Rick Spielman is not on the hot seat per se. He has built an excellent roster with few holes and an elite defense with three layers of play-makers. That said, his general disdain for drafting offensive linemen has the microscope fixing pretty tightly on him this offseason. Spielman has generally avoided taking linemen early, with Brian O’Neill being the rare exception this past draft. But with the line being the Vikings’ primary weakness, and arguably the biggest reason why the Vikings did not play a postseason game, it appears the time has come to invest and invest heavily in that area.
Here is the thing that may turn some off to the Vikings drafting a lineman at 18th overall: guards remain unsexy. Minnesota seems to have both tackle spots penciled in for next year, so anyone they draft this year will ideally be competing for a starting guard spot. That inherently sounds like they would not be getting full value for the pick.
But look at the Colts. They drafted a pure guard with the sixth overall pick and now have one of the five best lines in football. Guards can make or break a line. And given that the bulk of back-breaking pressure this year came from up the middle, the line can be largely overhauled with one quality draft.
The Vikings have not drafted a lineman in round one since Matt Kalil in 2012, and everyone remembers how that ended up. That said, Kalil was a very good player as a rookie. Immediate difference-makers are available in almost any draft, and this year’s draft is strong up at the top. At last, it is time for the Vikings to pull the trigger on the hog mollies in the first round.
Now, when I say the o-line class is strong, it comes with a caveat. There is not a real consensus top player. There are no obvious Quenton Nelson types in this draft. Rather, there are a large quantity of second tier prospects who can fill a starting role right away. Almost all of them are tackles who may have to move to guard, but that certainly is not inherently a bad thing. Some of the best guards in football were college tackles.
Here, I will present five of the top prospects who could figure into the Vikings’ first round pick. These are just snap shots of each of the five, as we will go further in depth on their respective games throughout draft season. So, without further ado, here are some of the top line prospects the Vikings could and should be looking at.
Cody Ford, Oklahoma
A tackle in college, Ford is a versatile line prospect with size, quickness and tenacity. His overall mass screams right tackle, though he may ultimately end up at guard in the NFL. Time will tell. In the run game, he attacks his blocks and has immensely strong hands that can maintain position throughout. He has patience and side-to-side quickness to hang with all manner of pass rushers and aggressiveness to be lethal downfield in the screen game. At this point in the draft process, he looks like he may be the front-runner to be the first lineman off the board.
Dalton Risner, Kansas State
Risner is another college tackle who will likely make the switch inside at the next level. He is a little taller than Ford, but weighs about 30 pounds less. Still, he too combines exceptional strength with a nasty demeanor. His ability to maneuver on pulls and getting to the second level is outstanding, as is his hand positioning. Despite being one of the best blockers in college football for several years now, Risner can struggle with lower body technique. His footwork and leverage can come and go. Still, he looks to be a day one starter at guard or center.
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Jonah Williams, Alabama
Technique- and movement-wise, Williams is probably the most NFL-ready line prospect. He has impeccable technique in pass pro, combining fluid lower body and excellent hands to account for his relatively short arms. He plays strong and fierce in the run game, often swallowing edge defenders with his quick feet and perfect hand placement. Truth be told, Williams has no apparent weaknesses in his game, but his short arms may drop him as a tackle or necessitate a switch inside.
Jawaan Taylor, Florida
Physically, Taylor looks like a tackle, but his strengths and weaknesses probably point to more success as a guard. His kickstep lacks the depth or speed to keep up with quicker pass rushers in pass pro. He is simply more fluidly athletic than he is quick. Taylor also has some technique issues with leverage, as he is often wont to stand up and attempt to win with power. As a result, he does not get a lot of movement in the run game. That said, a zone blocking scheme in which he can read and react and move laterally against slower players could be the perfect situation for him.
Greg Little, Ole Miss
Little is probably the most raw among potential first round prospects, and the one most likely to remain at tackle. His value is almost entirely built upon attributes as opposed to actual on-field dominance or technique. His length is excellent for a tackle, his strength and athleticism are top-notch and he plays with ferocity in the run game. With coaching, he could be a dominant tackle who could mirror any manner of pass rusher.
Alas, he will be a bit of a project, so if the Vikings go this route, it will likely be because the guys more immediately ready are off the board. He relies too heavily on his size and athleticism, resulting in lapses in leverage and negating his advantage. Little also has work to with hand placement. Still, O’Neill showed this past season in Minnesota that raw tackle prospects can take dramatic leaps earlier than expected, and Little has strong upside.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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