After keeping quiet during free agency, the Vikings head into the first round of the NFL draft with plenty of needs. None, though, is so absolutely glaring that General Manager Rick Spielman will be pigeonholed into addressing a specific one early. ¶ The Vikings were in that kind of jam a year ago, but they sure do look good now for winding up with the correct quarterback and picking the playmaking linebacker they desperately needed. ¶ Thursday night, when the Vikings are slated to select 11th overall, there is no one obvious direction for them to go.
Their offensive line needs reinforcements, but pro-ready prospects can be found after the first round. The team shook up its wide receiver corps, but there still should be some shaking left to be done. And despite finishing in the top 10 in pass defense in 2014, the Vikings will be looking to upgrade in the secondary and at defensive end.
So which position should the Vikings address first?
Let’s make the case at a few key positions — then argue in favor of yet another draft-night deal.
The case for … a CB
In today’s NFL, especially in a division with the league MVP in Aaron Rodgers, you need at least three cornerbacks you can trust.
The Vikings have one in Xavier Rhodes, who was one of the league’s stingiest in the second half of last season. But beyond Rhodes?
Captain Munnerlyn was up and down in his first season with the Vikings and is best suited to defend strictly out of the slot. Josh Robinson rebounded under coach Mike Zimmer but falls into the inconsistent category, too. Zimmer brought in an old friend in Terence Newman, but the soon-to-be-37-year-old is a stopgap.
So even though the Vikings rose to seventh in pass defense in 2014, they are in need of long-term help at the position. Anything in the short term would be a nice bonus.
The consensus among notable NFL draftniks is that the Vikings at No. 11 will select Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, who checks off all the boxes with his combination of size, strength, speed and savvy.
Washington’s Marcus Peters, a talented cover man who got booted off the team last fall, is also considered a first-round talent. And Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, Connecticut’s Byron Jones and Louisiana State’s Jalen Collins could also go in the first round.
But Waynes is widely considered to be the best of the bunch.
It usually takes cornerbacks at least a year to transition to the NFL. Rhodes is a perfect example. But selecting a cornerback like Waynes in the first round could eventually give Zimmer a duo of outside corners similar to those he had in Cincinnati with Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, a pair of Bengals first-round picks.
That would be quite useful while trying to dethrone Rodgers and the Packers in the NFC North.
The case for … an OL
Only four teams surrendered more sacks last season than the Vikings, and they also got inconsistent results in the running game. But the team’s most notable acquisition along the offensive line was a 6-foot-9 tackle from Poland who first set foot in the United States a month ago.
No disrespect to Babatunde Aiyegbusi, who might develop into a useful lineman one day, but the Vikings have not done enough to ensure that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be adequately protected and that running back Adrian Peterson will have room to run when he returns this season.
The Vikings still have no clear answer at left guard. Veteran backup Joe Berger and 2014 fifth-round pick David Yankey, who was not physically strong enough to compete as a rookie, are currently their top two options.
There is also uncertainty at the tackle position.
No tackle was beaten for more sacks than left tackle Matt Kalil last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And Phil Loadholt, one of the NFL’s highest-paid players on the right side, was average before going on injured reserve.
Among the top tackles in this draft class are Stanford’s Andrus Peat, Miami’s Ereck Flowers, Florida’s D.J. Humphries and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings. And they could all be on the board when the Vikings are on the clock.
While the Vikings may ultimately decide that it’s not worth taking a guard with the 11th overall pick, Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and LSU’s La’El Collins are two physical linemen who might be able to play either tackle or guard in the pros.
It’s unclear how high the Vikings actually are on Scherff, but it seems logical to think they could improve their offensive line in 2015 by plugging him in at left guard. And if they eventually move on from Kalil or Loadholt, he will be waiting.
The case for … a WR
Yes, the Vikings traded for the speedy Mike Wallace, making their biggest splash of the offseason. But that shouldn’t preclude them from taking a wide receiver at No. 11 if one of the top three prospects is still up for grabs.
They have talent at the position, no doubt. But their top four receivers come with questions.
Wallace will bring an element of deep speed that this offense lacks, but he wore out his welcome in Miami and is scheduled to make a ton of money over the next three seasons. If things don’t work out this season, the Vikings can cut him with no cost.
Cordarrelle Patterson scored nine touchdowns as a do-it-all rookie in 2013. But he struggled to grasp coordinator Norv Turner’s offense in 2014 and couldn’t be counted on by Bridgewater to be where he needed to be, so he was benched for Charles Johnson.
Speaking of Johnson, he was quite the surprise, emerging as Bridgewater’s go-to guy down the stretch. But is he the real deal or just a flash in the pan?
And then there’s Jarius Wright, who figures to replace Greg Jennings in the slot. He’s fast and shifty after the catch. He’s also a free agent after this season.
With such uncertainty at the position, the Vikings probably shouldn’t pass on Alabama’s Amari Cooper if he somehow falls to them.
West Virginia’s Kevin White and Louisville’s Devante Parker — Bridgewater’s college teammate — are also viewed as top-10 prospects by some analysts. A few other receivers, including Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham, could also go in Round 1.
Similar to last year, it’s a deep and talented class of wide receivers. But if the Vikings can select one of those top three playmakers, who would be able to grow up along with Bridgewater, they should certainly consider snatching one.
The case for … a DE
Defensive end might not seem like much of a need after the Vikings racked up 41 sacks last season. But the Vikings have been doing their homework on some of the top edge rushers in the draft, and rightfully so.
Several defensive ends with different shapes, sizes and skill sets should be picked in the first round. Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Clemson’s Vic Beasley are considered to be the best of the bunch.
But considering that two quarterbacks could go 1-2, that at least two wide receivers should be picked early and that USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams will, too, there’s a good chance a good pass rusher will be available at pick No. 11.
It might be hard for Zimmer and the Vikings to pass if that is the case.
Sure, Everson Griffen, who led the team with a dozen sacks in 2014, is an example of a mid-round pick who developed into a good player. But five of the league’s top sack-getters in 2014 were former first-rounders.
Plus, the Vikings only got 5 ½ sacks from defensive ends not named Griffen in 2014.
Starting left end Brian Robison had just 4 ½ sacks and he turns 32 Sunday. Backup Corey Wootton had the other sack, is a free agent and will not be back. And 2014 third-rounder Scott Crichton, drafted to potentially replace Robison, barely played as a rookie.
The challenge for Zimmer, who preferred heavier defensive ends in Cincinnati, and the Vikings is projecting how much healthy weight these pass-rush prospects can put on and how they will project to Zimmer’s scheme.
Fowler will likely be long gone before pick No. 11. But Gregory and Ray are worth keeping an eye on. So is Kentucky’s Bud Dupree.
The case for … trading down
Spielman has earned a reputation as a draft-day trader by trading back into the first round in each of the past three drafts. Those moves, universally praised at the time, netted the Vikings safety Harrison Smith, Patterson and Bridgewater.
But this might be a year where the Vikings make a first-round trade to drop back.
Every spring, Spielman says he wants to come out of the draft with nine or 10 rookies. Now, though, he has just seven selections to work with.
The Vikings have been linked to Waynes, Scherff and Parker in mock drafts. There is a chance all three could still be available at pick No. 11. If there is a cluster of similarly graded players left on their draft board — not saying that’s definitely the case with those three specific prospects — a trade-down makes sense.
Last year, before drafting outside linebacker Anthony Barr, the Vikings added a fifth-round pick from the Browns by dropping back from eighth to ninth in the draft order.
By trading back a couple of spots again this year, the Vikings could probably pick up another mid-round pick and still get one of the similarly graded players. And if they drop back to the late teens, they might be able to get multiple picks or another Day 2 selection.
The Vikings have also shown interest in prospects projected to be selected later in the first round. Among them are Peters, Jones, Clemmings, Green-Beckham, Dupree and Washington outside linebacker Shaq Thompson.
Of course, Spielman could always end up making another bold move back into the first round for one of those players. But this year, with only seven picks, it might make more sense for the Vikings to trade down, add a pick or two and still get a player they like.