The trade Rick Spielman had just completed on the first night of the NFL draft would bring two more third-round picks the Vikings could use to restock their roster, but it meant Minnesota would wait nine more picks to see if it could add an offensive lineman or a pass rusher to its roster.
For Spielman, it also meant a familiar task after such a trade: cooling the temperature in the draft room.
The Vikings had made an offseason priority out of addressing a defensive line that, according to a league source, they viewed as having only two bona fide pieces after last season: defensive end Danielle Hunter and nose tackle Michael Pierce. Neither of those players were on the field for the Vikings last season, and they would need help in 2021.
The team brought back Stephen Weatherly on a one-year deal after Carolina released him, and added Dalvin Tomlinson to play next to Pierce on the first day of free agency. But an explosive pass rusher was still a need, especially with Hunter's health after neck surgery. and his happiness with his deal still open questions. Two the Vikings liked in the draft — Miami's Jaelan Phillips and Michigan's Kwity Paye — went 18th and 21st ahead of their pick at No. 23, and the possibility loomed they might not get Virginia Tech offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw either.
Spielman tried to trade back up and calm his coaches down. but they still got Darrisaw.
How the Vikings chose to address their pass rush should by now be familiar: They restocked their defensive line with mid-round picks and trusted assistant head coach Andre Patterson to develop them.
Pittsburgh defensive end Patrick Jones, whom the Vikings picked 90th overall, is actually the third-highest picked lineman in the Mike Zimmer era, behind only Hunter (88th overall in 2015) and Scott Crichton (72nd overall in 2014). The Vikings added Florida State's Janarius Robinson with the 134th overall pick, and used their final choice of the draft to select Pitt defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman 199th overall, bringing him to Minnesota with Jones as part of a group Vikings coaches hope can help solve a glaring issue from a year ago.
With Hunter out because of a herniated disc in his neck, the Vikings' pass rush — so essential to their best defenses under Zimmer — suffered, leaving a young secondary exposed to quarterbacks with time to work.
Yannick Ngakoue played just six games with the team before he was traded away to Baltimore, but still led the team with five sacks. Ifeadi Odenigbo led the team with 42 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus; the total wouldn't have ranked higher than third on any of Zimmer's first six teams in Minnesota.
In addition to the return of Hunter, the Vikings are banking on the development of players like second-year man D.J. Wonnum (and even Weatherly, whom the team believed was ready to take off before he left for the Panthers in free agency a year ago). The 2021 draft class, the Vikings hope, can contribute to the effort.
"We kind of got on Patrick [Jones] fairly early in the process of starting to watch guys," Zimmer said after the Vikings' rookie minicamp on Saturday. "Pat plays really, really hard. Twyman opted out [in 2020], but he had some big sack numbers the year before and he's athletic. The three-technique [tackle] position, we're looking for guys that have the twitch and acceleration. One of the things we tried to do when I had Geno Atkins [in Cincinnati] and some of those guys who are a little bit smaller size guys is that we look for nickel pass rushers and they kind of grow into the spot. We're hoping he can do that. Pat plays very hard. He's done a nice job so far out here with us and we like his length. We have a certain prototype we look for with our ends."
That's typified by Robinson, whose 86-inch wingspan is nearly three inches longer than Hunter's. He had only eight sacks in four years at Florida State, but has similar physical traits to the ones that led the Vikings to look beyond Hunter's 1 1⁄2 sacks during his final year at LSU.
Jones (6-foot-4, 261 pounds) tied for fifth in the FBS last year with nine sacks, and forced four fumbles in 2019, learning from longtime defensive coach Charlie Partridge when the former Wisconsin assistant led Pitt's defensive linemen. Thanks to what he learned from Partridge about "being a student of the game," Jones said, he watches around five hours a day of film, studying pass rushers like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, T.J. Watt, Hunter and Ngakoue in search of pass-rushing moves he can add to his game.
"I've actually got a couple moves," he said Friday. "I got an inside move, where I set up the field and do an inside move. That's something that works really good for me. I've got a really strong bull rush, and I've got a cross-chop and a ghost move. I just watch a lot of film. Coach Partridge had me watch a lot of film, and I'll go out there and try those different moves."
The Vikings' class of rookie pass rushers has plenty of promise, but since Hunter in 2015, they haven't drafted a consistent starter on the defensive line. Odenigbo signed with the Giants this offseason, and Jaleel Johnson (a 2017 fourth-round pick) went to the Texans in free agency. Ade Aruna (a 2018 sixth-rounder) is in the CFL, and 2018 fourth-rounder Jalyn Holmes faces a make-or-break year in Minnesota.
At a position where the Vikings have excelled more often than not under Zimmer and Patterson, they're hoping their young group contains a starter somewhere.
"[We] know as a scouting staff what Coach Patterson and Coach Zimmer look for, and those type of defensive ends similar to when we took D.J. Wonnum, similar to when we took Danielle Hunter," Spielman said on April 30. "Those long athletic guys that can come in and Dre does a great job developing those type of athletes even though they may be raw when they first come in. But as they continue to mature at the position, as long as they have the physical traits we're looking for, we feel like they're all going to have a chance.''