The NFL Draft is on the way. The NFL Combine is over and free agency is around the corner, but plenty of fans are thinking about the Draft, which takes place at the end of April. Despite the run-up of anticipation, the draft can be a crapshoot of hits and misses, so now may be a good time to look at some of the hits in Vikings Draft history.
The Vikings have been drafting players since 1961, and considering that the draft had 20 rounds until 1967 (then 17, changing to 12 in 1977 and finally seven in 1993), that’s a lot of players. They are more misses than hits throughout those years.
It stands to reason that NFL teams need to do better in the Draft now since there are only seven rounds (leaving many players undrafted and picked up later), but that is not always the case. Names such as Kendall James (2014), Everett Dawkins (2013), Greg Childs (2012) and Ross Harmon (2011) are already fading into unremarkable Vikings lore.
Those players don’t make much to write about since they have a total of one game played for Minnesota amongst the lot of them. Rather, we’d like to look at the Top 5 Draft Picks in various rounds throughout the history of Vikings drafts. Taking a cue from how the draft now operates, with rounds 4-7 on day three of each draft, we will start with the later rounds (4-20) in this first part of the series and work up to 3rd rounders, 2nd and then finish with first round picks.
As one might expect, there have been a lot of players taken in those collective later rounds through the years, but as we said, plenty who are forgettable. This is certainly a subjective exercise since these are my selections for the Top 5, but they are offered up for agreement, rejection and most assuredly debate.
And while I was around when the Vikings first drafted in 1961, I won’t admit to being of an age where I was constructing my own mock drafts at that time and wildly cheering when I heard that Minnesota selected Tommy Mason with their first-ever draft choice. I clued into the team a few years later, but did see every player whom I am about to write about perform in games--and even practice in Mankato. Does that make an official arbiter? No. But I have been paying attention.
That said, in my first run through, I considered 24 players from rounds 4-20 (I wrote down Dave Winfield, who was taken in the 17th round of the 1973 draft, just for the fun of it and because he was a Hall of Famer—as a baseball player—who played in Minnesota. But he didn’t make the cut.) From those 23 players, I whittled it down to my Top 5. Let me know what you think.
No. 5: Brad Johnson—Quarterback—9th Round (pick 227), 1992
Johnson never took the Vikings to the Promised Land, but he does have a ring. He had a pretty decent career for a 9th-round selection; unfortunately not all of it was played with the Vikings. Johnson spent seven of his 15 seasons as a Viking (in two different stints) and led them to the playoffs twice. Johnson played for the Washington Redskins, Tampa Bucs and the Dallas Cowboys, in addition to the Minnesota, winning the Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2002-03. He could have potentially contributed more to the Vikings, as he sat on the bench for his first two seasons in Minnesota, waiting for a chance to play. Ultimately, Johnson was a bit of a journeyman, but his talent was vindicated throughout his career, and he was certainly a decent selection by the Vikings.
No. 4: Bobby Bryant—Defensive Back—7th Round (pick 167), 1967
Back in the days when players finished their whole career with one team, Bryant played his entire 13-year career in Minnesota. Undersized at 6-1, 170 pounds, he was a stalwart for Bud Grant’s teams in the 70s, making the Pro Bowl in 1975 and 1976. Never a big hitter, Bryant did have a nose for the football and was a good playmaker. Bryant had 51 interceptions, which lands him at T-32 on the all-time NFL list. He was also part of one of my all-time favorite plays that I witnessed in person--a memorable field goal block-six against the Los Angeles Rams in the 1976 NFC Championship game at Met Stadium. The Rams were marching in for a field goal, when Nate Allen blocked it and Bryant scooped it up for a 90-yard TD (one of two playoff touchdowns in his career). The play led to a win and the Vikings last Super Bowl appearance.
No. 3: Roy Winston—Linebacker—4th Round (pick 45), 1962
The highest selection in this grouping, 4th-rounder Winston had a long and successful career, playing for Minnesota for 15 years and not starting only the first and the last. Winston was a hard-hitting linebacker, who even Larry Csonka said hit him the hardest he was ever hit in the game. Winston played 190 games for the Vikings, which tied him for 10th in team history, and he collected more than 100 tackles in a season three times. He is one of the few Vikings who played in all four of the team’s Super Bowl losses, retiring after the fourth one in 1977. Asked by Viking Update about his favorite memory as a Viking, Winston said, “At San Francisco in 1964. It was the game Jim Marshall ran the wrong way. I had three interceptions that game and no one knows. Three interceptions for a linebacker is pretty good.” And pretty good for a fourth-round pick.
No. 2: Scott Studwell—Linebacker—9th Round (pick 250), 1977
A member of the Vikings Ring of Honor (inducted in 2009), Studwell was the consummate Viking, embodying the intensity and work ethic of a former member of the famed Vikings defense. The Vikings all-time leading tackler with 1,981 in his career, he holds team records for single-season tackles with 230 in 1981 and 24 in a game against Detroit in 1985. Studwell is one of only one Viking who has played 200 games for the team and he appeared in two Pro Bowls (1987 and 1988). Now as a college scout/regional in the front office, Studwell has worked for the Vikings for 39 years all tolled. He is a Viking for life, and was incredible steel in the 9th round of the draft.
No. 1: Matt Birk—Center—6th Round (pick 173), 1998
Looking back on Birk’s career, it’s hard to imagine him not going higher than the 6th round. He was a leader of the Vikings offensive line for 10 of his 14 years in the league--playing four with the Baltimore Ravens and finally winning a Super Bowl ring in 2012, after which he retired. Birk was a Pro Bowler six times and the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. A home-grown product from Cretin-Derham Hall, Birk was seemingly on the down side of his career when he left Minnesota for Baltimore, but he was rewarded with being a part of an NFL title team. One of the best centers the team has ever had, Birk was somehow selected behind Kailee Wong, Ramos McDonald, Kivuusama Mays and Kerry Cooks (oh, and first-rounder Randy Moss) in the 1998 draft. The Vikings were lucky he was still there.
There are others who received consideration in this collection: RB Terry Allen (5th round, 1990), DB Carl Lee (7th round, 1983), TE Steve Jordan (7th round, 1982), DB Ed Sharockman (5th round, 1961) and LB Pete Bercich (7th round, 1994). And some that could still change things up: Everson Griffen (4th round, 2010), Brandon Fusco (6th round, 2011) and Blair Walsh (6th round, 2012). But time will have to tell on them.
What say you?