INDIANAPOLIS — It’s no secret that the Minnesota Vikings have needs across the board on defense.
With the likelihood of losing anywhere between two and four defensive backs and possibly one or two D-linemen to the salary cap and free agency, the cupboard is in need of restocking. But when it comes to filling needs in the draft, the strength of the rookie class may dictate the direction.
This year the strongest position group outside of receiver is at offensive tackle — and after workouts it’s a tight race.
At tackle for the Vikings, Brian O’Neill is an ascending young player and veteran Riley Reiff is still under contract and coming off three years in which he ranked mid-pack by Pro Football Focus. For 2020 it might not immediately stand out as a position of desperation in comparison to those that are completely empty. But this week at the NFL Combine head coach Mike Zimmer said that he believes quarterback Kirk Cousins can sustain his career-high level of play if there are improvements on the O-line.
“I believe that if we can continually find a way to get better on the offensive line, that’s going to make him even better,” Zimmer said.
In 2019 the Vikings ranked 27th by PFF in pass blocking and Cousins’s pressure and sack rates were nearly identical to 2018 despite spending a first-round draft pick on Garrett Bradbury and signing Josh Kline. With Cousins ranking as the NFL’s slowest snap-to-release quarterback, it takes a higher caliber of play to protect him than quick-release QBs like Drew Brees and Andy Dalton.
Vikings GM Rick Spielman said during his side session with TC reporters that there could be some tackles in this draft who are ready to play Day 1 — which is unusual at one of the NFL’s toughest and most valuable positions.
“I think there’s some tackles out there, some of them, as we go and get to know these kids a little bit, may be ready to go right off the bat,” Spielman said. “You know, we didn’t think Brian O’Neill was ready, and all of a sudden he had to go in halfway through, and he played very well his rookie year for jumping in there. But I think there’s some tackles in this draft that will be able to step in and have significant careers. So, we’ll just have to see how it all flushes out. But every year, the positions fluctuate on the strength and weakness.”
During workouts the tackles certainly justified the hype around their position group.
Freakiest group of height/weight/length/speed OLinemen I’ve ever seen. Not close.
— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) February 28, 2020
In January, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah included three tackles in his Top 25 prospects in the draft — Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Alabama OT Jedrick Wills and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas — and ranked USC’s Austin Jackson 33rd. Pro Football Focus’s Big Board includes Houston’s Josh Jones as a top 25 player.
Those rankings could change after some incredible Combine showings. Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs ran a preposterous 4.85 40-yard dash at 322 pounds. Jackson may have put himself in the conversation for a first-round pick with one of the top three-cone scores. Boise State’s Erza Cleveland also turned heads with his quickness scores.
If the Vikings do look for a tackle who can start in 2020 that could mean releasing Reiff to create cap space or moving him inside to guard. He might make for a better size/strength matchup against some of the NFC North’s beast interior and five-technique defensive linemen like Zadarius Smith, Kenny Clark, Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks.
“I have not talked to Riley about moving because we haven’t gotten that far down in the discussions,” Zimmer said. “I think he likes being here. And he’s one of those team guys so I think he’d do whatever we want him to do. But I have not talked to him about it. Everybody is speculating O’Neill is going to left and all these other things, too. You always discuss these things but it’s not like, ‘OK. We’re going to do this.’ We’re going to wait until we figure out where we’re going with everything and go from there.”
There’s a long way to go until draft day and the Vikings have a laundry list of decisions to make but if tackle was already toward the top of their list for a first-round pick, that idea was bolstered in Indy.