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Zulgad: Rick Spielman continues to prove that offensive line is now a priority in the draft

NFL Draft Football
A Minnesota Vikings fan, left, holds a team jersey as an image of offensive lineman Christian Darrisaw is shown on stage after Darrisaw was chosen with the team with the 23rd pick in the first round of the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Vikings appeared to be in a perfect position to take the guy they wanted and be done with night one of the NFL draft on Thursday as their first-round pick (14th overall) approached. Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, a player the Vikings liked, went 13th to the Los Angeles Chargers, but offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech and tackle/guard Alijah Vera-Tucker of Southern Cal remained on the board.

All Rick Spielman had to do was turn in the Vikings’ draft card and he would have found key blind-side protection for quarterback Kirk Cousins. But this is the Vikings’ general manager we’re talking about and what fun would it be for him to do things the easy way on draft night?

Instead, Trader Rick worked a deal to send the Vikings’ first-round pick, along with a fourth-rounder (No. 143), to the New York Jets for the 23rd overall pick and two third-rounders (Nos. 66 and 86). The Jets took Vera-Tucker and Spielman then held his breath — and even called teams about potentially trading back up — as Darrisaw was passed over by the next eight teams.

The Vikings gladly stopped his fall, taking the 6-foot-5, 322-pound Darrisaw with the plan to plug him in at left tackle as the replacement for Riley Reiff. There was some thought the Vikings traded back with the intention of hoping to grab pass rushing end Jaelan Phillips or Kwity Paye but the former went to the Dolphins with the 18th pick and the latter to Indianapolis at 21.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wants a defensive end to play opposite Danielle Hunter, but the fact the temptation to take Phillips or Paye was removed wasn’t a bad thing.

The Vikings needed to address left tackle for the short and long term and Darrisaw, who will be a good fit for Minnesota’s scheme, will be on a rookie contract that could make him a salary-cap bargain for his first five seasons. “He’s a big, athletic left tackle,” Zimmer said. “He moves really well in the zone blocking scheme, he has good power. Felt like we needed, not just athletic, but some more size with our offensive line. We felt like we needed some bigger guys in there.”

Spielman gets credit for again addressing a position group he once neglected. Since 2018, the Vikings have drafted right tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round, center Garrett Bradbury in the first round, right guard Ezra Cleveland in the second round and now Darrisaw. All four should be starters in 2021, and the only real question mark is Bradbury, who was the 18th pick in 2019 and hasn’t become as reliable in pass protection as the Vikings would like.

Darrisaw will be the third left tackle on the Vikings’ line. O’Neill and Cleveland both played the position in college before being moved.

The Vikings will begin Day 2 of the draft without a second-round pick — it was traded to Jacksonville last summer in the deal that brought defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to Minnesota — but Spielman is likely to make a deal to get back into the round. He has four picks in the third round, three in the fourth, two in the fifth and one in the sixth.

While the Darrisaw pick didn’t have the splash-type feel of a year ago, when the Vikings took standout wide receiver Justin Jefferson at No. 22, the selection was the first real move Minnesota has made this offseason to improve its offense. Free agency was spent trying to rebuild a defense that was the worst Zimmer has coached since arriving in 2014. Cousins, who was sacked 39 times last season, the sixth-most among quarterbacks, had to appreciate the addition.

The Vikings nearly had a choice to make at the quarterback position with the 14th pick. Justin Fields fell all the way to the 11th selection before the Chicago Bears made a trade with the New York Giants and took the Ohio State quarterback. The Vikings were believed to be interested in Fields as well.

Minnesota clearly didn’t have interest in Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who many thought would go third overall to the 49ers. Instead, San Francisco took Trey Lance and Jones fell all the way to the Patriots with the 15th pick.

The next tier of available quarterbacks includes Florida’s Kyle Trask, Stanford’s Davis Mills and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. It won’t be surprising if the Vikings try to grab one of them on Day 2 of the draft and hope that QB can turn into Cousins’ successor. T

The Vikings, meanwhile, will hope that Fields doesn’t finally become the answer to the Bears’ quarterback woes and that Bill Belichick didn’t find the next Tom Brady one pick after the Vikings had an opportunity to select him.