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Zulgad: Playing it safe: Vikings do right thing by addressing a glaring need

Rick Spielman did not get cute and make a surprise pick when the Vikings’ first-round selection in the NFL draft arrived Thursday night. Minnesota’s general manager also did not attempt to get creative and trade back. Instead, Spielman did exactly what he should have done when the 18th pick in the draft arrived.

He had NFL commissioner Roger Goodell run to the podium in Nashville, Tenn., and announce that the Vikings were taking North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury. The selection addressed a glaring need for the Vikings and was exactly what the franchise needed to do.

A year ago, the Vikings signed free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract and then failed to take care of a pressing need at guard. The Vikings surprised many by selecting cornerback Mike Hughes with the 30th pick in the first round.

That was followed by an early second-round run on interior offensive linemen — Will Hernandez went to the Giants with the 34th pick; Braden Smith went to the Colts at 37; James Daniels went to the Bears at 39; and Connor Williams went to the Dallas at 50 — and when the Vikings decided not to trade back up to grab one of those guys they went with project offensive tackle Brian O’Neill with the 62nd pick.

Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer entered training camp hopeful that Nick Easton and Mike Remmers would be to handle the guard spots, but Easton was lost during camp because of a herniated disk. He was replaced by veteran backup Tom Compton and it quickly became clear that Compton wasn’t able to handle the starting job at left guard. It didn’t help that center Pat Elflein wasn’t ready to go when the season started after undergoing two offseason surgeries.

The Vikings’ failure to address the offensive line caught up to them in a big way as the unit struggled on a weekly basis and the team did not qualify for the playoffs, finishing 8-7-1 in Cousins’ first season in Minnesota.

That was why the feeling from this space was the Vikings had no choice but to address the offensive line in this draft. You don’t pay a fumble-prone quarterback that much money in a win-now move and spend two years not getting him the proper guys up front to protect him.

That’s how a general manager loses his job.

The offensive line was a position that Spielman often seemed convinced he could find help for later in the draft. Spielman gained full control of the draft process when he took over as the Vikings’ general manager in 2012. He selected left tackle Matt Kalil with the fourth-overall pick that year. Spielman did not take another lineman in the first three rounds until 2017, when he selected Elflein in the third round.

There was concern Thursday afternoon about whether the top offensive linemen would be available when the Vikings’ selection arrived. It became clear that some quality linemen still would be around for the Vikings when the first round took some odd twists and turns that caused many top prospects to fall. Part of this was caused by some curious decisions from the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants.

The Bengals took Alabama tackle Jonah Williams with 11th pick and Atlanta selected Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th pick. But the three teams in front of the Vikings did not take an offensive lineman, and that meant Minnesota’s options included standout tackles Andre Dillard of Washington State and Tytus Howard of Alabama State.

They went with Bradbury and the expectation is he will step in as the starting center from day one. Elflein can move to left guard, Riley Reiff will stay at left tackle, newcomer Josh Kline is expected to start at right guard and O’Neill has taken over at right tackle. It might not be a perfect offensive line — Kline is a question mark — but it’s a significant upgrade over last season.

Bradbury did not give up a sack last season and is considered a good fit for the Vikings’ zone-blocking scheme after playing in an outside-zone scheme at North Carolina State. Bradbury had the fastest 3-cone time (7.41 seconds) and the third-fastest 40-yard dash (4.92) among offensive linemen at the NFL Combine.

Bradbury enrolled at North Carolina State as a tight end and moved to guard in 2015. He played 2016 at guard before moving to center in 2017. Bradbury started the final 39 games of his career, including 13 in 2018, and earned first-team All-ACC honors as a senior. He also won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best center. “This is a guy who wants to win at any cost,” North Carolina State radio play-by-play man Gary Hahn said.

Bradbury’s presence is almost certain to strengthen the Vikings’ offensive line and give new assistant head coach and offensive advisor Gary Kubiak somebody who will provide Cousins and the offense the type of boost they need.

Will it be enough to get the Vikings back in the playoffs? That remains to be seen. The good news is that by making this pick Spielman made a decision that made sense for a team that isn’t building for the future but, rather, is expected to win now.


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