Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman couldn’t find a trade partner in the second and third rounds of the NFL draft until it came to making his final pick of the night.
He then traded that choice to New Orleans for four more picks.
A busy Saturday for the Vikings got a lot busier.
“We were working with five different teams,” Spielman said. “New Orleans went up and got a very good player they needed, and it was the best option we were offered.”
The Vikings have a massive total of 13 Day 3 selections in the draft’s final rounds after Spielman dealt their second third-round pick — 105th overall and second to last in the third round — to New Orleans for four picks, at 130, 169, 203 and 244.
The Saints have no remaining picks, while the Vikings have three each in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds and four in the seventh.
With the picks the Vikings kept, the team addressed areas of need Friday by drafting offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland in the second round (58th overall) and cornerback Cameron Dantzler in the third round (89th overall).
Spielman has made a Day 2 trade in each of the past six drafts, after initially being unwilling to trade up in the second round and unable to trade up in the third round on Friday.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” Spielman said. “We just couldn’t get a trade partner to deal with us.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this was different. Spielman continued to stockpile late-round picks to get ahead of undrafted free agency starting Saturday night, when NFL executives, scouts and coaches might struggle to cast a coordinated net while sequestered in their homes.
“Having this amount of picks alleviates some of that stress in college free agency, just because of the situation we’re dealing with right now,” Spielman said. “A lot of those guys that we like, if they did get to free agency you’d have to be battling with [other teams].”
The Vikings’ picks Saturday are: Nos. 117, 130 and 132 in the fourth round; 168, 169 and 176 in the fifth; 203, 206 and 208 in the sixth; and 220, 244, 250 and 254 in the seventh. The Vikings may move some to trade up in the right scenario, according to Spielman, who added “it’d be hard for us to trade back, to be honest.”
The Vikings took LSU wideout Justin Jefferson and TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney in Thursday’s first round.
With Saturday’s picks, help is needed along the defensive line and at safety. Free-agent losses Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly, Jayron Kearse and Andrew Sendejo have not been replaced. The Vikings are poised to take a late-round swing, or two, on the defensive line where longtime position coach Andre Patterson, now co-defensive coordinator, takes over.
“The one we all have trust in is Andre Patterson,” Spielman said. “He may have some pet cats who aren’t well known. There may be some opportunities to get multiple of those guys [Saturday].”
The cupboard is restocked at cornerback, which has two additions with four draft picks.
Dantzler, taken 89th overall out of Mississippi State, caught the attention of Vikings scouts when he helped shut down LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase in October. According to Spielman, LSU’s passing game was a “litmus test” for Vikings scouts when evaluating many of the draft’s defensive backs.
“[Chase] don’t like when you’re really physical with him,” Dantzler said. “So, I just studied that.”
At 6-2 and 188 pounds, Dantzler is a wiry but hard-nosed corner projected to fit the type of in-your-face defensive back sought by Mike Zimmer. Dantzler also has the athleticism of a former high school long-jump champion and was nicknamed “needle” in high school.
“I was always skinny” Dantzler said, “but when I hit you, it hurt.”
Evaluations were incomplete due to the pandemic, which closed pro days and canceled pre-draft visits. So questions about Dantzler’s speed, including a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, were not easily answered when a workout video surfaced claiming he clocked a 4.38 about five weeks later. Spielman said he did his own timing of the video and felt it was at least better than 4.64.
“You’re guesstimating a little bit,” Spielman said. “It would’ve been great to go time him in person, but unfortunately that’s not where we’re at right now. It gave us an indication that, I know he was a little bit banged up and tried to gut it through at the combine, I know he plays faster than what he ran.”
After taking Cleveland, the Vikings director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson said, “This is a really deep draft. We thought about going 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.”
Cleveland, an athletic big man, starred at February’s scouting combine, and seemed like a long shot to be available 25 picks into the second round, but just one offensive lineman, Louisiana Lafayette’s Robert Hunt to the Dolphins, was drafted Friday before the Vikings were on the clock.
Cleveland, a former high school wrestler and defensive lineman from Spanaway, Wash., was a three-year starter at Boise State. The rare athleticism Cleveland (6-6, 311 pounds) flashed on the Broncos’ blue turf was confirmed to NFL teams in February when he ranked third among offensive linemen with a 4.93-second 40-yard dash while ranking fifth with 30 reps on the bench press at the combine.
A pandemic-shortened evaluation process meant no pro days for teams, so data points like the combine could potentially carry more weight in a front office. But Stephenson said for the Vikings’ initial draft picks on Thursday and Friday, they leaned more on trusting a player’s college tape in lieu of additional information through pro days and visits.
“Not having the top 30 [pre-draft visits] really hurt us,” Stephenson said, “but on the flip side, we spent a lot more time watching more tape, having our coaches watch more tape. We were able to reach out to some head coaches who weren’t quite as busy as they would’ve been had the pandemic not been happening.”