The way the first 25 picks were coming off the board in Friday’s second round of the NFL draft, Trader Rick Spielman was able to keep his trigger finger and significant draft capital holstered and still come away with an offensive tackle the Vikings believe will help somewhere right away and eventually develop into a long-term left tackle once he gains NFL-caliber strength.
Still armed with 12 picks after selecting projected starters at receiver and cornerback in the first round, Spielman, the team’s general manager, was prepared to go up, if necessary, to pick an offensive lineman in the top two rounds for the third straight year.
A run on receivers (six), defensive linemen (six), running backs (four) and safeties (four) resulted in only one offensive lineman — Louisiana Lafayette tackle/guard Robert Hunt to Miami at No. 39 — being picked before the Vikings used the 58th overall pick to take the guy they wanted all along — Boise State’s 6-6, 310-pound left tackle Ezra Cleveland.
“I was screaming so loud, the neighbors probably heard me,” said Vikings running back Alexander Mattison, a former college teammate of Cleveland’s. “He’s extremely smart, he’s extremely talented, he’s extremely athletic and extremely strong. … If I had one word to tag on him it would be ‘monster.’ That man is extremely athletic and awesome.”
In the third round, the Vikings drafted cornerback Cameron Dentzler of Mississippi State with the 89th overall picked and then traded their other third-round pick to New Orleans for four Saturday picks.
Born three weeks premature and still weighing 11 pounds when he came into this world in Spanaway, Wash., Cleveland had to wait an extra night when some thought he would sneak into the bottom of the first round. According to Vikings college scouting director Jamaal Stephenson, the Purple had Cleveland “right up there” with the team’s first two picks — receiver Justin Jefferson 22nd overall and cornerback Jeff Gladney 31st.
“This is a really deep draft,” Stephenson said of how the top of the second round unfolded. “We thought about [trading] up potentially, but we just felt like with all the players left on the board, we’d just sit and wait and get our guy. And that’s what we did.”
And what are the Vikings getting?
First of all, he started 40 games, all at left tackle, in three seasons, including 13 last year despite playing with turf toe.
With the Vikings, he could start at left tackle, moving veteran Riley Reiff inside to guard. According to Stephenson, Cleveland also has “guard flexibility” and can play right tackle, which would allow the Vikings to move Brian O’Neill, their second-round pick in 2018, to left tackle as early as this season.
In two seasons, O’Neill developed into one of the league’s better right tackles. Cleveland, who wowed the Vikings athletically with a 4.92 40-yard dash at the combine, is at a similar point in his physical development as O’Neill was two years ago.
“I think even Ezra would tell you he needs to get stronger,” Stephenson said. “That was one of the things we talked about with Brian when he was drafted here. I think that’s something that’s fairly easy to work on. We think Brian has really developed into a really talented tackle in the NFL. And we think the same thing of Ezra.”
Cleveland said he was “super excited” to not only fulfill a dream of reuniting with Mattison but also playing in a familiar zone-blocking scheme. When a Vikings representative called to tell him he was going to Minnesota, Cleveland said, “Vikings!? All right, sweet.
“At Boise, we’re a big zone offense as well. We do inside zone first and then power and then mid-zone. Having this offseason when we don’t know what’s going to happen, I think it’s a huge benefit for me to be coming from a zone-type scheme and going into another one.”
The Vikings also wouldn’t mind if Cleveland lives up to an idol who played for Cleveland — former six-time first-team All-Pro Joe Thomas.
“I remember when I came [to Boise State] as a freshman and was strictly a D-line player in high school,” Cleveland said. “I switched over to offensive line and once I got my kick step in, guys were like, ‘Whoa, he’s going to be the next Joe Thomas.’
“I had never really heard of the guy. I looked him up and started watching his film. … That’s the type of play style I want to have.”
Yeah, that would work just fine.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: email@example.com