2016 to 13th last season. The body of work that said the line was average last year was much larger than the playoff sample that showed it was still a major concern.
That said, their highest-graded lineman last season was Berger, and he retired. They signed veteran Tom Compton in the offseason, while Danny Isidora has showed promise. Those two plus accelerated development from either or both draft picks could help quiet fears about the offensive line. The Vikings have flexibility in that Remmers can play guard or tackle, but they seem best off with him at tackle.
I’m not wild about offensive line “ifs” on a team that has had seasons ruined by poor line play and that just spent $84 million guaranteed on QB Kirk Cousins — a guy who threw nine interceptions while under pressure last year, per PFF, tied for most in the NFL. Keenum, by the way, threw two. (Cousins did also throw nine TDs under pressure, tied for most in the NFL. Keenum threw five).
It just seems strange that a team with a well-defined window to win — including legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in 2018 — conducted a draft more befitting of a team ready to win in three years. Even if you have a belief system of trying to hit home runs, this felt like a year to play it straight and gobble up players more immediately useful.
But they didn’t, or at least it doesn’t look like they did. As a result, if the Vikings roster isn’t as good and deep as decisionmakers think it is, they could have problems next season.