After a mostly quiet NFL free agency for the Minnesota Vikings, the team’s front office will look to the NFL draft to fill both immediate and future needs. Let’s have a look at which positions could be the focus of the early rounds and which are unlikely to require the Vikings’ attention on draft day(s)…
While the guard position was the most heavily criticized by fans in 2018, tackles have a greater impact on a team’s success in pass protection than guards. Starting left tackle Riley Reiff allowed the eighth most QB pressures among all tackles (42) and Rashod Hill and Brian O’Neill combined to give up 59 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. The Vikings overall ranked 29th in PFF’s pass blocking grades.
If the Vikings view O’Neill as the future at left tackle, they could select a right tackle and bump Reiff over to left guard. The Star Tribune reported and head coach Mike Zimmer confirmed at the owner’s meetings that the Reiff-to-guard scenario is on the table. The Vikings can also move on from Reiff after next season and save $8.8 million on the salary cap.
Tackle play is particularly important with Kirk Cousins under center, as we chronicled here:
Presently the Vikings do not have a starting left guard. They signed veteran Josh Kline to start at right guard and don’t appear interested in moving Pat Elflein from the center position.
The team’s struggles on the interior in 2018 weren’t entirely the fault of the starting guards. Mike Remmers, who was released earlier this offseason, was asked to move to a position where he had never played before and veteran backup Tom Compton was forced into starting duty when Nick Easton went down for the year with a neck injury. Still the interior O-line play was nothing short of abysmal. Remmers allowed the third most pressures and Compton ranked 12th, combining for 76 total pressures against Cousins.
Scheme might help the Vikings improve their run attack, but a quality player at left guard might mean even more. In 2018 the Vikings ranked 25th by PFF in run blocking and 29th in Expected Points Added by their running game.
The tight ends might just be too attractive to turn down. There could be as many as seven or eight tight ends picked in the top 100. Over the past few years the Vikings have attempted to pick late-round tight ends and hope for a boom. Instead it’s been mostly bust. David Morgan, a 2016 fifth-round pick, is an exceptional blocker. Aside from him, MyCole Pruitt, Bucky Hodges and Tyler Conklin have offered little in support for Pro Bowl starter Kyle Rudolph.
The jury is still out on Conklin but the Vikings might be looking for a 2019 weapon and 2020 replacement for Rudolph. While he’s put together a stellar career in Minnesota, Rudolph’s contract is up after this season and based on the recent contracts for veteran tight ends (i.e. three-years, $30 million for Jimmy Graham), we might see the long-time Viking test the open market in hopes of a big final contract.
Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are free agents after 2019, the Vikings can move on from Xavier Rhodes after next season and save $8.1 million on the cap (per overthecap.com), Mike Hughes is coming off a severe injury and Holton Hill is suspended for the first four games of the season.
It might feel like the Vikings draft a cornerback high every year, but they have plenty of good reason to do so. They have ranked fourth, third and fourth in quarterback rating against over the last three seasons. Head coach Mike Zimmer probably doesn’t plan to see those numbers slip next season.
Plus the 2018 season should act as evidence of the value of cornerback depth. Hill was asked to play a significant amount of snaps after Hughes’ season-ending ACL tear and injuries to Rhodes and Waynes and the undrafted corner from Texas gave up just a 67.0 rating against.
It might feel out of place to include receiver in the top five most needed positions but after Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings are bare at receiver. Over three seasons, Laquon Treadwell has been targeted 84 times and his quarterbacks have a 67.4 rating when throwing in his direction (per PFF). Players like Chad Beebe and Brandon Zylstra are long shots to make a significant impact going forward (they combined for four catches in 2018). It makes sense for the Vikings to find another playmaker for Cousins since they did not add any weapons in free agency.
With Sheldon Richardson taking his show to Cleveland, the Vikings are left with Shamar Stephen, Jalyn Holmes and Jaleel Johnson on the roster at defensive tackle. It’s possible they could still bring back Tom Johnson and piece the DT position together as they did in 2017, but you can bet that Zimmer would prefer to have the next Sharrif Floyd on the way.
As rotational players last year, neither Holmes or Johnson has enough experience for the Vikings to be certain at the three-technique spot next to Pro Bowler Linval Joseph. Last season the Vikings ranked seventh in yards per attempt against and Richardson was in the top 10 in QB Hurries at his position. Another talented interior defensive tackle might be required to sustain that level of play.
The emergency of Anthony Harris was nothing short of spectacular in 2018. He received the fifth highest grade of all safeties by PFF — albeit in only 624 snaps. The long-time special teamer and fill-in defensive back is a bright player with strong tackling ability, making him a solid fit to play alongside Harrison Smith. But one strong half season does not mean the Vikings are set at the position. Jayron Kearse appears to be a bit player, used frequently in a “big nickel” package and George Iloka left in free agency, opening up a backup spot for 2019. That could open the door to a young safety competing for the gig or offering valuable depth.
The Vikings are confident Dalvin Cook can be a superstar — and why wouldn’t they be? Through 15 career games, he has 969 yards rushing at 4.7 yards per attempt with 51 receptions at 7.7 yards per catch. If he plays the entire season and produces near 1,400 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns, the Vikings should feel good about that. The problem, however, is that he hasn’t yet played 16 games and they only have Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah as backups presently. Boone flashed potential last preseason but only saw 11 carries for 47 yards in 2018. It might be wise to add another body to the mix in the late rounds.
Here’s a crazy stat for you: Danielle Hunter doesn’t turn 25 until late October. He’s actually younger than Stephen Weatherly. So the Vikings are set at one of the defensive end positions with an elite talent for a very long time. On the other side, Everson Griffen is a wild card for 2019. He’s coming off his worst season in the Zimmer era and he’s 31 years old. It’s certainly not impossible that Griffen could land in the Pro Bowl next year, but it’s also possible that he’s started declining like many other pass rushers do in their 30s.
While Weatherly was impressive last year and project D-linemen like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Ade Aruna could develop, the Vikings should always be on the hunt for more pass-rushing potential.
The future is unclear at the quarterback position. Cousins may have just arrived but his contract only has two more seasons and whether the Vikings decide to extend him and/or he wants to stay in Minnesota are up in the air. If the right scenario came about, they could add a QB in the middle rounds of the draft with plans to develop him as an insurance policy while they sit in wait-and-see mode with Cousins’ future.
There are very good center prospects in the draft including potential first-round picks Garrett Bradbury and Erik McCoy. It’s possible the Vikings could go in that direction and move Elflein to guard. However, there hasn’t been any indication of skepticism about Elflein as the long-term center. He made a strong impression in 2017 and the expectation is that with a full offseason and a more fitting scheme, the former Ohio State standout will take big strides from a rough 2018 season.
Anthony Barr’s return turned linebacker from a major draft need to completely out of the conversation. With Barr and Kendricks under contract and quality backups in Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon, there isn’t much reason to invest in linebacker aside from special teams help.
The Vikings re-signed Dan Bailey. He will need some camp competition but that can come from an undrafted free agent.
After a slow start, Matt Wile was a quality punter in 2018.
The Vikings have the best in the business Kevin McDermott, who didn’t miss a beat after ripping off part of his finger after getting it caught in an opposing player’s helmet.