INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL descends on Lucas Oil Stadium this week for the scouting combine, a chance for teams to do more than just watch young men run around in spandex, though that is a big chunk of it.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and a contingent of scouts, assistant coaches and executives will be in Indy to get a closer look at the dozens of draft-eligible players who have been invited.
Their 2014 season started with plenty of turmoil and a 2-5 record, but the Vikings are encouraged about the trajectory of their team after finishing 7-9 and finding Teddy Bridgewater, who they hope will be a long-term quarterback.
“I feel very confident, though not satisfied, that we are heading in the right direction,” Spielman said in January. “The optimism heading into this offseason is totally different.”
But Spielman is well aware that a lot of work remains to rebuild this team into a Super Bowl contender. Spielman said the Vikings, who put together their initial draft board earlier this month, have identified “eight specific needs” they hope to address this offseason.
Spielman didn’t define those positions, but he did say “some of them are not too hard to figure out.”
So we tried.
Here is our best guess as to those eight need positions, with five players to watch at each position and an NFL combine story line:
Why this is a need: The Vikings have a bunch of questions. Greg Jennings is getting old. Cordarrelle Patterson is lost. Charles Johnson still is an unknown. With a young and still-developing Bridgewater, the Vikings must improve his surrounding cast.
Five players to watch: Amari Cooper, Alabama; DeVante Parker, Louisville; Devin Smith, Ohio State; Jaelen Strong, Arizona State; Kevin White, West Virginia.
One story line: Tall and speedy, Dorial Green-Beckham might be the most talented receiver in this draft. But he comes with major red flags. He was booted off the Missouri football team and did not play in 2014. His combine interviews will be more important than what he does on the field.
Why this is a need: Star back Adrian Peterson is suspended until at least April 15, and his future with the Vikings remains unclear. The Vikings will take a close look at a strong class of running backs in case they move on from Peterson and need a runner to pair with Jerick McKinnon in a committee.
Five players to watch: Jay Ajayi, Boise State; David Cobb, Minnesota; Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin; Duke Johnson, Miami (Fla.); T.J. Yeldon, Alabama.
One story line: Georgia’s Todd Gurley seems to be the consensus top back in the draft, but he is not expected to participate in individual drills at the combine because of a torn ACL he suffered in November. Still, Gurley is the best bet to be the first back drafted in the first round since 2012.
Why this is a need: The Vikings brought back veteran Charlie Johnson for the 2014 season and he struggled mightily. With Johnson not expected to return and 2014 fifth-round draft pick David Yankey unable to compete for snaps last season, left guard is the most obvious hole on their depth chart.
Five players to watch: A.J. Cann, South Carolina; Tre Jackson, Florida State; John Miller, Louisville; Robert Myers, Tennessee State; Laken Tomlinson, Duke.
One story line: Ali Marpet hails from little-known Division III Hobart, but he had the size and impressive game tape to get on the radar of NFL scouts and get invites to the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine. Can he, like Brandon Fusco did, make the jump from a small school to the big time?
Why this is a need: Left tackle Matt Kalil, a first-round pick and Pro Bowler in 2012, regressed into one of the NFL’s poorest tackles in pass protection. And right tackle Phil Loadholt also had a down year. The Vikings must develop a tackle in case they need to replace one of those two in the future.
Five players to watch: T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh; La’el Collins, LSU; Ereck Flowers, Miami Fla.; Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M; Brandon Scherff, Iowa.
One story line: Tackles such as Collins, Scherff and Ogbuehi are candidates to go in the first round, but there are questions about which positions those guys will end up playing in the pros. It is only one piece of the puzzle, but how they test in drills could help convince a team they can play left tackle.
Why this is a need: Yes, right end Everson Griffen made a major impact in his first season as a starter with a dozen sacks, but left end Brian Robison turns 32 in April, 2014 third-round pick Scott Crichton barely played as a rookie and the Vikings would be wise to add another speed-rushing end.
Five players to watch: Vic Beasley, Clemson; Trey Flowers, Arkansas; Danielle Hunter, LSU; Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA; Preston Smith, Mississippi State.
One story line: Nebraska’s Randy Gregory isn’t expected to be on the board when the Vikings pick at No. 11 — and defensive end is a low-priority need for them anyway — but Gregory is looking to make some noise at the combine to back up his recent boast that he should be the No. 1 pick.
Why this is a need: The Vikings have seemingly been looking for a long-term solution at middle linebacker for a few years. Soon-to-be free agent Jasper Brinkley was serviceable in a run-stuffing role, but the Vikings could stand to upgrade the position with a three-down player with cover skills.
Five players to watch: Stephone Anthony, Clemson; Eric Kendricks, UCLA; Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State; Denzel Perryman, Miami Fla.; Hayes Pullard, USC.
One story line: A pair of undersized middle linebackers in Perryman and Kendricks will try to prove to NFL teams that their wheels and athleticism are enough to overcome their lack of prototypical height. Kendricks, Anthony Barr’s former teammate at UCLA, is worth keeping tabs on.
Why this is a need: Xavier Rhodes emerged as a reliable corner under Zimmer, but the Vikings could use another. Zimmer has said Captain Munnerlyn probably is best suited as a nickel corner, and Josh Robinson, while better in 2014, doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution at this premium position.
Five players to watch: Jalen Collins, LSU; Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon; Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest; Trae Waynes, Michigan State; P.J. Williams, Florida State.
One story line: Based on talent alone, Marcus Peters is the top corner in this class in the eyes of many analysts. But he was dismissed from the team at Washington after repeatedly butting heads with coach Chris Petersen. He will have plenty to prove in Indy on the field and in the interview rooms.
Why this is a need: The Vikings have one keeper in Harrison Smith, but the safety spot next to him remains a question. Robert Blanton won the job by default out of training camp and started for most of the season before being replaced by Andrew Sendejo. Both project better as backups.
Five players to watch: Adrian Amos, Penn State; Landon Collins, Alabama; Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State; Cody Prewitt, Mississippi; Damarious Randall, Arizona State.
One story line: Collins, the consensus top safety in the draft, is the only player at his position who is considered to be a lock for the first round. Beyond him, there is a big drop-off — at least at the moment. His fellow safeties hope to make a statement at the combine and close the gap.