As a consequence of winning their first division title since 2009, the Vikings will be picking outside the top dozen selections in the first round of the NFL draft for the first time in three years. It was no surprise when they used their top picks on linebacker Anthony Barr in 2014 and cornerback Trae Waynes last spring. It is much more difficult to pinpoint what they will do Thursday night.
Their lone glaring need heading into this year’s draft is at wide receiver. General Manager Rick Spielman insisted Tuesday at his annual pre-draft news conference that the Vikings are not locked into that position, but a cynic might think that it was a ploy to throw other teams off their scent.
Perhaps the Vikings will pass on a pass-catcher in the first round and go in a less predictable direction. After all, one can make a case for them addressing one of several positions in the first round.
There are five positions most likely to be targeted, and here is a look at them. However, we have a sneaking suspicion that Spielman and the Vikings will again make an obvious selection, even at pick No. 23.
The case for … a receiver
The Vikings have been looking for a legitimate go-to guy since dealing Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders in 2005. They thrice drafted a receiver in the first round. Troy Williamson and Percy Harvin did not pan out for vastly different reasons, and Cordarrelle Patterson is heading in that direction, too.
Despite their recent struggles attempting to draft and develop wide receivers, the Vikings seem more likely than not to give quarterback Teddy Bridgewater another pass-catcher in the first round. They specifically need one with size and the ability to make contested catches from the split-end receiver spot.
Three first-round prospects fit that profile. The Vikings, who enter the draft with eight selections, likely will have to trade up if they want Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell. TCU’s Josh Doctson could be gone before their pick, too. Ohio State’s Michael Thomas doesn’t seem as desirable as the other two but would be a better fit than Baylor’s Corey Coleman or Notre Dame’s Will Fuller.
Even if they sit tight at pick No. 23, recent history suggests that the Vikings still can find the No. 1 wide receiver they have lacked late in the first round. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins are three Pro Bowl wide receivers who came off the board between the 20th and 32nd picks.
The case for … an OT
By signing guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith in free agency, the Vikings followed through on their pledge to prop up an underperforming offensive line. They now have nine offensive linemen who have started at least 16 career games. And they are currently devoting $41.7 million in 2016 salary cap space to the offensive line, tops in the NFL per OverTheCap.com.
But make no mistake, that position group is far from certain beyond 2016. Smith signed a one-year deal, and fellow tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt are in contract years, too. Ditto for center Joe Berger and guard Mike Harris. And the Vikings can get out of center John Sullivan’s contract with little penalty.
Kalil is now three years removed from his promising rookie year, and it would be hard to blame the Vikings for looking for a new left tackle of the future, even if they have to trade up for someone like Michigan State’s Jack Conklin or Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, two tackles projected to go in the top 20 picks.
After all, poor pass protection from Kalil and right tackle T.J. Clemmings was the biggest reason why Bridgewater was under pressure on a league-high 46.9 percent of his dropbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The case for … a safety
The Vikings also used free agency to temporarily plug a hole at strong safety, which has been a soft spot in their defense during coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure. They added Michael Griffin, who was cut by the Tennessee Titans in February, and also bought back Andrew Sendejo, their starter in 2015.
But the Vikings still are looking for a long-term partner for Harrison Smith, a 2015 Pro Bowl fill-in. As Zimmer said at the NFL scouting combine, “I think Harrison can be more impactful if he had the right kind of guy next to him.”
Beyond Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, a surefire top-10 selection who could play safety at the pro level, there isn’t a consensus among draft analysts about who is the second-best safety in the class or whether any other safety is worth a first-round pick. Clemson’s T.J. Green, Florida’s Keanu Neal, Ohio State’s Vonn Bell and West Virginia’s Karl Joseph are all in that second-tier conversation.
Perhaps it would make more sense for the Vikings to trade down a few spots if they covet a safety late in the first round. But after watching Sendejo and Robert Blanton, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills, play leading roles in critical breakdowns the past two years, safety is definitely a top-three need.
The case for … a DL
In 2015, the defensive line was arguably the team’s strongest position group for the second consecutive season. Nose tackle Linval Joseph was a force before injuring his toe late in the season. Defensive end Everson Griffen recorded 10.5 sacks. And rookie defensive end Danielle Hunter racked up six sacks. That group helped the Vikings finished seventh in the league with 43 sacks.
But at the scouting combine, a bunch of coaches and general managers raved about the depth and upside of this defensive line class. Spielman was one of them, saying that it is “one of the strongest I’ve seen in a long time.”
The Vikings spent big to sign Joseph and Griffen and have used third-round picks on Hunter and Scott Crichton. And Zimmer likes to roll at least six deep in his rotation. So a first-round defensive lineman would be a luxury pick.
But if Zimmer believes he can turn, say, Baylor nose tackle Andrew Billings or Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd into a star, it would be hard to say no. Just look at Zimmer’s track record with young defensive linemen, from Hunter here as a 20-year-old rookie to developing standouts such as Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The case for … a linebacker
Given that the Vikings have a pair of athletic, young linebackers in Barr and Eric Kendricks under contractual control for three more seasons, and that they figure to be in their two-linebacker nickel defense on at least 60 percent of their snaps again this season, another early-round linebacker would be a tough sell, unless UCLA star Myles Jack somehow plummets.
But the Vikings brought Ohio State’s Darron Lee, a rangy outside linebacker, and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, a run-stuffing middle linebacker who might be a liability in pass coverage, to Winter Park for official pre-draft visits. So the possibility of a linebacker at No. 23 shouldn’t be completely discounted.
Similar to a defensive lineman, perhaps Spielman could simply draft another talented linebacker and let Zimmer figure out how to use him. Maybe they take Lee and stay in their base defense at times against three-wide sets then rush Barr off the edge in their blitz package with the other two in the “A’’ gaps.
It is fun to daydream about the possibilities, and the NFC North champions have a strong enough roster to actually take the best player available at pick No. 23 and look for help at need positions on the second day of the draft.