When Rick Spielman steps on the podium in Eagan on Tuesday afternoon, to make his final public comments before the NFL draft starts on Thursday night, it would be well within character for the Vikings general manager to offer a playful jab at the popular consensus the Vikings must draft an offensive lineman in Round 1.
As the saying goes, though, there’s a grain of truth in every joke. And given Spielman’s track record, such a comment should register as more than bluster.
Last year, Brian O’Neill became only the third offensive lineman taken in the first two rounds by the Vikings since Spielman took control of the draft in 2007, but only after they opted for cornerback Mike Hughes in the first round to provide another option for Mike Zimmer’s defense. They took running back Dalvin Cook before center Pat Elflein in 2017 and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and cornerback Mackensie Alexander before tackle Willie Beavers in 2016, leaning on free-agent additions to fix their offensive front instead.
Those forays into free agency, however, haven’t always been met with sterling results; a scheme shift led the Vikings to release Alex Boone a year after they signed him on Day 1 of free agency in 2016, and the team let Mike Remmers go two seasons into a five-year deal. Zimmer also has said the Vikings would consider moving Riley Reiff — the team’s $58.5 million addition at left tackle in 2017 — to guard, if they can’t find a solution in the draft.
So when the Vikings are on the clock with the 18th pick Thursday night, with the consensus as loud as ever that they need to take a lineman, will this be the year they invest their top pick on their offensive front for the first time since 2012?
“If it’s a tossup, from a talent standpoint, he would lean toward the offensive lineman and the position of need,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said this month. “But I’ve known Rick long enough to know that if it’s just not there, he’s not going to force it.”
The Vikings have invested a lot of time scouting the offensive line class, meeting with such players as Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom and Oklahoma’s Cody Ford at the combine and meeting privately with Washington State’s Andre Dillard. The talent in this year’s offensive line class could lead the Vikings to take a player at No. 18 they believe can start immediately — but its depth could also lead them to wait until the second round for help in front of Kirk Cousins, especially if Houston’s Ed Oliver or Clemson’s Christian Wilkins entices them as a potential three-technique defensive tackle to succeed Sheldon Richardson.
While NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah thought the Vikings could use two of their first three picks on linemen — they have the 50th and 81st picks, in addition to No. 18 — he added they wouldn’t necessarily have to grab one right away, especially if they were looking for a guard or center.
“If you’re looking for a starter on the offensive line, I think you’re probably going to want to address that in the first three rounds,” Jeremiah said. “I think you get into that third round, you can find a guy. You can find a Nate Davis from UNC Charlotte or a Michael Deiter from Wisconsin or a Dru Samia from Oklahoma — interior players I think could come in and play right away and help that football team. I think you’ll see all those top centers and guards, those guys are going to go in the second round. So if you wanted one of those, you have to probably address that at that point in time.
“And then when you get into the tackle position, if you want to take a tackle outside the first two rounds, for the most part, you get into the developmental side of things. That’s when to me I’d rather just wait a little bit and take a guy like [Apple Valley native] Trey Pipkins from Sioux Falls. You take him in the fourth round, that would be somebody you’d take a shot at, but I don’t think he’d be ready to play right away.”
The Vikings’ slot at No. 18 might put them out of reach of the top tackles on the board, especially if Dillard, Williams and Florida’s Jawaan Taylor go early to teams with similar needs, such as Buffalo.
McShay called Taylor the “best, most complete, talented offensive tackle in the class,” and Dillard has created plenty of buzz with his athleticism. Williams might wind up as a guard in the NFL but could also go early as a polished player who can start right away.
The Vikings, though, might have an even greater need at guard, where free-agent pickup Josh Kline is the only proven starter on the roster. Garrett Bradbury, North Carolina State’s athletic center, could play guard in the NFL (or lead the Vikings to shift Pat Elflein back to guard, his position for three years in college).
“I think the interior is actually just as good, if not better, than the offensive tackle group,” McShay said. “Garrett Bradbury from N.C. State, Erik McCoy from Texas A&M, Elgton Jenkins from Mississippi State are going to be the three centers that could probably all play guard if you needed [them] to in the first 50 picks. Chris Lindstrom, I think, is an absolute stud at Boston College. Dru Samia, Ben Powers, both from Oklahoma — there are some really good guards, and there are some tackles that will probably wind up moving inside to guard. Cody Ford is another potential conversion guy from tackle to guard. Tytus Howard is kind of overlooked at this point, but I think he’s at least in the first two rounds coming out of Alabama State.”
The options for the Vikings appear plentiful. In years when they’ve seemed to enter drafts fixated on a particular position, though, their choices haven’t always delivered as hoped (see: Christian Ponder as the quarterback of the future in 2012 or Treadwell as a physical receiver in Norv Turner’s offense three years ago).
The Hughes pick appeared to land the Vikings a promising corner a year ago, however, when most were clamoring for the team to take an offensive lineman (as Zimmer was fond of reminding reporters last season).
The line is an obvious need once again, but if the Vikings decide not to take a lineman in Round 1, it’d likely be a bet on the draft class’ depth that leads them in another direction.
“My guess is, if it’s not in the first round, it’ll probably be at that 50th pick, or somewhere in the second round,” McShay said. “And Rick loves to move around, too, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they targeted a guy and went and got him — if it’s not in the first round, then Round 2.”