The NFL offseason picks up speed this week with the start of the scouting combine on Tuesday. More than 300 of college football’s best players will be ushered through Indianapolis, where the Vikings eye positions of need and feel out their road map for free agency beginning in two weeks.
To get you started, here are five Vikings storylines for this week:
Which offensive linemen shine through a strong class?
The 2019 draft class of offensive lineman may not boast a consensus top-10 pick like last year’s Quenton Nelson, who was an All-Pro pick for the Colts, but the group is considered to be stout in the middle of the first round where the Vikings are set to select at No. 18. Standout college tackles are led by Jawaan Taylor (Florida), Jonah Williams (Alabama), Andre Dillard (Washington St.), Cody Ford (Oklahoma), Greg Little (Mississippi) and Dalton Risner (Kansas St.).
Williams (6-5, 297 pounds) is mocked to the Vikings at No. 18 by NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. Williams, a college junior, started at left and right tackle at Alabama, but Jeremiah thinks he’ll fare better at guard for the Vikings.
“I like him kicking inside,” Jeremiah said Monday in a conference call. “He is a dominating run blocker. Talk about somebody that can get his hands on people and work up to the second level, combo blocks, he’s instinctive, he runs his feet on contact. … I love the nasty that he has.”
Keep an eye on the big men Friday, when they’re scheduled to run through on-field drills. While offensive tackles running the 40-yard dash incites laughs, Spielman’s latest offensive line picks have been among the best performers at that year’s combine; second-round tackle Brian O’Neill had the top 40 time (4.82) and three-cone drill (7.14) among all offensive linemen; third-round center Pat Elflein was a top-10 performer in the 40 (5.32) and 20-yard shuttle (4.71); late-round and undrafted additions Colby Gossett, Danny Isidora and Aviante Collins were also among the best of their class in the 40, which is often boiled down to a 20-yard split to better evaluate for line play.
How will Gary Kubiak’s fingerprints emerge on the roster?
There weren’t many coaching free agents whom the Vikings could’ve hired with as strong of a background and established philosophy than Gary Kubiak, whose messages will also be sent through the three longtime assistants – OL coach Rick Dennison, TE coach Brian Pariani and QB coach Klint Kubiak – hired along with him.
Kevin Stefanski, 36, embraces the help in his first offseason as coordinator: “We talked about pulling [the offense] apart and putting it together, and as we put this together, I have a resource sitting right next to me who has done it and done it at a high level, and it’s really pretty special.”
Kubiak appeared almost relieved to be taking part in a February press conference, during which he was introduced as the Vikings assistant head coach and offensive adviser. The 57-year-old football lifer jumped right into the Vikings’ personnel and draft meetings, saying he feels “way ahead” on draft prospects having studied them last fall for his Broncos personnel job. He noted needed changes to last year’s run schemes: “You’ve got to run some gap schemes too. You can’t be so predictable.” And Kubiak’s strong influence on the reconfigured offense will trickle down to affect traits Vikings coaches and scouts will seek in draft prospects during this week.
How does free-agent posturing begin?
Negotiations begin in earnest this week in Indianapolis as Spielman, Rob Brzezinski and George Paton meet with player agents for the 13 unrestricted free agents on the Vikings roster. The list is topped by linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, represented by Brian Murphy and Ben Dogra, respectively. The Vikings have a varied history with those two, as Murphy has successfully negotiated contracts for many of the Vikings stars from Everson Griffen to Harrison Smith, while it was four years ago Dogra made headlines in Indy via a heated exchange at a hotel bar with Brzezinski over Adrian Peterson.
Not easing tension is the Vikings’ salary cap situation, which is projected to be among the tightest in the league. Regardless, rumors will begin circulating this week about interest and dollars, but not much might make sense or come to fruition. This is the time of year for agents to be offended by initial offers and for teams to shroud intentions in front of everybody.
Other notable Vikings free agents include guard Nick Easton, running back Latavius Murray, kicker Dan Bailey, specialist Marcus Sherels and receiver Aldrick Robinson.
Free agency officially opens March 13.
What do medical checks and interviews reveal?
In a week filled with raw numbers — seconds, inches and pounds — the most critical information the Vikings, and the rest of the league, will try to uncover this week is a little less quantifiable: Health, determination, willpower, etc. The medical tests and interview processes, which include 15-minute formal interviews where college kids are shuffled in and out of Indianapolis hotel rooms and, sometimes, face awkward probes into their family and personal lives, are the first real chances for NFL teams to get an up-close look at the new car on the dealership floor.
A curveball was already thrown Monday, when ESPN reported top offensive tackle prospect Jawaan Taylor (Florida) suffered a hamstring strain and was advised not to compete at the combine. Taylor is projected by many analysts to be drafted within the top 15 picks, ahead of the Vikings at No. 18. But what Taylor’s medical tests and interviews could reveal more to an interested team like the Vikings.
Spielman has boasted about a Vikings analytics team, headed by pro scout Scott Kuhn, that he jokes can “clone” players based on the specific traits they’ve identified by position. They’ve even implored their scouting and analytics staffs to quantify psychological traits, including “three intelligence scores,” Spielman said, and “the stuff we do to try to measure the passion for the game.”
“I’ve always taken chances on athletes,” Spielman said in November. “And then now if you can come up with the numbers and stuff that say, well, this is his mental makeup – always trying to measure [head and heart], because that’s what makes a difference to me in this league.”
The mental side of things will take on an added emphasis in the Vikings’ search through the draft’s kickers, according to special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf: “Their mentality as far as being a football player first and then a kicker second,” Maalouf said. “That’s what we try to find.”
Where are the gems within skill positions?
Needs could arise at receiver, tight end and running back depending on the futures of free agents like Latavius Murray and Aldrick Robinson, potential cuts like Laquon Treadwell and a possible contract restructure in Kyle Rudolph.
This year’s receiver class, in particular, is considered by draft analysts to be populated in the middle around rounds two, three and four while lacking much top-tier talent.
“You have big guys, okay, maybe you’re looking for a little more explosive player, smaller player,” Jeremiah said. “It’s whoever you’re looking for. There’s all kinds of flavors, and I think you’ll see a bunch of those skill players roll off the board second, third, fourth round. There will be a boat-load of them.”