Take a quick look through our series of draft profiles and you will notice a theme. The majority of them are of offensive line prospects. The reasoning is simple: Minnesota is line-strapped and getting a fully-stocked line this year will be paramount to their team success. Most analysts are in agreement that this remains the Vikings’ greatest task in this year’s draft season.
However, if history is any indication, the Vikings may be looking a different direction. A smaller, quicker, more defensive direction. As crazy as it may have seemed mere months ago, there is a distinct possibility that Rick Spielman looks to add to the Vikings’ cornerback room with Minnesota’s first round pick.
Drafting a corner in the first may incite a riot among Vikings fans, but look at the signs. Mike Zimmer was openly critical of Xavier Rhodes, indicating that he may be on a shorter leash than one would think. Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander will both be free agents next offseason. Last year’s first round pick Mike Hughes is coming off knee surgery. Plus, Spielman has thus far addressed the offensive line problem a bit by signing Brett Jones and Josh Kline. As was the case in 2018, the Vikings could feel that plugging gaps with adequate, if un-splashy veterans may be a more reliable fix than expecting rookies to start day one.
And on top of all of that, there is the simple fact that Spielman is a “best player available guy” when it comes to drafting. One could argue the Vikings were perceived as being more “set” at corner entering last year’s draft than they are this year, yet they drafted Hughes anyway. Sure, Alexander had not emerged as a reliable nickel yet. But they “knew” that Rhodes and Waynes were solid starters, while anticipating more development from Alexander. As it stands now, Alexander seems to be the only guy who fans “know” will produce next season, given Rhodes’ and Waynes’ relatively mediocre play in 2018. And again, Alexander and Waynes are not locks to be in Minnesota long-term.
Of course, the obvious counter to that would be to question the Vikings’ long-term stability on the offensive line. Of the current projected starters (subject to change), only Brett Jones is not under contract through 2020. But aside from Brian O’Neill, who should the team feel confident about up front? Riley Reiff, Josh Kline and Pat Elflein are all coming off down years. Jones was on-roster last season and only started three games, despite the line’s constant struggles. In what sense does this group resemble a “fix” to a massive problem?
The short answer is that it simply does not. But the response to said counter is harsh and potentially unfair: are we sure that Spielman cares that much? Outside of Reiff, and to lesser extents Alex Boone and Mike Remmers, when has Spielman made major moves to fix the line? He seems pretty content to let it be fair at best, while building up a stout, potentially dominant defense. Now, is that the right strategy to take? That is debatable, especially given that the most expensive quarterback in franchise history is notoriously susceptible to pocket pressure. But a trend is a trend, and the trend says that Spielman puts the line fairly low on his radar.
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It should also be said that the Vikings’ issues do not stop at offensive line. They could be in the market for defensive tackle, edge rusher or tight end in round one. Perhaps a receiver slips and they pull the trigger there. There truly are a myriad of options for them to take. But offensive line is clearly the most pressing need and the most popular projection.
So why the focus on defensive backs, if they can go in so many directions? Well, frankly, Spielman has really only had first round success when drafting defense, and usually specifically secondary. At least, that has been the case recently. In the last 10 drafts he has overseen, Spielman has made 12 first round selections. Only one offensive player can truthfully be labeled a hit, Percy Harvin. Teddy Bridgewater was a matter of injury, not talent evaluation, so Spielman gets credit there, as well. His other offensive players include: Matt Kalil, Christian Ponder, Laquon Treadwell and Cordarrelle Patterson. Three of those have been, at best, minimally impactful. And Patterson, while a dynamic returner, never made significant strides as a receiver.
In contrast, Spielman has found impact pieces time and time again in the defensive backfield. Harrison Smith, Rhodes and Waynes have six Pro Bowls, three All-Pros and over 200 starts between them. Throw in Hughes who appears to have a bright future, and clearly Spielman has a niche when it comes to the draft. So you can bet that if he has a corner as his best player available in a few weeks, he will pull the trigger.
This year’s corner class on the surface does not seem quite as strong as last year’s. 2018 saw the potential for as many as five or six corners to go in the first round, including one in Denzel Ward who was a lock top-10 pick. This year, only three, maybe four seem like contenders to go day one, and all are more likely to go in the latter half of the first. That could leave the Vikings with their choice of the top corner prospects at 18.
“Best player available” is a mantra that has created a solid Vikings roster top to bottom. And yes, that may mean taking Greedy Williams or Byron Murphy over Cody Ford or Dalton Risner.
Fans and analysts will clamor again for offensive line help in front of Kirk Cousins. They will say it was the only thing preventing the Vikings’ offense from maximizing its potential. But the Vikings’ line has been a liability for the better part of Spielman’s tenure, and he has done little to fix it come draft day. The one time he took a lineman on day one, Matt Kalil in 2012, it bit him in the rear. On the other hand, Spielman has had success after success when drafting corners early.
We have been fairly adamant about the Vikings going in one of the three aforementioned directions (o-line, d-line, tight end) with their first pick. And given their pre-draft meetings thus far, it seems that their focus does in fact lie there. They have not met with Williams, Murphy or any of the top corner prospects yet (that we know of), and did met with a number of top line prospects at the combine. So perhaps all this speculation ends up being for naught. Or perhaps Spielman sticks with what he knows. At the very least, the door on drafting a corner is far from closed.
–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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