This year’s NFL Draft – a very special “virtual” edition — is fast approaching and Rick Spielman has a Viking shipload full of picks to spend.
Given the number of roster holes that still need patching, it’s a good thing they have that kind of capital. Their two first-round picks are obviously valuable, but what will ultimately determine the success of this year’s draft is whether the Minnesota Vikings’ brass is able to unearth impactful players in the latter rounds.
With that in mind, it feels timely to take a look back at some of the best draft values in franchise history.
But first some caveats. There are always caveats.
Our list won’t include any of the home runs the Vikings have hit with undrafted free agents. Guys like Adam Thielen (2013), Marcus Sherels (2010), Robert Griffith (1994) and the great John Randle (1990) warrant their own category. It goes without saying they each delivered a ginormous return on investment.
Instead, for the purposes of this list, we’ll limit it to players who were actually selected in the draft. Hence the title, “Steals of the Draft.”
Actually, that moniker was infamously self-applied by Onterrio Smith, who was selected by the Vikings in the fourth round in 2003 with the 105th overall pick. Calling himself the “S.O.D.” was our first clue that Onterrio might be a little high on himself. As it turns out, he was just high — as evidenced by “The Whizzinator Incident” that followed.
Thus, I’ve decided to steal the S.O.D. moniker back for this endeavor and use it more appropriately.
Which leads to our other qualifier for this list. Yes, Randy Moss was a value pick at No. 21 overall. There’s no way he should have fallen into the Vikings’ laps, and that pick remains the truest example of the “we didn’t think he’d be there” quote uttered by team executives each year. However, in the spirit of this exercise and to prevent this from turning into a list of high draft picks that slid a little and became Hall of Famers, we’ll only consider players selected outside the top 99.
Top 50 felt too lenient. If you’re a top-50 pick, the expectations should be higher, as is the initial investment by the team. By this definition, Smith is eligible to make our Top 10.
Spoiler alert: he didn’t.
This was a tough list to pare down to only 10. But without further ado, here’s one guy’s rundown of the best value picks (selected 100th overall or later) in Vikings history:
10. Terry Allen (1990, 241st overall)
Allen’s career with the Vikings was short but sweet and he might be better known for his great run with the Washington football team in the mid-1990s. Before leaving the Vikings, he started two seasons (1992 and 1994) with a missed season due to a knee injury sandwiched between.
In 1992, Allen rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns – which is still tied for the second-most rushing touchdowns in a season in Vikings history. He returned from his knee injury to rush for 1,031 yards and eight more touchdowns in 1994. Not bad for a ninth-round pick. The NFL Draft was shortened to seven rounds in 1993, three years after the Vikings stole Allen late.
9. Everson Griffen (2010, 100th overall)
Selected 100th overall, Griffen meets our strict criteria with no room to spare. A fourth-round pick, he’s the Vikings’ best value pick ever among defensive linemen. Griffen is also one of the top-10 defensive linemen in Vikings history – which is no small achievement given their legacy of great players at the position. He ranks fourth among Vikings players with 74.5 career sacks — since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.
8. Stefon Diggs (2015, 146th overall)
We go from a Vikings great who’s leaving — we think — via free agency to one who was just traded to Buffalo. Diggs is the best Steal of the Draft during the Spielman Era, and it’s not particularly close. He went from a fifth-round pick out of Maryland to rank among the top 10 in franchise history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. I recently ranked Diggs as the seventh-best Vikings wide receiver of all time.
7. Wade Wilson (1981, 210th overall)
From eighth-round pick to fourth in franchise history in career passing yards, Whiskey Wade provided a really good R.O.I. for the Purple. Wilson appeared in 76 games for the Vikings, starting 48 and winning 27 before departing in 1992. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1988 and quarterbacked the Vikings to the playoffs in 1987, ’88 and ’89.
6. Brad Johnson (1992, 227th overall)
Johnson’s story is similar to Wilson’s except he was selected one round and 17 picks later, giving him the slight edge in our countdown. Before winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2002, this ninth-rounder led Minnesota to consecutive playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997.
Johnson was supposed to be the starter in 1998, but an injury forced him from the lineup, Randall Cunningham famously took over and the rest is history. His 65 touchdown passes rank fifth in Vikings history — one fewer than Wilson — and among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts as a Viking, only Kirk Cousins (69.7) and Daunte Culpepper (64.4) have a better completion percentage (62.0).
5. John Sullivan (2008, 187th overall)
The Vikings selected Sullivan in the sixth round out of Notre Dame in 2008 – the first of two consecutive years in which they only drafted five players. Can you imagine such a dearth of picks under Spielman? No chance. Anyway, after playing in a reserve role as a rookie, Sullivan went on to become the Vikes’ starter from 2009-14. He emerged as one of the best centers in the league and was the unquestioned leader of a talented offensive line.
4. Carl Lee (1983, 186th overall)
Projecting a player selected in the first round of the draft to be a 10-year starter isn’t unusual. You never hear it said about seventh-round picks. Heck, such selections are usually fighting to make the roster. Lee was the exception. He played 12 NFL seasons — 11 with the Vikings, 10 as a starter. He was named to three Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 1988 when he finished second in the league with eight interceptions. His 29 career picks rank sixth in Vikings history.
3. Matt Birk (1998, 173rd overall)
The Vikings have had some luck over the years finding centers late in the draft, huh? The Sullivan pick was great in 2008, but a decade earlier the Vikings pulled off one of their greatest draft heists when they stole Birk in the sixth round. He was the Vikings’ starter for eight seasons, making the Pro Bowl six times.
After missing an entire season during his prime at 29 years old, Birk returned to play seven more seasons (three with the Vikings and four with the Ravens). He was named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2011.
2. Steve Jordan (1982, 179th overall)
There shouldn’t be any argument about the top two players on this list. Seventh-round selections out of Brown generally don’t amount to much in the NFL. All Jordan did with that resume was become the best tight end to ever wear a Vikings uniform. He ranks third in team history with 498 career receptions, made six straight Pro Bowl teams from 1986-91 and was inducted into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor last season.
1. Scott Studwell (1977, 250th overall)
The Vikings selected the aptly named Studwell in the ninth round out of Illinois. A mere 14 years later, he retired as the team’s all-time leading tackler. Studwell is a member of the Vikings’ Ring of Honor and was named one of the 50 greatest Vikings in 2010. Now that’s precisely the kind of player every team dreams of finding late in the draft. Ironically, he went on to become the Vikings’ Director of College Scouting in 2002 and served in that capacity until last April when he retired after 42 years in the organization.
Honorable Mention: The others who were considered, but ultimately just missed the list:
- Brian Robison (2007, 102nd overall)
- Jarius Wright (2012, 118th)
- Hassan Jones (1986, 120th)
- Ed McDaniel (1992, 125th)
- Joe Senser (1979, 152nd)
- Bobby Bryant (1967, 167th)
- Dave Osborn (1965, 176th)
- Stu Voigt (1970, 260th)
- Milt Sunde (1964, 271st)
- Jesse Solomon (1986, 318th)
- Jeff Wright (1971, 388th)
Should any of these guys have made the top 10? All were good values.
And finally, just for fun, had our cut-off been defined as “outside of the Top 50,” the following Vikings value picks would have merited serious consideration:
- Danielle Hunter (2015, 88th overall)
- Moe Williams (1996 75th)
- Tim Irwin (1981, 74th)
- Henry Thomas (1987, 72nd)
- Nate Burleson (2003, 71st)
- Al Noga (1988, 71st)
- Jake Reed (1991, 68th)
- Kirk Lowdermilk (1985, 59th)