Vikings general manager Rick Spielman attempted to address many of his team’s needs in the NFL draft by making 15 selections over a three-day period. That’s a record for the largest draft class since the league went to the seven-round format in 1994.
Spielman’s work received favorable reviews — ESPN’s Mel Kiper gave the Vikings draft an A-minus — and the addition of two first-round picks (LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson and TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney) should help a team that traded standout wide receiver Stefon Diggs and lost three cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.
The big question that Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer now face is how quickly can they develop these draft picks? Ordinarily, the expectation would have been that Jefferson, Gladney and second-round offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland might be able to contribute from day one.
But given that the coronavirus pandemic means all NFL team facilities are shut down and there will be no organized team activities or minicamps, there is going to be valuable time lost as it remains anyone’s guess if the NFL season will start on time. The Vikings, and other teams, will be allowed to conduct a virtual offseason, but the loss of in-person classroom sessions, mixed with on-field work, is definitely going to hurt teams that need multiple draft picks to contribute.
The OTAs and minicamp are when installation of offensive and defensive packages are worked on so teams can hit the ground running when training camps open.
The offseason program provides coaching staffs with the luxury of teaching players outside the pressure of the season. You think Zimmer won’t miss the opportunity to have worked with the five defensive backs, including three corners, that the Vikings selected? It will be far more difficult, and not all that realistic, to expect great patience if the Vikings aren’t allowed back into TCO Performance Center until August.
That’s also why it’s not going to be surprising if the Vikings look to bring in a veteran cornerback or two to help make the transition to guys like Gladney and third-round cornerback Cameron Dantzler a little smoother.
Spielman might not be able to get a look at his team for several months but there remains plenty of work to be done. Included will be addressing the contract situation of running back Dalvin Cook, who is due to make a base salary of $1.3 million next season in the final year of his rookie contract.
Cook is one of the most important players in the Vikings’ offense and is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,135 yards on 250 carries with 13 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 519 yards. All were career highs and came in a season in which Cook played in 14 regular-season games. He has never played in all 16 regular-season games since being taken in the second round of the 2017 draft, but that isn’t going to stop him from pursuing a rich contract extension a year early.
So what type of pay day will Cook be looking for from the Vikings? Probably something close to the four-year, $64 million extension that running back Christian McCaffrey recently got from Carolina. The average annual value of $16 million makes McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the league. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott is averaging $15 million per season on the six-year, $90 million extension he got last year.
Cook, who will turn 25 in August, suffered a torn ACL that ended his rookie season and dealt with a hamstring injury in his second year. Last season, it was a chest injury that forced him to miss time.
If he doesn’t get a new contract, there would appear to be a chance Cook won’t show up for training camp. Cook does plan to participate in the voluntary portion of the Vikings’ virtual offseason program that began Monday, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.
Giving a rich contract extension to a running back is risky, even if the player doesn’t have an injury history, but it appears more and more as if the Vikings will reward Cook with a significant second contract at some point in the coming months.
There were many, including some in the NFL, who felt commissioner Roger Goodell was making a mistake by not pushing back the draft from its originally scheduled dates of April 23-25. But Goodell, who has made some questionable decisions in his years running the league, looked like a smart man for staying on schedule and deciding to go ahead with a draft that enabled the participants to stay home and conduct the draft from a safe distance.
In fact, the first NFL draft done in a fully virtual format went better than anyone could have expected and provided a much-needed diversion for sports fans. Amazingly, there were very few glitches that seemed to occur during the television coverage of a draft that featured Goodell announcing picks on Thursday and Friday from the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y.
With NFL executives, coaches and draft prospects all being shown from their homes, this draft ended up having a far more human element than we usually get from an immensely popular league that often seems entirely corporate and heartless. Whether it was a general manager or coach’s kids running into the room, or hanging out with their dad, or Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury sitting in the living room of his palatial estate, this draft didn’t lack personality and, in many ways, was superior to the usual product.
Goodell leaning back in his easy chair and looking like he was about to fall asleep on Friday night was reflective of how every football fan felt at that point.
While the NFL is hoping it can eventually go back to life as normal, meaning the 2021 draft will be held in Cleveland, one has to think Goodell will try to keep some of the elements that made the 2020 draft a surprising success.