Draft’s middle rounds could be full of the weapons Vikings need on offense

While they likely won’t be picking a quarterback and don’t have a top-five pick, the Minnesota Vikings will enter the NFL Draft as one of the league’s most intriguing teams. There are so many possible paths that it’s difficult to predict their direction.

But when you look at the fantasy projections posted by Mike Clay of ESPN on Wednesday, it becomes crystal clear that the Vikings will have to add either a receiver, tight end or running back — or all three — in the draft at some point. Presently Chad Beebe is projected as the No. 3 receiver with 33 catches and David Morgan has the second most catches among tight ends with just seven.

Both of those projections seem pretty realistic.

The good news for the Vikings — who absolutely must come away with an offensive linemen in the first three rounds — is that the draft appears to be deep with talent at receiver, tight end and running back in rounds 2-4. NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said on Twitter this week that he wouldn’t be surprised to see only one receiver taken in the first round. That could leave the Vikings in position to select one of the better skill players in the second or third.

Pro Football Focus’s draft guide ranks the top 250 prospects. Of the first 120 players, 23 are either receivers, tight ends or running backs and 14 are receivers ranked between 20 and 96.

But that doesn’t exactly mean those prospects will be available for the Vikings. Between opinions that differ from PFF’s rankings and team needs, there can be big gaps between rankings and picks. To provide a clearer picture, below are the skill positions by PFF big board and a four-round draft simulation using The Draft Network’s Mock Draft tool.

(Reminder: The Vikings own picks 18, 50, 81 and 120)

Wide receivers

Name PFF big board Draft sim
AJ Brown 20 32
J.J Arcega Whiteside 23 85
Andy Isabella 30 104
Marquise Brown 31 44
Hakeem Butler 42 28
Deebo Samuel 52 46
N’Keal Harry 61 26
Terry McLaurin 68 78
Riley Ridley 71 93
Diontae Johnson 77 UDFA
Kevin Harmon 81 40
Miles Boykin 87 100
Emanual Hall 89 69
Paris Campbell 96 51

Of the 14 receivers graded between 20 and 96 on the big board, eight were available in the second round and five were there by the time the Vikings picked in the third round.

Players in the hot zone for the Vikings’ picks included speed burner Marquise Brown, route-running specialist Deebo Samuel, Ohio State’s big-play threat Terry McLaurin, Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Georgia possession receiver Riley Ridley.

Two receivers had incredible gaps between their projected talent by PFF and likely draft status: JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Andy Isabella. If things fall similarly to the mock, they could turn out to be draft-day steals.

Arcega-Whiteside put up good numbers with 63 catches for 1,059 yards (16.8 average) and 14 touchdowns. His draft profile compares him to Eric Decker. Lance Zierlein wrote:

Big, strong target who plays like he’s big and strong and gets more and more dangerous the closer he gets to the red zone. Arcega-Whiteside plays with functional quickness in spurts, but not enough to get away from tight coverage and he won’t run by many NFL cornerbacks on go routes. However, his basketball bloodlines are on full display every time the ball is in the air, using his body control and ball skills to excel at combat catches and back-shoulder throws. Arcega-Whiteside may not be explosive, but his competitive nature should help make him a future NFL starter.

Isabella is only 5-foot-9 but he dominated the competition while at UMass and ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He gained 1,698 yards on 102 receptions and scored 13 touchdowns.

Zierlein wrote:

Competitive, well-rounded receiver possessing both elite quickness and long speed to go with solid play strength. Isabella has the feet and fakes to uncover in a hallway closet, and the former high school sprint champion proved to Georgia that his ability to win deep should not be underestimated. Isabella could become a menace on option routes with the ability to add vertical routes from the slot, but he must improve his pass-catching consistency and smoothness into his breaks in order to transition all that speed to the NFL.

Tight ends

Name PFF big board Draft Sim
TJ Hockenson 21 11
Noah Fant 43 12
Jace Sternberger 67 66
Irv Smith 84 50
Josh Oliver 94 96
Dawson Knox 114 90

With Kyle Rudolph entering the final year of his contract, the Vikings could be seeking a tight end in the early rounds. Even if Rudolph is a part of the team’s long-term plans, a dynamic No. 2 tight end would still help the Vikings create tough matchups for opponents. When quarterback Kirk Cousins was in Washington, the combination of Vernon Davis and Josh Reed made for a nightmare on teams who used extra linebackers against two tight end packages.

PFF isn’t quite as high on Hockenson and Fant as teams are expected to be, but neither player has much chance to make it to the middle of the second round. The rest of the top tight ends in the draft right there in Vikings territory. In fact, in this draft simulation, TDN’s computer took Smith for the Vikings. wrote of Smith:

Smith is still green in terms of overall experience, which shows up in run-blocking and route-running, but he has plenty of talent and is likely to get much better in both areas. He has combination tight end talent but really flashes as a move blocker at fullback or wingback spots. His buildup speed sets him apart as a big, field-stretching option and once he gets rolling after the catch. O.J. Howard was bigger, and a better athlete, but like Howard, Smith offers Pro Bowl potential as a well-rounded tight end prospect.

Dawson Knox has been a highly debated player whose stock has been rising. USA Today wrote that he could go as early as the late first round. Coincidentally’s write-up on Knox compared him to Rudolph.

Outstanding combination of measurables and traits, but he’s much more moldable clay than game-ready prospect at this point. Knox lacks early speed and short-area quickness which could limit his ability to uncover underneath but he’s much more dangerous when allowed to roam the middle of the field as a more linear route-worker. His pass-catching production may never matchup with the testing numbers, but his aggressiveness and talent as a run-blocker could provide him work as a combo tight end for years to come.

Running backs

Name PFF big board Draft Sim
Josh Jacobs 60 25
Miles Sanders 82 35
Darrell Henderson 119 136

There isn’t much chance that the Vikings take either of the top two running backs on PFF’s board, but the No. 3 player is not only intriguing because of his college statistics, he’s also a possibility for the fourth round.

With only Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah and Roc Thomas behind Dalvin Cook, the Vikings could add a late-round running back with hopes of creating competition behind Cook and finding a diamond in the rough.

Darrell Henderson put up 1,909 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns on only 214 carries (8.9 average) at Memphis. wrote:

He checks in slightly undersized, doesn’t have great vision and runs with a narrow base that makes him easier to tackle, but so far, those concerns haven’t slowed him one bit. Big-play production is impossible to ignore, but his running style makes him best-suited to a complementary slasher role in a spread-based attack. In basketball, Henderson would be the explosive sixth man with the ability to swing certain games in your favor if he catches fire. On the ground or out of the backfield, Henderson can catch fire.