The Minnesota Vikings are in the unique position of having a roster talented enough to expect to make the playoffs next year but needy enough to enter the NFL Draft with openings all over the field.
In the first two days of the draft, you can make a strong case for the Vikings needing to find a cornerback, defensive end, receiver, offensive guard, offensive tackle and possibly safety and defensive tackle.
As you can surmise, they can’t fill all of those spots with five picks in the first 105 selections. So the way in which they approach the draft will answer questions that have been lingering since the Vikings opened the new league year by signing Kirk Cousins to a long-term contract extension and trading Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills.
Let’s have a look at what we can learn about their direction…
Trades/picks with the aim of winning in 2020 or 2021
Most of the time teams enter the draft with an eye on the future rather than selecting players to fill immediate needs. Historically speaking, rookies generally start having a major impact in Year 2 or 3 — if they are going to be a hit at all. But there is a lot of pressure on the Vikings’ brass. At the end of last season, the noise got so loud about the head coach and GM’s status that ownership felt the need to release a statement before the playoff matchup in New Orleans saying they weren’t going to fire either one.
Who knows what would have happened if they lost to the Saints. That’s the power of expectations set by a 2017 NFC Championship appearance and the signing of Cousins.
If the Vikings’ leadership is feeling pressure to make a deep playoff run next year, we could see picks or trades that are made with the intention of a player filling a hole right away rather than down the road. The offensive tackle position might tell us plenty.
The Vikings did not release veteran Riley Reiff this offseason as some expected but the future of that position is murky with Reiff’s cap hit set to jump to $14 million in 2021. If they go all-in on a first-round tackle, that would signify a “soft rebuild” type approach in which they still look to make the playoffs in 2020 but with the understanding that they can play their cards to be a true contender again in 2021 with a young left tackle. If the Vikings elect to trade for Washington’s Trent Williams and move Reiff inside to guard, it will indicate they aren’t in the business of a transition year.
While the price isn’t likely to be high, Williams is 33 and didn’t play last season due to a dispute with the team over how they handled a medical situation. He will also be looking for a lucrative contract extension. The seven-time Pro Bowler could vastly improve the Vikings’ pass blocking at the position but nothing about acquiring an expensive past-his-prime player says “rebuild.”
Defense wins championships?
When the Vikings hired Mike Zimmer in 2014 the cupboard was nearly bare on defense. They were able to rebuild it with draft picks like Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter in ’14 and ’15. Will the Vikings take that approach again and attempt to restock Zimmer’s defense through the draft in hopes of producing a No. 1 defense down the road?
Going all-in on defense, which might include re-signing Anthony Harris and drafting multiple corners and defensive linemen with an eye on repeating the ’17 defense down the road, would be a major sign of confidence in Zimmer and the philosophy that a great defense can take a team to the Super Bowl.
On the other side of the coin, if the first few picks end up being weapons and protection for Cousins and they elect to leave Zimmer to his own devices with the defense, it would come across as a shift toward creating an elite offense. Of course, that’s a justifiable position considering the last eight teams to reach the Super Bowl all ranked in the top five in scoring (and in 2015 the Broncos’s opponent Carolina was a top scoring team).
The most likely outcome is the Vikings spreading their picks on both sides but a heavy investment on either side of the ball will give the indication of how they think they’re going to win with Cousins at the helm.
The short and long-term outlook for Kirk Cousins
While a contract extension does point to the Vikings being all-in on their quarterback, reports that Cousins no longer has a no-trade clause are enough to raise an eyebrow about the short-term future at the position. Would the Vikings still consider selecting a quarterback if the right player was available? Or will they entirely ignore QB?
In the unlikely case they grabbed someone like Jalen Hurts or Jacob Eason in the second round, it would be enough to wonder if the Vikings would consider trading Cousins after 2020 if they did not make a deep playoff run or if they would plan for 2023 around a QB as a development project.
Picking a late-round quarterback wouldn’t say much. Anything before the fourth round would.
Will they ask Adam Thielen to carry the load?
With numerous needs, the Vikings do not have to pick a wide receiver in the first round despite the trade of Diggs. If they believe that Thielen can be what Diggs was last year during his absence or what Andre Johnson was to Kubiak teams in Houston, they will not spend a selection on a first-round receiver, even in an impressive class.
Thielen has the past numbers to justify rolling with him and role players like Tajae Sharpe and Bisi Johnson to fill in other spots and the class is deep enough to wait around until the third round and still have an opportunity to get a solid prospect. But if the Vikings pick a receiver at 22 or 25, that would signify they want to recreate the Diggs-Thielen pair for Cousins going forward.
Not picking a receiver high wouldn’t exactly be an indictment on Thielen as much as it would put a great deal of the load on him to be targeted 150 times or more next season.
It could also point to the way in which Kubiak wants to build his offense with the use of bigger personnel groupings and the belief that they can find receivers to develop who weren’t No. 1 selections.
Dalvin Cook contract confidence
If you ranked all the Vikings’ needs, running back would be at the bottom of the list with Dalvin Cook as the offense’s centerpiece and Alexander Mattison proving last year to be a quality change-of-pace back. But Cook is set to enter the final year of his contract and it’s possible he could sit out training camp without a new deal. The Vikings’ cap situation is not exactly advantageous with around $12 million to use heading into draft week, according to OverTheCap, putting them in a tricky spot with their star runner.
If the Vikings surprise us by selecting a running back at any point before the fourth round, it would come across as hedging in the case that they can’t come to an agreement with Cook. In that unlikely case, a fundamental shift in philosophy toward the position’s value might also be in the works.
Which developing players do they believe in?
The Vikings routinely stack late-round picks with the hope that players will develop and outperform their draft status. On the current roster, players like defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts, cornerback Holton Hill, receiver Bisi Johnson and offensive guard Dru Samia who each have an argument for more playing time next season. Based on the areas in which they spend the most draft capital, we will have a stronger indication of which of these developing players will contribute the most in 2020 and beyond.