INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe you have heard: The Minnesota Vikings do not have much (any?) cap space.
They can create some by cutting veteran players but even then it won’t be easy to fill all the open holes by signing free agents. That means that this week at the NFL Combine the Vikings will be looking for the strengths and weaknesses of the draft to assess areas in which they might find immediate difference makers.
General manager Rick Spielman said as much in his sit down with the Twin Cities media.
“There are some strengths in this draft, I think we’ll be able to fill some needs,” Spielman said. “We’ll be able to finalize our needs once we get back from [the Combine] and once we’ve spoken to all of the agents and have a better understanding of what we have to do from a cap standpoint in order to give us some flexibility to potentially be a player in free agency at a position or two. Or not. How do we keep our own guys if we can…if we can’t keep those guys then what bucket are you going to fill that with? Free agency? Or wait until the draft? I think people get excited, ‘OK they don’t have X, Y or Z at this position’ when you don’t do anything in free agency but it’s like, there’s still the draft to go and a lot of things that still go on. Last time I checked we don’t open up until September. We’re always continuing to address those needs. But the majority of them, if they aren’t addressed in free agency, they are addressed in the draft.”
Trying to plug holes with rookies is risky business.
Consider the Vikings’ recent draft classes. Their first pick in 2016 went bust. First pick in 2017 tore his ACL. First pick in 2018 tore his ACL. First pick in 2019 struggled to adapt to the power of NFL nose tackles.
The Vikings chose to fill a hole in ’19 at one of the most difficult positions for players coming from college to the NFL.
Per PFF data, only 23.5% of offensive linemen who played at least 20% of total snaps in their rookie year scored a grade of 65 or above — which could be considered around average.
An in-depth study by PFF’s Timo Riske found that linemen consistently fall short of expectations in their first season but make the biggest jumps in subsequent years. He wrote:
1.) Offensive linemen struggle during their rookie season much more than other positions and, maybe even more interestingly, offensive linemen don’t reach their full potential before Year 3 or even Year 4.
2.) Offensive tackles, in particular, seem to constantly develop throughout their rookie contract, as the recent example of D.J. Humphries illustrates. Humphries turned into a solid pass protector in his fourth year and earned himself an extension. While one should still exercise caution when observing a sudden breakout for an offensive lineman in Year 4, our findings yield an encouraging result and should increase our confidence in such performances being sustainable.
Historically speaking, we might not see the best of Bradbury until 2023 and Brian O’Neill until 2022. That’s good news for the future but bad news if the Vikings are expecting to grab a left guard in this year’s draft or a left tackle to replace Riley Reiff, who could be released for cap purposes.
This year’s tackle class, Spielman said, is particularly deep. That could change the math somewhat but last year’s top selections at tackle where mostly mauled in their rookie years. Jawaan Taylor gave up the 10th most pressures in the NFL, Kaleb McGary allowed the most sacks and Andre Dillard graded 63rd of 88 players with 20% of snaps.
If the Vikings are thinking about picking a tackle, the data suggests that they should look to restructure Reiff’s deal and keep him as the starter in 2020.
Another player the Vikings might lose as a cap casualty is Everson Griffen. Replacing him with a rookie would be just about as hard. Riske wrote:
“On the defensive side of the ball, we find a similar learning curve for edge rushers who struggle even more during their rookie campaign and then proceed to develop throughout the full duration of their rookie contract. Consequently, the same advice given for offensive linemen holds for edge rushers.”
Reminder that an unproductive rookie season isn't the end of the world. Players tend to increase their production by 70-80% after the rookie year.
Also a good reminder that a turnaround via the draft usually takes at least two years. pic.twitter.com/mjU0s1FocC
— Moo (@PFF_Moo) February 17, 2020
As you can see above the interior players have had a higher rate of being at least average in their rookie years. This year’s draft class features an impressive top two but a steep fall off from projected top-15 picks Auburn’s Derrick Brown and South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. There are a number of players who appear to be in the second round range who could play defensive tackle right away, including TCU’s Ross Blacklock and Oklahoma DT Neville Gallimore, ranked 39th and 68th by PFF’s big board, respectively.
Spielman said that cornerbacks often take more time to adapt to the rules and by the last three years’ numbers they have been about as difficult to project in Year 1 as edge rushers. Vikings top picks of the past Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes were each given extra time to develop before becoming full-time corners.
Safety appears be the position with the least steep learning curve on the defensive side.
With Anthony Harris set to hit the free agent market, the Vikings could need a replacement. Not only are the options fairly thin in free agency but they are already spending $10.75 on the cap next year on Pro Bowler Harrison Smith.
LSU’s Grant Delpit and Alabama’s Xavier McKinney have both been projected as late first-round picks and ESPN’s Mel Kiper mocked Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. to the Vikings last week.
Taking the best player on the board and planning for them to make a significant impact two years out is probably the safest approach when building a team but the Vikings might not have the luxury of aiming for 2021. If they are going to take a player to fill a gap next year, it should be at one of the positions where more recent rookies have at least put together average play.