In an NFL Draft in which nobody knew what to expect, the opening to Thursday night’s events went more or less status quo with few major surprises coming in the first round. That played right into the Minnesota Vikings’ hands.
The top of the draft went nearly as experts had predicted with LSU quarterback Joe Burrow being the No. 1 overall selection, followed by Ohio State’s Chase Young going to Washington, top cornerback prospect Jeff Okudah to Detroit, the New York Giants landing a left tackle to protect young QB Daniel Jones and Miami removing all the smoke screens by picking Alabama’s Tua Tagovialoa.
It wasn’t until the middle of the first round until it became clear the Vikings could check off all the boxes they needed for it to be a successful night.
The run on tackles began with the 10th pick when Cleveland selected Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. That was quickly followed by Louisville’s monster tackle Mekhi Becton at 11 and Tampa Bay traded up for Tristan Wirfs from Iowa with the 13th pick. The run on receivers appeared to be imminent. This particular draft had been touted for months as one of the most impressive classes of receivers in years with anywhere from three to six being projected in the first round.
But receivers came off the board in a trickle rather than a food. The Las Vegas Raiders — in Los Angeles Raiders style — took the blazing fast Henry Ruggs III at 12, allowing Denver to add to their weapons around Drew Lock with Jerry Jeudy with the 15th overall pick and then the Cowboys found CeeDee Lamb in their lap at the 17th slot.
At that point you would have expected LSU’s Justin Jefferson to be the next top target considering he caught 111 passes and 18 touchdowns for the national champion and ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine but the teams ahead of the Vikings had other plans.
First tackle Austin Jackson was overdrafted by the Dolphins with most projections having him as a later first or early second-round pick and then cornerback Damon Arnette was overdrafted by the Raiders (he was a Day 2 selection by all accounts).
With Vikings potential target K’Lavon Chaisson off the board to Jacksonville, they only had to worry about the receiver-starved Eagles to ruin their potential home run pick. Instead of landing the LSU star they went with TCU’s Jalen Reagor, a tremendous athlete who only caught 43 passes last season.
There must have been a celebration on the Vikings’ Zoom call.
“With.. Sharpe and Adam [Thielen] and now Jefferson, I think we are going to have a pretty good crew,” GM Rick Spielman told the Twin Cities media following Day 1.
Jefferson ranked as NFL.com’s fourth best receiver in the draft, comparing him to Greg Jennings. Lance Zierlein wrote:
“A quarterback’s best friend, with the contested-catch focus and extreme ball skills to boost completion percentages. Jefferson failed to stand out as an outside target but saw his stock soar with a monster season from the slot. He has decent speed and separation talent, but he needs to improve as a route-runner, as he’s less likely to see the same freedom in space that LSU’s offense helped create for him. He’s slippery in space and able to stab and save throws with quick hands and fluid body adjustments. Teams looking for an inside/outside possession receiver with the size and savvy to make chain-moving catches could push Jefferson up the board.”
Having performed at a high level for LSU gives Jefferson an opportunity to be an instant-impact player and someone whose athletic profile allows them to continue developing. We wondered whether the Vikings would make an all-in for 2020 move in the first round or build for the future but they did both with Jefferson, whose Relative Athletic Score ranked fourth in the entire draft class.
After Jefferson was selected at 22, the board continued to do the Vikings favors. The Chargers moved up to take a linebacker — which was basically a free space for the Vikings, who have zero needs at the linebacker position. After New Orleans took guard/center Cesar Ruiz, the dozen or so potential players that fit Minnesota’s needs allowed them to drop down to 31 while picking up another selection in the fourth round.
This particular draft features enough strong late-first and early-second players at Vikings positions of need that it would have been a mistake not to trade down. While the 49ers grabbed a receiver, the cornerbacks went untouched through the late 20s until Miami selected Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene with the 30th pick. That allowed the Vikings their pick of the litter.
They went with Gladney, in part because of his impressive underlying numbers.
“I think he’s versatile enough to play both inside and out,” Spielman said. “We broke down four or five corners we looked at from an analytic standpoint and Jeff was one of the guys, especially in the red zone, he had the lowest cornerback rating on balls thrown his way and one of the lower just overall incompletion percentages as we look at not only what he did on the field — so we do the tape first but then we added in the analytics on top of that and felt he was one of the better corners that could make plays on the ball.”
Gladney allowed just a 46.6% completion percentage on throws his way last season and has three years of playing over 700 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Like Jefferson, the Gladney pick fills a need for the Vikings now and later. We won’t find out until Day 2 just how aggressive they are willing to be in order to fill other needs like left tackle.
The Vikings caught another break along the way: Instead of adding a weapon for Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers selected Jordan Love with the 26th pick. Getting zero instant impact from their pick is a win for Minnesota (for 2020, at least).
Overall the Vikings entered the first night of the draft with a hundred different ways they could have gone. They walked away from Day 1 going as much chalk as Round 1 of the NCAA tournament but checked off every box to deserve high grades for the opening stanza of the three-day event.
Find a Stefon Diggs replacement. Check. Trade down and get more draft capital. Check. Land a quality cornerback prospect. Check.
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