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Zulgad: What will Vikings GM Rick Spielman do in the first round? Here are three options

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) gets ready to throw the ball against Indiana Hoosiers during the third quarter in their NCAA Division I football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Osu20ind Kwr32 1

There has been plenty of speculation, some of it reckless, about what the Vikings will do with the 14th pick in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night. Coming off a 7-9 season, Minnesota is looking to get back to the postseason for the fourth time in Mike Zimmer’s eight seasons as coach.

So after having addressed their defensive deficiencies in free agency, will the Vikings turn to the offensive side of the ball and get some much needed help on the offensive line? Would the Vikings trade up — they’ve made calls about doing so — or move back?

Here are three potential scenarios that could unfold in the first round.

THE MOST FUN: FIND COUSINS’ REPLACEMENT

While the Vikings might take a quarterback in the early rounds of the draft, it will be a surprise if general manager Rick Spielman makes the move this early. If Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance start to fall, Spielman could look to trade up to take one, or if one of those two drops to 14, Spielman could simply select that player.

Kirk Cousins is going to be the Vikings’ starting quarterback in 2021, but his contract only runs through 2022, and at some point Minnesota is going to need to find its quarterback of the future. Fields or Lance could be in position to spend this coming season learning and then step into the starting role in 2022 (if Cousins is jettisoned next offseason), or in 2023 at the latest.

As a first-round pick, Fields or Lance will have a four-year contract that contains a fifth-year option, so once Cousins’ contract is off the books, the Vikings would suddenly have a starting QB who doesn’t take up much cap space for a few years.

That would enable the Vikings to be active in free agency to improve other positions — something that is difficult now with Cousins’ cap hit ($31 million in 2021).

Cousins wouldn’t be thrilled to see his replacement drafted in the first round — especially since the Vikings still don’t have a starting left tackle or left guard to protect him — but drafting Fields or Lance would create plenty of excitement. It also would apply pressure on Cousins that he hasn’t had since signing as a free agent before the 2018 season.

Odds of this happening on a scale of 1 to 10: 3

THE MOST REALISTIC: GET COUSINS A LEFT TACKLE

Riley Reiff declined to take a pay cut in March and signed with Cincinnati, creating an opening at left tackle that has yet to be filled.

The first round might be the perfect time to find a tackle who can protect Cousins’ blindside — an incredibly important job considering his inability to sense pressure — and potentially hold that spot for eight to 10 seasons.

Oregon’s Penei Sewell is the top left tackle in the draft and likely will go with the fifth pick to Cincinnati. The Vikings really like Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater but almost certainly would need to trade up to get him. The team’s options likely will include Southern Cal’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins.

One thing the Vikings could consider is shifting right tackle Brian O’Neill or right guard Ezra Cleveland to left tackle — both played the position in college — and plugging in someone else at right tackle or right guard. Vera-Tucker, for instance, played guard and tackle at USC and could play guard in the NFL.

Assembling an offensive line that is good in pass protection hasn’t been a strength for Spielman, so there is pressure for him to finally get it right. Sometimes the safe move is also the wise one, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Spielman use the 14th pick on offensive line.

Odds of this happening on a scale of 1 to 10: 8

WORST CASE SCENARIO: RUSH TO ADD DEFENSE

Is Zimmer willing to put his desire to add more defense on hold, at least for the first round of the draft? If he isn’t, and his opinion carries as much weight in the draft room as it did in free agency, there is a chance the Vikings will use their top selection on a pass rushing defensive end.

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com has the Vikings taking edge rusher Jaelan Phillips from Miami in his latest mock draft. The Vikings attempted to land a defensive end to play on the right side, opposite Danielle Hunter, in free agency but struck out. While Minnesota filled several needs on defense, and Hunter’s return will help, the Vikings did rank 28th in sacks last season and the defensive-minded Zimmer still doesn’t have a replacement for Everson Griffen. Phillips is a top prospect but there are concerns about his medicals, including concussion issues.

The Vikings also could go with Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye, who has been projected to land in Minnesota in several mock drafts. Paye appears to be a reach at 14, but with all of the offensive talent that is going to go off the board early, Spielman could look to trade back, get a second-round pick (something the Vikings don’t have) and then take a guy like Paye later in the first round.

Spielman’s odds of getting what he would want in a trade to move back would be increased if Fields or Lance is still there at 14 and a team is desperate to end their fall. If Spielman does this, Zimmer might be the only one smiling.

Odds of this happening on a scale of 1 to 10: 4