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For a team with supposed Super Bowl aspirations, the Minnesota Vikings seem to have an alarming number of gaping holes at key positions. The cap-strapped Vikings lost three cornerbacks, two defensive ends, two safeties, a starting nose tackle, a starting guard and a starting receiver (via trade) in the month of March. Their only replacement for those vacated areas was defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who signed a three-year contract to be Linval Joseph’s replacement.
With the Vikings’ salary cap commitments finally coming to roost, their front office had next to no free agency flexibility and appeared to struggle acquiring even relatively affordable targets. Now they will be challenged to fill the teams’ voids by back-filling with in-house talent and supplementing with the draft and undrafted free agency. We’ve compiled the Vikings’ top 10 draft needs below, based on their current roster, positional value and front office tendencies.
The Vikings, intentionally or not, are hitting a hard reset at corner after years of bountiful depth at the position. Consider, for instance, that during training camp in 2018 Minnesota employed four former first-round picks and a second-round pick at the position. Now only Mike Hughes remains of those five, and he’s coming off a vertebrae injury that could impact his offseason work. Third-year corner Holton Hill remains on the roster, as well, but he is one substance violation away from a second significant suspension. Hughes and Hill are your two starters if the season started today, and both carry question marks.
Minnesota has invested heavily at corner via the draft during Mike Zimmer’s tenure because of Zimmer’s affinity for grooming defensive backs. But corner also carries with it high positional value. Last season, for example, the Vikings pass defense seemed to suffer based on the major regression of one player, Xavier Rhodes, whose lapses often put safeties in bad spots and forced less experienced corners into action. Parting with Rhodes may actually be a net positive on the secondary, but with Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander heading to Cincinnati, all three starting cornerbacks — who carried anywhere from four to six years of experience in Zimmer’s system — are gone, and the Vikings chose not to use free agency to apply Band-Aids at the position.
With two first-round picks at their disposal and multiple high-end options likely available in the back half of the first round, it would be out of character for the Vikings not to address this need on Day 1 of the draft.
2. WIDE RECEIVER
It’s hard to know for sure who holds the title of No. 2 receiver on the Vikings depth chart right now, and that’s a problem. After Stefon Diggs was traded to the Buffalo Bills for draft picks, Adam Thielen was left alone as the team’s only established receiving threat. While Minnesota tried to give him some help by adding former Titan Tajae Sharpe in free agency, there’s no reason to think they are settled at receiver. Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe and a handful of second-year options will return to vie for spots, but you can’t replace a Diggs-like talent in aggregate. The Vikings will need to find a talent with even a fraction of Diggs’ route-running, ball-tracking and contested-catch ability.
Fortunately for Minnesota, this is one of the deepest receiver drafts in some time. If the Vikings want to wait until Day 2, where they have two third-round picks, they can likely find a first-round-type talent at value. Minnesota has gotten burned with their last two first-round receiver selections in Cordarrelle Patterson and Laquon Treadwell. This remains a pressing need, but doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed on Night 1 with so many other unfulfilled needs.
3. DEFENSIVE END
It won’t be easy to replace an Everson Griffen, who is ostensibly walking away from the Vikings after he opted out of his deal and contract talks fell apart. On top of that, the Vikings lost key rotational pass-rusher Stephen Weatherly, who might’ve been able to step in for Griffen like he did for a spell in 2018. The Vikings are hopeful they can turn to Ifeadi Odenigbo as their next starting edge after he emerged with seven sacks last year, but Minnesota still lacks edge depth beyond Odenigbo and Danielle Hunter.
Getting after the passer could be the best way for the Vikings to lighten the pressure on their retooled secondary, which should mean beefing up their talent pool at defensive end, whether they find a 2020 starter or not. Minnesota has often looked to the middle rounds for edge talent.
4. DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The Vikings exchanged nose tackles in free agency when they released Linval Joseph and signed the younger Michael Pierce in what may amount to an upgrade. But they’d still be wise to address the 3-technique position. Shamar Stephen was last year’s starter, but he was among the most ineffective pass-rushers out of all the league’s defensive tackles. Hercules Mata’afa saw some opportunities earlier in the season but was primarily a healthy scratch as the year went on because the team wanted more run-stopping strength. Jalyn Holmes is entering Year 3 of his career and has only played 131 total snaps through two seasons.
Getting their menace back at the defensive tackle spot could help mitigate the loss of Griffen on the edge and bolster the rush defense, which failed the Vikings frequently a year ago.
5. OFFENSIVE GUARD
Some may pin guard as a much higher need than where we’ve pegged it at No. 5. There’s no doubt that protecting Kirk Cousins is paramount to a successful 2020 season, but from a positional value standpoint, guard simply isn’t as valuable as the positions we’ve laid out above. Dissenters might say, ‘Did you watch Pat Elflein last year?’ To which there’s not a great response. Elflein was extremely shoddy in his transition to left guard and routinely folded against stronger inside rushers.
The Vikings also curiously released right guard Josh Kline, leaving them with two apparent competitions at guard.
Elflein, however, will return in the final year of his deal and has a chance to make amends. The Vikings retained two veteran interior blockers in Brett Jones and Dakota Dozier, both of whom have started for the team. And big 2019 fourth-round pick Dru Samia will be poised to steal a spot if he shows pass-blocking improvement. Even before the draft, the Vikings have options at guard.
This is not as deep a guard class as it was last year, when three of the top 18 picks were interior blockers. The Vikings would not be advised to force a high pick on a guard when there are more gifted players available elsewhere. The play here is to use mid-round picks at guard to supplement what they already have on the roster.
As of this publication, the Vikings have the best safety tandem in football on their roster. Harrison Smith is still one of the best in the game, and Anthony Harris might’ve even been a hair better than Smith in 2019. The Vikings franchise-tagged Harris this offseason to a one year, $11 million contract but are reportedly shopping him for a mid-round draft pick. Harris would be a regrettable casualty of the Vikings financial conundrum, but that’s the cost of devoting so many long-term contracts to other defensive players.
If the Vikings opt to keep Harris, their starting spots are set for 2020. But there is nobody else behind them. Jayron Kearse is gone, and so is Andrew Sendejo. Marcus Epps got swiped off the practice squad last year by Philadelphia. The Vikings have never been fond of drafting safeties — and as Zimmer said in a combine press conference, safety isn’t as important as other defensive positions. But Minnesota usually keeps four of five safeties on the 53-man roster. They’ll need to find those bodies somewhere, especially if Harris is dealt and they are seeking a starter.
7. OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Signs points toward Riley Reiff returning for a fourth season in Minnesota, and why not? He had one of his steadiest seasons in 2019 after a rocky 2018 season. Paired with Brian O’Neill on the opposite side, the Vikings can hope for above-average tackle play in 2020. But Reiff is essentially year to year at this stage of his contract, and having a successor in line wouldn’t hurt. Oli Udoh is a promising project from last year’s draft, but adding another tackle prospect to the mix would be smart roster building on the Vikings’ part.
8. RUNNING BACK
The Vikings need to be prepared for a Dalvin Cook holdout if they don’t extend the star running back before the season. With Alexander Mattison around for three more years, Mike Boone still on the team and Ameer Abdullah retained for another season, the Vikings don’t need to spend another Day 2 pick at running back like they did with Cook and Mattison, but keeping the running back room full of cheap talent will keep the Vikings prepared if Cook stays away from the team and give the team leverage the easier it is to fill the void Cook leaves.
Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson are all under contract in 2020, bringing back the team’s top four linebackers, but situations like this one can be a house of cards. Gedeon is entering a contract year, and Wilson is under a one-year tender. Neither are guarantees for 2021. Meanwhile, Kendricks and Barr’s contracts both become far more team friendly after this season with dead cap numbers at $5.49 million and $7.8 million, respectively.
Kendricks was an All-Pro last season, and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t be around for years to come. Barr remains an athletic threat for whom offenses need to account, even if his splashiness was down a season ago. But the cliff can come fast for veterans approaching 30, and as their salaries become more shed-able the Vikings may want to be prepared.
If not for Cousins’ two-year extension, this might be toward the top of the list. As it stands, the Vikings can go another year without having to ponder their next franchise quarterback. Some would argue that it’s wise to constantly be drafting and stashing quarterback talent, but consider this situation specifically. Cousins never misses games, which makes the backup position less vital. And if the Vikings were to stash a quarterback now, they’d be wasting up to three years of that quarterback’s rookie contract, a la Jimmy Garoppolo in New England. Finally, Minnesota is averse to having quarterback controversies in the locker room, so drafting a competitor for Cousins with three years left on his deal doesn’t make sense.
The Vikings could certainly snag a late-round passer to compete with Jake Browning for the so-called developmental spot, but Minnesota almost always goes the undrafted free agency route for those type of quarterbacks.